Today is the 49th annual Mifflin Street Block Party. For the past several decades, the Block Party has been one of the University of Wisconsin campus’ most celebrated, controversial, and, well, fun traditions. Throughout the day the beer will be flowing, debaucherous actions might be taken and traffic patterns around downtown will be horrible.
For the past few years the party has gone without a hitch. Sure, there’s the occasional drunken issue. But for the most part it is peaceful and fun. It shows just how far into the mainstream the Mifflin Street Block party has come (or fallen, depending on your perspective). While always intended to be a chance for students to let their hair down, it wasn’t always the way it is today.
The first ever Mifflin Street Block Party took place on May 3, 1969. Contrary to what many have said or believe, the very first party wasn’t in protest of the war in Vietnam or any civil rights issues, though many such protests had been ongoing in Madison throughout much of the latter half of the Sixties. The Mifflin Street Block Party was just a chance for students to smoke pot and dance out in the street. Nothing more, nothing less.
During the week prior, there had been the typical flyers and posters one still sees around campus advertising the event. There was a small matter of whether or not students could obtain a permit to have the party at all, but the students weren’t overly concerned with it. After all, they said, it’s 1969, and we don’t need a permit to have fun and dance out in the street.
While the motives were mostly music and pot related, there were high tensions across the nation involving young people questioning the traditions of established mores at every level. The War in Vietnam was indeed raging and the University of Wisconsin campus had been the site of anti-war protests.
The hippie counterculture was strong in Madison at the time, as well. Many of the Greatest Generation, those who had fought in World War II and were the parents of the Baby Boomers who comprised the counterculture, were put off by both the anti-war sentiments and what they perceived as being the loose moral values of their children’s generation.
As a result there was extensive right wing backlash against the counterculture movement and conservative, buttoned up Republicans like Richard Nixon were being elected as part of it. In Madison, a law-and-order conservative named William Dyke had been elected mayor just weeks before the Mifflin Street Block Party had its momentous first run.
In February 1969, there was a strike on campus involving Black students who were trying to force the creation of a Black Studies Department and to have the UW begin recruiting more Black students and faculty. At the time there were only about 500 Black students at Wisconsin. The Governor, not wanting to see riots break out and knowing that the Madison Police Department of the day was itching for a fight, sent bayonet-wielding National Guardsman to the demonstrations that wound up involving close to 12,000 students.
The protest ended peacefully but the Madison Police Department remained simmering with resentment towards the students about the demonstration and the fact that they basically couldn’t do anything about it.
That simmering resentment made the May 3 inaugural Mifflin Street Block Party turn into a riot.
On May 3,1969 students gathered outside on Mifflin Street. They indeed smoked pot and did their dancing in the streets. But the police, led by Inspector Herman Thomas, showed up in short order. The police saw all the flyers and posters and knew the party was brewing. Inspector Thomas used a phony noise complaint as an excuse to come unplug the kids’ music at 512 W West Mifflin Street.
“So, the cops show up and they pull the plug on the music,” former Capital Times reporter and Madison historian Stu Levitan told Madison365. Levitan’s book, Madison in the Sixties, will be released later this year. “This is at 512 West Mifflin. That’s where the music is. Thomas says ‘turn it down’. The kids said ‘get a warrant’. He unplugs it at first but then plugs it back in and says ‘keep it down’. Allegedly, some old lady on the 400 block had called with a noise complaint but the address he gave for the noise complaint never even existed. So the music continues.”
Levitan said the police told the kids they couldn’t be out in the street dancing. They had to be on the sidewalk. So, the police pushed the kids back on to the sidewalk. The kids went back to dancing in the street. The police pushed them back again. The kids returned to dancing in the streets defiantly once again.
Eventually, the push and pull got tense. A rock was thrown at a police officer. And all hell broke loose.
The alderman who represented the area where Mifflin Street was a 20-something named Paul Soglin. The future mayor was hit with a nightstick and arrested on the spot. More rocks were thrown at police — as was a roasted pig’s head.
“At 5:30 pm on May 3 it turns into a riot from a block party,” Levitan tells Madison365. “The cops are totally unleashed. Billy Clubs, tear gas, pulling out their weapons. Kids are throwing rocks. Now it’s a riot. By the time Paul Soglin gets back (he was bailed out of jail by the Firefighters Union who were at war with the police department at the time) his street was a war zone. Kids are trying to block the streets. The cops have a new weapon called a pepper fogger. It fires like industrial strength levels of tear gas. They’re blanketing the Mifflin area with it. They’re chasing kids into their houses. They’re wading in with batons and beating them.”
Riots continued to escalate throughout the evening with students making barricades, throwing bricks and rocks at police. Police continued their assaults with tear gas and batons.
Around midnight, everyone went home and went to bed. But on Sunday, May 4 the confrontation resumed with more of the same. Soglin was arrested again. One hundred twenty police officers and sheriff deputies were on duty participating in the violence.
All of it was simply a prelude to the big one.
On Monday, May 5, the campus area was torn to shreds.
“The Monday riot was worst of all,” Levitan says. “The riots spread from Mifflin Street to State Street to the East Campus dorms. Cops fired tear gas into The University Club, into the Memorial Library. They tear gassed people trying to provide medical care to kids. The cops go wild. The kids go wild. Someone set up a flatbed truck and they turned it over at Bassett and West Wash and they used it as a barricade like in the Paris riots.”
Levitan said it was an honest-to-god riot. It was front-page news nationally. And it almost happened again the very next week.
“Soglin got arrested twice during it. Alderman (Eugene) Parks was arrested. The Fireman’s Union, led by Ed Durkin, bailed out Soglin. So, the next week Soglin says ‘well, let’s have another Mifflin Block Party!’ But Durkin said ‘come out to my place instead.’”
Durkin invited Soglin and the kids from the Mifflin Street Block Party to have the same kind of gathering again. But this time instead of tearing up campus and being in conflict with the police, they would have their pot and music out in the quiet of the Old Middleton Road area.
Mayor Dyke, who had spoken to the students trying to calm the situation, arranged for buses to take kids out to Old Middleton Road to have a party the next weekend with no riot. Ed Durkin became a hero for hosting this gathering.
And the young Alder Paul Soglin did okay for himself too.
The Mifflin Street Block party is mostly about the drinking today. It was never meant to be a protest but the debauchery and, frankly, borderline sexual assaults that take place at some of annual gathering have left a bad taste in some mouths.
The police are still present, of course, but in a much different capacity. In 2017, things at the Block Party had gotten so tame between kids and police that the Madison Police Department was able to take time out to pose with kids in mock arrest photos. Chief Koval told Madison365 at the time that it’s all in good fun and just good community outreach. Fair enough.
And a far cry from how things got started.