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The 1988 Tompkins Square Police Riot
-- A Video Point of View
by Paul Garrin
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.


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