Riot – New York, 1997

Riot - NYC, 1997


My last post was about love. While not quite the opposite, this post is about the animosity that results from misunderstanding and lack of communication.

In the summer of 1997, my friends and I travelled from Boston to NYC for what was affectionately called the “Beer Olympics.” Beer definitely flowed in copious amounts, but despite the name, the event wasn’t supposed to be just a weekend of getting drunk. It was meant to be two days of punk rock music with shows held in an abandoned warehouse where the organizers were squatting.

Based on the photo above I imagine that you’ve already guessed the event did not go off without a hitch. The cops found out about the location and shut us down. This initial setback actually went very peacefully and smoothly. There were about 200 or so of us who had been milling about the warehouse all morning waiting for the beer to arrive and the music to start. However, the only things that kept arriving were more punks and more cops. By the time the cops decided to move us, no one wanted any trouble. We just wanted food, beer, and something – anything fun to happen.

Some of the NYC punks were squatting in an apartment building near Tompkins Square Park. They suggested that we move the show there. It sounded like a brilliant idea at the time – a whole apartment full of punks and loud music in an otherwise peaceful NYC neighborhood. What could go wrong?

Hundreds of us trouped to the nearest subway station in our very own punk parade, jumped the turnstiles and streamed past the transit police who basically just threw up their hands and shook their heads at us while giving us the stink eye.

We arrived in the Alphabet City part of NYC ready to rock. But alas there was to be no show – only we wouldn’t know this for about three more hours. So you had hundreds of hungry grumpy punks wandering the streets while the neighborhood looked on in confusion and perhaps just a little terror. Naturally they called the cops. If they only knew we weren’t the ones with malice on our minds that afternoon.

The regular folk in the neighborhood were none too happy with the squatters and in particular with a small group of them who spent most of their time camped out in a small playground – a place that was meant for neighborhood families to take their children. However the squatters defiled the playground with drugs, alcohol, and general debauchery. This small group of bad apples ruined the playground for the whole neighborhood.

Eventually the cops arrived to disperse us. They cleared the area and cordoned off the side streets with wooden barricades. Hundreds of us stood behind these glorified saw horses and looked on as the cops spent hours trying to figure out what to do about the handful of squatters who had locked themselves in the park in protest. The squatters argued it was their neighborhood too, and they had every right to use the park as they saw fit – despite many of those uses being illegal (at least in public).

Almost everyone I came into contact with had no sympathy or support for the group barricaded in the park. I don’t think any of my friends or anybody around me expressed any interest in getting involved. As far as we were concerned the conflict between the squatters and the neighborhood didn’t involve us – it wasn’t our fight.

When the riot squad started moving down the street arresting some stragglers who had refused to get behind (or stay behind) the barriers, I snuck out from under the barricade and started snapping pictures. I was yelling that I was with the press but my lack of credentials, my foot high Mohawk, and spiked leather jacket probably gave me away. It didn’t take long for the cops to decide that my presence wasn’t acceptable. They swarmed me, busted my lip with a nightstick, broke a camera, and crushed one of my rolls of film with their boot heels.

However I consider myself lucky. For some reason they didn’t arrest me, they just manhandled me back to the barricade and shoved me off the street. Maybe they weren’t willing to completely risk that I wasn’t with the press. But more than likely my complete lack of resistance due to being utterly dazed by the blow I took convinced them I wasn’t a threat.

With all of the head cracking that was going on, the general mood of the crowd was one of rising agitation but still not riotous. I’m not sure exactly how the cops were expecting us to react, but I consider their actions that day a monumental failure of management and communication.

If the cops had spent anytime assessing the situation objectively they would have realized that most of us were in no mood for a fight and that the best way to handle the situation would be just to wait out the squatters in the park. The squatters were just going to get drunk and pass out, and more than likely the rest of us were just going to get more tired and more bored and go home. The situation was going to defuse itself. Instead it went off like a bomb.

The cops grabbed one girl who was cutting across no-mans-land trying to get to the other side of the street where her friends were. However instead of arresting her they scooped her up and carried her over their heads to the nearest barrier. Then they tried to throw her over it. But instead of landing on the other side of the barrier she landed on her back – right on top of the barricade. The cops then tried to pick her up again, presumably to give it one more try to throw her over, while everyone on the other side of the barricade tried to pull her free from the cops and drag her under the barricade. A surreal tug of war ensued with the girl being pulled on like a human rag doll.

Finally one of guys closest to the front kicked the barrier down right on top of the cops. The powder keg went up in a flash and suddenly hours of pent up frustration exploded all around the police. Mostly the cops ran for their lives. But it didn’t take them long to regroup. And they came back in force and with an assault vehicle. Cars burned. Property was destroyed. People were injured. Some of my friends were arrested and what was supposed to a weekend full of fun turned into a nightmare of dodging the police as they chased all of us down the streets and through Tompkins Square park.

What could have ended relatively peacefully if the police had not insisted on a show of force turned into a full scale riot. I contend that it was all completely unnecessary and was absolutely avoidable had there been a little more communication and a lot more common sense applied that day. Of course that can be said about most conflicts.

A photo like the one above shouldn’t require so much explanation to be appreciated, and truthfully it probably doesn’t. However, a caption or even a small paragraph somehow didn’t feel right to explain what was a very complicated situation and a significant event in my life.

As far as the technical and aesthetic aspects of the photo are concerned, the light was fading when I took the photo. My shutter speed had to be pretty slow and of course the action was moving fast all of which equalled a slightly blurry image. In this case I think the blurriness works to increase the drama a little bit. It doesn’t quite feel like a frozen moment in time. It feels a little more fluid – like something harder to grasp. I have other images from the riot that aren’t blurry, but I don’t like them as much. It wasn’t a pristine day or a perfect moment and somehow a tack sharp image doesn’t seem to fit the emotional timbre of the situation. The image is a bit rough – just like the entire day.

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