Message in a Bottle: Homesteaders Rock the Lower East Side


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.

“There’s a big difference between my generation and the ’60s generation,” Whalen said. “The ’60s generation, regardless of how disillusioned they may have become, was raised with the idea that there was such a thing as leaders who acted on their behalf. That however many bad apples there might be, that the United States was an essentially good place, that government essentially served the interest of the people. My generation never believed those things. We grew up under Vietnam. We grew up under Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. I have lived my entire adult life under Ronald Reagan. He was elected the year I turned 19. So when I have a problem, I do not write my congressman. I call my lawyer. And if my lawyer can’t do enough for me, if the court system doesn’t defend me, I take it to the streets. And so do my neighbors, like we did Saturday night.”

He struggles to render a Lower East Side uprising that crosses all barriers, but the Popular Front Raffle and Pierogi Sale he speaks of is only in his head. There weren’t many blacks or Hispanics or Eastern Europeans organizing in the park.

If Whalen overestimates the punch of the current militance, there’s suddenly a reminder that others, too, consider it significant. Whalen and I sat at 7A, at the southwest corner of Tompkins Square, when a beefy guy in his thirties, with a mustache, joins us. He asks if a permit has been secured for the action in the park last Saturday. He looks too much like a cop, hardly undercover in a T-shirt and McSorley’s cap, to really be one. But then: who is he? “So does Rodriguez have the permit for Saturday?” Squatter activist Frank Morales was to line up one of the permits. After Whalen corrects his choice of surname, the guy asks if he can get in touch with Morales. A phone number, perhaps. Whalen takes a number instead and passes it on to Morales later in the afternoon. Even paranoids have enemies.

Like Whalen, Seth Tobocman is thin, and a tiny bit scary: he’s maybe even more intense, his eyes veering off unexpectedly, it bugs you. Both collaborate on World War 3 Illustrated, a political graphic magazine. And both have no respect for Community Board 3, the official liaison between citizens and city. They seem to feel that there is no room on the Lower East Side for anything that’s not low-income housing—everything else is the Christodora. “I used to be a defender of the community board. I used to say to the squatters, ‘You’ve got to work with these people, they’ve got a base.’ I was wrong. . . .Their job is to strike compromises with the city government on housing.” Whalen and Tobocman’s goal is a community board that’s elected by the community.

The neighborhood is an open hydrant of conspiracy circuits, kitchen table cabals, art posses, and covert gangs doing things they don’t want you to know about. Some of them have made their presence felt in the park. The Lower East Side Combat Artists and Performing Engineers is instructive here. It’s a small group of mechanics, construction engineers, writers, plumbers, and bike messengers. To join, a member says, you need $1000 worth of tools and a black leather jacket. If your landlord padlocks the door because you haven’t paid the rent, they might use an oxyacetylene torch to cut the lock off. When the city smashes the renovations a homesteading group has made on a building, they might enter and make repairs. The engineers recently resurfaced. A member told friends in the park to “wear black, and a black beret” last Saturday, “and bring a handkerchief soaked in vinegar, and vaseline—they’re good to have if you get teargassed. And bring a catcher’s mitt. In the ’60s they used to catch tear-gas canisters and throw them back at the police.”

A bigger role, maybe even a decisive one, was played by what the Post called “a shadowy organization,” the band Missing Foundation. If you’ve been below 14th Street, you know Missing Foundation from their graffiti: “1988 = 1933”; “your home is mine”; “$1500 Rent.” And, of course, the upside-down cocktail glass that outnumbers trees or crackhouses on the Lower East Side. The Graffiti started appearing a few years ago on buildings where punk rock luminaries lived, painted on sidewalks, scratched into windows. Missing Foundation members proudly describe it as “property devaluation.”

But the band is about a whole lot more than that. Their January show at CBGB was an anomaly in one way: it was at an established venue. Far more often, MF just show up and play, in Tompkins Square Park, squat lofts, rubble lots, street corners. They tore CBGB apart, the band and many of its followers banging on scrap metal with lead bars, smashing tables and sound equipment. Behind us in the audience, firecrackers exploded, while the drummer set his kit on fire and tossed it into the audience. At a more recent gig in a Fourth Street storefront, singer Peter Missing came out wearing a motorcycle helmet and a wrestling mask. He rammed people back, all the way out the door, while the metal brigade smashed on every surface.

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. . .”

WHAT IS THE CONCEPT?” a woman’s voice cut in.

“He just explained it to you,” another yelled.

“Do it again!” a woman said. And people are talking about it all over. Did Gandhi really say you could fight back? Should we have gone on the offensive outside the precinct building? The conflict carried outside the church, and it won’t fade away.

These have been rock and roll riots, even before Stephan Prophet, the singer from False Prophets, got dragged away by the cops last Saturday. It’s just that rawness and the whiff of explosiveness among some of the participants, that worries older activists. Valerio Orselli is a housing activist on the Lower East Side, and director of the Cooper Square Committee. He talks about many of the younger activists with undisguised bitterness. “I think it’s right issue, wrong people. The park has traditionally been kept open, and it makes no sense to close the park in the hottest summer in 20, 30 years. But these people belong much more to the lunatic fringe than to any organization fighting gentrification. They are largely all white and young. They look like retreads of the hippies from the ’60s, but they don’t have the politics.”

Tactics like breaking up Community Board 3 meetings with fistfights and police whistles have made them their share of enemies. But their politics aren’t those of the hippies. What may be happening around Tompkins Square Park right now is a merging of ’60s concerns—the fight for “adventure, play, fulfillment,” with the fight for ’80s concerns—food, shelter, and clothing. Many of the people who came to the Lower East Side were drawn to the idea of living some kind alternative, as Tom Ward says, only to end up, thanks to gentrification, learning they could easily wind up flopping in the park. The question comes back: who are the outsiders in the neighborhood? The illustrator in a 6th Street squat, any more than the rock star in the Christodora? That Avenue B building focuses people’s anger. “If I lived in the Christodora, I’d be looking to sell my apartment long about now,” said Josh Whalen. “It’s not safe to own a co-op on the Lower East Side anymore.”

And it’s never been safe to sleep on a park bench. Squat by squat, homeless person by homeless person, the city’s picking people off in the neighborhood. Suddenly, after the riot, that becomes a little harder.

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