DOCUMENTING THE TOMPKINS SQUARE RIOT OF ’88
Published in: The Villager, New York, on August 2, 2018
Aug. 6, 1988, started hot, as New York City was struggling with a multiday record heat wave. Elsa, Duke, our beautiful pit bull, and I were driving in our pickle-green ’79 Plymouth Fury, a car we purchased for $25 at a New York Police Department sale. We were visiting a bar owner Uptown who was a good customer of our custom Clayton Caps. We were doing a jacket back for him.
Early in the evening, we had noticed a number of police cars, sirens blaring, lights flashing heading Downtown. This made me recall seeing a police gathering early in the week on Second St. just off of Avenue A. Something was cooking.
It was Sunday night, and I normally went with Peter Kwaloff a.k.a. Sun PK, R.I.P., to document him as he got ready for his drag performance at the Pyramid Whisper Show emcee’ed by Hapi Phace. But today felt different. I decided to walk up Avenue A to check things out. This time Elsa, the woman I have been with since 1972, came with me. Something was happening in the park. I had my Panasonic AG 155 ½-inch consumer-available video camera with me.
I started off documenting the march through the park, the scene by the band shell, a paddy wagon-sized N.Y.P.D. communication van, cops hanging out, a couple jumping up and giving each other high fives.
Turns out the weekend before a ragtag group of punks and anarchists hanging around at the front of the park had had some sort of conflict with the cops and the cops came out on the losing end. Captain McNamara, the Ninth Precinct commanding officer, later made a statement that this could not be allowed to go unaddressed. In short, he was going to kick some butt and teach the community a lesson in authority.
To put a plan into effect, he used the Avenue A block association’s and Community Board 3’s complaints about the late-night noise coming from Tompkins Square Park, then got permission from the mayor to impose a curfew on the park. With Mayor Koch then ordering a 1 a.m. curfew for Tompkins Square Park, the game was now in place.
Earlier in the evening, cops became a larger presence. The cowboys lined up on their horses blocking Avenue A at Seventh St. Protesters spilled out onto the street. Then riot cops blocked the entrance to the park at St. Mark’s Place. Now you had the natural start of a protest directed at the police — the cops on horses and the cops blocking the entrance became the focus. The protesters had a large banner reading, “Gentrification Is Class War Fight Back.” Jerry “The Peddler” Wade, who has real street skills and a reputation of being able to lead a mob, was in full force.
As the clock struck 1 a.m., riot cops with batons swinging rushed into the front end of the park along Avenue A and started to beat people. In a few minutes, the front of the park was cleared.
Chaos had taken over.
Then, Captain McNamara, hoping to make a grand entrance, showed up with a patrol car, lights flashing, and stopped in the middle of Avenue A, screaming into a megaphone to clear the streets. By now he was a lone figure standing in the middle of the intersection, watching as mounted cops and foot cops chased and hit anyone who happened to be on the street. In the part I captured on video, the cops were pushing everyone up St. Mark’s to First Ave. Cops on horseback were running over people. Harris, a book peddler, was run over. The mom of Chris Flash, The Shadow’s publisher, was knocked down.
It was at this point that a foot cop, on darkened St. Mark’s, hit a young black woman, cracking her head open, then taking her white boyfriend down.
Later, Koch and Police Commissioner Ben Ward called the night a “police riot.” Koch went on to say he was bothered by all the criminal behavior that so many cops were engaged in. As the night went on, I captured many such criminal incidents. My tape got six cops criminally indicted. More than 100 people visited the hospital and made complaints against criminal behavior that cops had engaged in. By the way, I do not believe there was one arrest.
Later, a large number of lawyers took on protesters’ lawsuits and requested copies of my videotapes. I provided them all for free, of course, with no compensation for Elsa and me, even though the night cost the city $2.2 million, as told to me by an attorney from the Corporation Counsel (New York City Law Department).
McNamara was no General Patton. He had completely lost control of the cops, the streets, and apparently his commander, Chief Darcy, had left the scene.
Paul Garrin, a video artist, had a powerful 20-minute video of the night of police rage. There is a very famous shot of cops swinging at him while he’s on top of a van, with him screaming, “I am getting down! I am getting down!” Police stomped on his video camera, but Paul was still able to recover the tape intact. Powerful stuff, and he got it to the TV news stations, which broadcast the tape continuously all day and night.
I got Paul’s money shot: As he came down off the van, a cop grabbed him by the shirt and brutally slammed him into the Con Ed substation’s brick wall.
Eric Shawn, Fox News’s reporter, heard I had a tape, and contacted me. He put something on the news and my world changed in an instant. I had F.B.I., captains from Internal Affairs, assistant district attorneys and other law enforcement people banging on my door, trying to get to my tape. It wasn’t going to happen the way they were demanding. I ended up in State Supreme Court. The state gave me a lawyer and I said, No, I do not want a lawyer, and fired the lawyer and stated, I will be pro se. I was sentenced to a continuing 90-day sentence until I gave them my tape. This may sound crazy, but I had total confidence in my very simple but strong argument. Also this was pre-9/11. Now we have lost so many of our individual rights. My argument was, “I am an artist. This is my art and it belongs to me. No, you cannot have it.” I knew once it becomes evidence, it becomes government property and not mine. This I did not want.
I said they could have a first-generation copy, not the original, and it was off to the Bronx House of Detention. There were two prisoners under central monitoring — myself and Larry Davis. Davis had shot six cops in the Bronx. “Central monitoring” means you had to be escorted by a ranking officer anywhere you went. I went to court in a separate bus, shackled and locked inside a small cage. I was on a hunger strike. Larry Davis and I both had Lynne Stewart, Bill Kunstler and Ron Kuby as our lawyers. This team got Davis off on the charges of shooting the cops. The Bronx jury believed him when he said he was dealing drugs with these cops, and they were coming back to kill him.
In the end, the city got their copies of my tape. But 30 minutes were missing, which led to a whole new set of engagements. The cops said they were only trying to enforce a city-ordered curfew. On this night, though, the curfew had nothing to do with the riot. In the book “Resistance: A Radical Political and Social History of the Lower East Side,” another Ninth Precinct commander, Michael Julian, says that the homeless were allowed to stay in the park. In the same anthology, Ron Casanova, a homeless person living in the park, says they made a deal with the cops: The junkies, the homeless and others could stay in the park, as long as they keep out of the front section of the park.
And the spin that the cops were all young and inexperienced wasn’t true. The cops I got indicted were career highway officers, a sergeant, other experienced officers, and none were new recruits. Helicopter cops were not 20 years old, the commanding officers were not newbies. McNamara and his boys were experienced, and Darcy was set to retire. It was McNamara and the commanders who caused the chaos and lost control.
In documenting protests in the neighborhood, I got arrested 13 times, had teeth knocked out, was knocked unconscious. There was an attempt by two Ninth Precinct cops and two assistant district attorneys to set up a local palm and tarot card reader, Patrick Geoffrois, and me as participants in the Monica Beerle murder and dismemberment. Later, Daniel Rakowitz was arrested and charged with the murder. He was found not guilty by reasons of insanity. Thankfully, the case they were trying to build against us was so flimsy and ridiculous that it never got traction. There was a setup where Elsa and I were given a limousine ride and accommodations to document the New Hampshire presidential election. Nobody knew Elsa stayed home. N.Y.P.D., F.B.I. and other enforcement authorities showed up with a search warrant. They took a blank tape from my Manhattan Neighborhood Network public-access cable TV show on which we had discussed the Rakowitz case. Imagine if they had gotten the riot tape. I have visited Daniel for 20 years trying to unwind what actually happened.
My tape was a game changer in the history of the use of video cameras to document protests. It is one thing to document. But without standing behind the documentation, it can more easily be neutralized as evidence. Standing up is step two. Appearing on “Oprah,” I pushed the idea of “Little Brother Is Watching Big Brother” — by “Little Brother,” I meant my video camera that I used to document the cops’ actions that night. Fox reporter Shawn did a segment on the use of this new technology and the democratization of the media. The media always tried to minimize what I was doing by calling me an amateur — which is fine, because I want all the amateurs to realize they, too, can do what I did. All you have to do is do it.
One of the most consequential impacts that the 1988 Police Riot had on the N.Y.P.D. was the stunning revelation that something was seriously wrong with the force. Then David Dinkins became mayor and he changed the city more than anyone. He understood the problems in the N.Y.P.D. They centralized the Police Department. And he brought in the Mollen Commission to clean up the force; dirty cops had been shaking down drug dealers.
Meanwhile, on the Lower East Side, the opposition continued for four solid years, with conflicts like the Memorial Day Riot and the May Day Riot, and hundreds of arrests. The conflicts involved the park, the homeless crisis, squat evictions. There were bonfires in the middle of Avenue A, injuries on both sides, court cases. In the end, they stupidly took down the band shell. The city ultimately would go on to sell 11 squats to the people living there. But the ones who won the most were the cops.
Dinkins gave Giuliani a razor-sharp, military-ready N.Y.P.D. In comes Bill Bratton, the intellectual working with the Manhattan Institute, the think tank started by William Casey after he retired from running the C.I.A. Bratton brought in “broken windows” policing, shut down street corner activity, and with CompStat, focused commanders on keeping crime numbers down.
This account of the park riots just skims the surface. As an immigrant from Canada, I viewed what I was doing as a duty to my new American community.
The Lower East Side has become such a deep part of my being. I believe I have lived the American Dream. Fighting is a part of preserving the dream.