Videotaping ’88 park riot turned me into an activist

[media-credit name="Photo by Clayton Patterson " align="aligncenter" width="350"][/media-credit]

Congressmember John Conyers holding a meeting on police brutality with a group from New York City, which included the writer, who represented the C.B. 3 Tompkins Square Park Task Force.

By CLAYTON PATTERSON  |  Up until Aug. 6 to 7, 1988, my main focus was making art, Clayton Caps and documenting different Lower East Side cultural scenes and people who interested me. The night of Aug 6. into the morning of Aug. 7 dramatically shifted the direction of my concentration and my life.

The 3-hour-33-minute video I made of that evening, with the help of Elsa Rensaa my partner, now my wife, threw us headfirst onto the front lines of New York City, L.E.S. and radical politics. Our contribution helped to get the night classified as a “police riot.” The term “police riot” was reluctantly pronounced by Mayor Edward Koch and police Commissioner Benjamin Ward after an embarrassing abundance of inadmissible photo and video evidence along with hundreds of witnesses came forward.

Exhausted, Elsa and I arrived home midmorning Aug. 7. We both intuitively knew we had documented a night that was anything but normal. It was not until later in the day when the flood of news reports hit the streets did we start to get a glimpse of the impact that night had on the city and, in the end, I would say on the whole county.

TV news was missing during the action. A couple of TV news stringers appeared, shot about 3 minutes worth of footage and left. It was the mainstream news writers and photographers who broke the story. Locally, we had Sarah Ferguson of the Village Voice, the Downtown paper, as well as, the extraordinary radio tape made by WBAI reporter Paul DeRienzo. DeRienzo is a media outsider, but as far as a historical document, his recordings from the night is one of the most important. And his archives should be preserved for future generations to study N.Y.C. L.E.S. history.

The television channels had few visuals and were forced to look for community footage. Paul Garrin captured around 20 minutes and allowed the media to use a dramatic portion of what he caught that night. Between Paul’s excerpt and the newspaper photos and reports the proverbial dung hit the fan.

It was then that I contacted Channel 5 reporter Eric Shawn. He appreciated the quality and the depth of the coverage. We allowed him to broadcast a portion of the tape that clearly exposed police misconduct. He contacted the Manhattan District Attorney’s Offiice. It took some time to spark the D.A.’s interest. The piece in The New York Times by Howard French, Michael Wines and Todd Purdum, “Violence and its Provocation,” got their attention. (To read some of the press from that period- go to http://patterson.no-art.info/press/timewise.html.)

And I became a public figure.

Paul Garrin stayed in the game for a few months, but because of the threats and the negativity that the press generated, he turned his attention to his art career. He made artworks out of his coverage, and used some of my footage in his pieces. But me, I loved the fight. Coming from the working class I felt the attention gave me a voice for The People.

The following is a much-abbreviated version of what unfolded.

Soon I had white-shirt Internal Affairs cops waiting outside my home. Then the F.B.I. was pursuing me. Then I got a subpoena from the D.A.’s Office demanding my original tape. My phone was constantly ringing — interviews, investigators — but it would go dead all night and come back on in the morning. We could tell it was back on since it would ring again.

Assistant D.A.’s served me with a subpoena demanding the tape. I faced State Supreme Court Judge Richard Lowe. First, the court wanted to give me a lawyer. Under no circumstances did I want a lawyer. I fired him. I knew exactly where I was and what I wanted. So the judge gave me an ultimatum: Give the D.A. the tape or go to jail for 90 days. I refused to give them the tape.

It was not that I did not want the authorities to have the tape. After all, the tape was rich in evidence of police misconduct. I am an artist and the tape belongs to me. If I give up the tape and it becomes evidence then it becomes government property. My compromise was they can have a first-generation copy. They demanded the original. So off I went to the Bronx House of Detention.

In the B.H.D. there were two prisoners held under a system called Central Monitoring. One was Larry Davis, the drug dealer who shot six cops. The other was me. When I was transported to court I was placed in shackles and on the bus in a separate cage. I went on a hunger strike. TV news interviewed me in the Bronx.

I got a visit from Larry Davis’s lawyers, William Kunstler and Lynne Stewart. In court, it was Ron Kuby and Kunstler. After 10 days I was back in court and a deal was made. They would take a first-generation copy, which was to be made by the courts video experts. I was off my hunger strike and a free man.

With a few supporters I went for a light lunch. In the afternoon Elsa and I took my three original tapes to the D.A.-appointed location. One of my court demands was I get nine copies because I knew others would want to have copies and I needed to protect the original. When the process started I soon realized that my court deal was not being honored. Instead of nine copies only three were being made. Turns out the agreement we — my lawyers, Kunstler and Kuby, myself and the prosecutor — made in the back room was not put on the record. I was naive to the ways of legal trickery and deception, so it was my tough luck.

My immediate reaction was to jam the process. I knew I could put an end to the transferring. But then I was exhausted, and I felt, O.K. three copies will work. Other than to bring the case back to court, I felt it was more practical to get to the next step.

Once we got home Elsa looked at the tapes. She said something did not seem right. She methodically went through the original and the copies and discovered that 30 minutes was missing from the government copy. Back to square one.

Because of the importance of the evidence and the high visibility of my case, I knew I could embarrass the prosecutor, but what would I gain from this move? I went to the D.A.’s Office. We made an official record of the meeting, and we all agreed to go to a commercial studio to dub the tapes. Once this was done, the court got a high-quality, first-generation copy and I got my multiple copies

Norman Siegel of the New York Civil Liberties Union arranged a meeting between me and all the lawyers representing clients who were suing the city over the riot. The agreement was they would all get a full copy of the tape. A note to others here: Out of this whole collection of good-guy, liberal lawyers nobody was watching out for my rights. In the end, I was told by a Corporation Counsel lawyer that my tape eventually cost the city $2.2 million.

Other than the odd piece I sold to the news, I made no money from any of this struggle.

My tape was instrumental in getting cops fired. Others were brought up on departmental charges. The captain was moved out of the precinct. A chief was retired, and six cops were criminally indicted.

I went to 1 Police Plaza to be a witness at the departmental trials. A cop at the door told me I was in the wrong place and to leave. Never made it to those trials. But I was a witness at the six cop trials. All the cops choose a trial by judge. First, I had to go through a “best-evidence hearing.” Eventually, all the cops got off.

Because these trials did not get the media attention there is little history of this period. The cases were sealed. The best reporting was done by William Ney for a local paper called The New Common Good. Ney, a Ph.D. candidate, attended all the trials, and did a thorough job reporting on the facts of the case.

During this period I was interviewed by most of the major media, including magazines and newspapers, and was an invited guest on CNN, Geraldo, Oprah, Sally Jesse Raphael, the morning TV shows, the Bob Fass Radio Unnamable program on WBAI, and so on. And of course, I documented much of what went on.

I testified at state hearings on police brutality. I was invited to bring a copy of my videotape, along with Tawana Brawley, Al Sharpton, Alton Maddox and all the New York City publishers of African-American newspapers, to Washington, D.C., to meet with Representative John Conyers, chairperson of the House Committee on the Judiciary. Conyers was investigating police brutality cases. I was a member of the Tompkins Square Park Task Force of Community Board 3 investigating what went wrong on Aug. 6-7, 1988.

This is a very brief overview of my experiences related to the beginning period of my entering into L.E.S. radical political activism. I regret little, and to say both Elsa and I learned a lot about police corruption, the damaging role that gentrification plays on the downwardly struggling middle class, and the adversity that the poor and the disadvantaged face, as well as, how outsourcing has affected the economy in New York City would be a gross understatement.

In the section of our archives dealing with the politics from that early period, I have hours of video and much photographic documentation — including the reorganization of the N.Y.P.D. task force that specializes in political unrest. A side bar here would be to realize, in 1988, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men could not close a 10.5-acre park on the L.E.S. By 1992, the N.Y.P.D. political street task forces, practicing on the L.E.S., could close down the whole city in a short period of time. In 2001, in a couple of hours, the N.Y.P.D. was able to shut down the airports, the subways, the railways, the ferries, the buses and the bridges, and to have a cop on every street corner below 23rd St. The ephemera includes dozens of the political posters, political banners, copies of The Shadow, etc.

Related to this period. I produced a number of MNN community access programs. More recently, I produced, with the editorial assistance of Joe Flood and Alan Moore, “Resistance: A Radical Political and Social History of the Lower East Side” (edited by Clayton Patterson, 2007, Seven Stories Press).

Joel Meyers and I were the only members of the task force to produce a paper. On June 13, 1989, we handed in the “Minority Report: A Report on the Tompkins Square Police Riot and Related Matters” (by Joel Meyers and Clayton Patterson of the Tompkins Square Task Force of N.Y.C. Community Board 3).

For other related material, see back issues of The SHADOW newspaper; Paul Garrin’s 1989 videotape “Man with a Video Camera (F— Vertov)”; Seth Tobocman’s graphic novel “War in the Neighborhood” (1998, Autonomedia) and various issues of World War 3 Illustrated.

The Villager encourages readers to share articles:

Comments are often moderated.

We appreciate your comments and ask that you keep to the subject at hand, refrain from use of profanity and maintain a respectful tone to both the subject at hand and other readers who also post here. We reserve the right to delete your comment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


× 1 = four

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>