The May Day Riot of 1990: John Penley Looks Back

Photos: John Penley. Speaking in first photo: Tuli Kupferberg of The Fugs.

Earlier this morning, we reprinted Ellen Moynihan’s account of the 1990 May Day riots in Tompkins Square Park. Now, let’s look back at John Penley’s photographs of the day, from a collection of his work at N.Y.U.’s Tamiment Library.

Speaking to The Local from his current home in Asheville, N.C., the activist and photographer said he sensed trouble was brewing that night, twenty-two years ago. “I was ready for this one,” he said. “The ’88 riot I wasn’t ready for, but this one I had a lot of film, I had batteries, and I expected stuff to jump off.” He added, “There’s nothing like riots, man, especially as a photojournalist – as long as you don’t get beat up or your cam doesn’t get broken or something bad doesn’t happen to you, you can’t miss with the photos.”

So how did the photographer sense something was up? “It was May Day!” he laughed. “I can’t remember what had happened around that time but there were always things going on that sparked that stuff, that went on before it happened. There was always something that made you feel like people were reaching a boiling point and the first time they got together to express their anger they were going to do it.”

Mr. Penley said he planned to spend today protesting in Asheville, North Carolina, since health problems (he cited kidney problems and nerve damage to his spine) prevented him from moving back to New York City anytime soon. On May 9, he and others will travel to Charlotte to protest a Bank of America shareholders meeting. He said he also planned to burn a flag with Cindy Sheehan during the Democratic convention there.

In the meantime, he said, he’s keeping up with activities in New York. “People use my Facebook page to spread information to a lot of other people – I feel like I’m almost there,” he said. “I can watch the livestream – I know a large percentage of people in the livestream, so it drives me crazy that I’m not able to be there.”