Ginsberg Interview – NYC Tompkins Square Riots – part 2



Allen Ginsberg on the 1988 New York City Tompkins Square Riots continues from here

NCG: Do you know this symbol (draws the upside-down martini glass inscribed on the walls by graffiti artists)

AG: Yes, what is it again?

NCG: The party’s over

AG: Yes, the Missing Foundation, it’s a nice logo. And I do think the party is over for American..   I wrote a book about it a long time ago called The Fall of America

It’s an interesting, modern, (19)88, post-crash logo, but 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 n roll bands.  Some of the more intelligent bands. like The False Prophets, didn’t even get a chance to play at the big jamboree

NCG: The post-riot Saturday jamboree?

AG: Yeah. 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.

NCG: The squatters get a lot of press and become caricatures and then become symbols of the anti-gentrification movement and are used to ridicule the whole idea of trying to maintain the neighborhood as it is.

AG: It’s not the squatters fault that they’re made caricatures of.

NCG: No it’s not.

AG: Unless it is their fault. If they’re the people at the meeting who are intemperate and don’t allow others to talk

NCG: Didn’t you say before that violence was fundamental, that all the problems in the world reduce to violence?

AG: I 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.

NCG: I have a friend who’s a serious practicing Buddhist and he talks about a triad that reduces to ignorance.

AG: Yes. 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 solidify and think that it’s you against the entire hostile world,and then you get 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 Pride – the Rooster eating the tail of the Snake. Anger eating the, tail of the Pig, Ignorance, which is eating the tail of the Rooster. (“The Three Poisons“)

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. So are you able to think for your so-called “enemy”, understand what their actual 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!


NCG: Do you have a position on the park?

AG: Well, 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 skinheads are very friendly and very intelligent, very sensitive, musicians and all that. Some of them are weirdos. Some are not skinheads and are weirdos, aggressive drunks who throw their bottles around, no sense of kitchen yoga, no toilet training.

NCG: They’ve brought in portables since the riots, have you noticed?

AG: Well, why don’t they have the regular 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 smelt of urine because people can’t get in to go pee-pee. I remember that n 1953 that toilet was very useful. I’ve been living around here since (19)53. I lived at 206 East 7th Street between B and C in those days, and the toilets were workable, the park was neat. So there’s no reason that the park can’t be kept clean. Except 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 because they’re drunk and think it’s funny. It’s bad manners, and inexcusable and it’s anti-social behavior.

However the Kiddie-litter (sic) 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 in the park) what was really astounding was the behavior of the police. They were running up and down the street chasing people who had nothing to do with the park – people just living there , 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” beating up of solid citizens brings the shadow government right down to the streets, police state action like Moscow, Seoul, Singapore, Santiago, El Salvador, a little touch of Managua, the West Bank, Soweto, Manila.

NCG: Have you seen that kind of police action in New York before?

AG: Yeah. Generally that’s what happens when you have a riot in  N.Y. 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 (Eu)gene McCarthy delegates. In this case it must have been premeditated because they had made preparations, by hiding or masking their badges.

The people that I was, with not involved in the Tompkins Square disturbance, were chased down the street and beaten. Two people. And my secretary (Vicki Stanbury) 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 finger nails. So he just raised his hands in front of the judge, and the judge realized that it was impossible. And my secretary was accused of shouting imprecations at the police, but she didn’t. So there must have been some kind of perjury going on between the police and the court. The cases were thrown out of court on Monday

NCG: You’re at home with Stephan,  the False Prophets and their community.

AG: Oh yes, they’re friends, good friends of my secretary friend Vicky Stanbury

NCG: When you talk to friends and associates in other parts of town, do they seem to have an accurate impression of what went on here during the riot?

AG: Oh yes

NCG: Would you say they cared?

AG: Well they all hang out here too. Everybody I know hangs out on the Lower East Side.

NCG: I called some people, a week later, and they had no idea at all

AG: Things like that 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 try and turn it around, alchemize the situation, and turn all that energy to good advantage

NCG: Who’s they?

AG: The Parks Department, and the Mayor, and the Cultural Commissioner. They should be painting the bandshell, opening up the toilets, putting in a good sound system. Have plenty of attendants. Turn Tompkins Square (Park) into a free cultural showplace. Improve the morale of the neighborhood, encourage political debate. Cheaper than riot police if money is the bottom line

NCG: It’s precisely the opposite of what the greater government has been trying to do. They wanted to level it off and turn it into Union Square

AG: The 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 and 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 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 the remnants of the old Beat groups, and old Hippie groups, the old Yippie groups. The new Yuppie groups, the old Ukranians. Everything’s all at once together. The housing crisis. The unemployment crisis. The Art crisis. The Sandinista crisis, the greenhouse 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! Maybe it’s the end of the world!  How amazing to witness it all. We should all be sacred witnesses and actors. Anger and resentment is ridiculous! It’s amazing! I hope I don’t get hit in the head with a club. I wound up running down 9th Street to Second Avenue – I thought it was civilization – chased by 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. Then 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.

NCG: My first question was going to be “Why do you live here?”

AG: Well my mother came from Russia in 1905 and moved into 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 in 1953 and I’ve had one here whenever I’ve been in New York ever since. I’ve been in this place (437 East 12th Street) for thirteen years. Before that 408 East 10th Street. Before that 607 East 5th Street. Before that I wrote “Kaddish” at 170 East 2nd Street  between A and B ( between A and B? – I 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 (1988). I took a lot of photographs in that apartment. They’ll be reproduced in a Twelve Trees Press book next year – (Jack) Kerouac walking around Tompkins Square, looking into the windows of a bar – King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut – it wasn’t called that then. Lots 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?) – So this is my territory.

NCG: What were your neighbors like in 1953?

AG: Oh poor, But honest,  threadbare. Healthy, I used to go and eat at Odessa’s..

NCG: It was there in 1953?

AG: Yes

NCG: Makes sense I guess

AG: Leshko’s was there. And on my corner was a great drug store where I had my photographs developed. Gregory Corso was writing his first poems and (Jack) Kerouac was conducting a love affair which wound up in his novel, The Subterraneans, writ at the time and 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 (19)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 Sixties, Ed Sanders had Peace Eye bookstore, (19)63, (19)64, down on 10th Street near Avenue C,  and I lived right across the street…

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