Reports From the Tompkins Square Riots

In August, 1988, violence exploded in the East Village


NYC: Reports From Tompkins Square

Night Clubbing
By C. Carr

IT STARTED BEFORE mid­night with a ragged little rally directed at the park faithful — the unlucky, the unruly, your tired, your poor. Near the en­trance at 8th Street and Av­enue A, a plump balding man in tie-dye exhorted about 100 punks, politicos, and curious neighbors through a tinny speaker sys­tem: “Yuppies and real es­tate magnates have declared war on the people of Tomp­kins Square Park!” Fliers from the Emergency Coali­tion Against Martial Law covered a card table nearby, and a young man in black clothing and beret waved a black flag stapled to a card­board tube. The cops were going to shut the park down as they had every night that week. I overheard some talk in the crowd from neighbors who thought it should be shut. The crime here… the noise, some guy explained to a companion. The grim cops at the gate, the chants of “Die Yuppie scum!,” the M80s exploding deeper in the park — all added to the aura of latent violence. Even so, who could have predict­ed the police riot to come within the hour — complete with cavalry charges down East Village streets, a chop­per circling overhead, people out for a Sunday paper run­ning in terror down First Avenue. Running from the cops, who clearly regarded any civilian as a target.

At midnight in Tompkins Square, the motley demon­strators had begun trooping defiantly around the paths with their “class war” ban­ners, returning on each swing past the officers lined up along the bandshell. Most nights, the bandshell is filled with homeless, but they’d been hoovered out to god-knows-where that morning. Now it was police headquarters — focal point for 12 vehicles including vans, 11 horses, and the long blue line. One officer shone his flashlight into the lens of every photographer who tried to get a picture — foreshadowing the more ag­gressive camera-shyness to come.

Protesters marched by, chanting that hell no, they wouldn’t go. But they did go, of course. As soon as the mounted cops pranced out to Avenue A.

It was 12:30 Saturday night, a peak traffic hour on the avenue between Alca­traz, the Wah-Wah Hut, 7A, and the Pyramid — when, as a rule, the skinheads and spiky heads hang out at curbside, neighbors go to-­and-froing, and the peddlers set their tattered goods out along the park. But on this night, people were lining the park between 7th and 8th as if waiting for a parade. I could see some protesters pushing on a squad car, jerking it a couple yards closer to 7th. I could see the mounted cops in a line near 7th and the rally “leaders” in the middle of the street at 8th, black flag and card ta­ble stuffed in a grocery cart. Fists in the air, they yelled, “It’s our fuckin’ park!” as another M80 exploded at someone’s feet along the sidewalk.

Suddenly the cops had their riot helmets on and clubs out. Someone in front of a bar threw a bottle to­ward the mounted police massed at 7th Street, and the cops backed up. Protest­ers and onlookers milled around the avenue, while a long line of honking cars tried to make the turn off 8th. Protesters yelled “yup­pie scum” at bewildered drivers. Three Hells Angels drew cheers. Another bottle smashed on the pavement. And another. The mounted police backed up again. The foot patrolmen stood shoul­der-to-shoulder at the park entrance. It was 12:50. Met­al gates began to slam closed over the storefronts. Punks were jumping the fence, urg­ing the crowd to follow. But apart from them, it was no longer clear who was pro­testing and who’d inadver­tently walked into this mess or come outside to see what the hell was going on. By now the crowd numbered in the hundreds.

About 12:55, I heard an explosion and the mounted police suddenly charged up Avenue A, scattering the knot of demonstrators still in the street. I ducked be­hind a car. The policemen were radiating hysteria. One galloped up to a taxi stopped at a traffic light and screamed, “Get the fuck out of here, fuckface!” I walked toward 9th Street; unsure where to go. “Calm your men!” yelled a pedestrian near me.

At 9th Street, foot patrol­men in riot gear formed a line along the drive into the park. Across the avenue, some young men stood on the south corner screaming drunken taunts: “Faggot! Pussy! Koch’s dogs!” I was on the north corner at a phone booth. I recognized two of the patrolmen, de­spite their helmets, as the two I’d spoken to just 45 minutes earlier. Then, they’d told me courteously that they couldn’t say why the park was being closed. Now, they were charging me with their clubs raised.

They couldn’t be charging me.

I just stood there because I was the press and I was wearing my credentials and I hadn’t done anything and this was my neighborhood and this was the phone I use to call my friend over there who doesn’t have a buzzer and… “Run! Run!” screamed a tall young black man, taking me by the arm. “We gotta get outta here!” And I felt a billy club across my shoulder blades, the cop pushing me. Cop pumping adrenaline. Cop yelling, “Move! Move! Move!”

They were sweeping 9th Street and it didn’t matter if you were press or walking home from the movies or sitting on your stoop to catch a breeze. You were gonna move. At First Ave­nue, I watched two cops on horseback gallop up on the sidewalk and grab a guy by his long hair, pulling him across the street between them. Minutes later, the same guy was down on the sidewalk in front of Stromboli’s, bleeding.

The cops seemed bizarre­ly out of control, levitating with some hatred I didn’t understand. They’d taken a relatively small protest and fanned it out over the neigh­borhood, inflaming hun­dreds of people who’d never gone near the park to begin with. They’d called in a chopper. And they would eventually call 450 officers.

By 1:30, I’d taken all the notes I wanted to take. I wanted to go home, so I walked back to Avenue A, where I was soon trapped, as were many others. “Can I cross the street?” I asked a policeman at the cor­ner of 7th, showing him my orange press card.

“If you do, you’re going to get roughed up!” he declared.

“If you do that, you’re going to get some publicity you aren’t going to like,” I spouted back.

“Hey,” he said, “you’re trying to stereo­type me!”

It had been a big night for absurdities.

Getting back to First Avenue took anoth­er half hour. And there, dancing around their grocery cart in the middle of traffic, were the so-called “leaders,” bandanas pulled up over their noses so the police couldn’t identify them. God. This was gonna take all night. I walked south. Then I heard screams. Cop attack. Panic-stricken pedestrians ran down the sidewalks, as the cops galloped, clubs at the ready. I tried to duck into a restaurant. “No!” shrieked someone at the door, slam­ming it in my face. I kept running.

THE NEXT DAY I walked up to Tompkins Square. It’s a foul little park and a symbolic one. I’ve lived near it for 11 and a half years and have yet to experience a moment of tranquillity in its crummy confines. But I can tell you that the people who go there are, for the most part, the people who’ve always gone there. The old Ukrainian guys who play chess and the old ladies who go to sit down and the squatter kids, drag queens, Rastas, and junkies. As the neighborhood slowly, inexorably gentrifies, the park is a holdout, the place for one last metaphorical stand.

At the empty bandshell on Sunday, I no­ticed some posters pasted up by the political comic book World War 3 and the Rainbow Soup Kitchen weeks before this curfew dis­pute began. The posters feature a quote from a former resident of the neighborhood:
The uneasy spring of 1988. Under the pre­text of drug control, suppressive police states have been set up throughout the Western world. 
— William S. Burroughs, The Wild Boys, 1968\


The Tompkins Square rising has rekindled a perennial debate: What is the precise moment of gentrification? When the rents begin to swell? At the first restless kick of running shoes? Or is a gentry a nascent life form whose seeds are planted with the entry of the first artists? Mother Graffiti, founder of Loisaida Right to Lifestyle, has shared the procreative pride and nauseous awakenings of her parish as it has grown heavy with gentry, yet remains devoted to the Gospel of Art:

MG: As a human being and renter I sympathize with a neighborhood struggling with an unforeseen gentrification. But new art needs gallery space to grow in, even when the result’s an unwanted gentry. We can’t throw out the baby with the bottled water.

VOICE: Do you advocate the use of condos to prevent conversion?

MG: Trump forbid! There’s a lag between the opening of the first gallery and the arrival of first croissant shop. With the right rhythm you can pull out in time to move to redder-­lined pastures.

VOICE: But is it ever morally permissible to terminate a gentrification?

MG: Have you ever seen an aborted gentry? Its little Walkman peeking out from its tiny ears — sweatpants not quite detached from Gucci bags — did you know their bricks were exposed by the first trimester?

VOICE: We used to frequent your neighborhood to go to the clubs. Now we just get clubbed. Any consolation?

MG: Suffer the gentry to renovate thee … for such is the Kingdom of Koch.

— David Polonoff

The Boombox Wars
By Sarah Ferguson

THE PROTESTORS were shouting “Class war!” and “No more fascist police state!” in Tompkins Square Park last Saturday night, but the massive deployment of 450 officers, a police chopper, and a flotilla of paddy wagons was sparked by a much more mundane urban pain: noise complaints.

According to 9th Precinct commander Captain Gerald McNamara, the decision to enforce a 1 a.m. curfew in Tompkins Square Park was brought on by “antisocial behavior and partying in the park.” Complaints began mounting three years ago from local Community Board 3 and several resident groups, including the 9th Precinct Community Coun­cil, the Independent Demo­cratic Club, and the Friends of Tompkins Square Park. In addition, the Avenue A Block Association, com­posed of tenants living across from the park, was formed a year ago to deal specifically with the prob­lem of kids pouring out of neighborhood bars in the wee hours of the morning, playing loud music and breaking bottles in Tomp­kins Square.

Ilona Merber, a member of the Avenue A Block Asso­ciation, said her group had met with the 9th Precinct and the Community Board about the noise last summer, but the only response by then-precinct captain Ralph Zakar was “a two week blitz” of police sum­monses and boombox confiscations. When asked why the crackdown faded, Ser­geant Jack Smythe blamed a “lack of cooperation” from the Community Board. “They didn’t appreciate Zakar’s hard line; the board had different priorities,” he added.

Saturday’s riot was pre­figured by a curfew protest the previous weekend, when angry youths clashed with riot cops in the park, resulting in nine arrests and five police injuries. After the crowd swelled from 60 to 300, the police were forced to cede the field. McNamara called a private meeting the following Tuesday at Man­hattan South headquarters with local officials and resi­dents to discuss the contin­uation of the curfew. The meeting was attended by representatives of Commu­nity Board 3, the offices of Councilwoman Miriam Friedlander, Borough Presi­dent David Dinkins, and State Senator Manfred Oh­renstein, and several of the local resident groups who had filed complaints about the park. All agreed to the continuation of the curfew until the noise problem abated.

Many of those opposed to the curfew, however, were angered that they were not allowed to attend that meet­ing. “If they had allowed for the people who use the park to give their input, this probably wouldn’t have hap­pened,” said local resident Peter Le Vasseur.

After the angry crowd of persistent hecklers and bot­tle-throwers had forced offi­cers to back down July 30, the police were determined to make a show of strength last Saturday. On Friday, August 5, police were seen parading on horseback and marching in formation be­fore the bandshell in Tomp­kins Square Park, as if drill­ing for Saturday night’s confrontation. By 10 p.m. Saturday, cops had barri­cades ready at all park en­trances and were roaming the park in groups of 12 while four officers with guns looked on from the roofs of tenements across from the St. Marks entrance.

For many of the original complainants, the police re­sponse last Saturday far surpassed anything they had asked for.

“This is not crowd con­trol. This is Central Ameri­ca,” said Maryann Terillo, a member of the Independent Democratic Club, pointing to the police copter sweep­ing down on fleeing protestors.

McNamara said he or­dered the curfew to start July 11 after meeting with Manhattan borough parks commissioner Patrick Pomposello. He said the curfew was necessary because his precinct did not have enough officers to adequate­ly patrol the park.

“We didn’t ask for this,” Terillo said. “If they spent half the money they did to­night for all this, they could have patrolled the park the whole summer.”

Ilona Merber said she found the whole riot “outra­geous.” “We wanted to get rid of noise that has been keeping residents awake for four years, but now the whole issue is lost in police brutality.”

Merber denied accusa­tions by several young pro­testers that her group was composed of yuppie gentri­fiers. “Nobody in my build­ing pays more than $400 a month,” said Merber, refer­ring to her residence at 131 Avenue A and St. Marks Place. “This is a building that’s been on rent strike for the past three years. This is not gentrification.”

Philip Lalumia, chairman of the 9th Precinct Commu­nity Council, a group of more than 100 area resi­dents, said he still supported the park curfew. “Had the law been enforced all along, this wouldn’t have happened. [The police] have been slacking off.”

But as the Koch adminis­tration attempted to put spin control on depictions of the riot early this week, several critical questions remained unanswered. No matter how many bottles and firecrackers were thrown, what possible prov­ocation can justify a cos­sacklike charge through the streets of the Lower East Side? Was the police riot triggered from above, or was it a spontaneous response on the part of street cops­ — who have endured a series of public humiliations, includ­ing being upstaged by Guardian Angels in Hell’s Kitchen, the broadcasting of the Metro North flasher tape, and their own igno­minious retreat from Tomp­kins Square Park one week before? Will Captain McNamara or any other member of the depart­ment brass be held accountable, as NYPD policy requires, for the actions of their men? And, finally, what changes in police proce­dure will the city institute in the wake of the riot?

Reverend George Kuhn of St. Brigid’s Parish, which stands on the corner of 7th Street and Avenue B, thinks the authorities have made a bigger blunder than they know. “The police have managed to do something that nobody else could do, which is to unite the community — against them.” ■

Ignorant Armies
By Andrew Kannapell

WE’D HEARD rumors all week: that the police were forcing out the homeless — who have for years used Tomp­kins as a summer residence; or that the police were clear­ing the park to protect the homeless, who were targets of beatings and robberies; or that the park closing was the result of “yuppie com­plaints” about loud music.

MIDNIGHT. We saw two po­licemen on a rooftop at St. Marks and Avenue A, watching the people below in the park. One demonstra­tor yelled, “Jump, cop, jump!” A few more joined the cry. Cherry bombs ex­ploded, making the crowd of about 200 edgier. Whistles shrilled.

Riding bikes around the perimeter of the park, we saw more and more cops. We stopped at 9th and B to watch the parade, with a “CLASS WAR” banner at its head, pass a hundred feet away in the park’s interior. They were chanting “DIE YUPPIE SCUM,” then “PIGS OUT OF THE PARK.” More cherry bombs. Two cops stationed at the entrance were calling each other “pig” and laughing. One told me that the homeless would be allowed to sleep in the park, at the southeast cor­ner, where the lights were. “All anyone has to do is come up to an officer and identify themselves as homeless, and they will be directed to the area where they can stay. But anyone else in the park at 1 a.m. is mine.” He slapped his stick into his palm.

“Jeez, this is like the Superbowl,” said a man in 7A Café. A drunk bellowed, “Move along, let’s move along now,” having his fun with the crowd on the cor­ner. A line of mounted po­lice faced the demonstrators, who were throwing bottles at the cops. The point of the demonstration seemed forgotten — just op­posing teams and how bad was it going to get, who’s gonna hurt whom and how much?

1 A.M. The riot squad gath­ered at the park’s south­western corner, about 30 strong, then moved into the street, the mounted police shifting to the side. The park was cleared, the demonstrators taking over Ave­nue A. Suddenly the riot squad turned and dashed back in, and the horses charged into the crowd. (Later, a cop said a police­man had been assaulted.) Demonstrators climbed over the fence. back into the park, and the melee began.

Moments later people ran out of the park, some blood­ied. Groups of cops gave chase, grabbing one young guy who had a short blond mohawk and knocking him down. Seven or eight cops surrounded him; pinning him to the ground with a nightstick against his neck, they pressed him down, hard, till they handcuffed him and shoved him back to the squad cars. The crowd lining the streets went wild, screaming “POLICE BRUTALITY,” “FUCKING FASCISTS.” A riot squad swept down Avenue A, dispersing anyone in its way. A shove with the shield, then a blow with the stick if you didn’t move fast enough. We retreated into a café. A cop blocked the door. We couldn’t get out.

A city bus, driven by a cop, came south down A, stopping at the intersection. “They’re doing that so you can’t see them abusing the women and children!” a man inside the café ranted. “This is disgusting! They’re beating women and children back there!” Police at all the corners, everywhere, moving in packs. You could leave the demo, but you couldn’t join. A woman skipped out, exaggerating her skip insult­ingly, doffed her baseball cap to the army, skipped on.

The riot squad pushed through A again, then up 7th, gathering up more peo­ple — coming out of bars, restaurants, apartments. Some walked out into a fly­ing nightstick.

2 A.M. During a lull in the sweeps, we unlocked our bikes, trying to figure a way to get out. Police passed in groups of 20. One cop saw my bike light and took it for a flash. “Didja get some good pictures?” he sneered. We rode west on 7th Street, freaked by the voyeuristic thrill of the night. “Movie training,” said Joan. “Makes us expect this. It makes me sick, I feel like I’d be disappointed if nothing happened.”

Joan went home. Steve and I headed over to his building on 9th Street. The sound of a helicopter motor was near, loud, ominous. We looked up — where is the thing? It was so loud it ought to have been right over our heads, and then it broke over the top of P.S. 122, hovering maybe 30 feet above the building. Shit flew everywhere; we couldn’t see through the dust it kicked up.

A neighbor told us the pushes were now taking place all over the East Vil­lage, all the way out to Sec­ond Avenue. Another police sweep went east on 9th. Why east, back to the park? A caravan of 17 squad cars and police vans zoomed down First Avenue, against traffic — but there was no traffic. A crowd of cops gathered at the corner; among them stood one of the block’s longtime drug dealers, ready to work.

4 A.M. We couldn’t cross Avenue A till 7th Street. There was still a band of demonstrators, still a line of mounted police, but the face-off had moved to 6th Street. The park was filled with cops — napping, drink­ing milkshakes, hanging out. 10th Street looked like a po­lice parking lot. A clean-cut guy leaning against a wall commanded us to “Register to vote.” We didn’t see much damage to storefronts or cars, but garbage was strewn all over. The whole neighborhood smelled like horse manure. ■

There’s a Riot Goin’ On
By Vince Aletti

I WAS SITTING in my liv­ing room at 12th Street and Second Avenue around 1 a.m. Sunday morning when the loud pulse of a helicopter’s blades started drowning out the rock and roll on my turnta­ble. The copter was hover­ing low around Tompkins Square Park, after a while so low that it almost brushed the rooftops, and it stayed there long enough to draw me out of the house and east to see what was go­ing on.

The first scene of action I encountered was near First Avenue and St. Marks Place. The intersection was filled with police on foot and horseback; the sidewalks were crowded with people, mostly looking, hanging out. Just as I stepped off the corner of 9th Street to have a closer look, a group of mounted police cantered down the far sidewalk, right into the spectators, picking up speed. People fled down 9th, followed by the mounted cops shouting, swinging clubs. I froze against a mailbox, and in a few seconds it was over.

The crowd seemed to thin, and I went up to 10th Street, closed off to traffic by a blue police barricade. The helicopter was still beating noisily overhead, bringing people out of their apartments or to their windows in curiosity. A stream of at least 20 police cars and vans, sirens wailing, sped down First Avenue against the traffic toward St. Marks. But when I headed in the same direction, every­thing seemed quiet — except for the helicopter, which was hovering just above the roofline, making a frighten­ing racket and stirring up the physical and psychic at­mosphere. After a while, it moved over right above the avenue and started a storm of dirt and debris among the clumps of people. This was a typical Saturday night crowd — local fashion vic­tims, Puerto Rican kids, a scattering of drug dealers who work the corner of 10th Street, young couples not yet ready to head home or drawn out of their hangouts by all the action — mostly white, though, and mostly not activist types.

Suddenly a group of four or five police grabbed a guy out of the crowd on the op­posite sidewalk and dragged him into the street, yelling as if they’d just captured an enemy fighter. The guy’s T­-shirt was torn nearly off his chest. Six or seven other cops rushed over and began roughing up the captive, throwing him to the ground and kicking at him, pulling him up and tossing him around among themselves. When a few people ran up to protest, the police attacked them, too. One guy screamed, “Assholes!” and the police collared him and threw him back. They start­ed to charge at people indis­criminately, running into a group that was just standing on the sidewalk, maybe as stunned as I was by what they were seeing. The police knocked bystanders down, swinging clubs at their heads and bodies. I saw one man on the sidewalk on his stomach: a policeman rushed over and stomped on him with both feet as if he were jumping into an impromptu tag-team wres­tling match. No one was ar­rested, no one detained. Even the man with the torn T-shirt disappeared into the crowd. After a few minutes, the cops regrouped (I count­ed about 20 of them) and swaggered toward St. Marks.

When I looked around, most of the people on my side of First Avenue had frozen where they stood, usually as close to the build­ing walls as they could get. I walked to St. Marks and Second Avenue, where there was only one cop, stationed in the intersection, directing traffic away from the east and down the avenue. People were throwing trash at him and taunting him from the crowded corners, but there was also a neighbor­hood guy in shirtsleeves out there directing traffic along with him. Farther away, I heard a woman call out, “Was anybody shot?” And near 9th Street a man yelled, “Go home!” I didn’t hear the reply that prompt­ed him to shout back, “I am home! What are you doing here?” At Rectangle’s, an outdoor cafe on 10th Street, young patrons sat and talked, having a snack at 2:30 in the morning.

An hour later, I could still see the helicopter from my window, hanging low over the avenue. ■

Leaflets From Nowhere
By Jeff Salamon

WHO ORGANIZED last Saturday’s demonstration? Nobody is owning up to the responsi­bility. Although leaflets were passed out in the days before the rally, no political group took credit for them. Neighborhood activists in­sist that the protest was a spontaneous response to gentrification and the newly enforced curfew.

“We were trying to show the power in numbers,” says John Potok, a self-described “revolutionary squatter” and one of four people arrested at the previous Satur­day’s near riot. Potok, who had a table outside of Tompkins Square Park to pass out political literature, says he doesn’t know who promoted the rally.

A number of people learned of the march during Jim Marshall’s Saturday af­ternoon show on WFMU. Marshall, a Voice contribu­tor and an East Village resi­dent, says that he had wit­nessed the tail end of the first demo and heard about the new action through neighborhood word of mouth. He thought a protest was a good idea and went on the air with it.

Frank Morales, a squatter activist controversial even among housing organizers, acknowledges that he hand­ed out leaflets announcing the demonstration but says he doesn’t know who print­ed them up.

Nine months ago, Mo­rales helped lead the now­-defunct Emergency Coali­tion Against Martial Law, which organized a rally in November that ended up in Washington Square Park. The coalition’s leaflet, enti­tled “Washington Square Park: The Police State Is Here,” shares an illustrated human figure with the leaflet that promoted the Tompkins Square Park pro­test. The leaflets also share similar targets: “At mid­night,” the Washington Square leaflet reads, “[the authorities] barricade the entrances and this once vi­brant and diverse neighbor­hood dies… They have spread their fascistic off­-the-streets policies to other open spaces as well, most re­cently beginning a similar crackdown in Tompkins Square Park.” ■

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 13, 2019