New York City’s East Village has been home to artists, anarchists, and activists for generations. But by the summer of 1988, ravaged by the twin plagues of crack and AIDS, the neighborhood’s Tompkins Square Park became an ad-hoc camp for homeless people, squatters, punks, drug dealers, and users. In an effort to assert control, the Parks Department enforced a 1 AM curfew in the previously 24-hour park, sparking outrage.
Thirty years ago this week, on August 6, protesters occupied the park wielding signs that read, “Gentrification Is Class War, Fight Back” and chanting, “It’s our fucking park, you don’t live here!” Bottles were thrown. Police Captain Gerald McNamara called in backup, and 400 NYPD officers showed up in riot gear.
Many officers concealed or removed their badges as they clubbed protesters and bystanders. The riot lasted until 6 AM, and more than 100 police brutality complaints were logged afterwards. Fourteen officers faced charges, but none were convicted. Police Commissioner Benjamin Ward went on record to state that the NYPD was responsible for inciting a riot.
Japanese photographer Q. Sakamaki was living in an apartment near the park at the time, and he began documenting the Tompkins Square Park movement, which went on for years. It came to an end following the 1991 Memorial Day riot, when the park was forcibly closed and the homeless encampments, known as Dinkinsville, were razed.
Sakamaki’s photographs, published in Tompkins Square Park (powerHouse Books) crystallize this turning point in New York City history, as gentrification began to replace benign neglect. VICE caught up with Sakamaki to reflect on the 30th anniversary of the riots and how New York has changed in the intervening decades.
Could you describe the Lower East Side in the late 1980s?
The 80s was the era of Ronald Reagan. He created Reaganomics to bounce back from the economic recession from the Carter era and helped to create an investment boom. But at the same time, these policies drastically widened the gap between the rich and the poor.
By 1988, his policies were failing, creating huge deficits that allowed welfare and social service programs to break down. Under Reagan, homelessness became a big issue across the United States and, at the same time, the AIDS crisis began. Reagan notoriously ignored the virus until it reached epidemic proportions. So many people died from the illness, and those living with HIV were very often discriminated against.
Also in the 80s, New York’s Downtown art scene was booming. Into this social and political background, a variety of people—most very liberal—had moved to Lower East Side where an air of anti-establishment existed, dating back to the late 19th century. The rent was still cheap, and though the neighborhood was not safe, the people naturally created a very friendly, multicultural community.
When did you arrive in New York?
I moved to New York in 1986 from Japan. I shared an apartment with two other people in the East Village, just a few blocks from Tompkins Square Park. Many of the buildings were abandoned, burned out, or completely in ruins. There were “candy stores” (shady storefronts that sold heroin in candy wrappers) on every block, which rarely got shut down.
Turf battles between gangs and drug dealers were common, and I could hear gunshots on most weekend nights. The bodies of murder victims or drug users who had overdosed sometimes turned up in the street. In spite of all of this, I was inspired and even charmed by the neighborhood; multi-ethnic and culturally diverse, it was a bohemian place where people pursued their dreams regardless of their race, age, or gender.
What was Tompkins Square Park like at this time?
Tompkins Square Park was the center of it all, for socializing, art, music, and political discussion. On any given day, you could find people sitting on benches or on the lawn, reading books or the paper and talking about life, often with strangers. People easily became friends with one another.
At night, especially early nights in summer, it was also romantic—young lovers were hanging out as well as the old. Yet, late at night, it was often dangerous. It was because hard drugs were often sold in the streets near the park and drug-related turf wars sometimes erupted in gun violence, though residents somehow avoided such violent incidents.
There weren’t many homeless people in the park until 1988; prior to then, they lived in other parks or in empty lots around the city. In 1987, the city government started putting a curfew on public parks and kicking homeless people out. Many of the homeless moved to Tompkins Square Park because it was still open all night. The park became an anti-gentrification symbol of the resistance that began during the final term of Mayor Ed Koch.
What did you witness during the police riot on August 6, 1988?
That night I was out of the scene, because I was on assignment and returned to my apartment late at night. I didn’t go the park since I was so tired. From my room, I could hear the sound of helicopters flying overhead. The next morning, I had a plan. I seriously started to cover the Tompkins Square Park movement and the protests that would continue for years, and as a result, I witnessed police brutality many times.
I saw, momentarily, some protesters in handcuffs, being hit inside a police car. I also witnessed a police officer grab a female protester by her ponytail and drag her through the middle of the street, which was covered with broken glass and all she wore was a thin tank top. When I tried to take a photograph, a cop dressed in full riot gear immediately attacked me, knocked me down onto the street, and broke my camera equipment.
Other journalists on the front line were seriously injured. Police tackled press photographers and broke their cameras, especially during the night when there weren’t many members of the press there. Police acted violently and arbitrarily, often hitting very calm protesters, or even bystanders, with a baton, especially if other protesters ignored or even misunderstood the police order. Those who tried to help the people faced the risk of being beaten, arrested, or both.
I had never seen such police brutality before, but I would witness this behavior and the atmosphere it created while photographing in deadly conflict zones like Palestine, Iraq, and Burma.
How did the Tompkins Square Park movement bring together artists, musicians, and activists?
In terms of diversity and addressing the rights of the people most desperately in need, the Tompkins Square Park movement may have been the most significant protest in New York. It would go on to inspire Occupy Wall Street in 2011, and squatter rights in Berlin and Tel Aviv in the mid-90s.
At this time, people in the neighborhood were being forced out of their homes due to the effects of Reaganomics and harassment from landlords. Residents feared the loss of the neighborhood’s diverse culture and the bohemian atmosphere, which was made possible by affordable rent.
It brought together different types of people, unifying people of all different races, working-class and upper-middle class, young and old to defend Tompkins Square and its homeless inhabitants. It was not only an anti-gentrification movement—it was an appeal for human rights and for housing rights; it was a matter of survival.
What do you think are the most important lessons from the movement?
Now that we are in the era of Trump, the United States and the international community are facing a dangerous divide. The economic disparity is more drastically growing and people seem to forget the merits of multiculturalism. The Tompkins Square Park movement is not only about conveying the dire importance of human rights but also about the need for peaceful co-existence between different types of people, no matter their race, religion, class, or language. I remember one of the most famous slogans of the resistance: “Tompkins Square Park is everywhere.”