Madison in the Sixties:The Mifflin Street Block Party Riots, part 1
April 29, 1969
Madison Police Sgt. Arnie Brager reports that an unknown group is putting up posters of a man in a bandolier calling for “armed love” and to “off the pig,” and announcing a street party that Saturday in the 500 block of West Mifflin. 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.
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.
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.
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 the Janis Joplin record Alison Klairmont is playing. But it’s too loud for an elderly woman in the 400 block, who phones police to complain; Inspector Herman Thomas, the department’s number two man, and in charge that day, responds with two officers. He tells 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.
But as soon as Thomas leaves the house the volume returns, the Rolling Stones celebrating the “Street Fighting Man.” The group jumps in a flash to more than a hundred, dancers spilling into the street. Officers cite the ban on block parties and push them back on the sidewalk.
Thomas goes back to the station to gather eight more officers—in riot gear. “Stay behind me, men, we’re going down there to crack some skulls,” he tells them, returning to the scene at about 4:15 p.m. More officers are also on their way.
Calling for a squad car with a loudspeaker, Thomas broadcasts the order to clear the street. The crowd responds with rocks and vulgar catcalls, and someone sticks a roasted pig’s head near the car.
Baton-wielding police start pushing into the crowd and making isolated arrests—including Ald. Paul Soglin, for “failing to obey a lawful order,” namely driving on the street they’re supposedly trying to keep open.
As his constituents watch in outrage, police pull Soglin out of his 1959 Triumph convertible and put him into their paddy wagon. Accompanied by attorney Mel Greenberg, 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. The arresting officer, Sergeant Gordon Hons, center, testifies at Soglin’s trial in July that Soglin was alone in car. “I’m as sure of that fact as I am of any other in the case,” he tells the jury at Soglin’s trial in July.
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 hurling rocks and bottles; Thomas later claims they even throw feces.
Ald. Eugene Parks, elected a month earlier at Madison’s first black alderman, arrives and pleads in vain with Thomas to let the party go on; Parks then gets on the loudspeaker and tells the crowd to cool it while he appeals to Mayor Bill 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. 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 campus Black Strike in February, they charge into groups of youths with nightsticks up—and are hit with a hail of rocks and bricks; several officers are badly injured. Thomas deploys tear gas, withdraws his men for about an hour, and calls for county and university support; 122 more officers respond.
For the next several hours, there’s pandemonium as autonomous affinity groups engage in hit-and-run battles with police, showering them with bricks, rocks, and bottles, often in coordinated attacks and ambushes. A nearby building demolition provides a ready source for bricks.
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 fire or hurl tear gas cannisters right inside, including into Professor Harvey Goldberg’s apartment at 521W. Dayton St.
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 a barricade reminiscent of the ones radicals used in the Paris riots precisely a year prior. It provides 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.
Police draw blood and sometimes their weapons; one officer separated from his group brandishes his revolver at students who briefly have him cornered. Another puts his gun to the head of an arrestee. A third officer throws a rock through a window at the Mifflin Co-op.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Police Chief Wilbur Emery, who’s at an undisclosed location 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.”
Detective Tom McCarthy thinks it went well. “We went down there and bombed the shit out of them,” he says later.