There were fewer people and only one report of violence. But the relatively uneventful Mifflin Street Block Party on Saturday did little to dissuade Madison’s top cop that the decades-old event needs to end.
An estimated 5,000 people filled porches, homes and yards in a two-block section of West Mifflin Street. Unlike last year’s sponsored event, no drinking was allowed on sidewalks or the street.
That resulted in Madison police as of 7:45 p.m. Saturday arresting and citing more than 400 people. Most citations were for open intoxicants, followed by underage drinking violations, glass containers in a ban area, trespassing and depositing human waste, Madison Police spokesman Joel DeSpain said.
The only reported violence came around 9:15 p.m. — after the street was largely emptied of revelers — when a man was knocked out in a fight, police said. He was taken to a hospital.
Among those receiving tickets was Badgers running back Montee Ball, who was cited for trespassing and released without incident, DeSpain said. Ball sent messages on Twitter Saturday evening apologizing for “bringing any unwanted attention to badger nation.”
While the number of people arrested was far greater than the 167 arrested last year, Madison Police Chief Noble Wray said Saturday’s event was significantly safer. But he still hopes the annual party can come to an end.
“I don’t think in any measure this could be considered a success,” Wray said as he sat outside a command center with cameras trained on the street. “This is still an improper venue to have this. It is not suited for large numbers of people.”
Last year’s party drew an estimated 20,000 people and was marred by violence including two stabbings, three sexual assaults, three strong-armed robberies and three substantial batteries. Three police officers were injured during the event.
In 2011, officials tried to mitigate the event’s focus on alcohol by having a sponsor, providing food and offering organized entertainment, but a police assessment concluded those changes made things worse. Wray wants a group of stakeholders to convene “immediately” to look at how to end, dramatically change or move the event to another venue.
Said Wray: “What we’re doing now is managing chaos.”
This year’s party featured a resident protection plan instituted by police. The voluntary program, a first for the block party, required that residents agree to follow rules on underage drinking, capacity and not sell alcohol. In return, police promised to help remove party crashers without necessarily shutting down the party.
“From a public safety standpoint, it’s been a good event,” DeSpain said.
Unlike last year, West Mifflin Street was kept open for vehicular traffic throughout the day. Most of it was police vehicles, pizza delivery cars and the occasional motorcycle or bicycle. Mounted police on 1,800-pound horses played a crucial role in managing the crowd.
“We can move people very non-confrontationally,” said Officer Sarah McLaughlin, working her sixth party on horseback.
The party started in 1969 as a street dance but turned into a three-day riot. More than 200 people were arrested and dozens injured during clashes with police who tried to keep the street clear.
In following years, the event was designed as a protest against the Vietnam War or a fundraiser for the Mifflin Street Co-op. But for almost two decades, the event has primarily been a beer bash with no political overtones.
Mason Lockard, 22, a UW-Milwaukee student from New Glarus, said the party should continue because of its history. “It’s been a tradition,” Lockard said. “It’s a way to release pressure.”
Rosemary Lee agreed. She has missed only four or five of the parties since it began.
Now 73, the retired UW-Madison employee said the students should be embraced while the cost to police the event — expected to be more than $130,000 — should be taken in context.
“That’s a drop in the bucket compared to what the students bring into this town,” Lee said.
Attorney Dean Richards, who has an office on the Capitol Square and a Downtown condominium, was on the other end of the spectrum. Surveying dozens of officers, he said, “Police are doing an unbelievable job with this, but what an unbelievable waste of resources.”
Lori Berquam, the UW-Madison dean of students, pleaded with students not to attend. Police canvassed the neighborhood handing out pamphlets outlining fines for violations including underage drinking ($177), open intoxicants ($303) and selling alcohol without a permit ($681).
Madison street musician Art Paul Schlosser played guitar in the early afternoon in front of a porch filled with young people drinking. He had about $20 in singles in his guitar case in the early afternoon but wasn’t sure how long he would stay.
“If I get out of here before people get too harassing, it’s going to be good for me,” Schlosser said. “I skipped playing last year. It was too violent.”