Tompkins Square Park by Q. Sakamaki
powerhouse Books, 2008
Reviewed by Michael Carter
“Tompkins Square Is Everywhere!” was one of the more profanity-free rallying cries in the battle against the forces of gentrification, waged in the alphabet blocks of the East Village from the late 1980’s into the mid-‘90’s. Q. Sakamaki’s searing and lyrical document of that struggle, Tompkins Square Park, provides intimate glimpses into the daily lives of the homeless who were encamped in and around the Park, and captures as well the then-raging conflict between neighborhood activists and police, which ultimately resulted in the expulsion of the homeless and the preponderance of squatters from the neighborhood, eventually ushering in an era of ultra-gentrification, sapping all but dry what was once a bubbling cauldron of cultural creativity. Dried up like a homeless encampment soup pot in the Park. Dead or long dispersed, as so many of the participants in these photographs. That East Village was a dangerous, messy and often altogether thrilling place, which now only exists in memories, a handful of videotapes, books such as Clayton Patterson’s Resistance, Seth Tobocman’s graphic-history War in the Neighborhood, pastel drawings by James Romberger and pictorial essays such as these. Sakamoto’s gritty B&W photos vividly capture the desolation, desperation, pathos, and even promise of an alternative subculture uneasily situated within Tompkins Square Park and environs, and the actions of a local police force that sought its demise.
As someone who remembers well many of the subjects and actions depicted in these full-page bleeds, what is most compelling about Sakamaki’s numerous riot scenes (annotated, as are the rest of the photos, in a pictorial index) is the degree to which they present an ongoing struggle comprised of multiple skirmishes. Memory tends to blur the many late nights and precise faces of the participants on the barricades in Avenues A and B, as well as the particular “cause” of each protest. In this respect, these photos are an invaluable mnemonic aid: The abstracted fiery gyre on the book’s cover references a 1989 action for affordable housing for the homeless, but pretty clearly I remember being one of the protesters visible in the periphery, locked arm in arm behind that huge bonfire in the middle of the street, shutting down Avenue A much of the night, ‘til The Man forcibly removed us. Sakamaki assays that battle, as well as protesters arrested in the aftermath. Likewise, his empathetic pictures of the homeless in the Park, bring back faces and names, especially of the resident-activists of Tent City in the Park itself and later “Dinkinsville” (a lot off the park the homeless were allowed to inhabit after eviction from the park): mostly black activists like Keith Thompson, the late Terry Taylor and Ron Casanova, who sought autonomous housing and services for the Park homeless, or Tya Scott, who was burned out of her squat on 8th Street. (Of course a fair number of Hispanics were amongst the park displaced—such as the Puerto Rican poet Jorge Brandon aka El Coco Se Habla—and many were active in the squatter resistance, but Latino housing activists did not as a rule become involved in the early Tompkins Park struggles, except for some of the more civil protests and marches.)
There also many shots of the cadre of (largely white) artists, musicians and politically-activist squatters who rallied to their defense, not only with protests but with public events such as 1991’s “Resist To Exist” at the now-demolished Tompkins Park bandshell--where no less than Jimi Hendrix and the Grateful Dead held forth in the’60’s. There, international luminaries like poet Allen Ginsberg and The Fugs’ Steven Taylor performed, as well as musicians of more local notoriety such as Stephen Ielpi and the False Prophets (along with David Peel, the East Village’s in-house protest band), and the ever-incendiary Missing Foundation. Q. also exposes the mostly concealed, bandanna’d faces of the more violent protesters and provacateurs, caught behind battle lines with their arsenals of empty bottles, and in full bombardier mode. While most protests surrounding Tompkins Square had peaceful aims and constituted non-violent resistance, it was these self-styled anarchists or their stooge stand-in’s who invariably set off clashes with the police, and Sakamaki’s photos utterly capture the queasy thrill of those dangerous moments. (But Sakamaki also gives us images of mostly white ladies arm-locked around the park in peaceful protest of the Tompkins Park curfew. The cops too make some compelling cameos, and one particular plainclothes cop, shown tackling a protester, brings back ugly memories.)
For such a revelatory and rounded view of those times, it is curious that none of Sakamaki’s photos deal specifically with the signal event of that era: the Tompkins Park police riot of 8/6/88, sparked by the original imposition of curfew in Tompkins Square. Of course that fateful night, when cops covered their badges and went on a night-long beating spree of anyone within baton’s-length around the Square and adjoining blocks, has been documented by dozens of other photographers and in the videotapes of Paul Garrin and Clayton Patterson. Did Q. have the photographer’s “bad luck” to be out of town that night? Not exactly; as he recounts in an expository essay in the book; he was avidly shooting the melee when police destroyed his camera. “ I tried to photograph an officer who gabbed a girl by her ponytail and dragged her through the middle of the street; she was just wearing a thin tank top, and the ground she was pulled over was full of glittering broken glass. As soon as I tried to take out my camera, I was tackled by another cop in full riot gear, and my equipment was broken.”
But despite any surviving photos from that particular horror show, Sakamaki’s shots of a dozen other street confrontations vividly evoke the atmosphere of chaos and violence that reigned unchecked that sweltering summer night in 1988. (I myself somehow managed to escape the fracas un-whacked, though they would catch up with me some eight years later…). In addition to Sakamaki’s own insightful Afterword, a brief essay by Bill Weinberg-- a journalist who covered the riot and protests first hand--adds historical and social context, charting the forces and detailing events which would culminate in the ’88 riot as well as various confrontations in its aftermath, eventually leading to the violent expulsion of buildings on East 13th Street full of squatters by police with automatic rifles and an armored personnel vehicle in the mid 1990’s. Though the forces of gentrification clearly “won” the war, the aggregate effect of these protests did forestall the inevitable outcome for years and yielded small victories, as some Squats eventually won recognition from the City, and some community gardens were saved. Moreover, as Weinberg concludes: “the preservation of images from the Tompkins Square struggle itself provides some small resistance, at least, to the forces of historical erasure.”
Sakamaki is an accomplished photojournalist who has also documented conflicts in Iraq, Palestine, Burma and Haiti, and the night footage especially in this book has likewise all the grainy immediacy of a war-zone, which indeed the fenced-in park and outskirts resembled when conflict erupted sporadically over the three years following the police riot of ’88; a veritable occupation zone with its own civilian casualties and refugees. His portraits of the displaced are as emotionally wrenching as the riot scenes are riveting: in one, a begging lily-white skin and bones figure (more than probably ravaged by AIDS) resembles a starvation scene from Darfur; in another, an older homeless migrant, also known as Julius the Dog Man, scavenges garbage for his many black dogs and himself; another shows a homeless man sits smoking in front of his makeshift hut, as if lord of all he surveys: an otherwise desolate vista of bombed-out vacant lot.
Yet incidental, candid shots most evidence Sakamaki’s unshakeable empathy with his subjects’ humanity; one of my favorite pictures zooms in on a newly evicted young “white dread” squatter and his dog asleep on separate cots in heavy blankets; in dreams, they both appear to be smiling.