the Tompkins Square Park Riot, 1988



Avenue A & E 7th St, New York, NY 10009

Neighborhood: Lower East Side

On Saturday, August 6, 1988, I was possibly even more abstracted than usual, because it was well nigh midnight before I realized that I had neglected to eat dinner, and that the refrigerator contained nothing but half a jar of horseradish. So I set out for a greasy spoon on Second Avenue, in the heart of the sidewalk market district (mismatched shoes, secondhand pornography). After refreshing myself with rubbery kielbasa slices embedded in an egg-like mass, I was proceeding back up the avenue when I saw eight police vehicles come screeching around the corner of St. Mark’s Place, bearing down on Tompkins Square Park.

I decided to investigate. The park had been much on my mind lately, and I had been expecting trouble there for at least a year. A decade ago, when I first moved into the neighborhood, the park had been the undisputed province of junkies and muggers, and few others, including me, ventured into it after dark. More recently, however, it had regained its position as a public gathering site. On weekend nights it emanated music and hijinks as the traffic among the dozens of bars and restaurants nearby just naturally came to include the park. At the same time it had become an encampment of the homeless. On bitter January nights, as I headed up Avenue A from my office to my apartment, I would see groups of people huddled around trashcan bonfires or packed together sleeping under a tarp. Late in the winter, though, policemen had been coming around and dousing the flames, and otherwise harassing the occupants of this latter-day Hooverville. When summer came the ongoing party and the homeless settlement had in some fashion fused; it was a mild commotion, a bit boisterous but no threat to anyone. Nevertheless, in view of the cops, it was a ticking bomb. The park’s history for a century had been marked by clashes between the police and area residents, from the gun detachments that were moved in after the 1887 execution of the Haymarket anarchists in Chicago for fear of local anarchist flareups (none occurred), to the violent turf wars of the late Sixties and early Seventies, a three-way tangle among police, hippies, and Hispanic youths. Some of the tension of those post-Summer of Love days had returned, although now largely devoid of racial content and set starkly between locals and the authorities. There had been talk, too, that city officials were unhappy with the park’s design, disturbed by the darkness provided by the dense, ancient trees and the twisting, European-style paths, and were considering revising the landscape to a more open and policeable plan. It did not come as much of a surprise, then, to hear that the cops were intending the close the park at night, nor that the first such effort, on the last weekend in July, was met with vocal if confused resistance. On that occasion some taunting went on and there were a scattering of arrests, but around two in the morning the thirty or forty cops went home and jubilant locals moved back into the park, convinced that they had won.

On this night, though, things looked different before I had even reached First Avenue. Groups of people massed on the four corners of First and St. Mark’s were yelling slogans–“The Park Belongs to the People!” Halfway down the next block a cordon of cops in riot gear was blocking further access in the direction of the park, not even letting through residents of buildings located beyond their post, nor were they deigning to answer questions. Even if one knew that there had been some recent disputes over use of the park–and such knowledge was by no means general in the neighborhood–the obviously hostile police presence appeared inexplicable. Overhead, a police helicopter hovered, coming so low that the roar of its blades seemed to be rising from behind the houses on both sides of the street, and then coming lower still, so that the backwash of its rotors kicked up the debris from the gutters and the trash from the trashcans and drew it upward in spirals.

On Avenue A the helicopter aimed its spotlights at the tops of buildings. Was it looking for snipers? The avenue was full of people, some protesting but many more pulled, dazed, from bars and apartments, some from bed; one guy was wearing a bathrobe and slippers. A group crowded around a man who said he had heard the chief of the Ninth Precinct assert that he was calling for reinforcements due to “Communist agitators” among the protestors. This drew a laugh. Police were everywhere (by the end of the night their numbers would be estimated at 450): beat cops with their caps turned around and badge numbers obscured, plainclothesmen trying with little success to look like locals, riot cops bearing Plexiglas shields, vehicles marked with designations ranging from “Hazardous Materials Squad” to “DWI Task Force,” and, just below the park’s main entrance opposite St. Mark’s Place, an Emergency Services truck the size of a bus, with lamps like Klieg lights aimed up and down the avenue. Suddenly a detachment of mounted cops went tearing down St. Mark’s at full gallop.

On First Avenue, where the horses were headed, all was chaos. Trash cans lay on their sides in the middle of the street, small groups of civilians were being chased this way and that by mounted cops and foot cops wielding nightsticks. The police appeared to be acting in purely random fashion, suddenly deciding to empty a particular corner or stretch of sidewalk of its occupants, or, hearing an insult launched at them from the crowd, undertaking a flanking maneuver, sticks braced, advancing to their own rhythmic chant: “Kill, kill, kill!” More vehicles, patrol cars and paddy wagons, came roaring down St. Mark’s Place the wrong way. Then they parked and the cops just milled around, eventually beginning their own game of patternless rousting and containment actions.

Back on Avenue A, the block between Sixth and Seventh streets just below the park was now an empty zone between police lines at either end. A handful of cops were stalking the block demanding that shopkeepers and the owners of bars and restaurants shut their gates. A middle-aged cop who looked a bit like the actor Brian Keith was shouting himself hoarse ordering the owners of the large mid-block Korean grocery to lock their doors. “With a key!” he screamed again and again. Earlier I had heard someone in a crowd say, “You know who’s really hurting tonight? S.Y.P.” I tried to decipher the acronym: Socialist Youth Party? Now I realized they had been referring to this popular albeit grossly overpriced convenience store, locally known as Save Your Pennies, which under ordinary circumstances would have been doing its heaviest business at just that hour. I watched the activity for about fifteen minutes, virtually the only civilian on the block, until finally a small cop came up to me and yelled, half-pleading, “What are you doing? Go home!” as if I were an errant toddler and he a nervous young father.

Below Sixth Street the heaviest concentration of police stood cordoning off the block from a crowd of several hundred locals. Every sort of attitude was present on both sides. There were cops who wanted to talk, for example, trying to reason it out with their opponents, although they were a distinct minority among the blue ranks. The civilians comprised a wide range of ages, dispositions, and sartorial adornments. One long-haired peacock in an incongruous black duster paced around in confusion, preening as if reflexively. A shirtless man paced in front of the crowd with the air of a prophet, lifting his cane in the air as he instigated chants. Most people simply looked dazed. Others kept appearing, homeward bound from work or bars and entirely unprepared for the situation; most ended up staying with the crowd.

A knot of people on a corner clustered around two priests, who seemed to have been among the complainants responsible for the police presence. That is, they had asked the precinct to try to reduce the volume of noise emanating from the park, and now they were alternately embarrassed and defensive in the face of the semi-military occupation. A couple of reasonable-sounding passers-by had seen the beginnings of the fray, around eleven o’clock, when the cops had evacuated the park, a group of youths had turned around and rushed the fence, sticks had been wielded and bottles thrown. From there matters had escalated.

The passers-by, avoiding ideological argument, were making the point that bad policing had been and was manifest. The priests kept insisting that a large police presence was necessary to protect their parishioners from the crack trade. They didn’t seem to register the fact, even when it was pointed out to them, that such trade does not take place in the park but in derelict buildings on side streets that are raided every now and then but reopen almost immediately. Finally, one of the priests lost his cool.

“You think this is bad?” he said, having by his own admission perceived that a number of his interlocutors looked Jewish. “You should go to Israel, see what the Israelis are doing on the West Bank. They’re really cracking heads there!”

Over the next few hours events became increasingly repetitive as cops and crowd were locked in a face-off, which would momentarily be broken when somebody (always someone invisibly in the rear of the crowd) would lob a bottle and the cops would charge and club heads. A young woman who had done nothing but stand in the wrong place was clubbed so badly her shirt was soaked through with blood. After she had been taken away in an ambulance, others raised her shirt on a stick like a flag. Onlookers wept, screamed in frustration, exhorted their fellows to take up sticks and do battle; the crowd had no leaders and no logic.

Neither did the cops, apparently; they spent a great deal of time dispatching units to investigate rooftops from which nothing was being thrown. Periodically cops would go around dumping garbage cans and smashing the empty bottles with their clubs and feet, invariably drawing applause from the crowd. They seemed to be particularly vehement in going after bicycles, deliberately damaging them with their truncheons. Every now and then a fire truck would pull up and, after a few minutes, depart. This remained inexplicable until a radio report the following day quoted police officials as saying that the crowd started fires along the avenue, but no fires were seen, at least by me. A negotiating session between locals and cops, mediated by a third priest, became a circular bout of reiterated arguments.

Finally, about five o’clock or so, I was getting so sleepy, having been up since seven the previous morning, that the tableau before my eyes began to look imaginary. I decided to go. Just then the huge Emergency Services truck began broadcasting news of a Community Board meeting to be held the following Wednesday. Then somebody threw a bottle and the cops charged yet again. All night I had been pretty deft at staying out of their path, but this time I did not move quickly enough down Sixth Street, and I was slammed against a building, and then dragged along the sidewalk. I limped home, fingering the gashes in my shirt and pants, wishing I hadn’t been wearing new clothes that night.

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§ 2 Responses to “the Tompkins Square Park Riot, 1988”

  • […] the drug dealers and homeless that had largely “occupied” the park, and a riot ensued (see Luc Sante’s account). The necessity of the force used by the NYPD is debated to this day, but the cleanup was the first […]

  • Joseph Ciolino says:

    As a life-long resident of the neighborhood around the park, I could not be happier with the events of that night. The police acted with restraint, if you ask me, and the result in the long run, was fabulous. An actual park FOR USE BY THE RESIDENTS WHO PAID FOR ITS UP-KEEP, whose children could play in it, whose old people could on a bench under a shady tree in summer — well worth it.

    Thank you, Mayor Giuliani, and the NYPD

§ Leave a Reply

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