Allen Ginsberg Interview – 1988 The Tompkins Square Riots

“Police Riot” – Eric Drooker (1988) – (image later included in Flood! (1992) – “..Without warning, hundreds of riot police charged into the crowd on horseback. Screaming and chaos ensued. People reacted by throwing bottles, bricks, and firecrackers at the cops. I took it all personally. This was the park I’d grown up in… my playground as a child…I saw the police cracking people’s skulls open and galloping into the crowd – helicopters hovering above tenements – an unforgettable, apocalyptic scene…”

It’s the anniversary today of the 1988 Tompkins Square Riots in the East Village in downtown New York City. We noted it and noted Allen’s engagement in the one-year anniversary of that occasion – here. We also noted a contemporaneous interview that he gave to a small local newspaper (The New Common Good) in August/September of 1988,
a few weeks subsequent to those traumatic and troubling events – an interview with one William Ney, which we published here on this site, back in October 2010.
Unfortunately, the links to that piece have (for some time) expired, and thus any easily available access to that interview.  So, despite it’s arguably dated context and some significant concentration on neighborhood minutiae, we have decided to republish it  (republish it in its entirety) here.

We begin with the note that accompanied it in its original New Common Good manifestation

The editors write:

This newspaper shares space on East 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 both light and dark times. Mr Ginsberg seems in goods health and spirits. Mazel-tov!  We thank him for his time and thoughts

Mr Ginsberg had witnessed the riot, and had visited the Civilian Complaint Review Board ywo days before the interview. He testified there on behalf of Dan Muller, a citizen beaten on August 6th by mounted police

NCG: You were down there most of the day. What’s your impression of how efficient and sincere they are?

AG: I 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, particular detail I found that because of the panic I couldn’t remember very much. At ome 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 Veselkas, or whether there was a taxi driver that stopped demanding to see the officers badges.

NCG: Really?

AG: 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 that I heard was from a Chinese student in America who said he’d been in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square during the student riots and contests with the police, who was dressed in cloth, like everybody else. He said the contrast was amazing because in China it was pushing back and forth, and maybe batons. Bu 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 completely aliens.

NCG: I think a lot of New Yorkers felt that way.

AG: I’d been there all through the day, Saturday August 6th. We had supper at Odessa 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 Bleecker Street, and then walked back to Tompkins Square because I had seen those flyers.


The flyers, incidentally, are very alarming themselves because they show a helicopter. And a police car burning, and somebody 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 basic karmic rule that any action 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 counter-productive in the ‘Sixties under similar conditions. There are better ways to attract attention, because, after all, social protest and mass meetings are “Theater”

NCG: There’s been a lot of theater since the riots too

AG: The 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? 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 learnt in the ‘Sixties 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.

NCG: Have you been to any of the meetings at St. Brigid’s Church?

AG: I’ve basically tried to stay out of the whole thing, not too heavy a role except for just wandering around the park and talking t to individuals.

NCG: It has a lot to do with the nature of your work. And perhaps you have a sense that you’ve been through it all before?

AG: No, 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 in that, Journals from the ‘Fifties – in a sense several decades behind, but three years in terms of a contract. Correspondence, several years behind. I’m preparing for Fall teaching at Brooklyn College. A great pile of letters over there that are unanswered. 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.

NCG: The meetings at the church are very interesting, and there is always a group, and they have a few somewhat famous spokesmen, and at a certain point seventy-five minutes into the meeting an alarm clock goes off and they start yelling and chanting, and they keep yelling until whoever is talking gives up.

AG: And the conversation breaks down? That’s the big mistake

NCG: At the same time there’s always something intelligent in what they’re saying

AG: That business of people 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 ‘Sixties 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 themselves 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, ahead of a march organized by Dave Dellinger and the Mobilization for Peace, and actually grabbed the microphone and podium up at Central Park. They created this ugly image of “Bring the War Home!” and ”Pigs, Pigs! ”, waving Vietnamese flags. Thus. creating a negative theater for the march, which was intended to be upbeat, claiming they were the only real revolutionaries, and that they wanted to bring the war home,and that the people who organized the march were middle-class. And then years later it turned out that they were the police.

NCG: Really?

AG: What do you mean “really?”  That’s classic.  It’s the classic tactic. You didn’t know that?

NCG: What level of police were they?

AG: They were FBI people – or New York Red Square people – part of the 1968 counter-intelligence progam. – COINTEL. Or they spread rumor that other people were agents of the police. Like a rumor that Tom Hayden was a police agent in Newark. Leroi  Jones (Amiri Baraka) believed it so he got together with the Italians and drove Tom Hayden away from Newark in the late ‘Sixties, where he was organizing the poor and wanted to make a coalition white and black.  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 everybody else down, claiming to be more revolutionary than them, and intimidating the middle-class yippies or yuppies, bohemians, kids, or poets – all who want to talk also, and ay even want to have a dialogue with the community – that chaos is where paranoia gets in, and when paranoia sets in, that’s when the police enter, into that gap, and they begin to create even more confusion, and to split one group from another, “divide and conquer”.

There was SDS (Students for Democratic Society), a large-scale national student organization, a reformist organization, and willing to get into trouble. The Weather 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 across the country, well organized, should be sabotaged and dissolved in favor of an armed revolution that was to begin in Chicago. They issued a prairie fire manifesto, saying that you set a match to the grass and the whole prairie burns. They thought all of America would join the 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. The SDS fell apart and that’s why we have no national student organization now (1988). The other thing was that people who were involved in heavy violence got more and more paranoid, and a lot of them were dropping acid too, and the secrecy that was required for their violence bred paranoia, and allowed infiltration, counter-intelligence. 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?

to be continued and concluded tomorrow

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