BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | More than 100 people packed an emergency police meeting in the Village about Washington Square Park on Wednesday evening.
In the end, the police and most of those attending agreed that an earlier 10 p.m. curfew would be best for the park, at least for right now. But the decision will be made in collaboration with the Mayor’s Office, police said.
There were many more waiting outside who could not get into the venue, the basement meeting hall of Our Lady of Pompeii Church, at Carmine and Bleecker Sts. Captain Stephen Spataro, the Sixth Precinct’s commanding officer, reported during the meeting that the line outside “was going around Seventh Ave.”
Police had set up the chairs inside the basement with some social-distancing space between them, which reduced the seating capacity. Adding to the numbers, there were also at least 30 police in the meeting hall, plus dozens of reporters and TV news camerapersons.
Meanwhile, outside in the street, a group of young anti-police protesters who arrived late held a raucous rally. Among them were some who have been clashing with the cops in Washington Square.
One thing there was a glaring lack of, though, was local politicians. The only one who attended the meeting was Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer.
Councilmember Margaret Chin, whose district includes the park, sent a representative, who briefly addressed the meeting. Councilmember Carlina Rivera, whose district includes the residential buildings along the east side of lower Fifth Ave. and University Place, also sent an aide, who did not speak. State Senator Brad Hoylman and Assemblymember Deborah Glick, whose districts both include the park, sent staffers, as City Council Speaker Corey Johnson reportedly did, too.
Several candidates for office also were present, including Liz Crotty, who is running for Manhattan district attorney; Jacqueline Toboroff and Chris Marte, who are running in Council District 1; and Erin Hussein and Marni Halasa, candidates in Council Districts 2 and 3, respectively.
Andrew Kunkes, Mayor de Blasio’s emergency relief coordinator, also attended. He told the meeting that the city is taking “a multiagency response” to the park and that “there will be subsequent meetings.”
The Sixth Precinct held the event in response to neighbors’ complaints about the traditionally freewheeling park, which over the past year has been the scene of crowded late-night parties with amplified music, plus ongoing problems of drugs in the park’s northwest corner and lack of enforcement against bicycles and skateboards. Problems in the park, in turn, have been spilling out into the neighborhood, residents and merchants complain.
Top brass: ‘We’ll protect you’
Rodney Harrison, the Police Department’s chief of department, or highest ranking uniformed officer, assured the audience that police had heard their concerns. After a year of COVID, plus the national protests over the George Floyd killing in Minneapolis, Harrison said the police are now in a “recovery phase.”
“We’re ready to come back. We’re ready to protect you,” he told the meeting. “We’re going to do whatever it takes to make sure you feel comfortable.”
A month ago, police moved to start enforcing the park’s normal midnight curfew. They reportedly intentionally waited until after New York University’s graduation to launch the crackdown. But police found that because some parkgoers were not leaving, it was taking longer than expected to clear the park, with the effort stretching into the early-morning hours. As a result, three weeks ago, police started enforcing an earlier 10 p.m. curfew, thinking this would ensure the park was empty and closed by its normal midnight curfew.
But two Saturdays ago, a group of parkgoers refused to leave by the new early closing time, leading to 22 arrests and several cops injured. Since that night, police have pulled back and it’s been unclear exactly what’s going on.
However, the crowd of locals at the meeting Wednesday night was overwhelmingly in favor of cops bringing the park under control late at night. A show of hands indicated about 95 percent favored the 10 p.m. curfew.
How we got here
Assistant Chief Stephen Hughes, who heads Patrol Borough Manhattan South, provided more background into the current situation. As Hughes described it, it is he who — in cooperation with the Parks Department and others — is making the calls on whether and how police enforce the Village park’s curfew.
Hughes started out by saying that Washington Square Park is “kind of like [N.Y.U.’s] quad,” which was met by some soft groans from the audience.
He noted that, over the winter during the pandemic, with bars and restaurants closed, party promoters were using places like warehouses to throw their bashes. But once the weather warmed up, they moved to the parks. Washington Square Park, he said, is currently the city’s biggest such outdoor party destination, with up to two promoters per night throwing raves there.
Hughes noted that last September police confiscated David “The Shaman” Ortiz’s deejay equipment after he was using it without a sound permit. Ortiz, 28, has been back in the news again lately, though, continuing to throw raves — and even boxing matches — in Washington Square Park. In an article in the New York Post, Ortiz recently mocked upset Downtowners as “Kevins” and “Karens” and told them to leave if they can’t deal with amplified music.
Police: ‘Partiers less drunk at 10 p.m.’
Hughes elaborated on why police tried a 10 p.m. curfew, at least temporarily, saying it makes it easier — and also safer — to empty the park that way. First, he noted, there are not as many people in the park at 10 p.m. as at midnight.
“The other is that they’re half as inebriated [at 10 p.m.],” he said. “It’s a lot easier to talk to someone who’s half-inebriated [versus drunk].”
Hughes also painted a fuller picture, from the police side, of the clash in the park on Sat., June 5. He said there was an anti-police demonstration at Chelsea’s 10th Precinct earlier that evening, and it was overheard that this group was going to Washington Square afterward “to engage with cops.”
Meanwhile, he said, there were 27 police officers at the park that night “in soft hats.” Sometime after 9:30 p.m. after police announced the park would soon be closing, he said, a group of people took police gates and created a barrier to try to keep the cops away from them.
“We were met with numerous bottles at that point,” he said. “At that point, we had them helmeted up, [protective] vests.”
(An officer who The Village Sun spoke to who was guarding the fenced-off empty park two Fridays ago after the 10 p.m. curfew was enforced was wearing a soft hat but had his riot helmet by his feet. He shrugged that police always have their helmets with them.)
Hughes said one officer broke his hand in the June 5 donnybrook and three were hit by bottles. But he noted of the June 5 skirmish, “Some media reports presented the police as the agitators.”
Decided ‘not to engage’
The assistant chief said the following night, Sun., June 6, police spotted on social media that people were planning to bring rocks, bottles and fireworks to the park, apparently to use against the cops. As a result, he said, he “made the decision not to engage.”
The following Tuesday, he continued, a meeting with “all the city agencies” was held about Washington Square Park and the curfew. The Parks Department and local community board wanted the park’s closing time restored to its traditional curfew, according to Hughes.
“Friday I got a message from Community Board 2 that the park closing [should] go back to 12 o’clock,” he said.
Safety — of police — is also a factor in why he’s currently not sending a large number of police to enforce the curfew now, Hughes said.
“I have to look out for the safety of [my officers],” he said. “I made the decision not to put officers into that park.”
However, Hughes said, personally, he prefers the 10 p.m. curfew. He noted that this past weekend, the first without any curfew enforcement, two men were stabbed in the park early Saturday morning and the Washington Square Arch was graffitied again.
Toward the meeting’s end, Hughes asked for a show of hands on whether people favored a midnight curfew, 10 p.m. curfew or no curfew. Hands filled the air for a 10 p.m. curfew.
Bill Castro, the Manhattan borough Parks Department commissioner, conceded that over the past year the situation in the park has gotten wilder.
“We’ve seen bizarre behavior increase,” he said, “the guys [in a car in the street near the arch] doing donuts, the motorcycles [riding inside the park]. But this is temporary,” he quickly assured, adding, “The police and I talk like twice a day now.”
The skateboard dilemma
While skateboarding in the park is illegal, there does not seem to be much enforcement. Older park users, in particular, complain they are afraid of being knocked down and injured by the skateboarders. Castro finally explained the mystery.
“We deal with the skateboarders — it’s a little difficult,” he said. “A lot of them are underage, you have to bring them to the precinct. We don’t want to do that. We don’t want to traumatize them.”
There were grumbles of disapproval from the audience. Later on, one local senior offered a seemingly simple solution.
“We can get rid of the skateboarders in a day,” Bob Schulman declared. “All the police need to do is confiscate the skateboards. The snowflakes will not be traumatized. They can show up with their parents and get their skateboard the next day.”
He said he supported the midnight curfew, though, and allowing amplified music until that hour.
Troubled drug corner
As for the park’s drug-infested northwest corner, Castro said he made the decision to close it off a few weeks ago, though he dislikes taking any part of the park out of use. The Parks Department has even added some children’s programming to that area.
“We’re taking that back, the northwest corner of the park,” he said, to applause.
Castro added that Parks will also be opening up two lawns near that spot for people to use.
“That will sort of flood the zone with good people — normal people, if you will — and that will drive out the drug people,” he said.
Jeannine Kiely, the chairperson of C.B. 2, said the board wants the park’s rules enforced and does not support all the illegal activities going on, like drug use, fireworks at night and people riding motorcycles in the square.
“Community Board 2 fully supports the Parks Department enforcing the rules in the park,” she said.
Kiely added that C.B. 2 will hold a meeting on the park on Wed., July 7.
B.P. Brewer shows up
Borough President Brewer said she has been in touch with health and social-service providers and wants to see seven-day-a-week outreach to those in the park who could benefit from it.
Kana Ervin, Councilmember Chin’s deputy chief of staff, said Chin has asked for more officers to be assigned to Washington Square and for the closing of its northwest corner. She said Chin “wanted to be here” but was unable to attend.
“Residents deserve to be able to sleep,” she said.
‘No one would tolerate this’
Maureen Remacle, the longtime chairperson of the Sixth Precinct Community Council, offered some perspective as a 40-year Village resident. She said that residents of the area north of the park have always been wealthier and that, contrary to some media reports, this is not due to recent gentrification.
“Greenwich Village has always been a place where you’re free to pierce what you want…love who you want,” she said. But, as for an open-air disco in the park, she said, “This is something that no one in the entire world would tolerate. When you go to bed at night, you need peace and quiet. If we went to their neighborhood at 5 or 6 o’clock in the morning and played loud music, they wouldn’t take it either.”
‘Where are our politicians?’
Ray Cline, president of the Village Reform Democratic Club, called out local politicians, other than Gale Brewer, for their absence from the hotly anticipated meeting.
“I’m really sorry that none of our other elected officials are here,” he said.
Liz Crotty, a candidate for Manhattan district attorney who lives in the Village, said she walks her dog in Washington Square Park every morning.
“I’ve seen over the past 14 months as it’s deteriorated,” she said. “Every day I see drug dealing on Washington Square North. The police have to be empowered to make arrests. We’ve seen a lot about what over-policing can do; now we’re seeing what under-policing can do.”
Jacqueline Toboroff, a Republican candidate running in Council District 1, declared, “People that deal drugs should be arrested — and that’s it!”
Eric Adams theory flops
But Mark Milano said he found it curious that drugs at Washington Square Park was becoming a major issue right before a mayoral primary election where the front-runner, Eric Adams, is “a former cop,” as he put it. The crowd angrily booed him.
Captain Spataro, citing some of the more serious recent incidents in the park, said one woman was sexually assaulted and that a man who was attacked had blood on his brain and had to be intubated.
Musician: ‘People need to make a living’
Though vastly outnumbered at the meeting by those calling for more enforcement, Aaron Gamman, a guitarist in his 20s who plays in the park, spoke out against the ban on amplified sound without a permit.
“The fact that amplification isn’t allowed, it’s just absurd,” he said. “If I go there with a guitar and amplifier, I’m not going to be as loud as drums. A lot of tourists go there. People need the park to make a living.”
He said things would calm down if police stopped cracking down on amplified sound.
“There’s no doubt that the N.Y.P.D. presence invites challenge,” he said.
“You people are much, much older than me,” he told the audience. “Because of the pandemic, you were in the danger zone. I’m happy that you’re out again.”
Sick of park’s spillover
However, Lydia Carlston, an actress who lives on Washington Place, said her late uncle, Jerome “Jerry” Thomas, was a jazz drummer and that he used to perform in the park — “but not at night,” she emphasized, adding, “because, guess what — even artists have to sleep.”
Carlston said she and her three young kids have had to witness lewd acts and drug dealing on their street, which she said is a spillover from the park scene.
“My kids see people smoking crack,” she said. “They’ve seen people shoot up.”
On the use of electric speakers, Hughes said the rule is clear-cut: “Amplification — it’s against the law,” he said. He added that cops and Parks Enforcement Patrol officers can’t enforce differently for deejays and guitarists using amplifiers in the park since that would violate “equal application of the law,” leaving any enforcement open to challenge.
At the meeting’s end, Hughes told the crowd, “We got the message,” adding his next step would be to talk to the Mayor’s Office about the park.
He repeated, though, “I do not want to put my officers in danger. There’s an element in the park that does not want to leave the park at 12 o’clock at night.
“I heard [one protester] say, ‘We need a comprehensive plan,'” he said. “It’s 12 o’clock — just leave the park.”
Raucous anti-cop demonstration
After the meeting, the anti-police protesters outside hung around for a while and kept on making speeches. Some of them periodically tried to bait the cops, who stood in a line behind metal gates blocking off Carmine St. One man, wearing a protective vest and dragging a dirty, frayed American flag on the ground, stood on a gate and yelled and glared at the officers. Another guy gleefully flicked a lighter’s flame right in a female supervising officer’s face as she tried to dismantle a wooden sawhorse barrier; others later surrounded the cop and shouted at her.
The anti-cop activists called for “abolition” and noted how Washington Square was once a potter’s field where tens of thousands of people, including black and indigenous persons, were buried.
“That park is supposed to be a safe space for young people,” one of them who goes by Na said into the microphone. “A lot of us come from broken homes.”
“This is about reclamation of the land,” Veronica Matus, a veteran anti-police brutality activist, said in her turn on the mic. “They want to put a curfew on that park, where 60,000 bodies are buried. Are you kidding me? That’s not going to happen! In the northern part of the park, they lynched black people.”
Speaking to The Village Sun, Shamiyl Tumba Eilal, 18, who described herself as nonbinary, said, “There should be no curfew in Washington Square Park because it’s a public park.”
Asked what “abolition” meant to her, she said, bluntly, “Burn down the system.” She listed her chief causes as “Black Lives, Palestine and Asian Lives.”
Deejay: ‘Is this “Footloose”?’
Also standing outside, with his rolling amplifier in hand, was Subway DJ, who plays dance tunes in the park. He had hoped to get into the meeting.
“Is this ‘Footloose?'” he asked, indignantly, of the rule against amplified sound. “Laws are changed,” he noted. “Now people can smoke weed outside and it’s legal. Slavery used to be legal.
“People say amplified sound is illegal,” the deejay scoffed. “That’s absurd — people have walked around with boom boxes forever.”
“It’s like a lot of these residents fled during COVID when the going got tough,” he observed. “And they don’t like the demographic in the park [and that] things have changed.”
Per his name, DJ Subway said he used to play his tunes in the subway, but now mostly plays at Washington Square Park. He said he makes his living doing it, though declined to reveal how much he earns per night in the park. He said he has playlists and gauges the crowd’s reaction to his music to guide him on what to play.
“I do go to other places [to perform] but Washington Square Park right now is the most vibrant, the most live,” he said. “It just makes sense that Washington Square Park is where people are going. We just came off a horrific year, COVID. Bars and restaurants are not fully up to speed. The people that are complaining, they don’t want to see it. They want the park to be a little more…sterile. They don’t want to see dancing and chaos — they would call it chaos, I don’t call it that.”
Knocking the cops
At one point as he spoke, a member of the anti-cop group started marching around and doing a call-and-response chant. “A! C! A! B!” he shouted, cueing everyone else to shout back, “All Cops Are Bastards!”
Another protester, a trans woman, identified herself by her performance artist handle, Kushtina. She said she was arrested on a recent night at the park as her allies were going back and forth with cops resisting the curfew. Her role, though, was just to observe the police, not offer resistance inside the park. Yet, she said, she was collared, held for 24 hours and suffered a cracked rib.
After an interesting interview, the reporter said he had to leave.
“Have a good night,” Kushtina said, walking off, “be safe, f— the police.”
Evrim Can, a community affairs officer at the Sixth Precinct, said police are familiar with this group.
“They show up to everything,” he said. “It’s a handful of people causing all the ruckus.”
Borough president candidates absent
Borough President Brewer recently told The Village Sun she had spoken with one of the anti-police protesters from Washington Square Park and was shocked at the young person’s level of anger at the cops.
However, none of the candidates running to succeed Brewer as Manhattan borough president — including state Senator Brad Hoylman, whose district contains the park — attended the meeting.
Hoylman’s chief of staff was there but did not address the audience.
“Brad doesn’t attend the Build the Block meetings,” a spokesperson told The Village Sun. On the other hand, he said, Hoylman regularly attends community board and neighborhood association meetings.
Originally, the date had been slated well in advance to be a routine so-called Build the Block meeting, at which Neighborhood Coordinating Officers discuss specific concerns from a given sector of the Sixth Precinct. But, given all the focus on Washington Square Park, police subsequently decided to make the meeting 100 percent about the park and invited top brass, like Harrison and Hughes.
The Village Sun requested a statement by Hoylman on the Washington Square Park situation, but has not received one.
Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Carlina Rivera said the councilmember’s staffer who attended the meeting did not speak because the park is in Councilmember Chin’s district. Chin’s is the “host district” (the one that contains the park), so she is the one talking to the city agencies about it, he explained.
“We are continuing to work with residents who live on Fifth Ave. and University Place who have reached out to our office regarding quality of life concerns,” he said.