The 1988 Tompkins Square Police Riot - A Video Point of View

Saturday night on August 6th 1988 was stiflingly hot and humid. My apartment had no air conditioning and I was dying from the heat. Fortunately that night I was booked from midnight to 7 a.m. at Broadway Video at Broadway and 49th street to do special effects and editing on my video work entitled "Free Society".

Broadway Video was a technical marvel and an oasis from the melting heat of the city. Just after midnight the technician and I started work on image processing of various riot scenes that I had collected over time by recording the TV news. Just as our session was getting up to speed, the power suddently went off and all the media equipment and computers in the entire place went dark. The excessive power demand that night caused a brownout in Midtown, which triggered the facility's power protection system to shut everything down. Since it was a weekend, and we were on artist-discount rates, there was no engineering staff on duty to safely bring systems back up, so I said goodnight to my technician friend and took a taxi back to my apartment on East 7th Street just off of Avenue B and Tompkins Square Park.

As I got out of the taxi I looked up 7th St. and saw flashing lights, a helicopter hovering just above the rooftops, and police on horseback riding on Avenue A. I had no idea what was going on, but with the sight of all the police vehicles and riot cops on the street, I thought it would be a good chance to get some fresh material for Free Society. I went back to may apartment to drop off my video work tapes and pick up this new Sony video 8 camera that I borrowed from my friend. I walked up East 7th St. to the corner of Avenue A, but there were cops all over the corner blocking the view and preventing me from seeing or turning the corner on to Avenue A. I took some shots of the cops standing around, and caught some mounted police riding their horses South on Avenue A. As I recorded scenes of the cops on the corner I noticed that many had black bands covering their badges. I thought that it was strange to see what appeard to be a sign of mourning covering up the numbers on the officers' badges.
A police helicopter was hovering just above what was then Leshko's Coffee Shop, and I took some footage as it hung there almost touching the rooftop, kicking up dust and debris on the street. I had a feeling that there was more going on around the corner, so I doubled back around Avenue B and up East 6th St. to Avenue A where I came upon the front line of riot cops with helmets and shields that spanned East to West across Avenue A. I started the tape rolling and panned the lineup of riot cops and some apparent police brass among them. There was the occasional sound of glass breaking as bottles hit the street not far from the police. Suddenly, a herd of cops broke formation and chased people up East 6th Street towards First Ave., nightsticks flailing into bodies and darkness.

I didn't feel very safe at that moment and I scoped out a van parked on Avenue A just by the Con Edison substation, for cover. As the confrontation escalated I climbed to the roof of the van to get above the fray and to secure a better vantage point for my camera. Again the cops broke ranks and began pushing people with their nightsticks and chasing them down the avenue. I was following the action as much as I could when I heard two thumps against the metal body of the van -- then noticed that the van was surrounded by cops shouting at me "GET DOWN" and swinging their nightsticks at my legs, and at the legs of two other photographers perched next to me. The cops were shouting at me to get down, and at the same time were swinging their nightsticks trying to hit me -- an unreconcilable situation. I continued to roll tape as I danced to avoid the blows of the nightsticks, and shouted "I'M GETTING DOWN! JUST GIVE ME A CHANCE...". As I sat down on the roof and started to come down, one cop lunged at me out of the darkness and grabbed me by my shirt, swung me around, and slammed me against the brick wall at Con Edison, as my camera rolled on. He screamed at me "PUT YOUR FUCKING HANDS TO YOURSELF OR I'LL CRACK YOUR FUCKIN' SKULL!!! YOU GOT ME?" I answered: "Yea, I got you!" as I hit the ground and felt him kicking me. Then he yelled: "NOW GET THE FUCK OUT OF HERE!!!!" and then he stomped on the video 8 camera. I was dazed, the camera hit me in the face as the cop assaulted me, and cut me above my eye...I realized that the cop said to get the fuck out of there, and not that I was under arrest, so after ascertaining that the camera and tape were actually intact, I took his advice and got the fuck out of there.

I went to a bodega and got some bandaids and put one on the cut above my right eye, and got back out on the street to shoot some more footage. I could see in the distance the cops beating a man with nightsticks as he lay on the street next to a parked car. After the cops beat the guy they ran away. When I came closer, there was a guy standing on the sidewalk covered in blood, that gushed from a clear opening in his head. People rushed to help him and tried to stop the bleeding with a tshirt or whatever was on hand. Finally the paramedics came and took the bloodied man to the hospital. FIres were burning in the streets. The cops retreated. Firetrucks raced up the avenue, sirens blaring. People wandered in all directions in the smoke haze and heat, dazed and outraged by what had been going down throughout the night.

As things quieted down, I went to a nearby pay phone and started calling the local TV news stations. I got through to CBS and NBC but both night desk operators were skeptical, especially since I shot with a home camcorder and not professional TV gear. First I said, where the hell are you guys? the cops are going wild in the streets beating the crap out of people and there are no news cameras anywhere to record this. I just got my ass kicked for no reason, but I did record it on video. Besides my own beating, I have people bleeding, and cops seemingly out of control. I was asked "what did you shoot it on?" I said: "on video 8"...he said "we can't air that! it's not broadcast spec!" I told him, "look, send your crew with your betacam and I'll dub you the tape directly." I guess speaking tv speak worked, and he said that a crew and a reporter would come out in the morning.

At around 8:00 am my phone rang and it was CBS 2 local news -- they and the local NBC Ch. 4 crew were outside my building. I went down and let them in, and brougnt them up to my hot sticky apartment. I connected both teams to my video playback and they copied the footage as we watched it on the tv monitor in my living room. When the reporters interviewed me on camera, I asked that they not show my face and not use my name, as I was afraid of repurcussions by the police. The reporter commented: aww come on, show your face -- you have a black eye -- it's GOOD TELEVISION!. I said ok, no silhouette, but please don't use my full name! They agreed and the interview continued. That night the report was the top story on every local channel, highlighted by the point-of-view shot of my own beating by the cops.
Besides breaking the story and contradicting the official police story that "nothing happened", my video tape also exposed the attempted coverup -- many if not most of the cops who rioted either covered their badges with black tape, or in some cases completely removed their badges in order to avoid identification. A shot of a cop with a covered badge from my video made the front page of the NY Post. Mayor Ed Koch and Police Commissioner Benjamin Ward stuttered in front of the news cameras as they tried to explain away the obvious police criminality capured on my videotape.

Feeling that my identity was protected, I went on with my life, and back to work on my video. When I got home the next night I played back my answering machine which recorded many death threats apparently left by police. I called the mayor's office at 3 a.m. to report the death threats but the cop that answered the phone -- a sergeant -- refused to get a message to Mayor Koch. Not knowing who else to call -- knowing that it wouldn't work to call the cops on the cops, I called the FBI, I guess that's when my file started-- and I called the local news, who ate it up...every channel's crew was knocking at my door to get the story and take a shot of the threats playing back on my answering machine.

At this point my identity was public and there was no turning back, so I decided to go full-on high profile. I made lots of duplicates of the video on to VHS tapes and made the rounds the next day to the U.S. Attorney's office, the District Attorney's office, led by high powered legal counsel Gerald Walpin (the D.A. almost dropped to her knees when Walpin walked with me through the door into her office). I made sure that everybody had a free copy of my video tape -- not only was it a major news story, it was also evidence.

I arranged a supervised copy of the original tape with the D.A.'s office, and they accepted that as evidence. The original tape never left my hands and there was never a question or demand for it beyond the supervised dub from the original, the chain of custody paperwork and my signed, sworn statement declaring that the tape was original and unaltered. The verified copy was entered into evidence and the original tape remains in my own archive. I wanted everybody to have a copy of it and wanted everyone to see what my camera recorded that night.

The power of the video to scoop the mainstream media and contradict the official lies became evident, and the event became known as the Tompkins Square Police Riot. From that moment on, the local news began soliciting home video -- instead of scoffing at it -- and the face of news gathering was forever changed, as was the aesthetics of television for better or worse with "reality" shows such as COPS and America's Funniest Home Videos. The euphoria of scooping the media and heralding the truth was intoxicating for a time, and it felt like what I called "Reverse Big Brother -- not the state watching the people, but the people watching the state". I knew that video served as a tool, a weapon, and a witness. The tompkins square riot video inspired many to pick up their cameras and record what would have otherwise been unseen. The video revolution swept across the airwaves and across the world, as communism fell in the Eastern block, and as the cops armed themselves with cameras and media. The riot became a media riot, and escalated to a media war. Then I advised: "Use your camera intelligently". Today with internet and a shakeup in the media distribution system, that same advice applies: "Use your media intelligently". The Tompkins Square Riot video was the spark that ignited the camcorder revolution, and it was the first wave leading up to the internet media revolution of today, 20 years later.

Tompkins Square Park Police Riot of 1988

What Happened One Hot Summer Night in 1988
Eric Drooker Riot Cops Flaming Fist

On the evening of July 30, 1988, a group of people in Tompkins Square Park were violently rousted by club wielding cops, claiming that they were enforcing a midnight park curfew. This curfew, not declared by any city agency, was phony and illegal. Some people resisted and this got cops very angry.

Over the next seven days, neighbors watched as the NYPD built up a para-military presence in and around the park, complete with maneuvers on horse back and displays of crowd control techniques with phalanxes of riot cops advancing in special formations.
On August 6, 1988, a sweltering hot and stifingly humid night, anti-Tompkins Square Park curfew demonstrators were set upon by riot cops at the stroke of midnight, as the police attempted to clear the park and enforce the curfew. The police pushed people out of the park and into the streets, beating people indiscriminately with nightsticks, as police on horseback charged the crowd, injuring numerous innocent bystanders, some seriously. All the while a police helicopter hovered just above the rooftops on Avenue A, blowing up a blinding dust and attracting more and more residents who came out to see what was going on. Out of control police charged into the crowd repeatedly, kicking, beating, crashing peoples' heads with clubs, drawing blood and sending many to the hospital with concussions and broken bones. Outrage over the police violence increased as hundreds of cops from all over the city descended on the neighborhood, randomly chasing and beating area residents and anyone in their sights. In the midst of the mayhem the commanding officer left the scene "to take a personal" at the station house a mile away, leaving the rank and file cops to terrorize and brutalize the neighborhood -- unconstrained and unaccountable, in the absence of any mainstream TV news cameras. Little did they realize that two neighborhood videographers, one whom was beaten by police as his camera rolled, would come back to haunt them with footage of the night's unconstrained police violence. The police attacks lasted all night as people resisted their assaults.

By 6:00 the following morning, the cops withdrew, satisfied that they had successfully enforced the illegal park curfew until 6am as they had been ordered to. In reality, the only thing they had succeeded in doing was to unite our neighborhood like never before!! Over 120 people were hospitalized with injuries inflicted by gratuitous police beatings. The evening news was ablaze with the home video footage that showed the extent of the police wilding in the streets, and clips that exposed dozens of police attempting to conceal their identities by covering up their badges with black bands and in some cases removing their shields altogether. One videographer, Clayton Patterson, captured literally hours and hours of the attacks on video that was ultimately used as evidence to bring charges against the police, and in civil lawsuits brought against the City by those who suffered injuries at the hands of unruly police. The shot that broke the story to the mainstream media and topped the week's TV coverage of the riot replayed the point of view of artist and videomaker Paul Garrin's camera as several police officers ganged up on him and beat him to the ground in an attempt to destroy his camera and stop him from videotaping their crimes. While the video footage contradicted the official story of the night's events it also ignited public outrage over the police brutality. In the nights to follow large protests and demonstrations formed as hundreds of neighborhood residents took to the streets in a show of solidarity and in opposition to the curfew. The police showed up by the busload in force and in full riot gear and on their best behavior -- in light of the media riot -- where hoardes of mainstream TV crews were determined not to miss this time. Then Mayor Ed Koch relented and the attempted curfew was rescinded, leaving the park open 24 hours a day as it had been for a century before.

A week after the riot a concert and rally was held in the Tompkins Square Park bandshell (demolished in 1991) where many local bands, poets, performers, and speakers celebrated the park as free public space where people gather to express themselves, and demonstrate politically.

Every year since the riot, we have held events, concerts and demonstrations to commemorate what happened on that hot summer night in 1988, so that people do not forget and so young people can learn the history of our struggle to exist in the face of gentrification and corporatization of our city, and to celebrate the creative energy and talents that once and again thrive here.

Chris Flash, Editor,