Sunday, May 4, 2008

Mifflin Aftermath

I had a great time at the Mifflin Street Block Party this year. In spite of the crap weather, we persevered, and the sun even came out eventually. I'm sorry to see another one go, but I'm also very concerned about the future of the event.

For the second year in a row, I noticed an overall decline in the atmosphere that made me fall in love with the first block party I went to in 2004. I think the dropping levels of "magic in the air" can be attributed to a growing unease between revelers and police, the falling number of bands and live performers on porches and balconies and, of course, mounting arrests.

The Madison Police Department's stance that the Mifflin festivities are an "illegal party" is what's sucking the life out of them. I stopped to think briefly about the implications of an "illegal party," and it made me shudder. The administration has been posturing itself, gradually each year, to deal with the block party as if it's an affront to order and decency. They turn the vise a little tighter each year, and it's starting to seem like a scene in Footloose, where an oppressive city regime passes an ordinance against fun. The block party is not the devil. It's an excuse for students and the community to blow off a little steam after a cold, miserable winter and welcome in the summer by getting a little out-of-hand, listening to some music and hitting a few beer bongs.

The most telling moment of the afternoon, for me, occurred at about 5:30. There was still plenty of daylight left to party in, but there was only one band left playing on the street. As per police orders, they had their volume turned down quite a ways, but understandably, a crowd began to gather as the three-piece worked its way through a blues and rock set...they were the only show on the street! I almost laughed out loud when they launched into a stirring rendition of "Bulls on Parade" by Rage Against the Machine, and almost on cue, a line of police moved up to the front door. It was too surreal. Zack de la Rocha would have torn his own hair out.

I talked to Allison Huber, a resident at the house, after the cops left. "It was just a warning," she said. "They were really nice about it. They said if we want, we can keep playing, but we would be risking it."

They left by noting they were also worried about the crowd gathering in front of the house...which would not have been an issue had there been OTHER BANDS playing elsewhere on the street. But the number of live music acts has dropped off rapidly in the past few years, because of the authorities' insistence on writing tickets for noise violations.

"That's just why we wanted to have the band," Allison said. "No one does it any more."

Even recent City Council President Mike assistant District Attorney, for Chrissake...recognizes the problem. What's more, he notes that silencing bands on porches isn't helping police keep order at the block party. It's taking away a source of legitimate entertainment from party-goers.

"When you take the music away, all that really leaves is drinking," he told me. "But so many bands, this year and last year, are scared to even try to perform because the cops have been so strict about music. I think it's unfortunate and unwarranted."

I'm not levelling a blanket criticism at the police. I take every exception with the policy decisions that dictate the way they handle the block party, but there are plenty of individual officers on street level who go out of the way to make it a safe, fun event. I saw one reveler who followed a group of police all the way down the block carrying a sign that read, "Get the pigs off Mifflin." Remarkably, when someone rushed in and violently siezed sign-guy's plaquard, officers wasted no time in tackling he thief, cuffing him and walking him down the street. That was very big of them, and it exemplified exactly what I think the police should be on Mifflin for.

Noise violations? Waste of time. Drinking laws? For one day out of the year, how tough is it to just get over it? Police should concentrate on keeping people from hurting other party-goers or damaging property. And for the most part, I think that's what they do, but there are plenty of people like Mike Klein who get cuffed and dragged off as well.

"They took me on a bus with a bunch of other people," he told me, "took me down to this garage and processed me, took my finger prints, mug shots, everything like that."

What was Mike's heinous crime, that he should be aprehended and run as grist through the mill of the justice system? Did he burn down a house? Rape a fellow student? Punch a police horse?

No. He cracked open his first beer of the day with one foot inadvertantly on the sidewalk, and when police breathalized him as part of his processing, he blew a double-zero. I know several other people with similar stories, and every time I hear one, it kills MY buzz.

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