Madison in the Sixties – the Mifflin Street Block Party Riots, part 2
Sunday, May 4, 1969 – Late afternoon
Tear gas lingers in the soft spring air, rocks and bricks are strewn through the streets, all residue of last night’s riot. Mifflanders still want a block party; Mayor Bill Dyke still says no and refuses to issue a permit. Hundreds of kids are hanging out around Mifflin and Bassett streets, hundreds of cops are on their way.
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. The charge is later dropped after a judge rules police didn’t understand the unlawful assembly statute, but Soglin is convicted on Saturday’s charge of failing to follow a police order.
Ald. Eugene Parks, elected the month before as the city’s first Black 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 city council meeting. Then, 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.
Dyke’s visit does not calm the situation; the Monday night fight is the worst yet. Tear gas blankets the area, as 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.
Things calm down on Tuesday, after a citizens group called the “Committee of Thirty,” led by attorney Shirley S. Abrahamson, convinces Dyke to withdraw the police. But tension racks the city council when an alder from the far east side calls for Soglin and Parks to be expelled 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 block party permit for Saturday. Even though Dyke now 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 on Old Middleton Rd.
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.”
Dyke creates an ad hoc commission of two retired Supreme Court justices and an attorney to investigate the riot. In fall, it issues a report blaming both sides and pleasing neither.
The report clears the police of firing first, concluding that they “did not resort to the use of tear gas until they had been pelted with missiles.” But it blames the police for provoking the crowd, due to the policy police chief Wilbur Emery adopted after the Dow protest in 1967 of showing overwhelming force before it was needed.
Next to the “the underlying antagonism which existed before the incidents,” the report finds, “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 winless over its past two seasons, sports columnist “Roundy” Coughlin offers a unique perspective of the riot:
“If the football team could get a march on like a lot of the students did,” 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 proclaims.
And that’s this week’s Madison in the Sixties. For your award-winning, vaccine-taking, mask-wearing hand-washing block-partying socially distant WORT news team, I’m Stu Levitan.
Rich Faverty photo of Ald. Eugene Parks getting arrested near the intersection of Mifflin and Bassett streets, the new Mifflin Community Co-Op in the background.