A talk with
Mby William Ney
This interview first appeared in the September 1988 issue of The New Common Good, a monthly broadsheet published by Marvin Jones and Chris Huestis just west of Tompkins Square on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where, weeks before, throughout the night of August 6, 1988, what enlightened locals still recall as the Tompkins Square Police Riot had happened.
Allen Ginsberg then lived on 12th Street, two blocks from Tompkins Square, and with friends had been caught up in the festival of nightsticks while strolling after dinner. I lived nearby and had been doing local journalism, and ducked and observed the festivities until dawn, when the police, about four hundred strong, went home.
Allen Ginsberg died in 1997, with friends at home, a stone's throw from the park. See here to comment and for recollections from 2010, when the appearance of a magical film about his most celebrated poem, Howl, provoked this archeology.
Veselka restaurant, Second Avenue & 9th
This newspaper shares space on E. 7th Street with the P.A.C.A. Gallery, which shows paintings and sells books. To look at the latter, Allen Ginsberg stopped in two weeks after the riot, and began talking with painter/publisher Chris Huestis and editor Marvin Jones. It was agreed that an interview would take place, and this happened later that week on August 26 at Mr Ginsberg's home.
William Ney's chief contribution to the conversation was to mutter the bland interrogative "Oh really?" at regular intervals, but Mr Ginsberg was able to carry the load, and good things were said about the riot, the park, and life on the Lower East Side during times light and dark.
Mr Ginsberg seems in good health and spirits. Mazeltov!
We thank him for his time and thoughts.
Saturday in the park, August 6, 1988
MRnGINSBERGnWITNESSEDnthe riot, and had visited the Civilian Complaint Review Board two days before the interview. He testified there on behalf of Dan Muller, a citizen beaten on August 6th by mounted policemen.
William Ney:MYou were with the CCRB most of the day. What's your impression of how efficient and sincere they are?
Allen Ginsberg:MI have no idea how sincere they are.
The thing that I found was that their debriefing was in exquisite detail, and though my specialty as a poet is in noticing minute, significant detail, I found that because of the panic I couldn't remember very much.
At one point they caught up with Dan Muller, and started beating him up. I couldn't remember whether he was down on the ground or up when they left him between two cars in front of Veselka's, or whether there was a taxi driver that stopped demand- ing to see the officers' badges.
So my recollection of detail, when I had to come down to a second-by-second or minute-by-minute account of what happened, was very shaky. Dan Muller's was also, I think, although we coincided on most significant things.
It's really amazing how in that situation, that panic, you don't notice much actually. You roll your eyes blindly to heaven. I couldn't remember whether they were wearing badges or not, whether the badges were covered or not, whether there were two or three horsemen.
The most interesting comment I heard was from a Chinese student in America, who said he had been in Beijing's Tiannamen Square during the student demonstrations and contests with police -- who were dressed in cloth like everyone else. He said the contrast was amazing, because in China it was pushing back and forth, and maybe batons. But here it was people who looked like they were dropped from outer space with these helmets on, dropped in the middle of the street from outer space and just beating people up, passers-by and householders -- anyone in their path. Completely alienated, and complete aliens.
WN:MI think a lot of New Yorkers felt that way that night.
AG:MI'd been there all through the day. Saturday August 6. We had supper at Odessa [on Avenue A above 7th, across from the park and ground zero for the mayhem a few hours later], with a young friend from Lawrence, Kansas, an astrophysicist. He'd been in Princeton all week working on super-computers, on some government grant, trying to determine the shape of the universe. He'd come for a weekend visit, his very first day ever visiting New York City.
We had dinner, we walked all the way across town, Washington Square and Bleeker Street, and then walked back to Tompkins Square, because I had seen those flyers [announcing a demonstration that evening to protest the recent midnight closing of the park due to complaints about homeless camping and, rather obliquely, the Avenue A bar crowds].
The flyers, incidentally, were very alarming themselves, because they show a helicopter [which, sure enough, appeared in the sky later that evening]. And a police car burning, and someone throwing a Molotov cocktail, and someone throwing a trash can. Not a very good omen. I'd like to know who put them out. It's inciting people to riot, and it's not very politically wise, actually. Unless the objective was to get other people beat up, or clubbed in the head, or their fingers broken. It's cowardly. I wonder how many of the bottle-throwers actually got beat up.
I think you have to follow the kharmic rule -- that any action taken in anxiety, creates more anxiety. Any action taken in anger, spreads anger. Any action taken in violence, spreads violence. Any action taken in calm, spreads calm. Any action taken in equanimity,
spreads equanimity. Any action taken gently, spreads gentility. To call cops pigs, is to create them in that image. To see them as future buddhas is to create them in that image. And since we are all in actuality future buddhas, you have to begin treating people more respectfully. Back and forth. Otherwise you lose ground.
The problem in the world is violence, and aggression against nature. And the use of aggression and violence to create home peace, at least in the situation around here, is contradictory. It proved to be counterproductive in the 60s, under similar conditions. There are better ways to attract attention, because, after all, social protest and mass meetings are theater.
WN:MThere's been a lot of theater in the weeks since the riot.
AG:MThe question is what kind of theater do you want to organize? A theater of violence, cruelty and anger? Or do you want to organize a community? Is it a small elite saying that they're speaking for the people, or is it actually the people? n Are you organizing the people together, or are you separating them?
It seems to me that the bottle-throwers, police-whistle-blowers and M-80-throwers are in a sense making any kind of coalition in the park impossible. Because they all have their own private, egocentric agendas, claiming to speak for the people but only representing a small number, and may not be willing to talk with other people.
One thing we learned in the 60s is that to form a coalition you can't have crazies disrupting it. If you want to have masses of people out, you have to have tremendous discipline. If you want elderly grandmothers out there defending the park, you can't have a bunch of crazies throwing bottles and cherry bombs behind them.
Tompkins Square 1991, shortly before the park was fully closed and heavily renovated
WN:MHave you been to the aftermath meetings at St Brigid's?
AG:MI've basically tried to stay out of the whole thing, not too heavy a role, except for just wandering around the park and talking to individuals.
WN:MPerhaps you've a sense that you've seen it all before?
AG:MNo, not that. I'm just at the moment working on many other projects that I don't have time to finish. A book of photographs -- six months behind on that. Journals from the 50s -- in a sense several decades behind, but three years in terms of a contract. Correspondence -- several years behind. A great pile of letters over there that are unanswered. I'm preparing for fall teaching at Brooklyn College. Some poetry I'd like to write. I don't have sufficient time. Meditation every morning. I'm trying to discipline myself to stay with that instead of rushing out to the park, or getting on the phone.
Working on a record album. Defending myself in court against eviction from this apartment. Defending my poetry in court against the new 1988 FCC indecency censorship rules. Trying to conduct a love affair. The park is a full-time job, once you get involved.
St Brigid's Church, Avenue B across from the park,
presided over in 1988 by Father George Kuhn
WN:MThe meetings at the church are interesting. And there's always a group that seventy-five minutes into the meeting seems to have alarms go off in their heads and they start yelling and chanting, until whoever is speaking gives up.
AG:MAnd the conversation breaks down? That's the big mistake.
WN:MAt the same time, there's always something intelligent in what they have to say.
AG:MThat business of peple who want to dominate by force of voice generally goes along with Stalinism and an elitism, and with aggression. And if they're given power they tend to begin killing off the other people, like Stalin and Mao.
The problem with that kind of tactic in the 60s was that it served to stir up so much confusion that it provided an opening for the police agent provocateurs to enter the scene, and proclaim them- selves holier-than-thou revolutionaries, and lead everybody astray.
I remember during some of the anti-war marches, there was a group of loudmouths -- I forget which group it was -- that actually took over a march, dragged their Black-and-Red banner up front -- to head a march organized by Dave Dellinger and The Mobilization for Peace -- and actually grabbed the microphone and podium up at Central Park. They created an ugly image of "Bring the War Home!"
Dellinger at Foley Square, flanked by Gerald Lefcourt, David Brothers, Abbie Hoffman and then attorney William Kunstler, Jerry Rubin and Arthur Turco - 3/22/69
and "Pigs, Pigs!", waving Vietnamese flags. Thus creating a negative theater for the march, which was intended to be upbeat. They took over the podium claiming they were the only real revolutionaries, and that they wanted to being the war home, and that the people who organized the march were middle-class.
And then years later it turned out they were the police.
AG:MOh yeah! What do you mean, really? That's classic. It's the classic tactic. You didn't know that?
WN:MWhat level of police were they?
AG:MThey were FBI people, or NYPD Red Squad people, part of the FBI "counterintelligence" program, COINTEL.
They spread rumors that other people were agents of the police. Like a rumor that Tom Hayden was a police agent in Newark. Leroi Jones believed it, so he got together with the Italians and drove Tom Hayden away from Newark in the late 60s, where [Hayden] was organizing the poor and wanted to make a coaliton white and black.
The Chicago 7:nLee Weiner, John Froines, Abbie Hoffman, Rennie Davis, Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden, Dave Dellinger - 9/25/69
It's a traditional thing, this divisive infiltration. What I'm saying is that the confusion sown by the egocentric, elitist revolutionaries is the very same confusion that allows the police to bring in their double-agents. When you have a big tough guy with a loud voice, shouting everyone else down, claiming to be more revolutionary than them, and intimidating the middle-class yippies and yuppies, bohemians, kids, or poets -- all who want to talk also, and may even want to have a dialogue with the community -- that chaos is where paranoia gets in, and when paranoia sets in, that's where the police enter, into that breach, and they begin to create even more confusion, and to split one group from another. Divide and conquer.
There was the SDS. Students for a Democratic Society. A large scale national student organization, a reformist organization, and willing to get into trouble. The Weather Underground people thought it wasn't revolutionary enough. So Mark Rudd, one of the heads of SDS and of the Columbia rebellion, and one of the chief Weather people, decided that SDS, which had several hundred chapters cross the country, well organized, should be sabotaged and dissolved in favor of an armed revolution that was to begin in Chicago.
They issued a Prarie Fire Manifesto -- saying that you set a match to the grass and the whole prarie burns. They thought all of America would join them in their revolution.
So they disrupted the SDS from within, and then led a frontal attack on the police, 1969, and then for ten years they went underground. And the SDS fell apart, and that's why we have no national student organization today.
People who were involved in heavy violence got paranoid, and a lot of them were dropping acid, too, and the secrecy that was required for their violence bred more paranoia, and allowed infiltra- tion, counterintelligence.
Anything that you have to be very secret about isn't worth doing, I think. Because if you're secret, how can the masses take part?
WN:MDo you know this symbol? n (Draws an inverted martini glass spilling gin and vermouth in slashed torrents.)
AG:MYes, what is it again?
WN:M"The Party's Over."
AG:MYes, the Missing Foun- dation.m[A band that popularized the symbol & found its name in Asimov.]mIt's a nice logo. And I do think the party's over for America. I wrote a book about it a long time ago, called The Fall of America.
It's an interesting, modern, '88, post-crash logo.n[The 1987 stock market crash.]nBut it also goes along with that kind of emotional violence that doesn't do any good. Because what you've got here is a coalition of all different groups. You've got the homeless, you've got the Greens -- who have the most sense of all and have the best plans. You've got the Institute for Policy Studies, which has plans for communal ownership and housing, socialized housing. You've got the rock bands. Some of the more intelligent bands, like The False Prophets, didn't even get to a chance to play at the big jamboree.
Tompkins Square bandshell, heirloom of the 60s
demolished in 1991
WN:MThe big post-riot jamboree? n[A week later at the bandshell]
AG:MYeah. They were among the organizers, and signed up, but they didn't get to play. Because there were all these loudmouth, less intelligent bands that shouldered them aside, out of sheer aggression.
WN:MThe squatters get a lot of press, and become caricatures, and as such are seized upon by the press as symbols of the anti-gentrification movement and are used to ridicule the whole idea of trying to maintain an affordable neighborhood as it is.
AG:MIt's not the squatters' fault that they're made into caricatures. Unless it is their fault -- if they're the people at the meetings who are intemperate and don't allow others to talk.
August 6, 1988
WN:MDid you say earlier that violence was fundamental, that all the problems in the world reduce to violence?
AG:MI didn't say that. All the problems? I don't know what that would mean. Violence seems to be a main problem. Passion, aggression, and violence. Vanity and greed, and violence to defend the circle of greed, the egocentricity of your own space.
WN:MI have a friend, a practicing buddhist, who talks about a triad of vices that reduce to ignorance.
AG:MYes. The way it relates is that you're ignorant of the fact that you're not going to live forever, and so you think that this entity of the selfhood has to be protected forever, and you sollidify and think that it's you against the entire hostile world, and then you've got territory you have to defend. Then you get angry when someone invades your territory, and you get violent.
It's all in the traditional image of the proud Rooster, eating the tail of the Snake, Anger, eating the tail of the Pig, Greed, which is eating the tail of the Rooster, proud Ignorance.
So the question is, are you able to think for your so-called enemy, and understand what their needs are? How else are you going to transform them? Otherwise you solidify them as your enemy and make a polarization. Given the nature of the world, you lose if you
antagonize everybody.n So are you able to think for your so-called enemy, understand what their actual needs are, as distinct from their fantasies? Are you able to understand what your needs are, as distinct from your fantasies? Your substantive needs. And are you able to work out a no-win solution where everybody wins and everybody loses. A non-competitive solution.
It's tough in the modern world, with all those people, with all that money. And all those police.
WN:MDo you have a public policy position on the park?
AG:MWell, they shouldn't close it, obviously. I don't know why they're doing it.
There is of course a lot of objectionable, going-nowhere kind of stuff going on in the park. There once was a certain amount of skinheads beating up fairies. A certain amount. One part of the park is something of a skinhead place. A lot of the skinheads are very friendly and very intelligent, very sensitive, musicians and all that. Some of them are weirdos. Others are not skinheads but are weirdos, aggressive drunks who throw their bottles around -- no sense of kitchen yoga, no toilet training.
WN:MThey've brought in portable toilets since the riot, have you noticed?n [During the riot circa 3 am, one of the top NYPD commanders knocked on the locked door of 7A Cafe, asked to use the toilet, and was told by the waiters taking refuge with patrons inside that he could relieve himself there if he released their manager, who had been beaten (inside the cafe) and arrested in the first police rush circa 1130 pm and chained to the wall of a paddy wagon in the park. The deal was struck on precisely those terms.]
AG:MWell why don't they have the regular park toilets running? They've got good toilets. We gave a poetry reading behind the toilets not too long ago during the arts festival, and the place smelled of urine because people can't go pee-pee. I remember that in 1953 those toilets were very useful.
I've been living around here since '53. I lived at 206 East 7th Street, between B and C, in those days, and the toilets were working, the park was neat. So there's no reason that the park can't be kept clean. Except that there is a straggling of some kids who think that social protest means to desecrate the place you claim as your hang
out. Some kids do hang out drinking and leave the bottles on the benches or in the grass or on the ground, or smash them on the ground theycasuse they're drunk and think it's funny. n It's bad manners, and inexcusable, and it's anti-social behavior.
However, that Kiddie-litter problem is a very minor problem, and it could be taken care of. Get a few park attendants. Then you eliminate the vast cost of all this policing.
On the other side, aside from the self-critique -- of ourselves as citizens of the park -- what was really astounding was the behavior of the police. They were running up and down the streets chasing people who had nothing to do with the park -- people just living here or visitors from out of town, or passers-by or restaurant goers -- and just beating them up. And it seemed like a deliberate campaign of
terror, to intimidate the general population of the area. It's bad enough to have Ollie North and Richard Secord and William Casey forming a shadow government with off-the-shelf covert action, basically treasonous activity. And then to have street cops do off-the-shelf beatings of solid citizens brings the shadow government down to the streets, police-state action, like Moscow, Seoul, Singapore, Santiago, El Salvador, a little touch of Managua, the West Bank, Soweto, Manilla.
WN:MHave you seen that kind of police behavior in NY before?
8/6/88 at Tompkins Square
AG:MYeah. Generally that's what happens when you have a riot. In New York and everywhere else. In Chicago that's what happened. The police panic and start beating everybody up. Generally anyone who gets in the way, photographers, the Gene McCarthy delegates [to the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago]. In this case there must have been some premeditation because they had made preparations, by hiding or masking their badges.
The people I was with, not involved in the Tompkins Square disturbance, were chased down the street and beaten. Two people. [Including, AG made clear off tape, the astrophysicist on his first day in New York, not in Kansas anymore.]
And my secretary was arrested the next week, standing around waiting for a cab, talking to Stephan, the leader of The False Prophets, who was being arrested for no good reason. She objected to his arrest, so they arrested her.
In court, the DA said that Stephan had attacked the police. Well, Stephan has these five-inch fingernails. So he just raised his hands in front of the judge, and the judge realized that it was impossible. My secretary was accused of shouting imprecations at the police, but she didn't. So there must have been some perjury going on between the police and the prosecutors. Their cases were thrown out of court on Monday.
WN:MYou're at home with The False Prophets and their community.
AG:MOh yes, they're friends. Good friends of my secretary, Vicki Stanbury.
WN:MWhen you talk to friends in other parts of town, do they seem to have an accurate impression of what went on here that night -- that it was chiefly a police riot?
WN:MWould you say they cared?
AG:MWell they all hang out here, too. Everybody I know hangs out on the Lower East Side.
WN:MI spoke with people uptown last week who had no idea at all.
AG:MThings like this get forgotten in a week.
What's going on in the park is actually quite interesting, culturally, and instead of trying to stamp it out they should turn it around, alchemize the situation, and turn all that energy to good advantage.
AG:MThe Parks Department, and the mayor, and the culture commissar. They should be painting the bandshell [but instead they tore it down], opening up the toilets, putting in a good sound system. Have plenty of attendants. Turn Tompkins Square into a free cultural showplace. Improve the morale of the neighborhood, encourage political debate. Cheaper than riot police if money is the bottom line.
WN:MIt's precisely the opposite of what the greater city government has been trying to do. They wanted to level the park [in 1986] and turn it into Union Square. n [Shade trees and narrow paths in shabby Union Square had given way a few years before to roads hospitable to patrol cars, while, across the street, an immense condo complex was erected, Zeckendorff Towers, which shades the new park at fixed hours of the day.]
AG:MThe area is attracting a lot of people. It's so full of artistic ferment, it's a tremendous asset to the city. It's one of the most interesting places to live in New York, and the park's a nerve center. Gem Spa on Second Avenue is another. St Mark's Place. All the restaurants on First Avenue, part of the nervous system. The St Mark's Poetry Project is another. The park ought to be nourished.
They need a resident psychiatrist for the weirdos. A medical center for the homeless and the druggies that are in trouble. Resident toilet attendants, day and night. Resident gardeners. They need community organizers. It would be terrific.
You've got the crux of what's happening in the world right here, what's happening in the United States. You've got the poor and the rich, you've got the artists, you've got the high fashion thing. You've got the political activity, you've got remnants of the old Beat groups, and old Hippie groups, the old Yippie groups. The new Yuppie groups. The old Ukrainians. Everything's all together at once.
The housing crisis, the unemployment crisis. The art crisis. The Sandanista crisis, the greenouse crisis, the ozone crisis, the garbage crisis, the sex crisis AIDS. Everything is going on around here. This is one of the richest neighborhoods in America -- I'm so happy I'm still here!nMaybe it's the end of the world!nHow amazing to witness it all.
We should all be sacred witnesses and actors.n Anger and resentment is ridiculous. It's amazing. mn I hope I don't get hit in the head with a club. I wound up running down 9th Street to Second Avenue.nI thought it was civilization.nChasednby mounted cops.
Everybody ought to learn practical meditation and use the calm syllable "ah" in mass breathing aloud to confront their own aggression and the aggression of the police, and calm it.nThen figure out how to live in the park properly day and night. By proper I mean sacred territory. You don't shit where you eat, whether you're the mayor, the police, the Parks Department or the people.
WN:MMy first question was going to be Why do you live here?
AG:MWell, my mother came from Russia in 1905 and moved onto Orchard and Rivington Street. In this way it's my family territory. They eventually moved to Newark and Paterson, but I came back for college and settled in. My first apartment on the Lower East Side was
Corso (hat), Larry Rivers, Kerouac, David Amram & AG,
circa Pull My Daisy
in 1953 and I've had one here whenever I've been in New York ever since. I've been in this place for thirteen years [at 437 East 12th Street].nBefore that 408 East 10th Street.nBefore that 607 East 5th Street.nBefore that, I wrote Kaddish at 170 East 2nd Street, between A and B.nA and B?nI think so.
In 1953 Burroughs and I worked at 206 East 7th Street. We put together his Yage Letters there -- and Queer, which was only published this year.
I took a lot of photographs in that apartment. They'll be reproduced in a book by Twelve Trees Press next year. Kerouac walking around Tompkins Square, looking into the window of a bar, King Tut's Wah-Wah Hut. It wasn't called that then.nLots of photos of Kerouac in that area. One of him looking across the street at the statue of -- who is it, Samuel Cox or somebody? Right there on the 7th Street side of the park. Who is that? n[It's Congressman Cox indeed, the Postman's Friend, seen in the snowy photo above and here with happy Jack.]
So this is my territory.
WN:MWhat were your neighbors like in 1953?
AG:MOh, nice quiet crazy people. Ukranians, Poles mostly. A few students, some old subterranean bohemians and young artists.
WN:MWould you call it a healthy place, back then?
AG:MOh, poor. But honest. Threadbare. Healthy. I used to go eat at Odessa --
WN:MIt was there in '53?
WN:MShould be no surprise, I guess.
AG:MLeshko's was there. And on the corner was a great drug store where I had my photographs developed.
Gregory Corso was writing his first poems.
And Kerouac was conducting a love affair which wound up in his novel The Subterraneans, writ at the time, and had just finished Doctor Sax, and was beginning to write poetry, Mexico City Blues.
And I was working on a poem called The Green Automobile.
Burroughs' Queer was '53.
And there was a place up on 11th Street and Avenue A which is now a parking lot, a double building three or four stories high, with a courtyard, and above the entrance to the courtyard was a sign -- Paradise Alley -- the site of The Subterraneans, which Kerouac switched fictionally to San Francisco, to protect privacy, names.
Then in the 60s Ed Saunders had Peace Eye Bookstore -- '63, '64 -- down on 10th Street near Avenue C.
And I lived right across the street ...
1953, east of the park and St Brigid's
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