Tompkins Square's Unquiet Riot

The city finally says yes to a 20th-anniversary celebration of the famous battle in the park

"It's our fucking park!" says Jerry "the Peddler" Wade, denouncing the city after it denied him a permit to hold a punk-rock concert in Tompkins Square Park to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the August 6, 1988, police riot that took place there.

That rallying cry apparently worked: Late last week, the city's Parks Department gave in to Wade, the 58-year-old anarchist known for helping to organize the annual concert. After protests by Wade and his fellow East Village activists this month, the department reversed its original decision and approved the August concert.

Wade's defiant cry was the same one used by the original protesters in the notorious 1988 urban battle, whose ranks included Wade himself. He'd joined an ad hoc coalition of neighborhood activists, punks, Yippies, and squatters to protest the park's new 1 a.m. curfew. Legions of homeless people were living there, and the city was determined to kick them out. Wade says he was passing out whistles to the protesters when police began entering the park in waves. Soon, beer bottles were flying and police batons were swinging. "The cops started beating anybody and everybody in sight," he recalls. At least 38 people, including bystanders, reporters, and police, were injured, and over 100 complaints of police brutality were later reported. Wade says that an officer on horseback kicked him to the ground: "I've been an activist since the late '60s, and to this day, I've never seen anything like it."

From then until the early 1990s, several other mini-riots erupted as protesters continued to fight for control of the park and, ultimately, their neighborhood. They won some battles—the city eventually ceded control of 11 buildings in the area to squatters—and lost some: In 1991, the city demolished the park's beloved bandshell, which had been a stage for the radical political activism and punk rock that had once defined the neighborhood.

Since the original riot, Wade and a group of East Village activists organized a yearly memorial concert at Tompkins Square, meant to honor the history of the neighborhood's resistance and remember the brutality of unchecked police power. For 18 years, he says, the permits were granted, the speakers and musicians lined up, and the concerts went off without much trouble. But last year, the Parks Department denied the permit, and the concert was grudgingly relocated to Washington Square Park. This year, the 20th anniversary of the riot, the department again denied a permit, saying that the requested weekend had already been denoted a "quiet weekend," with no amplified sound allowed. Wade says that was a "bullshit excuse," speculating that the real reason had something to do with the lineup of punk-rockers—including some who were beaten in '88—and radical lawyers like Lynne Stewart, Ron Kuby, and Stanley Cohen.

John Penley, a neighborhood activist, says that as the East Village has been scrubbed up and gentrified, folks like him are being shut out in favor of "rich yuppies." "From the riot till now, it's become progressively harder and much more expensive to put on shows unless you're a corporate entity," he says. Permit fees have risen, the hours allowed for amplified sound have been cut back, and—at least in this instance—the intervention of lawyers was necessary simply to obtain a park permit. (Activist attorney Norman Siegel, who plans to speak at the anniversary concert, met with the Parks Department's counsel last week.)

Now that the activists have won this particular battle, they hope to pressure the city into fixing up the park's bathrooms, finishing the dog run, and maybe even building a new bandshell. "We accomplished a lot down here in the last 20 years," says Wade. "It's important that the punks and hippies in the suburbs and wastelands know what we did—and how we did it—so they can go home and do the same thing."

 
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