A slew of East Villagers — including poet Bob Holman and Times writer Colin Moynihan — shuffled into Anthology Film Archives last night to watch Clayton Patterson’s 3.5 hours of footage of the Tompkins Square Police riot, on its 25th anniversary.
Patterson introduced the rarely screened footage by saying the all-night riot (more of a stand-off or a shitshow, really) between park-goers and cops attempting to enforce a curfew represented “the beginning of the whole militarization of the police” that started in earnest during the Dinkins era. “In 1988 they couldn’t close a 10.5 square acre park in the Lower East Side,” he pointed out. “In 2001 they could close the whole city in 2 hours – bridges, airports, subways, tunnels, all of it. And it started from here.”
So yes, his Panasonic AG-155 footage is an important historical document, featuring cameos from East Village fixtures like Chris Flash, Jerry the Peddler and Father Pat, who scolds Patterson for filming an injured woman against her wishes. That incident might just be the most interesting thing in the film — especially when a neighborhood kid tells Patterson he’s gotten enough footage. “You never have enough,” Patterson insists, saying it’s the only way police will ever believe a Puerto Rican from Avenue D, and asking him, “What are you going to do if you don’t have pictures?” (Patterson later refused to turn over his tapes to authorities because he didn’t trust them to do anything, he said.)
But the video also serves as a pretty great lookbook of the era: during the lulls in bottle heaving and baton twirling, one can’t help but ogle all the acid-wash cut-off shorts, perms, Fear t-shirts, and spiked mohawks (not to mention the long-gone Tompkins Square Park bandshell, which drew nostalgic applause when it first came into view).
And as it turns out, the footage — when not focused on gaping head wounds — was also good for some chuckles. Here now are the things that caused everyone to look back and laugh.
1. “This is kind of boring, actually.”
Sometime after 10 p.m. a bystander complains that “everyone’s just standing around. The cops are doing nothing.” Indeed, a lot of the footage consisted of people just standing around in chunky white Reeboks, swigging out of open containers and yelling, “Our fucking park!” After 1 a.m., though, the cops begin clearing out the park and things get real. Patterson has some advice for a pet owner: “Get your dog out of here, man – they’ll shoot him.”
2. The F.U. shirts.
Shortly after 3 a.m. a few dozen people sit down in the middle of Avenue A, facing off against a human barricade of cops. Two of the pavement squatters are wearing t-shirts that say simply “FUCK YOU.” Snazzy! The group proceeds to warble “This Land Is Your Land” and the national anthem.
3. Real Men Don’t Cook Quiche
During a lull in the action, Clayton inspects a hardcover copy of the 1982 bestseller. Didn’t see this one in the People’s Library…
4. “My brother’s a fucking cop; I hate him, too. You’re all fucked up.”
5. “You got a press card? Then why you taking pictures?”
In a moment that smacks of Occupy Wall Street, a cop tells Patterson that it’s illegal to film. Patterson bluntly informs him otherwise. (One thing we learned about NYPD cops in 1988 – most of them sported immaculately groomed ‘staches, and their primary method of crowd control was bellowing “Get aatta hea!” in a Long Island accent. Well, that and occasionally shoving unarmed women to the ground.)
6. “What you did to me was the same Nazi shit you’re complaining to them about.”
This line didn’t get a laugh, but it’s worth mentioning: Patterson says it when he recognizes a bearded dude in an “End Apartheid” shirt who, some months earlier, had chased him out of Central Park for supposedly bootlegging a band’s performance. The guy is sheepishly apologetic, but it’s around this point in the morning that the stand-off against the police degenerates into a mind-numbing mess of in-fighting and cross-talk.
7. “Unless you’re drinking bottles, don’t throw them.”
What the guy meant to slur was “no bottles!”, which is what the cooler heads had started calling out in order to discourage their comrades from dropping airmail on the po po. Didn’t come out right.
8. “Can we make it Wednesday instead of Thursday?”
Eventually, with the help of a priest, a neighborhood woman approaches a sergeant to propose a stand-down in return for a later meeting about the park. Instead of giving her the cold shoulder (or a bloody shoulder), the cop proves instantly amiable and amenable, though Wednesday works better for him than Thursday. Ah, the absurdity of a violent, hours-long stand-off coming down to a polite conversation about scheduling. Unfortunately, when the woman tries to announce that everything’s cool and everyone can go home, she’s drowned out by boos and whistles from her own people, and the voice of reason is soon screeching, “Be quiet! Shut the fuck up!” More laughs from the audience.
9. “Why don’t you work that crowd and get them dispersed?”
An imposing, Gandolfini-esque police higher-up calmly tells this to one of the protesters toward the end of it all, when cops are clearly ready to call it a night — even though there’s still a bonfire raging in the middle of Avenue A. After everything that had just gone down, this guy was now outsourcing crowd control to the crowd?
10. “If the cops aren’t here they won’t have people to throw bottles at.”
While everyone is yelling at the cops to “go home!”, one man tries to appeal to them with logic.
11. “Clean up your stupid horseshit, guys!”
Biggest laugh of the night. As the sun rises and cops leave the park, a small group pours in only to be greeted with a big ol’ pile of police-horse plop. Whatever – the people have the last say, as they head over to the Christodora condos to mess up the lobby while chanting “Die yuppie scum!”