The city finally says yes to a 20th-anniversary celebration of the
famous battle in the park
by Maria Luisa Tucker
April 15th, 2008
"It's our fucking park!" says Jerry "the Peddler" Wade, denouncing
the city after it denied him a permit to hold a punk-rock concert in
Tompkins Square Park to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the
August 6, 1988, police riot that took place there.
That rallying cry apparently worked: Late last week, the city's Parks
Department gave in to Wade, the 58-year-old anarchist known for
helping to organize the annual concert. After protests by Wade and
his fellow East Village activists this month, the department reversed
its original decision and approved the August concert.
Wade's defiant cry was the same one used by the original protesters
in the notorious 1988 urban battle, whose ranks included Wade
himself. He'd joined an ad hoc coalition of neighborhood activists,
punks, Yippies, and squatters to protest the park's new 1 a.m.
curfew. Legions of homeless people were living there, and the city
was determined to kick them out. Wade says he was passing out
whistles to the protesters when police began entering the park in
waves. Soon, beer bottles were flying and police batons were
swinging. "The cops started beating anybody and everybody in sight,"
he recalls. At least 38 people, including bystanders, reporters, and
police, were injured, and over 100 complaints of police brutality
were later reported. Wade says that an officer on horseback kicked
him to the ground: "I've been an activist since the late '60s, and to
this day, I've never seen anything like it."
From then until the early 1990s, several other mini-riots erupted as
protesters continued to fight for control of the park and,
ultimately, their neighborhood. They won some battlesthe city
eventually ceded control of 11 buildings in the area to squattersand
lost some: In 1991, the city demolished the park's beloved bandshell,
which had been a stage for the radical political activism and punk
rock that had once defined the neighborhood.
Since the original riot, Wade and a group of East Village activists
organized a yearly memorial concert at Tompkins Square, meant to
honor the history of the neighborhood's resistance and remember the
brutality of unchecked police power. For 18 years, he says, the
permits were granted, the speakers and musicians lined up, and the
concerts went off without much trouble. But last year, the Parks
Department denied the permit, and the concert was grudgingly
relocated to Washington Square Park. This year, the 20th anniversary
of the riot, the department again denied a permit, saying that the
requested weekend had already been denoted a "quiet weekend," with no
amplified sound allowed. Wade says that was a "bullshit excuse,"
speculating that the real reason had something to do with the lineup
of punk-rockersincluding some who were beaten in '88and radical
lawyers like Lynne Stewart, Ron Kuby, and Stanley Cohen.
John Penley, a neighborhood activist, says that as the East Village
has been scrubbed up and gentrified, folks like him are being shut
out in favor of "rich yuppies." "From the riot till now, it's become
progressively harder and much more expensive to put on shows unless
you're a corporate entity," he says. Permit fees have risen, the
hours allowed for amplified sound have been cut back, andat least in
this instancethe intervention of lawyers was necessary simply to
obtain a park permit. (Activist attorney Norman Siegel, who plans to
speak at the anniversary concert, met with the Parks Department's
counsel last week.)
Now that the activists have won this particular battle, they hope to
pressure the city into fixing up the park's bathrooms, finishing the
dog run, and maybe even building a new bandshell. "We accomplished a
lot down here in the last 20 years," says Wade. "It's important that
the punks and hippies in the suburbs and wastelands know what we
didand how we did itso they can go home and do the same thing."