Clashes in Washington Square Park

The neighborhood is roiled in a tug-of-war between park-goers and nearby residents. One point of agreement: the NYPD is exacerbating the problem

| 18 Jun 2021 | 02:00

At 9.25 p.m. on Saturday, June 5, Gia Lisa Krahne and her friends headed to Washington Square Park after participating in a protest in Chelsea. Near the north end of the park at Fifth Avenue, she observed a heavy police presence on the sidewalk — vans stacked by the roadside and police officers in riot gear shaking their pepper spray cans in preparation — and wondered what was going on.

A few minutes past 10 p.m., a loud announcement blared over speakers, declaring a closure of the park. As the riot police started to advance against the crowd at the park, Krahne and her friends linked arms and began walking backwards. Then an officer pointed at her, and things got ugly.

“Five or six cops pulled me forward and shoved me [onto the ground],” she recalls. “They were trying to handcuff me and there were like ten hands all over me, pulling me different ways.” It was worse for others: while arresting one of her friends, police officers smashed his face against a stump, resulting in a bloody nose.

A total of 23 civilians were arrested. The big questions surrounding the incident circle around two issues: why the sudden curfew, and were cops in riot gear and the ensuing arrests really necessary?

Blame Game

Krahne, who is an Ayurvedic doctor and a trans-liberation and Black Lives Matter activist, believes the problem is that the city is filling up again as COVID peters out. “I’m thinking people with money who moved back into the neighborhood have this sense of privilege and complained about the noise,” she said.

Erika Sumner is a board member of the Washington Square Association who lives in a brownstone that faces the park’s arches. She concurs with Krahne’s theory, but on the flip side — as the park fills up with people again, noise levels have escalated unbearably and cases of unrest in the park have spiked.

At a press conference the following Monday, Mayor Bill de Blasio confirmed that complaints about the noise to the NYPD sparked the enforcement of an earlier closing time. “Sometimes the best way to avoid conflict and also address real community concerns about noise or violence,” he said, “is to do something proactively.”

Sumner says the local community is overwhelmed by the upheaval in Washington Square Park. “We’ve been heavily involved in this since things went off the rails in April,” she explains. From fireworks being set off across the street to sound machines pumping out music at all hours of the night, the racket has her windows rattling. “I know a lot of people have started taking pills to help sleep because it’s too hard,” says Sumner, who lives with her aging mother suffering from late-stage Alzheimer’s. “People in my neighborhood now pray for rain, because that is the only time we get relief.”

Sumner also points out she is no privileged one-percenter, noting that she never left during the pandemic, and the historic, rent-stabilized building she lives in is owned by New York University. This misconception of the surrounding residents spurred two incidents this month where park-goers, riled up by a man on a bullhorn, marched up to a house on Fifth Avenue they believed had lodged noise complaints. “They started banging on the lobby window and really scared the people inside,” says Sumner.

Krahne’s retort to the noise complaints: “It’s noisy but then don’t live in NYC — go to a suburb where it’s quiet and all the shops close at 5 p.m..”

Sumner counters: “Just go somewhere else after midnight. Respect the residents.”

Social Responsibility

Can a balance be struck between social responsibility and keeping the culture of the park intact? “It’s always been a place where you go and there’s four different musicians playing on each corner of the fountain,” reflects Krahne on the importance of preserving what New Yorkers hold dear about the park. “And now they’re arresting musicians in the daytime for amplified music.”

In juxtaposition, Sumner makes a strong case that a lack of conscientiousness shown by those who contribute to the noise is a multi-pronged problem that has extended to rampant vandalism and criminal activity in the park. Since April, the Garibaldi statue and arch have been slathered with graffiti. The fountain broke down five times due to civilians stuffing in shredded cardboard, clothing and dishwashing detergent. A mother was mugged while taking graduation photos of her child. And just last weekend, two people were stabbed.

Sumner considers these as clear markers that attitudes need to change and law enforcement is in order. “They are not respecting the space. It’s a level of lawlessness that is dangerous for everyone,” she posits.

Poor Execution

The one thing that Sumner and Krahne can see eye to eye on is that what the NYPD did that Saturday was a “recipe for disaster,” as both put it. Sumner says the previous week, on May 29, “three sergeants and 24 police officers came to close the park. But there was violent pushback, so they retreated.” Even so, Sumner thinks their countermeasure in deploying weaponized riot police, that resulted in the 23 arrests, was no better and certainly not a solution.

Krahne emphasizes that police cannot simply show up on a random day and expect civilians in the park to comply. “It’s really just a show — [they can’t] choose to enforce laws only when the state wants to, and other times let it go,” she says.

“The challenge here is in the application — there is no consistency,” concedes Sumner. “You cannot enforce a closing just on the weekends, because you can’t expect people to follow rules that are arbitrary.” She contrasts the marred execution with the successful halting of skateboarders in the park, an issue Our Town Downtown reported on at the end of April. “The campaign to inform skateboarders [worked] because they gave them a heads up in advance, gave them maps to other skate parks,” says Sumner. “There was definitely an educational component to it.”

Meeting with the NYPD

On Wednesday, June 16, hundreds of concerned West Village residents packed into an emergency meeting with the NYPD. Younger park regulars who showed up to oppose the curfew were relegated to remain outside the barricades in front of the Bleecker Street church where the meeting was held. “I’m going to try to get that park back to being quiet at night,” said Assistant Chief Stephen Hughes, the commanding officer of Patrol Borough Manhattan South. Following a unanimous vote for a permanent curfew, Hughes pledged to present a plan to Mayor de Blasio.

While Krahne believes early park closure will never sit well with the public, the hope is that establishing a permanent earlier closing time of the park, without the need for riot cops, will be a clearer, non-confrontational way of managing park activity. For at the moment, it seems neither the surrounding residents nor park revelers are ready to meet in the middle.