For a number of years I lived in the Lower East Side. I was one of the rare black women in an otherwise primarily white Squatter scene. For a number of years, I squatted buildings and helped renovate them for people to live in. During the course of my years doing this, I was involved in many demonstrations and actions that were supportive of helping people get affordable housing. Many of these actions were emotionally fulfilling for me. Just spending whole day mixing cement and working with my fellow squatter housemates gave me a sense of community and I thrived on it. However, there were situations that were not so good, in fact they were emotionally draining and in the end, because of the not so good times, I ended up burning myself out and I left the radical political activist scene for quite some years until the Republican National Convention in 2004. My memoir will basically be a there and back again collection of stories taken from my journal from my experiences in the Lower East Side, political and non political. This particular story is one of the stories from that time. I hope you enjoy it.
October 15th, 1991 Gloomy, Gloomy, Gloomy
I can’t feel anymore. Early this morning I went down to Dinkinsville lot on Eighth Street between Avenues B and C in the East Village to try to save some homeless people from being evicted and it was a total disaster. Sometimes I wonder what it is I fight for.
For at least at a few years since 1988, Tompkins Square Park was a haven for the homeless. They lived there virtually unmolested in their Tent City. The park was open twenty four hours a day and Alphabet City was on the waning end of the lawlessness that prevailed for years. Times were changing, as real estate became valuable, a more affluent element came to reside in the area and as a result, the city government felt compelled to cater to the whims of the new residents. So, in their quest to clean up the neighborhood, the first major decision was to close down the park for renovations. With nowhere else to go except the shelter system, some of the park denizens chose to find a new place to pitch their tents. A vacant lot on Eighth Street between Avenue B and C was the new area chosen and the new tent city was called Dinkinsville.
There was trouble in the air concerning Dinkinsville. Rumor had it that the police was coming to evict the homeless out of the lot. A lot of neighborhood activists were on watch to try to prevent the eviction. Since I lived in Brooklyn at the time, I decided to stay at my friend Lisa’s house to wait for the call to action. It was a night of restless sleep. Sometime around three am, we got the call to activate the eviction phone tree. It was a list of people to call in case of eviction of squats or any other place threatened by police presence.
As I started to activate the phone tree, Lisa was obnoxiously insistent that we hurry up and get to the lot. I ignored her and called some people before she finally made me get off her phone.
I was seething with anger, what was the point of volunteering for something if you don’t do it? Somebody else could have been given the needed task and got it done. I suspect that the main reason for Lisa’s rush was not to help the lot squatters but to be with her lover, John the Communist. John is one of the neighborhood rabble rousers. He makes an awesome appearance with his long blond hair and red communist flag flying in the wind. I guess if I was smitten, I’d be an asshole as well if I thought it would impress him.
To make matters more irritating for me, darling Lisa informed people that she nobly stayed up all night to wait for the call while I slept. She left out that she was up because she had massive homework due to her being in graduate school. As we drew closer to the lot, I left her with a bunch of people we knew and I proceeded on to Dinkinsville. There was hardly anybody there except a few people just arriving. I saw sturdy and blonde Katherine from the Revolutionary Communist Party trying to organize the lot dwellers in order to defend their homes. She was met with opposition especially from on particularly loudmouth Hispanic Indian.
Terry T was a homeless black man who first lived in Tompkins Square Park. His tall, rugged and fierce appearance scared people when they first met him but He was actually a teddy bear at heart. He just was tired of being jerked around by the system. When David Dinkins ran of the office of Mayor of NYC, Terry T, with the help of political activists in the neighborhood: organized the homeless to campaign for Mr. Dinkins. Mr. Dinkins’ thank you to them was to kick them out of Tompkins Square Park. Undaunted by Dinkin’s rejection of the homeless, Terry T became more empowered and politicalized until eventually he got himself out of the streets before he died of AIDS related complications.
That night at the lot, Terry T was trying to let Katherine have her say but then the homeless started arguing fiercely amongst themselves. A lot of people wanted to know whether the police move was rumor or fact and who had the information.
As far as I knew, Moogy and Joel rode on their bicycles up to the 20th street precinct and seen the police massing outside the building. I don’t think that the guys were mistaken. Still, the dissention grew as more supporters showed up.
We were showered with venomous remarks like “the squatters who had buildings won’t share their space with other homeless people but brought trouble upon them instead.” Speaking for myself, considering some of the sights that I’ve seen in that lot, you can’t tell me that they didn’t bring that upon themselves. I’ve witnessed drug usage, rampant drunkenness and physical abuse, especially towards women. Also, I have heard many tales of how a lot of homeless people couldn’t make it in the squats because they refused to do any work on the buildings they lived in but instead spent their time being belligerent and indulging in rampant drug usage. They caused unsafe living conditions, setting fire to some places because of their carelessness with fire. Those are the reasons why the squatters are not willing to let them dwell in the squatted buildings.
I’m not saying that all the homeless had these problems. Actually, some of them made the adjustment to being trusted and respected people in the squatter community and in the general community at large.
Katherine tried to get everybody to build barricades that we would set on fire to prevent the cops from entering the lot. I helped some guys move garbage bags in the rear end of the lot by the recycling place. I was starting to feel really ambitious and good about what we’re doing but then fierce arguments ensued thus bursting my bubble of happiness. Some of the people panicked initially when first news about the impending arrival of the police first hit the lots. A lot of them packed their belongings and went across the street to wait out the situation. After time passed and no cops appeared, the Mexican contingent came back in the lot. Because the cops didn’t come right away, some of the dissenters said that we were full of shit and stirring up trouble. Some of the angry Mexicans started to wreck the front barricades despite our insistence that the police were about to roll on the lots.
Things got really scary then. The American Indian homeless man started to threaten Katherine verbally but she stood her ground until she was persuaded to walk away from him. Some guy who was yelling at John the Communist and Karl decided to fuck with me. He started insulting me as a fake soldier because I was wearing an U.S Air Force field jacket. Actually, I got that jacket when I was enlisted in the Air Force but that’s another story. I screamed at him to shut up and stop talking about things he didn’t know. Then some Mexican guy brandishing a huge stick, yelled at me to get out of the lot. “Fine, they want to be assholes, let them save themselves” I thought to myself.
As soon as I left, there was a huge explosion from the lot bonfire. People flew from the ring around the fire. I was amused. I figured that it served them right for being careless about what they threw in the flames. I hoped that nobody got hurt though.
By this time, all the supporters were outside of the lot, either on the sidewalk or across the street. It was still dark out, the cops haven’t shown yet and the fire raged on.
I took advantage of the chaos following the explosion and ran back inside the lot to the rear barricades. After I felt that one was going to chase me out, I thought about my situation.
Here I am, sentinel of the night, armed with lighter fluid, and spray starch, matches, a huge stick and paper to make a makeshift torch. I figured out how I could effectively ignite the barricades and then I started daydreaming about rebel life to the tune of Jon Bon Jovi’s “Blaze of Glory”, pretty corny, huh?
It’s a tribute to my amazingly wild imagination that I can think of such romantic heroics while standing in a field of shit. Yeah, that’s right, a field of shit. People were flashing their asses, shitting all around me. The smell was “delightful”.
In spite of the noxious surroundings and odor, it was a beautiful night. It was just before morning twilight. The air felt wonderfully cool on my face and the stars were still shining in the navy blue sky. I was transfixed by the beauty of the raging bonfire but I was also worried that it would attract the police and the fire department as well.
From the looks of things, there was nobody in the lot other than Katherine, some of the people who lived there and myself. I don’t think anybody knew that I was in the back and I kept quiet and discreet to keep it that way. In my opinion, I think that everybody that came down to defend the lot was really bewildered at the hostility from the homeless people. People tried to make the homeless understand that we were here to try to help them. The homeless felt that we were bringing trouble to them by being present.
Suddenly there were shouts that the police were coming and I could hear sirens off in the distance. People in the lot started panicking and tried to gather their things. For some odd reason, some of the men just chose to keep the fire going and they threw combustible containers in the flames. Soon there were explosions bursting forth from the bonfire. I just couldn’t understand the stupidity of it all. I mean, I understood that they were in a state of panic but it was suicide as far as I was concerned.
The fire raged out of control and the rear tents caught fire. I could hear men’s voices cry out “Why are you setting the tents on fire!? Stop it!!” The fire spread and it was immense. Flames reached up to burn the trees right behind the tents. I was extremely worried that the adjacent apartment buildings would catch fire but luckily it didn’t happen.
Well, we didn’t have to wait for the cops to evict the lot, the homeless did it to themselves. Word is going around that the Mexicans caused the trouble but I don’t know for sure. All I know is that it went downhill from there. The Fire Department took their time getting to the lot but some of the supporters ran around shouting fire warnings and some of them also brought water to put out the fire.
As the fire raged on, the media descended on the lot, taking pictures of the blaze. I went over to Katherine and when I saw the dejected look in her usually confident face, I knew it was all over. The firemen finally arrived to put out the fire and I ran back inside to see what was going on. I’m not sure if it was a good thing or not but by staying in the lot I avoided being herded away from the perimeters of the lot by the newly arrived piggies in riot gear.
There was just a handful of supporters left in the lot besides the remaining homeless people. Most of the supporters and homeless alike were herded across the street and then off the block. Some cops asked Katherine and I to move away from the lot but we both knew we’d never get back in so we ignored the cops’ request and instead headed back inside the lot. The cops did nothing to deter us. Poor Terry T looked so miserable watching the firemen dousing the flames with water. His home was ruined. Where was he going to go now?
My friend Artie Cabrera, a squatter and a political activist; came up to me and asked me to watch out for firemen needlessly destroying tents. I guess the fire was enough for them because they made no attempt to ruin anything. Artie, Katherine, a reporter for the anarchist paper The Shadow, Terry T and I stood around watching the photojournalists and police photographers scurry around taking pictures of the wreckage.
As daylight arrived, we could see the devastation wrought by the fire. Smoldering mounds of debris were everywhere and the trees were badly burnt. The majority of the tents were undamaged and I half-heartedly hoped that the occupants would be able to go back and live in them.
My answer waited across the street, standing in line with riot helmets upon their piggy heads. Alas, our fun was over. The riot police marched in and ordered us out of the lot. I belligerently demanded to know why we had to leave. One of the cops wasn’t taking my sass and got right back in my face as his cohorts looked menacingly at us.
My friend Artie knew when to quit so we helped Terry T get his cart and followed Artie out of the lot. We ended up by the Hispanic Bakery on Avenue C and Eighth Street and ran into more friends. People were crowded in the bakery, the aroma of Bustelo coffee mixed with the sweet smell of fresh baked bread. As everybody congregated in front of the bakery and compared stories about the situation, Terry T started freaking out and started yelling at the cops. I persuaded Terry to come into the bakery for some coffee. When we came back out, the cops chased us away from the bakery.
Right about this time, I was feeling quite demoralized, all I wanted to do was go home. Our ragtag group walked on for a bit and then dispersed. A few of us walked on, the streets were cordoned off from Ninth Street to Seventh Street between Aves B and D. We managed to make it down to St. Brigid’s Church on the corner of Eighth Street and Ave B. When we got there, Father Kuhn, a priest who was sympathetic to the needs of the homeless in the neighborhood; was giving a statement to channel 2 news and I really wasn’t paying attention to what he was saying. I felt so cruddy and all I wanted to do was go home at this point. I saw a friend of mine across the street at Tompkins Square Park so I went over to talk to him.
Aftermath, I walked the streets of the East Village for the next few days. I see the former residents of the lots wandering, disoriented, not finding shelter. I see more people huddling in doorways, on sidewalks and sleeping in subways. I’m so dazed.