Police brutality, class warfare, gentrification — today these are hot button topics, both nationally and in New York City. But 29 years ago today frustrations over these issues converged in the form of protest and riots in Tompkins Square Park in the East Village.
These protests reflected somewhat the shifting nature of the park and the neighborhood at the time. The park had become a gathering place for the homeless and with a growing tent city. At that time, the East Village and Alphabet City were also attracting higher income residents. Some new and old residents, as well as some business-oriented community groups like the Avenue A Block Association, urged Manhattan Community Board 3 to install a curfew on the park. However, groups such as Friends of Tompkins Square Park and some political organizers and community activists elsewhere in the neighborhood were against a curfew.
According to the New York Times, on June 28th, 1988 the community board took a middle ground and called for a 1 am curfew; over the next two weeks the police enforced this curfew, evicting many from the park and confining the homeless to the southeast quadrant. Some saw this police action as an attempt to take the park away from the public, and staged protests and a rally on July 31st. This first protest was responded to with police intervention and several protesters and officers were injured by the end of the night. Yet, organizers planned another rally on August 6th.
Late in the evening of August 6th, about 200 protestors (though police reports claimed 700) marched through St. Mark’s Place holding banners proclaiming “Gentrification is Class War.” Captain Gerald McNamara of the 9th Precinct had 86 officers and 11 on horseback stationed in the park. As the night dragged on into the early morning of August 7th, a boisterous crowd began to hurl empty bottles at police officers, prompting an escalation in the police’s response. The rioting went on through the night and into the next day; both sides reported injuries, with protesters and observers claiming that not only did officers cover and remove their badges and nameplates, but also officers used excessive force on bystanders. All of this was captured on film by East Village resident Clayton Patterson and by the end of the rioting there were a total of 38 people who suffered injury, including police officers and reporters on the scene. Nine people were arrested on riot, assault, and other charges, and six accounts of police brutality were logged with the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB).
In the aftermath of the riots, with brutality complaints eventually reaching over 100 and video and images of police officers striking protesters and kicking defenseless people while they were on the ground, then-NYC Police Commissioner Benjamin Ward laid the blame for the riot on the local police precinct. Mayor Ed Koch, who was critical of the management of the park and who approved the 1 am curfew, became critical of the police intervention after being confronted with the evidence and testimonials as well. To the neighborhood, the riots serve both as a testament and travesty, with some viewing the protesters as defenders against the encroachment of gentrification, while others saw them as nothing more than hooligans. However, in the direct aftermath of the riots the neighborhood residents became galvanized against the police brutality which they had experienced in those evening and early morning hours.