The Mifflin Street Block Party began in 1969 as a street dance to celebrate community spurred by demonstrations taking place all over the country in response to the Vietnam Conflict. It ended as a confrontation between students and police to show the independence of the “Miffland” area and the student distaste of the war.
The first block party featured similarities to today’s party, including bands on porches and people gathering on the 500 block of Mifflin Street.
The Mifflin neighborhood during the Vietnam era was the center of anti-war protests. Many of the people involved in the movements helped organize the party, including people from the Mifflin Street Co-Operative, still located on Bassett Street, according to Matt Stoner, member services coordinator.
“There was a strong involvement in the party because when it began, and for many years after, it was a combination of a political demonstration as well as a party,” Stoner said.
During the 1969 riots, police officers attempted to clear the partiers from the streets. What resulted was a violent three-day riot, which spread onto State Street by Sunday and Langdon Street by Monday.
Students and partiers continually constructed and reconstructed barricades against police officers. Officers used teargas and billy clubs to disperse the crowds and were met with thrown objects including rocks, bricks and bottles.
“The history of the party is a huge component even though most people don’t know about [it],” Stoner said.
But police officers and city officials who are now the organizers and planners of the party are aware of the tumultuous history, Stoner added. This history has shaped how the city deals with student behavior and handles the overall event.
“The history plays into the tone of the party because the police are nervous the party will get out of hand and they tend to be antagonistic about it because of the history,” Stoner said.
President of Downtown Madison Inc. Susan Schmitz, a student during the original Mifflin riots, said the Vietnam Conflict spurred student rallies and demonstrations all over the city.
“I don’t think there will ever be something like that again — it was like there was a war in Madison, Wisconsin,” Schmitz said. “There was such passion and belief and what people were standing up for as students.”
Schmitz, who was on campus and also remembers the bombing of Sterling Hall, said the Mifflin riots as well as the other movements were taking place because students were stirred to do so.
“What was happening wasn’t meant to be destructive, that’s where it’s so different from now,” Schmitz said. “The city and the community knew the students were serious about what they were doing.”
Schmitz added students were “upset about big things,” including their friends and classmates drafted into the war, as well as issues of civil rights.
Following the end of the Vietnam era, the block party lost its political and student-demonstration undertones. Instead it has become a more student-focused party and since the early ’90s the Mifflin Street Co-Op has stopped organizing and sponsoring the party.
“We do a cleanup afterward and offer free trash bags and coffee to residents in the area to help clean up the neighborhood,” Stoner said. “It’s how we remain a party of the party.”
History repeats itself: May 6, 1996
Approximately 15,000 partiers took to the streets May 6, 1996, to enjoy the warm weather, but a few thousand people were the cause of a riot that night.
Ald. Mike Verveer, District 4, who has had a hand in the organization of the block party since 1995, said the 1996 riot was “hellish.”
“It was worse than the last three Halloween riots combined and I sadly witnessed all four of these campus-area riots up close and in person,” Verveer said.
Verveer said it continued with few problems until the night when partiers decided it was getting chilly and began a bonfire on the 500 block of Mifflin Street. They used furniture from porches and cardboard and attempted to use banisters as fuel for the fire.
“It was complete mob mentality fueled by tons of booze,” Verveer said.
Firefighters feared the large bonfire would ignite homes built near the street, many of which are from the early 20th century.
Around 10:30 p.m. a fire truck attempted to extinguish the large bonfire, but the crowd, which was still several thousand people strong, threw bottles and other debris at the fire truck and police escort.
The officers were forced to wait for riot gear before entering the block again.
Officers and firefighters used high-power hoses and pepper spray to disperse the crowd and extinguish the fire. But another fire was started at the other end of the block as the crowd chanted “wood” and passed doors and timber toward the fire.
Shortly after 11 p.m. the ladder truck and police guards were able to extinguish the second fire.
Around 1:30 a.m. a body of officers began clearing the area using pepper spray to disperse the crowd. Around 2:30 a.m., as police had re-claimed the majority of the 400 block of Mifflin Street, they were forced to return to the corner of Bedford and Mifflin streets, where a car had been set on fire.
Approximately eight bonfires were extinguished throughout the night, 20 officers were injured and the ladder truck sustained $10,000 in damage.
Following the 1996 riot, the city took a “hard-line approach” to the party, saying it was out of hand and had to be dramatically downsized, Verveer said. Officials began planning early for the 1997 party and held three neighborhood meetings, but due to poor weather the party attraction was limited.
“The dreary weather that year put a damper on everything, literally,” Verveer said. “The cops kept people out of the streets, there were no bands or DJs and a number of Mifflin residents left the area to get away from the party.”
What continued into 1997 and 1998 was what Verveer deemed the “Mifflin Street Porch Party” as the crowds diminished and partiers were kept to house porches. Following 1998, the city continued to work on planning the block party as attendance began to grow from 15,000 in 1996 to approximately 25,000 last year.
“The party has come back with vengeance and the cops have lightened up as long as everyone clears the streets by 8 (p.m.),” Verveer said. “Since 1996 we’ve had great cooperation between cops and residents.”