NEW YORK — NEW York officials are still trying to figure out how a landlord-tenant dispute in Harlem boiled out of control last Friday and apparently became a deadly racial confrontation.
The incident, in which a black gunman killed employees and himself in an arson attack at a white-owned clothing store, raises new concern about how well New York is coping with its racial divisions and what lessons it has learned from past disputes.
The attack on Freddy's Fashion Mart in Harlem, which the New York Police Department is calling a "racial arson," is yet another violent ethnic confrontation in a city that has long prided itself on its tolerance.
Four years ago, there were deadly exchanges between blacks and Jews on the streets of Brooklyn. Since the Brooklyn dispute, the city has become more sensitive to racial issues. Yesterday, for example, there was a demonstration planned against the activities of neo-Nazis in the borough of Staten Island. And local Harlem leaders planned to meet tomorrow to discuss ways to calm the situation.
In Friday's attack on Freddy's Fashion Mart, the still-unidentified gunman let black customers leave the store and began shooting white workers. He also started a fire in the store that caused the death of seven employees. The gunman then shot himself.
The roots of this dispute were apparently economic. The Fashion Mart had been trying to evict a subtenant, the Record Shack, which had been on the street for 20 years. The black record-store tenant enlisted local residents to protest the eviction. The Fashion Mart leases from a mostly black church, the United House of Prayer for All People, which is based in Washington, D.C.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, a local activist, took up the cause of getting the Record Shack's lease renewed. He encouraged a boycott of Freddy's. The gunman was videotaped taking part in a protest. The rhetoric escalated and there were racial undercurrents. A store security guard reported he heard some protesters say they wanted to "loot and burn the Jews," referring to Freddy's Jewish owner, Freddy Harari.
City police had been monitoring the protests and had made efforts to mediate between store owners, the landlords, and picketers. The police also assigned additional officers to the block and opened a racial bias investigation, which included videotaping the protesters.
Mayor Rudolph Giuliani on Saturday blamed the protests for turning the landlord-tenant dispute into a racial issue. "Maybe we shouldn't force things into racial disputes when they are something else," he said, without mentioning Mr. Sharpton by name.
But Sharpton denied that race was the underlying issue. "The fact is that the landlords are black," Sharpton said. "The issue was never black and white."
For the city, the attack evokes an incident in 1991, when blacks in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn attacked Jewish residents. That racial flare-up occurred after a Jewish man ran over a black teenager. Many local residents believed that a Jewish ambulance had ignored the teenager and attended to the Jewish driver. A riot broke out and a Jewish scholar was stabbed to death.
As the riots consumed Crown Heights over several days, many Jewish residents said that Mayor David Dinkins was slow to send in the police.
The issue of race also became part of the mayoral race in 1992. Giuliani accused Mr. Dinkins of allowing black protesters to intimidate Korean greengrocers. City laws prohibit demonstrations within a set distance of an establishment. Giuliani said Dinkins refused to enforce this law.