‘Speak softly, and carry a big stick’: City Subdues Mifflin Block Party

Saturday, a security guard bent down to light his morning cigarette. Nearby, a patrol of neon vested police officers sauntered up the sidewalk. The air was damp. Even the ground gave out underneath an ill placed foot, leaving behind a muddy footprint where a shoe had been. Mifflin Street began to stir.

Madison police saunter down the sidewalk during the Mifflin Street Block Party

Photos courtesy of Lukas Keapproth http://lukaskeapproth.com

On April 10, Madison Police Department officials announced the city would no longer sanction the Mifflin Street Block Party. University of Wisconsin students and Madison residents were aghast, and they said as much in the press and city meetings: the annual celebration had been a Madison tradition since 1969 – a right of passage even. How could MPD take that away?

City officials responded. Mifflin had become unmanageable and unsafe. Mayor Paul Soglin cited the stabbings and assaults of 2011’s block party as evidence the event had outlived its useful purpose.

Madison’s alcohol policy coordinator, Mark Woulf, later said the city was not canceling the block party. He said there technically was no block party to begin with because no business or association had sponsored the event. Mifflin residents, nonetheless, stocked up on alcohol. MPD organized patrols. Mike Verveer, District 4, joked at a neighborhood meeting that Mifflin could be called the “Non-Block Party.” For many Madison residents, Mifflin indeed had become a non-party.

Hot n’ cold

In April, MPD officers distributed to Mifflin residents pamphlets detailing block party regulations. Tenants said officers were friendly, but discouraging of house parties. UW student Hillary Kump said officers explained the risks.

“[The officer] said … they could come in and give a citation without giving a warning first,” she said.

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Residents said officers were vague while they described the ordinances. Determining whether a party was legal was subjective according to Drew Doering, a recent UW graduate.

“One of the things we were concerned about was the vagueness of the sound level rule,” he said.

Some residents said they were glad the police were there Saturday. Others were not. Some said the police acted unpredictably.

UW junior Matt Glutch and his friends played games in front of their apartment. He said police officers reminded them to call for help if they needed to.

“They said to let them know that if someone tried to come up and get in [our apartment], ‘feel free to come down and get us.’ They’re really nice.”

drinking games

Photos courtesy of Lukas Keapproth

Some attendees did not feel that way.

A UW senior who spoke under the condition of anonymity said officers gave citations to people when they made honest mistakes. He said two police officers accused him of giving alcohol to an underage person, but soon realized the alcohol came from his downstairs neighbors. The officers contacted the neighbors, who cooperated during the investigation.

“They did everything the cop asked and they got a ticket,” he said. “I appreciate what [the police] are doing, but it’s unfortunate because there are third party casualties. That [underage] kid’s never gonna get a job.”

Some party goers said police alternated between extremes: officers casually let residents snap photos alongside police horses, and then without missing a beat, arrested a man who crossed the street with alcohol.

“They say one thing and then they obviously do the other,” said UW senior Larry Calderon. “It’s hot n’ cold to them.”

Madison resident Rosemary Lee, 75, said the number of police officers was excessive and reduced her enjoyment of the event. She said she counted about 18 officers within one block of Mifflin Street.

“I cannot condone the heavy-handedness and what, I think today, are the excessive amount of law enforcement from the agencies that are here,” Lee said. “I know the police have to make sure everybody is safe … but still, there is a right way and a wrong way to do it, and imposing almost martial law and having a humongous number of law enforcement here.” She sighed.

Beer cans

Photos courtesy of Lukas Keapproth

Pork on a horse

MPD spokesperson Joel DeSpain said police arrested two individuals by 3:30 p.m. Lt. Dave McCaw said the low number indicated law enforcement officers were successful in reigning in Mifflin.

“It sounds like a lot of people are listening to the message no matter how bitter it was to hear it,” he said. “We gave people options and people were taking those options.”

Several students, however, said MPD’s inconsistent enforcement of city ordinances unfairly targeted Mifflin, adding to their skepticism of officers’ impartiality.

“I can’t take them seriously anymore,” said UW senior Zhanna Godkin. “Two days ago, we were having a party [with alcohol] on the sidewalk … and there was a cop sitting right there and he wasn’t doing s—t.”

At midday, UW senior Nicholas Karl watched a police van slowly drive down Mifflin Street. He shouted at the driver, referring to the vehicle a “pig van.” His temper steamed as much as the drying pavement beneath his feet. Mounted police trotted by. Karl shouted, “pork on horse!”

Karl said Mifflin’s character had changed; he felt he was no longer drinking at Mifflin the party, but rather on some street named Mifflin. He blamed the police, but only partially.

“Pigs ruin Mifflin,” he said. “I want them to know that they’re pork on a horse. I respect them … You can’t get mad at the people following orders. You gotta get mad at the people giving you orders.”

Students playing football

Photos courtesy of Lukas Keapproth

Karl kicked a soccer ball down the sidewalk. Julia Mercer, a senior, retrieved it.

She glanced at the mounted police.

“It’s so complicated of a relationship,” she said. “You need to understand it. You’re pork on a horse, but I respect you.”

By afternoon, the sun broke through the clouds. The smell of fresh earth, stirred by the morning rain, mixed with the scent of discarded cans of Miller Lite and PBR. Students gathered on porches, wearing t-shirts that urged their peers to “Drink Wisconsinbly.” Footballs, bean bags and Frisbees pattered the sidewalks, tracing long arcs from their throwers’ hands. Mifflin was still alive with the shouts and chatter of students who wouldn’t give up.


A version of this article appeared in print on May 6, 2013, on page 1 of the The Badger Herald with the headline: “Subdued Mifflin.”


One thought on “‘Speak softly, and carry a big stick’: City Subdues Mifflin Block Party

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