Tompkins Square Park has long been synonymous with dissent, going back to the “bread riot” of 1857, when bands of unemployed dock workers torched park benches for firewood, and the “Communist” riot of 1874, when police savagely put down a 10,000-strong rally of workers and unemployed in what labor leader Samuel Gompers described as an “orgy of brutality.”
In the ’60s and ’70s, the park became a haven for countercultural freaks. The Yippies staged be-ins and the Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers plotted revolution, amid concerts by the Grateful Dead and the Fugs. But the culture clash came to a head in August 1988, when the city dispatched over 400 officers to enforce a 1 a.m. curfew. Police brutally clubbed demonstrators and bystanders in a riot that became symbolic of the fight against gentrification.
For two years, the park remained the scene of running battles between police and anarchists, squatters, and the homeless, until the city closed it down in 1991 for a one-year renovation that resulted in the mid-night curfew, and the more genteel environs you’ll find today.
But the RNC is provoking a revival of Tompkins Square’s radical roots. The Yippies are hosting a soup kitchen for out-of-town protesters and inviting people to camp around the perimeter, and some of the old “Tent City” homeless leaders plan to march on the park with members of the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign.