Riot in the Streets: Looking back 50 years at the Mifflin Street Block Party riots of 1969
A block party devolved into chaos
May 3, 1969 – a Saturday night spring block party in the student neighborhood called “Miffland” turns into a three-night riot.
Maybe the party’s provocative poster, with calls for “armed love” and to “off the pig,” put police on edge. Maybe the hippies, heavies and hangers-on are angry that they weren’t allowed to block traffic and dance in the street.
But when the Madison Police Department’s No. 2 man, Inspector Herman Thomas, and a few officers respond to a noise complaint at 512 W. Mifflin St., it doesn’t go well.
Trying but failing to get everyone off of the street, Thomas leaves to gather eight more officers – in riot gear. “We’re going down there to crack some skulls,” he tells them, returning to the scene at about 4:15 p.m. He orders the crowd to clear the street and is met with rocks, vulgar catcalls and a roasted pig’s head on a stick.
Baton-wielding police push into the crowd and arrest a few people, including Alderman Paul Soglin, whom they pull out of his 1959 Triumph convertible and arrest for driving on the street they’re supposedly keeping open to vehicle traffic.
Soon, 30 officers in riot gear are in the street and about 500 youth, a handful hurling rocks and bottles, stand on porches and roofs.
When Thomas fully unleashes his men, they charge into the crowd with riot masks on and nightsticks up – and are hit with a hail of rocks and bricks. Thomas fires some tear gas, withdraws temporarily and calls in 122 county and university officers who are standing by.
For the next several hours, small radical groups engage in hit-and-run battles, showering police with bricks, rocks and bottles, often in coordinated attacks. County deputies pump out massive amounts of tear gas. A toxic cloud hovers over the three-story flats.
The crowd blocks Bassett Street with construction material and sets trash fires. When cop cars knock down the burning barricades, the barriers are set back up, only to be knocked down again. The battles end a little after midnight.
On Sunday, Mayor Bill Dyke refuses to issue a temporary street permit, suggesting that people party in the parking lots around the southeast dorms. He also threatens a street-clearing curfew.
That afternoon, Soglin is arrested a second time for “unlawful assembly” while standing by himself near his Bassett Street apartment. Alderman Eugene Parks, elected the month before as the city’s first African American alder, is also arrested when he protests an alleged forceful arrest of a student.
When jailers won’t take a check from Alderwoman Alicia Ashman to pay Soglin’s $507 bail, Madison Fire Captain Ed Durkin, president of Firefighters Local 311, authorizes the use of union funds.
The riot resumes after dark; kids and cops battle throughout downtown.
As sheriff’s deputies turn their backs and make no effort to intervene late Sunday evening, a horde of high school students and other townies beat up some Mifflanders who have marched to the City County Building in the vain hope of meeting with Dyke. “After last night,” Sheriff Vernon “Jack” Leslie says, “they deserve everything they get.”
Early Monday evening, Mayor Dyke ventures into hostile territory, speaking to a jeering crowd of about a thousand from the steps of the new Mifflin Street Community Cooperative. Shortly after he leaves, more than 400 officers from several jurisdictions resume their tear gas offensive, and the third night’s riot is on. Tonight, the radical groups aren’t just throwing rocks and bricks – someone firebombs three city, state and university offices. At 10 p.m., chaos in the streets shuts down city bus service. The riots end again around midnight.
Eighty-six people are treated for injuries over the three nights, including 18 law enforcement officers, 34 youth and 12 observers or children. The UW-Madison student senate puts $1,900 into a bail fund for the 100 or so arrestees – including future Madison Poet Laureate John Tuschen. More than a dozen storefronts on State Street are shattered, and downtown businesses file $8,000 in claims against the city (which the city denies).
And Madison makes another mark in history, this time as the site of the nation’s first lifestyle riot.
On Tuesday, after attorney Shirley Abrahamson, Lowell Frautschi and the Rev. Max Gaebler get Dyke to withdraw the police, about 100 volunteers from their citizens’ group, the “Committee of Thirty,” start three days of interviews in the neighborhood, hearing about bad cops and bad landlords. An uneasy peace holds.
But tension racks the council. Soglin pleads for a four-hour block party permit for Saturday. Even though Dyke, a conservative mayor, 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 [sic] a lack of respect for anything honest and decent,” Alderman Ralph Hornbeck says.
They’ve also shown they can plan a party, permit or not.
The threatened showdown on Saturday is avoided only when popular fire captain (and future fire chief) Ed Durkin invites everyone to his large spread on Old Middleton Road. Dyke provides two city buses, the Mifflin Street Co-op donates the beer and about 400 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.”
At Soglin’s request, Realtor and future Gov. Patrick Lucey gives a $1 year’s lease on a vacant lot in the 400 block of West Mifflin Street to the Mifflin Street Community Co-op for a pocket park. Dyke appoints a fact-finding panel of three lawyers, which holds six weeks of hearings into the riots. Their report blames both sides and pleases neither.
At a time when the Badger football team had gone 0-19-1 over the previous two seasons, Wisconsin State Journal columnist Joseph Leo “Roundy” Coughlin offers a unique twist: “If the football team could get a march on like a lot of the students did Sunday night, they would go to the Rose Bowl.”
Historian Stu Levitan is an award-winning print and broadcast journalist and a mainstay of Madison media and government since 1975. This feature is adapted from his newest book, “Madison in the Sixties” (Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2018).
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Historian Stu Levitan, who has written two books and many articles about Madison’s history, reviewed newspaper accounts, police records, city reports and interviewed key participants to draft this account of the Mifflin Street Block Party riot. As Madison columnist Doug Moe once described him in a profile, Levitan has “emerged as Madison’s wise old sage; a fact-driven student of the city’s history, tireless civic participant, [and an] esteemed author.”
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