Another rally was held on August 6. The police charged a crowd of protesters, and a riot ensued. Bystanders, activists, police officers, neighborhood residents and journalists were caught up in the violence. Despite a brief lull in the fighting, the mêlée continued until 6 a.m. the next day. Mayor Ed Koch temporarily rescinded the curfew. The neighborhood, previously divided over how to deal with the park, was unanimous in its condemnation of the heavy-handed actions of the police.
Over 100 complaints of police brutality were lodged following the riot. Much blame was laid on poor police handling, and the commander of the precinct in charge was deprived of office for a year. In an editorial entitled "Yes, a Police Riot", The New York Times commended Commissioner Benjamin Ward and the New York Police Department for their candor in a report that confirmed what ubiquitous media images made clear: the NYPD were responsible for inciting a riot.
One of the concerns of the local community had been that the park was a gathering place for drunken rock fans and their boisterous street parties. On November 7, 2004, about 200 people gathered in Tompkins Square Park to attend a concert by the punk band Leftöver Crack. The concert has since become a yearly ritual to mark the 1988 riots.
After the Tompkins Square Riot of 1874, the park held a symbolic place in the New York labor movement. By the summer of 1988 the East Village — and Tompkins Square Park in particular — had become a gathering place and home for the wayward and contingents of the homeless and rowdy youth.
Neighborhood residents, voicing their preferences through at least four community organizations, had differing perspectives on the evolving nature of the park, and what actions should or should not be taken. The Avenue A Block Association (made up of local businesses) demanded a curfew. Other groups such as Friends of Tompkins Square Park and political organizers on the poorer east side of the park preferred that curfew be imposed, and Manhattan Community Board 3 took the middle ground.
On June 28, 1988 the Community Board 3 approved a report that included a recommendation for a 1 a.m. curfew. While there was some controversy about how well-informed the voting board members were, board manager Martha Danziger affirmed the validity of the decision. Park workers painted a warning on the ground days after the Association made its decision. On July 11 the police, under the direction of Captain Gerald McNamara of the 9th Precinct, confined homeless people to the park's southeast quadrant, and evicted all others. They closed the park down periodically over the next two weeks.
The city was on edge and in the midst of this, the park was turned into what Times reporter McFadden described as a bloody "war zone." Around 11:30 p.m., 150 or 200 (police estimates were 700) protesters came through the St. Mark's Place entrance to the park, holding banners proclaiming Gentrification is Class War. By the time dawn broke, 38 people, including reporters and police officers, suffered injuries. In total, nine people were arrested on riot, assault and other charges, and six complaints of police brutality were logged with the Civilian Complaint Review Board.
Pryor is seen crying, with blood flowing down the back of her neck, in a videotape made by artist Clayton Patterson. Another video made by freelance cameraman Paul Garrin shows officers swinging clubs at him and slamming him against a wall. Mr. Fish, a travel promoter out for an evening on the town, attempted to hail a taxi on Avenue A near Sixth Street when he was suddenly struck on the head. "I was just standing there watching," he said. "The next thing that I remember is seeing the stick, and then a young woman who was helping me." Patterson's videotape showed that no officers helped Fish until an ambulance arrived. A police helicopter hovered over the scene, contributing to a sense of chaos.
During a lull in the riot, a young officer on Patterson's video appealed for understanding from the protesters. He tried to calmly tell them how unhappy the police were with the assignment and its aftermath. "We've got cops back there in ambulances who've been hit." But the lull ended. Thirty to seventy protesters re-entered the park. A witness said the mob rammed a police barricade through the glass door of the Christodora House, a high-rise luxury building on Avenue B. They overturned planters and tore a lamp out of the wall, threatened residents and staff with bodily harm, and screamed and chanted "Die Yuppie Scum". At 6 a.m., the last protesters dispersed, vowing to demonstrate again.
When questioned about the brutality, Captain McNamara said, "It was a hot night. There was a lot of debris being thrown through the air. Obviously tempers flared. But all these allegations will be investigated." Mayor Ed Koch was forced to temporarily revoke the curfew.
A city review of the riot turned up numerous problems with the police department's actions that night, including a failure to contact either Commissioner Ward or Mayor Koch. In the middle of the riot the commander left the scene to go to the bathroom at the station house, several blocks away from the fighting. The police helicopter used to illuminate the area only attracted bigger crowds. Several nearby rooftops were not secured by police and were used to throw bottles and debris at people on the street. Ward said the mounted police were brought to the scene too soon and acted too rashly to confront protesters. A temporary headquarters was set up right in the middle of the park, causing officers unfamiliar with the East Village—who rushed to the scene from throughout the city—to push their way through demonstrators to reach it. Once at the headquarters, they found no high-ranking officer on duty.
Ward himself had been the subject of controversy in the past, and the riot became a cause to reflect on the negative aspects of his record as Commissioner. After 10 people were shot in Brooklyn in 1984, nobody could find him for days. He appeared drunk at a Patrolmen's Benevolent Association convention in 1984; under his watch in 1985, officers in Queens used stun guns on suspects and in 1986 officers in Brooklyn stole and sold drugs. He was lambasted in 1987 for telling African-American journalists that most crime in New York was committed by young black men and later told black ministers in reference to that remark, "our little secret is out." He told a woman who was scared about a series of rapes that she was the type of woman a rapist would go after.
It was noted that Mayor Koch held steadfast in his support of Ward. Although Koch said he was "shocked" by the videotape of the police response, as he had done in the past he refused to utter a negative word about Ward. "The day I think that a commissioner, including a police commissioner, isn't as good as he should be to run whatever he's running, that's the day I will ask him to submit his resignation," said Koch. "I think Ben Ward will go down as one of the greatest police commissioners this city has ever had. Bob McGuire is the other, and I appointed both of them." However, Koch's support eroded as evidence mounted that municipal disorganization and a lack of police leadership that night likely sparked the riots. "The film that I saw causes me to believe that there may have been an overreaction. I was not happy with what I saw on film. Those films were disturbing to me, and I think they disturbed Ben Ward as well."
Two officers were charged with use of excessive force. Officer Karen Connelly was accused of using her nightstick "wrongfully and without just cause" to strike a civilian, and Philip O'Reilly, who was accused of interfering with Times photographer Franco, and of using his nightstick to injure Franco's hand. The Civilian Complaint Review Board recommended the officers be charged, and Commissioner Ward endorsed the recommendations.
Many people relished the neighborhood as a home for society's outcasts. Getrude Briggs, owner of East 7th Street store Books 'n' Things, and a resident of forty-one years: "Of course [the East Village] still attracts a lot of freaks, because it's still a place you can be free. For a lot of kids, coming here is a way to get away from the choking atmosphere of suburbia." Thirty-year resident Barbara Shawm protested the East Village's dangerous reputation: "A 90-pound woman can easily fend off a down-and-outer or an addict. They're not dangerous. It's more dangerous uptown — what people do to each other in elevators."
The riots were commemorated in the song "Hold On" by Lou Reed. The song appeared on his 1989 CD New York. The song documents the civil and racial unrest going on in many areas of New York City at the time. The chorus of the song ends with the line "I'll meet you in Tompkins Square" for the first two refrains. The line changes to "there's a riot in Tompkins Square" on the third refrain.