Message in a Bottle: Homesteaders Rock the Lower East Side

The Tompkins Square Riots

 August 23, 1988

A little dirty, Harris Pankin wears a T-shirt with three faces looking at you: Jesus, Manson, and Pankin. "Choose Your God" it says beneath. His hair—Pankin's, I mean—is curly and long enough to fall, in ringlets twirling around his purple-tinted glasses, to his shoulders. The singer for Letch Patrol, Pankin wants to be your Jesus. Sometimes he sleeps in Tomkins Square Park.

The joke around the park last week was that for a few dollars you could buy the same shirt, spattered with Pankin's blood. He was beaten, he says, three different times by the police during the riot, and was dumped bleeding in front of Stromboli Pizza. "Personally, I will admit I threw three bottles. I'm quite proud of how I threw them." In his case, Pankin tossed bottles—a 40 ounce XXX Ballantine Ale and two smaller missiles, aimed at the street—to distract mounted police who were bashing people. It worked.

I caught up with Pankin on St. Marks Place, talking to a nicely dressed man wearing rimless glasses, an Oxford shirt, penny loafers. This was a resident from the Christodora co-op, doing relief work—delivering food to some of the East Village's homeless. Pankin got a slab of pie. Between bites, Pankin explained the gash on his right eyebrow, his sore ribs, and the rest. "If we didn't have the park, we might be hanging out on stoops, like we are right now. We might be sneaking into clubs. We might be in Scarsdale."

Scarsdale, say police commissioner Benjamin Ward and Lower East Side's Community Board 3 chairwoman Anne Johnson, is where the "professional provocateurs" who battled the police August 6 come from. And in the newspapers last week skinheads, anarchists, Yippies, and others are the culprits. The attempt is made to separate those who fought for the park from the community—perhaps especially from the East Village uppercrust, those least enamored of the late night noise around Tompkins Square. "It's time to bring a little law and order back to the park and restore it to the legitimate members of the community," Ninth Precinct captain Gerald NcNamara told reporters the night of the riot. But who is a legitimate member of the East Village? The question has been latent since the early '80s. The city answered two Saturdays ago.

The people in the park the night of the riot, August 6, did not come from Scarsdale. There were a few skinheads off to the side, but not many more than you find in a photo of Koch and Ward. And the Yippies were there. The Yippies are always there. But the spine of the riots was assorted covert and overground circles of friends and radicals. They are young, mostly white—teens to thirties—and they practice a politics and rhetoric that gives them no slack from older, more experienced Lower East Side activists. That's a reception these activists don't care about. "We didn't come here to be the hippies so much as we came here to be the hippies' revenge," one rioter said.

The violence August 6 (and July 30) came from the police. They arrived at the park with their badges covered, not expecting a fight. They expected to beautify the park, to sweep the square of illegitimate members of the community: homeless, the potential homeless, rockers. What's amazing is how some of the aggression was returned, by neighbors who came prepared. "They were totally fearless, and they were getting the shit beat out of them," one witness said. Some threw bottles, M-80s, burned garbage in the street. No one expected this much rebellion. Maybe that's why it happened.

For at least a week, this is a movement. There's no real order, no card file of names to mobilize, just a group suddenly poised. Last Wednesday at St. Brigid's Church, when the police failed to appear before a community meeting as they'd promised, a skinny guy stood up and gave a speech. "If we want the truth to get out: that we're not from Scarsdale, we're from the Lower East Side; that we live here; that we grow hair on our heads, we're not skinheads; that we're not drunk, that we're not drug addicts; we're gonna have to go out tonight and show them . . ." And then hundreds marched on the Ninth Precinct. All the blood and broken glass on Avenue A at 5 a.m. Sunday morning, August 7, made this meeting possible.

Waiting at the blue barricades in front of precinct headquarters, the marchers were told the cops would listen to a unit of chosen leaders, 12 or so. "Twelve people?" somebody shouted. "Twelve people couldn't represent Jesus Christ, how can they represent the Lower East Side?" There aren't leaders. But you can find some teachers.

By the age of 27, Josh Whalen had had an education Henry Adams couldn't have figured. He's a dropout from a $6000 a year Brooklyn Heights private school, Helen Caldicott was his biology teacher. Whalen calls Tompkins Square Park "my living room," and throwing bottles "defending ourselves." He's watched the back door at CBGB and has also worked at 8BC, Electric Lady studio, and Club 57. When he stood up at St. Brigid's and said that people should take the fight outside, people didn't ask many questions. They marched.

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