Neil Smith, NYC Occupy History and the Political Geography of Revolt

I’ve wanted to mark the recent sudden and tragic death of radical geographer Neil Smith, but wasn’t sure quite how. Just now, as I was re-reading his book “The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City” I realized that I could do this in two ways. First by sharing some passages from the first chapter, which contains an account of the eviction of the Tompkins Square Park occupation in 1988 (and again in 1991) echoing the eviction from Liberty Plaza of the Occupy Wall Street encampment, and second by sharing a link to the entire book in PDF form, which is available free online from the National Technical University (NTUA) in Athens.

Neil Smith’s account of the occupation and eviction, as well as his analysis of urban class struggle are vital texts for occupiers to understand the history of resistance in the city. For those who haven’t read them, or aren’t familiar with the occupation of Tompkins Square, they will be eye-opening:

On the evening of August 6, 1988, a riot erupted along the edges of  Tompkins Square Park, a small green in New York City’s Lower East Side. It raged through the night with police on one side and a diverse mix of anti-gentrification protesters, punks, housing activists, park inhabitants, artists, Saturday night revelers and Lower East Side residents on the other. The battle followed the city’s attempt to enforce a 1:00 A.M. curfew in the Park on the pretext of clearing out the growing numbers of homeless people living or sleeping there, kids playing boom boxes late into the night, buyers and sellers of drugs using it for business. But many local residents and park users saw the action differently. The City was seeking to tame and domesticate the park to facilitate the already rampant gentrification on the Lower East Side . . .”Whose fucking park? It’s our fucking park,” became the recurrent slogan . . .

. . . In fact it was a police riot that ignited the park on August 6, 1988. Clad in space-alien riot gear and concealing their badge numbers, the police forcibly evicted everyone from the park before midnight, then mounted repeated baton charges and “Cossacklike” rampages against demonstrators and locals along the park’s edge:

‘The cops seemed bizarrely out of control, levitating with some hatred I didn’t understand. They’d taken a relatively small protest and fanned it out over the neighborhood, inflaming hundreds of people who’d never gone near the park to begin with. They’d called in a chopper. And they would eventually call 450 officers… The policemen were radiating hysteria . . .’ (Carr 1988:10)

. . .In the days following the riot, the protesters quickly adopted a much more ambitious political geography of revolt. Their slogan became “Tompkins Square everywhere” as they taunted the police and celebrated their liberation of the park. Mayor Edward Koch, meanwhile, took to describing Tompkins Square Park as a “cesspool” and blamed the riot on “anarchists.” Defending his police clients, the president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association enthusiastically elaborated: “social parasites, druggies, skinheads and communists” –an “insipid conglomeration of human misfits” –were the cause of the riot, he said. . .

Smith, N. 1996. The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City. Routledge.

First photo from Ángel Franco of The New York Times. Additional images are from Q. Sakamaki‘s book Tompkins Square Park.

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Filed under 11/15 Eviction, Announcements, Michael, Privatization, Public/Private Parks, Reference, Scholarship

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