Message in a Bottle: Homesteaders Rock the Lower East Side

The Tompkins Square Riots

And it isn't about violence, it's about destruction bigger than a headbutt. They want to rigger chaos. Inside agitators, all but one of the group live near Tompkins Square Park. They are thirtyish, work at construction jobs, in a printing office, one drives a fork lift at a Revlon plant in Jersey. Missing Foundation are blue-collar smashers. They never miss a park disturbance.

"I've lived here for over six years, and that noise complaint shit is exaggerated. It comes from the bars on Friday and Saturday night," said Chris, MF drummer. "What do you expect? Of course it's going to be noisy on the weekend." "The war is not with the police," said Peter Missing. "The war is with Mayor Koch. He is behind the whole thing. We should go after him. Because he changes his words every five minutes."

The interview was hardly relaxed, and we negotiated for a bit about my using a recorder. They were worried the police would get the tape. I asked them if they thought of themselves as violent.

"It depends," said Chris. "We played Austin, Texas, and we had skinheads giving us the Nazi salute and guys with baseball bats coming on stage. And we felt violent. Then we played Houston, and we had one of the best shows we ever had. Kept the band together. So it really depends, what shows up for us to deal with, that's how we react. If your friend is clubbed by the police, how are you gonna react? Are you gonna shut up, or are you gonna voice your opinion somehow, whether it's by throwing a stick, a bottle, screaming your lungs out, shaking a cop? The first riot, I saw people jumping on cops, trying to pull cops off people. They didn't cover any of this.

"That's what it comes down to. And it all sounds really good in the papers, and it all sounds like science fiction. People are making a stand, they don't want to end up in the fucking park next to the river, with the river the next step. Why go any farther? The rich have the rest of the city, but we are staying here."

They say they did nothing to provoke the police, but members also say they've had consistent bad luck with the police. Start with the first disturbance, the one July 30—its significance underplayed, it may well have triggered the cops' reaction the next bloody weekend. Five police officers were treated for injuries, including cuts, torn ligaments, and a broken finger. Among the four arrested was Mark from Missing Foundation, charged with attempted assault, reckless endangerment, and resisting arrest. The trial is August 26.

On August 6, Chris was poked by the police, he said, and Peter says he was dragged out of the Blue and Gold bar on 7th Street, and beaten by several policemen. He said he was able to run away before the police would handcuff him. Did you guys throw firecrackers? No. Bottles? "Um, I don't, I don't remember. No," Peter said. Somebody who knows the band said they distributed anonymous leaflets saying houses of police collaborators would burn. When asked if that were true, Chris's jaw dropped, and he looked at Peter. It was quiet a minute, and then Peter said no. MF leaflets are everywhere these days: in Spanish (Perdíido Fundación), accompanying a portrait of Martin Luther King, encouraging people to report their beatings to the review board.

The last book I read was The Gandhian Method of Nonviolence," said Peter Missing. "I didn't get anything out of it."

Again: the police had the clubs. But there's no doubt that, whether to defend themselves or to promote chaos, some people went after cops. And whatever their intention, something good came out of the riot. The park curfew got lifted. The mayor lost further credibility. There's a group of people ready to act, and capable of action.

But there were a whole lot of people, many of them not from the area, who found themselves in the Beekman-New York Infirmary emergency room Sunday morning. Tomkins Square was not their battle, and they did not attack the police. The melee paid off—but New Yorkers, people who hung out in the East Village, have been killed for less than throwing bottles—they've died for spraying their graffiti on a subway wall. No one died August 6.

There's a discussion about protest tactics that the neighborhood hasn't had in years. Back at St. Brigid's after Wednesday's march on the 9th Precinct, a woman stood up and congratulated everybody for behaving themselves. Truth be told, she sounded like your mom thanking you for not messed up your room. She praised the group for proving to the police "that we can be an intelligent, diversified group of people from this area." Not everybody agreed. A little later Seth Tobocman got up and offered his interpretation of nonviolent tactics.

"I want to talk about a concept some people think they believe in: nonviolence," he said. "And I don't think these people understand nonviolence. Mohandas Gandhi said the first rule of nonviolence is, you do not run away. You have the strength to take a blow. . . ." Part of the crowd cheered this, forcing Tobocman to wait a beat. "And if you don't have that strength, you have the strength to give one back. But you do not back off. Nonviolence is a means of struggle. And what we did tonight was not nonviolent, it was cowardly. It was not what Mohandas Gandhi would have done, it was not nonviolence. People who think we were being nonviolent, they do not understand the concept. Secondly. . ."

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