Madison in the Sixties: The Mifflin Street Block Party Riots, part 1
On April 29, 1969, an anonymous group calling itself the International Were Wolf Conspiracy posts flyers downtown advertising a party that Saturday in the 500 block of West Mifflin St. The illustration is of a man with a bandolero, with a call for “armed love” and to “off the pig.” The Mifflanders don’t care that they don’t have a permit; lots of neighborhoods throw block parties without official sanction. Cops had even diverted traffic for a no-permit party on West Gilman Street just the week prior. [i]
But they’re not going to be so nice to the neighborhood radical leader Tom Hayden called one of America’s “liberated zones.” So Police Chief Wilbur Emery schedules extra men for Saturday afternoon, and arranges with Sheriff Vernon “Jack” Leslie for a hundred deputy sheriffs to be on standby. The chief does not consult with the new Mayor Bill Dyke, sworn in only two weeks earlier.[ii]
Detective Tom McCarthy, one of several officers seriously injured at the riot following the anti-Dow protest in October 1967, is looking forward to the weekend. “We’re going to bring the war to Mifflin Street,” he vows. [iii]
On Saturday, May 3, organizers set up some speakers on the porch at 512 West Mifflin, and by 3 o’clock, a crowd of a few dozen is grooving to a Janis Joplin record Alison Klairmont is playing. Then Police Inspector Herman Thomas, the department’s number two man, shows up and tell Klairmont to turn it down; she tells him to get a warrant. He pushes his way through the crowd and pulls the plug himself, before relenting and letting the music stay on at a lower volume.[iv]
But as soon as Thomas leaves the volume returns, with dancers now spilling into the street. Officers cite the ban on block parties and push them back on the sidewalk.
Thomas is at the station, gathering eight more officers—in riot gear. “We’re going down there to crack some skulls,” he tells them, returning to the scene at about 4:15. [v]
Thomas uses a squad car loudspeaker to order everyone out of the street. The crowd responds with rocks and vulgar catcalls, and someone sticks a roasted pig’s head near the car.[vi]
Baton-wielding police start pushing into the crowd and making isolated arrests—including Ald. Paul Soglin, for “failure to obey a lawful order,” namely driving on the street they’re supposedly trying to keep open.[vii]
As his constituents watch in outrage, police pull Soglin out of his 1959 Triumph convertible and put him into their paddy wagon. Soglin had planned to follow the paddy wagon to the City-County Building to find out who had been arrested; he is soon among their number. Before he’s bailed out, jailers cut Soglin’s hair.[viii]
By 5 p.m., there are thirty officers, all but a handful in riot gear, arrayed down the middle of the street, and about five hundred youth on lawns, porches and roofs. A handful hurl rocks and bottles; Thomas later claims they even throw feces.
Ald. Eugene Parks, elected a month earlier at Madison’s first black alder, pleads in vain with Thomas to let the party go on; he tells the crowd to cool it while he appeals to Mayor Dyke and Chief Emery. But when Parks returns around six, without being able to contact either, he’s booed and jeered, and a smoke bomb is thrown to within a few feet of the squad car he’s speaking from. As if by signal, more rocks fly.
“Enough of this nonsense,” Thomas declares, and unleashes his officers to disperse the crowd, as he later says, “in whatever manner they saw fit.” Shedding the restraint they showed during the Black Studies Strike on campus in February, they charge with nightsticks up—and are hit with a hail of rocks and bricks. Thomas deploys tear gas, withdraws his men for about an hour, and calls for county and university support; 122 more officers respond.[ix]
For the next several hours, there’s pandemonium as small affinity groups engage in hit-and-run battles with police, often in coordinated attacks and ambushes. A nearby building project provides a ready source for bricks.[x]
County deputies pump out massive amounts of tear gas with their new Smith and Wesson “pepper fogger,” spraying gas at a distance of up to two hundred yards; a toxic cloud settles over the three-flats. Sometimes, police hurl tear gas cannisters right inside, including into the Dayton St apartment of the beloved radical Professor Harvey Goldberg.[xi]
Two members of the Young Socialist Alliance liberate a flatbed truck and block the intersection of West Washington Avenue and North Bassett Street; with mattresses and furniture, it’s reminiscent of scenes from the radical riots in Paris precisely a year prior. It’s a perfect perch for a group of about forty to launch volleys of rocks and bricks on approaching police, who are twice driven back until they finally overrun the rampart.[xii]
Police draw blood and sometimes their weapons; one officer brandishes his revolver at students who briefly have him cornered. Another puts his gun to the head of an arrestee. A third throws a rock through a window at the Mifflin Co-op.[xiii]
The crowd blocks Bassett Street with material from a pipe-laying project and sets trash fires. When police vehicles knock the burning barricades down, they’re set back up just to be knocked down again.[xiv]
By the time Soglin returns at about 9 p.m., his ward looks like a war zone, with clouds of tear gas visible from blocks away. When he calls for calm over a squad car loudspeaker, a rock crashes through the windshield, splattering him with glass.[xv]
After a brief lull, the chaos resumes and spreads to State Street. An uneasy calm finally comes about 12:30 Sunday morning.
It doesn’t last long.[xvi]
Police make twenty-five arrests. Fifteen policemen and thirteen youths are injured; the most serious injury is to a policeman who suffers broken ribs from being hit by a brick.[xvii]
Police Chief Wilbur Emery, who doesn’t arrive until 8:30 p.m., later tells a mayoral commission investigating the riot that he “couldn’t think of any different tactics to take other than what was being done.”[xviii]
Detective McCarthy thinks it went well. “We went down there and bombed the shit out of them,” he says later.[xix]
The troubles were just beginning.
And that’s this week’s Madison in the Sixties. For your award-winning, vaccine-taking, mask-wearing hand-washing socially distant WORT news team, I’m Stu Levitan.
Photo of Ald. Paul Soglin getting arrested courtesy Capital Newspapers
[i] Report of the Mayor’s Commission, appendix; Howard N. Fox, “Gilman St.: The Other Dance,” DC, May 7, 1969.
[ii] Report of the Mayor’s Commission, 2–3.
[iii] Clara Bingham, Witness to the Revolution: Radicals, Resisters, Vets, Hippies, and the Year America Lost Its Mind and Found Its Soul (New York: Random House, 2016), 49.
[iv] Rosemary Kendrick, “Mifflin Testimony in Sharp Relief,” CT, June 17, 1969; Kendrick, “Dyke Contradicted by Mifflin Witness,” CT, June 18, 1969; Ronee Epstein Bergmann and Barbara Rochwerger Haynes, Facebook exchanges[with author?], October 2017; Alison Klairmont Lingo email[to author?], December 31, 2017, January 1, 2018.
[v] Report of the Mayor’s Commission, 4; Paul Soglin interview[with author?], April 2016.
[vi] Report of the Mayor’s Commission, 4.
[vii] Jon Wegge, “Police, Students Clash in Raid on Block Party,” WSJ, May 4, 1969; “Students vs. Police: Clash of Cultures? Generation Gap?” CT, May 5, 1969.
[viii] Jim Hougan, “Mittelstadt’s Crack about Soglin’s Hair Angers Atty. Cates,” CT, July 10, 1969; Paul Soglin interview, War at Home papers, Box 4, Folder 26 .
[ix] Kendrick, “Mifflin Testimony in Sharp Relief,” CT, June 17, 1969; Report of the Mayor’s Commission, 5; David Williams email[to author?], January 2, 2018.
[x] Dennis Sandage, “Dyke Considering Curew Tonight,” CT, February 5, 1969; Thomas Report no. 536, 336.
[xi] Steve Kravit, “Faculty Is Shocked by Actions of Police,” DC, May 10, 1969.
[xii] David Williams emails to author, November 5, 2017, January 15, 2018.
[xiii] Sandage, “Dyke Considering Curfew Tonight,” CT, May 5, 1969; Report, Appendix.
[xiv] Report of the Mayor’s Commission, 6.
[xv] Soglin interview, War at Home papers; Report of the Mayor’s Commission, 6.
[xvi] “Chronology of a Riot,” DC, special edition, May 5, 1969.
[xvii] “Police Arrest over 80,” WSJ, May 5, 1969; Kendrick, “18 Policemen, 48 Others Treated at City Hospitals,” CT, May 5, 1969.
[xviii] Clifford S. Behnke, “Emery Defends Mifflin St. Action,” WSJ, June 24, 1969.
[xix] Bingham, Witness to the Revolution, 49.