Tompkins Square Park
Riot Cover Up
On February 21st, the Tompkins Square Park Task Force held a public meeting at PS 15 at 333 East 4th St. the Task Force, empowered by Borough President David Dinkins to investigate the August 6th and 7th police riot, has been meeting monthly since September. It includes representatives from Dinkins office, Councilmember Miriam Friedlander, members of Community Board 3 and Lower East Side residents. One member is video artist Clayton Patterson, whose tapes of the riot played a key part in identifying officers who were later indicted. [listen]
Although the Task Force has no subpoena power, it has been able to arrange testimony from Manhattan Parks Commissioner Pat Pomposello and Inspector Elson Gelfand formerly Commander of the 6th precinct in the West Village. Gelfand was responsible for instituting a successful midnight curfew beginning in 1986 at Washington Square Park.
When Captain Gerald MacNamara, who commanded the Lower East Sides 9th precinct, was relieved by Police Commissioner Benjamin Ward after the riot, he was replaced by Gelfand. Inspector Gelfand in turn was replaced in March by Deputy Inspector Michael Julian, a 40 year old Lower East Side resident. Since then, Gelfand has replaced Inspector Robert Baumert as Commanding Officer of the 2nd Division, the Police Dept.s Manhattan South riot squad.
The Task Force has also heard from Assistant District Attorney John Fried, who is prosecuting officers indicted for assault and misconduct stemming from the riot. Fried has come under criticism for his handling of the prosecution of transit police accused of killing graffiti artist Michael Stewart in 1983. All the officers charged were acquitted even though numerous eyewitnesses to Stewarts death testified to the brutal beating he suffered at the hands of the officers.
A Human Resources Administration (HRA) official informed the Task Force of a proposal to bring HRAs Operation Help into Tompkins Square Park to remove some of the 100 or so homeless people who live there. Operation
Help gained prominence as the city agency responsible for picking up Joyce Brown ("Billie Boggs"), a homeless woman living on the streets of Manhattans Upper East Side, in a controversial program initiated by Mayor Koch. Brown was released from Bellevue Hospital after court action was brought by the New York Civil Liberties Union.
Each Operation Help team includes health workers who, with the aid of police if necessary, remove people from the streets who are deemed a possible danger to themselves. The Task Force succeeded in pressuring HRA to drop the Operation Help plan for Tompkins Square Park.
During the Task Force hearings, Community Board 3 (CB3) member Margarita Lopez asked Commissioner Pomposello about a Parks Dept. proposal to install high intensity security lights" throughout the park. Under questioning; from Lopez, Pomposello admitted that the lighting proposal had actually been made to CB3 in response to a request by police officials to the Parks Dept. Task Force members say they wonder how many proposals made by various city agencies have originated with the police.
The Parks Dept. also planned to install special dividers to prevent people from sleeping on park benches. However, the Task Force strongly opposed this measure, and the Parks Dept. agreed to drop the proposal. The Task Force has no binding veto power over any city agency, and the Parks Dept. could implement its plan at any time.
The Task Force also heard from the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB). In the aftermath of the riot, 120 complaints of police misconduct were filed with the CCRB. As of this writing, 6 police officers have been indicted for Assault in the 3rd Degree and 4th Degree Official Misconduct, and Criminal Mischief. None of the officers face more than one year in jail on the charges.
According to Norman Seigel head of the New York Civil Liberties Union, 34 private lawsuits have been filed against the city in response to the police action
The city has offered a $15,000 out of court settlement in one suit. A $50 million lawsuit is pending filed by Kenneth Fish. Fish needed 40 stitches after being struck by police as he left a bar on Avenue A during the riot.
Despite these hearings, one persistent issue remains unexplained. How did a request by Avenue A residents (which CB3 voted to support) for added police patrols in the park become a curfew and then a police riot?
When confronted with this question at the Feb.21st meeting, Commissioner Pomposello refused to answer.
Pomposello did acknowledge that he had attended a meeting called by Inspector Robert Baumert, then Commanding Officer of the 2nd Division, based at the Patrol Borough Manhattan South on 21st St.. The August 2nd meeting had the aim of marshalling community support for police enforcement of the curfew the following weekend.
AUGUST 2nd PLAN MEETING HIT
In the moments before police closed Tompkins Square Park on the night of August 6th, strange events were taking place at the police command post near the bandshell in the park. A member of CB3# Phil LaLumia, was sitting in a camper used as a headquarters by police brass. LaLumia, a long time resident, is also a member of the 9th precinct Community Council which acts as liaison between CB3 and police.
Outside the camper, Captain MacNamara was confronting the media. When pressed on the-reason for the presence of almost 100 police officers, he became visibly agitated, briefly ducking into the camper to retrieve a hand-lettered and unsigned printout threatening to "destroy" the homes of landlords and curfew supporters " as you try to destroy ours." "This is the reason", MacNamara stammered. The leaflet would surface months later to buttress charges CBS reporter Mike Taibbi of a "satanic cult of rage" among Lower East Side residents.
Next, MacNamara was asked why a meeting was called at Manhattan South police headquarters August 2nd, a few days before the riot. Bristling with rage, MacNamara spat back to the reporter, "that meeting was no secret." Several days later one of the 24 people who attended the August 2nd meeting was buttonholing sympathetic reporters with an account of the meeting.
Betsey Newman is a video producer who volunteers her time as an organizer for the Friends of Tompkins Square Park. Newman says she called CB3-on August 2nd to discuss a problem with some park trees. She spoke with CB3 District Manager Martha Danziger who informed Newman that a meeting was being held that evening at Manhattan South police headquarters.
It was an urgent meeting to discuss the unrest, which occurred at the park on the night of July 30, 1988. On that night, an attempt by dozens of police to break up a protest against the 1AM curfew escalated into a wild battle as hundreds of people spilled out of bars along Avenue A.
Newman says she felt intimidated from the start. When she arrived at Patrol Borough Manhattan South on 21st St, it seemed she was the only one there against the curfew and that her presence at the meeting was "tacit approval". According to Newman, at one point the chair of the meeting 2nd-Division Commander Baumert, asked "does everyone here agree?" to enforcing the curfew. There were no objections.
According to Newman, the meeting was marked by collusion between the Parks Dept. and police and infighting among them concerning who would get the blame in case there was trouble".
Newman believes that she was "duped" by police, along with members of the Avenue A Block Association, a group which had complained of late night noises near the park. Newman asserts that police are working with what she calls "the right wing," reactionary element of the Community Board Phil Wachtel, Phil LaLumia, Krystyna Piorkowska " to bring about the curfew.
Piorkowska distinguished herself at one Task Force meeting by accusing curfew opponents of being "under the shadow of the hammer and sickle." In the days after the riot, she led Mayor Koch on a tour of the park after helping author a statement released in the name of CB3 defending the police role in the riot. The full Board later met and voted to disown the statement because it represented the views of a minority of CB3 members.
Besides the testimony of Betsey Newman, the August 2nd meeting is documented by a copy of the meetings sign-in sheet. The first signature on the list belongs to Phillip Wachtel, a member of CB3 and advocate of the park curfew. He was joined by CB3 members Piorkowska, LaLumia and William Sicklick. Sicklick also identified himself as the auxiliary police captain of the 7th precinct.
Manhattan Borough President David Dinkins was represented by two of his staff workers, who were joined by representatives from the offices of Council member Miriam Friedlander and State Senators Manfred Ohrenstein and Martin Cooper.
Manhattan Parks Commissioner Pat Pomposello attended as did a police attorney, 9th precinct Capt. Gerald MacNamara, Inspector Robert Baumert, Deputy Chief Thomas Darcy who was the highest ranking officer in Tompkins square Park on August 6th, and two police sergeants. Sgt.Michael Burns listed himself as representing Chief of Department Robert Johnston. Johnston, the highest ranking uniformed officer in the city, said after the riot that he had no knowledge of events as they unfolded in Tompkins Square Park on August 6+7th.
Also on the list is Charles Sturken, who lives on Avenue A across from the park. Sturken, an appointee of Mayor Koch, is Assistant General Counsel for the Dept. of Buildings.
In June 1988, Sturken attended a CB3 Parks Committee meeting where he supported a proposal for a park curfew that was rejected. According to a former CB3 member, when Sturken was asked at the June meeting about the fate of homeless people in the park under a curfew, he replied, " I dont care what you do with them" Curfew supporters have remained active since the riot. Writer Betsy Herzog struck out in one article (The Villager, March 2, 1989) against a number of Lower Side residents who attended the February 21st public hearing organized by the Task Force, labeling them "insulting malcontent-" who "repeatedly turned the Task Force hearing into a (sic) inquisition-like proceeding".
According to Herzog, many who spoke on Feb.21 seemed to believe there was a "conspiracy" to start the riot by people who attended the August 2nd Manhattan South meeting, a view she maintains is part of a "hidden-agenda" she believes the anti-curfew forces are hatching.
Herzog summarized the pro-curfew sentiments at the August 2nd meeting. She says that the 9th precinct had "quickly called for a meeting on August 2 asking representatives from CB3, elected officials, Avenue A Block Association, and Friends of Tompkins Square Park for renewed support of their policy to enforce the park curfew. No one at that meeting objected, including two who are TSP Task Force members, and who have since walked away from the decision they agreed to."
Lower East Side squatter activist and former Task Force member Frank Morales disagrees with Herzogs analysis. Says Morales; "Its unfortunate that members of the Tompkins Square Task Force attending the August 2nd meeting have not come clean regarding the implications of this gathering occurring just a few days before the police assault. Its equally unfortunate that all 24 meeting participants have not been brought to task for their role and knowledge regarding this meeting.
"Finally, its a disgrace that members of CB3 can act illegally behind the backs of the people, in the name of the Community Board, and collaborate with the police against the people of the Lower East Side.
Chair Ann Johnson, members Piorkowska, Wachtel, Antonio Pagan, staffer Ann Hayes and District Manager Martha Danziger should be removed from positions of public trust immediately. Politicians Dinkins and Friedlander should explain to the people of the Lower East Side their role in this meeting and subsequent riot."