(In These Times) -- Around 12:30 a.m. on August 7, 1988, a small army of police officers in riot gear covered their badges, raised their batons and charged on foot and on horseback into Tompkins Square Park on New York’s Lower East Side. The artists, punks, squatters, anarchists and evictees gathered there had expected a confrontation. With real estate developers circling the neighborhood, the local community board had imposed a 1:00 a.m. curfew on the park to try to clear out the homeless. But no one expected the callous violence, the armored police phalanx thundering down on bottle-throwing protesters. By daybreak, when the police retreated, 53 people were injured, including 14 police officers. Fourteen officers were later tried on brutality charges; none were convicted. The violence that summer night marked a turning point in the street battles over public space and housing in the postindustrial, rapidly gentrifying city.
Over the past 60 years, whenever squatters claimed homes in Western European and U.S. cities, even buildings long abandoned, the state used force to protect private property. After police violently removed squatters on the Lower East Side, some buildings were set on fire and others left decaying and empty. Property rights, not buildings—and certainly not housing for the homeless—were preserved.