One hundred and fourteen years after East Village anarchist Justus Schwab was arrested in Tompkins Square Park for “incitement to riot,” a group of anarchist squatters, homeless-rights activists and East Village residents clashed with the NYPD over what had begun as a dispute over a park curfew. In the summer of 1988, the question of gentrification was one that had already sparked protests and confrontations with the police, and on August 6th, the violence exploded in what is widely described as a police riot.
A tent city had grown in and around the park for months, Tompkins Square long being a gathering place for homeless people, as well as the anarchist squatters who were drawn to the East Village for the Punk music and art scene. The city, while enjoying an economic boom after the slump of the 1970’s, was still facing an explosion of homelessness and while many homeless people struggled with addiction or mental illness, the increasingly common reason for the rising population on the streets was rising economic inequality. People simply were no longer able to afford homes in the city. Nowhere was this more true than Alphabet City, where the affordable tenements, shelters and flop houses were being torn down to make way for luxury condominiums like the Christodora House on Avenue B, where a single apartment could go for as much as one million.
The situation was not helped by the attitudes of people like police captain Gerald McNamara who was quoted the morning before the riot as saying, “It’s time to bring a little law and order back to the park and restore it to the legitimate members of the community.” He went on to express worry about the possibility of under-policing the situation, which proved to be ironic considering what would happen later that night.
(Content warning for violence and blood in the video above)
After a rally was cut short on July 31st, protestors gathered again on August 6th, prepared to prevent the closing of the park, which many argued was a decision that had been pushed through the community board by realtors hoping to make their properties more appealing to high income buyers. The police were waiting for them when they arrived, and while police estimates had as many as 700 protestors streaming into the park, the more number was closer to 200. The protestors came bearing signs proclaiming “Gentrification is class warfare” and as the curfew neared, they marched around the park once before preparing to re-enter the park, but were blocked by police on foot and on horseback. A few bottles were thrown from the crowd, and just before 1 a.m. the police charged, as many as fifty officers on foot and ten on horseback surrounding the crowd. The whole event was captured by artist Clayton Patterson, whose video showed officers running past superiors attempting to stop them, protestors bloodied and beaten by nightsticks, and in one startling moment, a cop shoving his nightstick into the spokes of a passing bike, sending the cyclist to the ground where he is then attacked. A number of people who were passing by the protest on their ways home were also attacked indiscriminately by the police, including a young black woman named Tisha Pryor who was accosted by an officer using racial slurs, before she and her companion, a reporter for Downtown magazine, were beaten. She is also seen on Patterson’s tape, crying and bleeding from the neck.
By the end of the night, 38 people were injured, including members of the press there to cover the protest, and the number of excessive force complaints rose over 100. The police commissioner at the time, Benjamin Ward, wrote a report blaming the precinct for the riot, although only two officers were charged with excessive force. The neighborhood was left with a sense of division. Some people blamed the riots on the anarchist music scene, arguing that bands like Missing Foundation incited violence as a part of their political message. Others expressed dismay at the way police action had turned the attention away from homelessness and affordable housing, to police brutality and finger pointing. It was agreed, almost unanimously, that the riot had been incited by the police, although little was done to address the larger reasons why individual officers felt such behavior was appropriate.
The police riot in 1988 was another spark in Tompkins Square’s long history as a touchstone for moments of economic injustice in New York. From the labor movement at the turn of the century, when thousands of unemployed fighting for labor rights were attacked and crushed by the NYPD, to the riots in 1988, and the continued fight against gentrification, the flash points seem to gravitate toward the East Village, and Tompkins Square Park. It connects the park to the larger, national problem of police brutality and the continued struggle against the pervasive national atmosphere that excuses and even condones such brutality against marginalized people.
Mattson, Andrew O. and Stephen R. Duncombe. “Public Space, Private Place: The Contested Terrain of Tompkins Square Park.” Berkley Journal of Sociology 37 (1992): 129–61.
For more about squatters and housing rights in the East Village, Cari Luna’s novel, The Revolution of Every Day