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20 YEARS AFTER THE TOMPKINS SQUARE POLICE RIOT
|Published in: the Shadow, New York, issue 53, August 2008|
On August 6,1988, the worst riot in 20-years erupted outside New York City's Tompkins Square Park on the Lower East Side. On that night, nearly 500 police stormed into this popular neighborhood, assaulting hundreds, while trying to squelch the protest against a midnight park curfew. The obscure law allowing the closing of the park hadn't been enforced by the city in decades.
Tompkins Square Park, considered by many as the heartbeat of the Lower East Side, is surrounded by a neighborhood populated by Latinos, punk rockers, artists, eastern European immigrants and a recent influx of wealthy professionals.
In the middle of July 1988, persons unknown painted "Park Closes At Midnight" on the ground at entrances to the park. On the evening of July 31, a hot Saturday night, a small group of residents gathered to protest the curfew. Protesters blew conch shells, shook maracas, strummed guitars and banged on bongo drums as police cars crept up, suddenly shining searchlights on them. Jerry the Peddler, a long-time resident and community activist, was arrested after confronting police. In the melee that followed, four people were arrested, five police officers and five demonstrators were injured.
Two days later, the NYPD held an unpublicized meeting with a handful of specially-invited community residents to prepare for the next protest, expected on the following weekend. On Friday, August 5, a virtual police occupation clamped down on the park when NYPD vans, trucks and officers mobilized in and around the park. The NYPD had set up their command center in the center of the park with at least 100 officers present under ninth precinct commander Gerald McNamara. The night ended without incident, but the following night, more than 100 community residents marched through the park, protesting the curfew.
Chanting "Whose park? Our park!!" and "Pigs out of the park," demonstrators spilled out of the park and onto the street where they faced a line of police mounted on horseback. As powerful M-80 firecrackers exploded amongst the cops, hundreds of young people streamed out of the many bars along Avenue A, swelling the ranks of the demonstrators.
Tompkins Square erupted at exactly midnight. Protesters on Avenue A, at the St. Mark's Place entrance to the park, met a phalanx of riot police head-on. Commander McNamara ordered the mounted police to charge the mixed crowd of demonstrators and onlookers after closing off the then empty park. Police responded with indiscriminate violence, clubbing passers-by and protesters alike. Businesses on Avenue A were quickly shuttered, the street given over to the combatants.
Shortly before the charge, according to a report on the riot later prepared by the NYPD, the ranking police officer present, deputy chief Thomas Darcy, left the scene to use a bathroom at a police station more than a mile away, leaving commander McNamara facing an increasingly angry crowd. McNamara took charge by issuing a "10-85" call on his police radio, signaling an officer in trouble.
The "10-85" call resulted in cops from all over the city and the outer boroughs racing to Avenue A, with no commanding officers in charge of them and no orders to follow. People ran through the streets and cops began beating up demonstrators, people who looked like demonstrators, and people who were accidentally in the vicinity of demonstrators. This included residents trying to flee into their homes.
The Tompkins Square Riot lasted until 6:00am the following morning, when riot cops withdrew and demonstrators retook their park. Almost immediately, scores of people focused their rage on the Christodora House, a settlement house built for poor area immigrants in 1897, that had recently been transformed into luxury apartments for wealthy residents.
Many of those beaten by cops during the riot sued sued the city, most eventually settling out of court for thousands of dollars each. Local videographers Clayton Patterson and Paul Garrin captured the police brutality on tape, and the next day it was splashed across the tabloid front pages on television news. Garrin himself was beaten that night, and later received death threats after his footage was broadcast on TV. While several cops were disciplined by the department in the wake of the riot, none were convicted of any crime.
Due to the city-wide outcry against the police violence, the Koch administration was forced to retreat. The curfew was rescinded. Ironically, Tompkins Square became one of the only parks in the city without a curfew. The anarchists took to the streets repeatedly that summer, even marching on Washington Square to protest the curfew there. Tense confrontations with riot police ensued and mini-riots continued over the following three years, until Tompkins Square Park was closed by the city in 1991 for more than a year.
Twenty years after the Tompkins Square riots, New York's Lower East Side has transformed from a class-war battleground to an increasingly staid and sterile high-rent enclave. The park's band shell is but a memory for old-timers, and neighborhood newcomers are unaware of the years of political and physical struggle that cleansed the district for their arrival. They have less awareness still that they are the beneficiaries of a cycle of confrontations over the area going back nearly two centuries.
ABOUT SHADOW MAGAZINE: The SHADOW is New York's only underground newspaper, publishing on the Lower East Side of Manhattan since 1989, as a result of the distorted mainstream media coverage in the aftermath of the infamous police riot in Tompkins Square Park on August 6-7, 1988.