Tuesday, November 4, 2008
Ask 100 people what was the spark that caused the bloodshed between police and citizens in the Tompkins Square riots of 1988 and you will probably get 100 different answers. The park had become an open-air homeless shelter and squat. The Avenue A Merchants Association felt that this attracted the wrong element and demanded that the police set a curfew. The police came in on the 31st of July and again on August 6. My favorite comes from Mark Ashwill who was at the time drummer for the band Missing Foundation. This band was known for its haunting tag which depicted an upside-down champagne glass and was spray-painted all over the neighborhood. Mark’s band was playing when the police came to clear the park.
“I did not stop drumming until they pulled me off the stage,” he said. He fought against a policeman for his drums, a shoving match on stage until he and the rest of the band were overwhelmed.
“It was chaos after that,” he said. The bandshell has no opening in the back and Mark was trapped there at the very beginning of the riot that ensued. Hundreds of people were in the park and hundreds more police tried to evict them. A melee ensued. Melee (from the French mêlée: generally refers to disorganized close combat involving a group of fighters. A melee ensues when groups become locked together in combat with no regard to group tactics or fighting as an organized unit; each participant fights as an individual.
“This was what we were about,” Mark said. “This was the best show we ever played.” I would meet Mark years later when he was clean. This was when he wasn’t.
In fact I was at the show but when things got ugly I split, going to the circle bar right outside the southeast exit of the park on 7th St. where we had an open shot and a beer triage for anyone who came in with blood on them. It was a great big weird party in there. The cop spots stayed open late and I went back and forth a couple times on runs for myself and others.
The clash did not end until the next morning at six a.m. Passersby were assaulted by both police and protestors and drawn in the chaotic fray. Rubbish and bottles were thrown from the rooftops of nearby buildings. According to Wikipedia 38 people, including reporters and police suffered injuries. Nine people were arrested on riot, assault and other charges, six complaints of police brutality were logged.
Mark later became the singer for a band called The Spitters. One of the first times I attended a Narcotics Anonymous meeting after coming back to the city, he played me a tape of his band. Later I saw them play at CBGB’s, Continental Divide, Friday’s and other clubs. At CB’s I was living in Jersey, my first time staying clean for any time and I brought some friends from the meetings over there. Mark kicked over our table during the first song and we ran for shelter into the mosh pit further back. Their shows always dissolved into mayhem. A girl came on stage and broke a beer bottle over Mark’s head. He swung from the speaker cabinets and leaped onto the crowd. But that was later.
Maybe we were the last generation that came of age believing pop music mattered, that it defined us somehow, that it was something like church must have been for people many years ago. Every squat had a band and nearly every band had a squat. We didn’t really believe anymore that someone singing into a microphone could change the world, as maybe many of our older brothers and sisters had, but we did believe that if it couldn’t, then the singing helped. In those days, in our neighborhood, it still mattered. We liked to rock.
The first Tompkins Square riot took place in 1874 when thousands of unemployed New Yorkers protested and clashed with police. In 1991 when hundreds of us protested against the Persian Gulf War in Times Square, we were chased by police all the way downtown. I remember getting on a train to go home from the Delancey Street stop. Many of us who came to live or play in the East Village were attracted by the potential for chaos. We sought it out. We thrived on it. We were interested in the breaking down of American society. We broke down our consciousness with drugs and our physical well being with more. We let our art and our lives stand as metaphors for the breakdown we saw taking place in American society.
In the 1970’s and well into the 80’s and early 90’s hundreds of people lined up to buy heroin from storefront and corner dealers. The police kept their distance or some of them took a cut; many of them got caught up in the same shit that we did. There were dozens of squats in the neighborhood below 14th Street and East of Broadway with the highest concentration in Alphabet City.
It didn't start with us. An old junkie I met in Jersey told me he had lived on East 6th Street in the 60’s when dope was two dollars a bag.
There were all kinds of crash pads and places where kids went to get away from their parents, away from it all. A lot of us never went back. Abbie Hoffman lived in the East Village and in his apartment on St. Mark’s held the first meetings to plan protests during the Democratic National Convention in 1968 in Chicago. The Yippies had a meeting house on Bleecker Street just a few hundred feet from where CBGB’s opened a decade later.
The longest continuously meeting NA meeting is across the street and upstairs. Before 1979 addicts were not allowed legally to meet on the street. They carried ID cards with their pictures on them and if one or more were caught congregating they were carted off to jail.
When my first NA sponsor left the army during the Vietnam war and decided to go underground, he met a contact at the War Resistors League on Lafayette Street and was put up in a safe house on St. Marks a block down from the Electric Circus. A few months after the World Trade Towers fell he sat at a table in Café Orlin and reminisced with my wife and pointed up at where the building had stood right across the street.
“My mother made me quit the army,” he told us. A lot of the neighbor boys started coming home in boxes. Whenever the FBI came to the house to look for me, she would yell at them and chase them away."
When I was a little kid visiting my grandmother in New Jersey my cousins and I would take day trips into the city on the bus. Later when we came home we would compete in telling my grandmother all the crazy things we saw. We were saddened by the bag ladies and wowed by the tallest buildings but the stories that always won the day were of spontaneous moments of grace.
"You climb up on to the rooftop to get a little closer to the sky.”
Some people have this in their blood. Others are smart enough not to go up there or if they do they take the proper precautions. One of the first nights I went out with Ingalill I was still living with Mark Zero who had video tapes of the riots that he kept in his freezer. They were destroyed when the police condemned his building in 1995. They were not allowed to go back in. That night I tried to tell Ingalill what it was like to do heroin. She wanted to know because her brother had fallen into using out in LA. Later he joined the army, fought in Iraq eventually came home and had a family. I told her how wonderful it felt, using the rooftop analogy.
She wrinkled her nose. “But it can kill you,” she said.
From Zero I met the legendary East Village figure Rockets Redglare. Everyone knew Rockets and he remembered everyone. He had been a bouncer at CB’s, The Mudd Club and Max’s in their heyday.
"Anywhere you wanted, Rockets could get you in."
Later he achieved a near unbelieveable neighborhood trifecta: movie actor, Basquiat's bodyguard and Sid Vicious' dope connection.
When I knew him he had ballooned to over 300 pounds, he drank and was on methadone. the summer I worked the door at the Lakeside Lounge, he drank for free. His skin looked terrible and his jaw had that spasm thing that long-term Methadonians get. Still he always remembered my name though I only met him a few times. He talked like he cared about what happened to me. He was like that with each and every person that he met and there are not many people like that.
One night I came out my bedroom at Zero’s apt on the corner of Clinton and Stanton, to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night and there was Rockets, in all his pale white naked glory, stretched out on the floor reading The Alienist. The building is gone, but in the East Village that lives in each of us, Rockets and many others, brilliant shining freaks all, light the sky.
"Kick Out The Jams" mp3
by The MC5, 1968.
available on Kick Out the Jams
"Street Fighting Man" mp3
by The Rolling Stones, 1968.
available on Beggars Banquet
by Sly and the Family Stone, 1971.
available on There's a Riot Goin' On
"This Is My Country" mp3
by The Impressions, 1968.
available on The Anthology 1961-1977
"Teen Age Riot" mp3
by Sonic Youth, 1988.
available on Daydream Nation
"White Riot" (single version) mp3
by The Clash, 1977.
available on The Clash (U.S. Version)
Photograph: Bus Stop, Avenue A, New York City, 1988.
© Ted Barron (click on image to enlarge)