The 1936 Battle of Tompkins Square Park

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06/03/2023

Neighborhood: East Village

Riot police faced off with squatters and anarchist protesters in Tompkins Square in the 1980s.

I once had an experience that answered for me the question that haunts many males of the species: am I tough enough to hold my head up with the great warriors in history – those who fought at Armageddon, Troy, Marathon, Lepanto, Austerlitz, Gettysburg, Stalingrad? This question was answered – at least to my satisfaction – at the battle of Tompkins Square Park.

In 1936, having earned a Master’s degree in history, I had to choose between looking for a job teaching in high school or enrolling in a doctorate program, with the aim being to get work teaching in college. But 1936 wasn’t a good year for getting a job, and our family was running out of money, so I looked for any kind of job, and I mean ANY.

The first work I got was in a factory on Lafayette Street, near Bond Street, where about thirty young men assembled Venetian blinds. My work was wrapping the blinds. I stood at one side of a table. At the other side stood another young man, who grabbed a blind from a pile behind him, laid it on the table on top of wrapping paper, and rolled it towards me; I finished the wrapping and placed it on a pile behind me. All day long we wrapped blinds. My partner had a good fund of dirty stories, so my education continued after all.

The $10 a week they paid us wasn’t enough to live on, and if we quit, our employer could easily replace us with someone at the same wage. We talked up a strike during our lunch break. There was no union for Venetian blind workers, but we found a local of the painters’ union that was willing to take us on and help us prepare for a strike.

So, one day, armed with cardboard signs saying STRIKE, we appeared at starting time in the morning on a picket line in front of the building. Unemployment being what it was at the time, the factory took no more than a morning to line up a full complement of workers to replace us, and the work required so little skill that by the end of the day the plant was fully in business. There we were, walking a picket line with our signs, and there were the scabs inside, taking our jobs. When they left at the end of the day, we shouted angry threats.

May 19, 1934 police attack a group of strikers attempting to stop scabs in Minneapolis.

The next day our picket line started early, and when the scabs passed through, we redoubled our threats. All morning we picketed and shouted. They didn’t come out for lunch – the plant brought in lunch for them – so we continued to march and shout. By the end of the day, we were hoarse, and our anger at these men who had stolen our jobs had turned into fury. As they left the plant huddled together for protection, we attacked them, swinging fists and kicking.

Now there were as many of them as there were of us and being young and vigorous, they were an even match. But in human conflict each person gets clues to his behavior from his position in the conflict: the attacker is emboldened; the person being attacked feels vulnerable. They ran.

We followed them up Lafayette Street for a few blocks, running and shouting threats. At one corner their group turned eastward, keeping together in fear, and we followed them a few yards behind.

Then, when they got to Tompkins Square Park, something happened: they stopped, turned to face us, and stood their ground. Apparently, this was the neighborhood where many of them lived. They felt at home here, and, in their minds, the positions in the conflict had changed. We had become the interlopers. But to us the structure of the conflict remained the same. We were still the aggrieved party, and we piled into them with fists and feet flying. After a few minutes of fighting, one by one they ran off, each in a different direction, presumably toward their homes. We stood there, the masters of Tompkins Square, which we had no interest in holding. Nursing our cuts and bruises, we walked back west.

The next day no scabs appeared to take our jobs. The factory owner came out and offered to talk about it, and we ended up with our jobs back, at a rate of $15 a day, and I resumed getting my education in dirty stories.

When I was a small boy, I had occasional fights with other kids, but the battle of Tompkins Square was the last physical fight of my life. Later on, I would study the arts of office intrigue, political contests, and the other politer forms of fighting. But it was at Tompkins Square that I established my physical toughness: I socked ’em good and they ran away.

***

Harold Goldstein (1914 – 2007) spent most of his career working at the US Department of Labor. One of his claims to fame was when President Nixon referred to him and a colleague as a “Jewish cabal” when they had made a slight correction to his rosy economic news. He published two volumes of memoirs, the second of which, from which this story was selected, was edited by his niece Aviva Goldstein.

Aviva Goldstein is a public health professional, living in Brooklyn and writing regularly, though mostly very clever emails to friends.

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