Madison in the Sixties – the Mifflin Street Block Party Riot, part 2
Sunday, May 4 Late afternoon
Hundreds of kids are hanging out around Mifflin and Bassett streets, hundreds of cops are on their way. Tear gas lingers in the air, rocks strewn through the streets, residue of last night’s riot. Kids still want a block party; Mayor Bill Dyke still says no and refuses to issue a permit.
As the crowd builds, Ald. Paul Soglin is arrested a second time, for “unlawful assembly” – while standing by himself near his Bassett St. apartment. Alderwoman Alicia Ashman tries to bail him out, but jailers won’t take her check. So fire captain and union president Ed Durkin – thankful for Soglin’s support during the illegal strike he led three months earlier — authorizes the use of union funds for the $507 bail. This charge is later dropped, but Soglin is convicted on a separate charge from Saturday.
Ald. Eugene Parks, elected the month before as the city’s first African-American alder, is also arrested when he protests a resident’s rough arrest. A jury finds Parks not guilty, but the council breaks with its long practice and refuses to reimburse his legal fees (which attorney Dick Cates then waives).
After dark, the riot resumes, as projectiles and tear-gas again fill the air throughout downtown.
Late that night, some Mifflin area youth and their supporters march to the City-County Building in the vain hope of meeting with Dyke during an emergency, but unofficial, city council meeting. But as sheriff’s deputies turn their backs and make no effort to intervene, a horde of high school kids and other townies beat them up. “After last night,” Sheriff “Jack” Leslie says, “they deserve everything they get.”
Police make another fifty-five arrests before the end of the night; hospitals treat three officers and thirty-five residents and bystanders.
Monday, May 5, more of the same, only more so.
Early evening, Mayor Dyke ventures to a very hostile ground zero, speaking to a jeering crowd of about a thousand from the steps of the new Mifflin Community Co-op. He rejects Soglin’s demands for amnesty and gives the crowd thirty minutes to disperse; they build new barricades instead, and the third night’s riot is on.
The mayor’s appearance does not calm the situation; the Monday night fight is the worst yet. Tear gas blankets the area, rocks thrown and trash fires set from Langdon Street to the southeast dorms. Students not only send up a barrage of projectiles – parties unknown firebomb three city, state, and university offices.
It gets so bad the Teamster bus drivers won’t drive through downtown, and the bus company shuts down citywide service overnight.
By the time it’s all over Tuesday morning, there are shattered storefronts up and down State Street. Thirty-four youth, eighteen officers, and twelve observers or children need medical care.
And Madison has again made its mark, with the nation’s first lifestyle riot.
On Tuesday, Dyke agrees with a citizens group called the “Committee of Thirty” to withdraw the police so the group – led by attorney Shirley S. Abrahamson, businessman/philanthropist Lowell Frautschi, and the Unitarian Reverend Max Gaebler – can send volunteers into the neighborhood to interview the residents to find out not what happened, but why. And about a hundred members spend three days hearing about bad cops and bad landlords. Dyke responds, ordering a comprehensive inspection of the 140 buildings in the four core blocks of Miffland; when city inspectors issue 221 citations for sanitary and building code violations, Dyke declares there is “considerable legitimacy” to complaints about bad landlords.
He is not equally supportive of complaints against police.
While the uneasy peace holds in Miffland, tension racks the council – especially when an alderman from the far east side presents a petition calling for the “immediate dismissal” of Soglin and Parks from the council “if they are arrested for any violation during any demonstration of any nature.” Parks storms out in righteous anger.
Soglin pleads for a four-hour block party permit for Saturday. Even though conservative Mayor Dyke supports the request and praises Soglin for his “desperate and significant attempt” to keep things calm, the council denies the permit, 17–3. “These people have showed a lack of respect for anything honest and decent,” Ald. Ralph Hornbeck says.
They’ve also shown they plan a party, permit or no. The threatened showdown on Saturday is avoided only when fire captain Durkin invites everyone to his large spread out Old Middleton Rd., near the Highlands.
Dyke provides two city buses free of charge, the Mifflin Co-op donates the beer, and about four hundred Mifflanders have a pretty good party and pig roast. National media take note: “Campus riots in many parts of the country have given some people the idea that there are too many radicals,” CBS newsman Murray Fromson reports, “but perhaps in fairness it should be said there are too few Ed Durkins.”
In fall, the ad hoc commission of three lawyers and judges Dyke appointed to investigate the riot issues a report blaming both sides and pleasing neither.
The main cause of the conflict wasn’t any surprise — “the underlying antagonism which existed before the incidents,” made worse because Mifflanders knew the police had allowed the “more conventionally dressed students of the Langdon-Gilman Street area” to have a block party just the week before.
But the next biggest cause, the commission concludes, was the police policy of responding with overwhelming force before there was an actual need, which Police chief Wilbur Emery adopted after the Dow protest and riot in October 1967. The commission clears the police of firing first — police “did not resort to the use of tear gas until they had been pelted with missiles,” – but still implicates this policy in the Mifflin riot: “The second additional precipitating factor was the bringing of police attired in riot gear into the Mifflin Street area before there had been any actual violence.”
Once the violence began, the report states, “Training proved inadequate in the case of certain few officers, who during the disorders engaged in beatings, improper use of riot sticks and indiscriminate and improper use of tear gas. More and better training in this field is needed.”
State street businesses with smashed windows and stolen inventory file $8,000 in claims against the city under a state law making the city liable for damages in cases of “injury to persons or property by a mob or riot.” The day after Christmas, the council refuses to honor the claims.
At a time when the Badger football team had gone 0-19-1 over the past two seasons, sports columnist “Roundy Coughlin” offers a unique perspective after the first two nights of riot:
“If the football team could get a march on like a lot of the students did Sunday night,” he writes in Wisconsin State Journal, “they would go to the Rose Bowl,”
A few days later, in a sibling city a few hundred miles north of the Rose Bowl Stadium, a legendary underground newspaper pays respects on its front page: “On Wisconsin!” the Berkeley Barb declares.