After four years at the University of Wisconsin and 18 years before that as a child of two American parents, I’ve heard the word “privilege” with a steady degree of regularity. Its use starts as a warning like, “Having your toy is a privilege, not a right,” and in an academic setting evolves something much more indicting; for example: “You are the embodiment of white privilege.” The mere use of the word makes most people chafe and immediately begin to defend themselves from a perceived assault on their character or their own group identity.
I get that. But I’ll still say this: the Mifflin Street Block Party is a privilege, not a right.
Campus activists above my pay grade are much more skilled in making the argument that Mifflin, with its regular displays of misguided cultural appropriation like last year’s “Cinco de Mifflin,” is an exercise in white privilege on an apparently tolerant campus. Their arguments are valid and important, but since I was birthed into one of the most privileged percentiles in human history, I’ll let more qualified authorities continue to make that argument.
Instead, I prefer thinking of Mifflin as that toy truck that Mrs. Freitag took away from my kindergarten class in 1996. The party was an abused privilege, and the paternalistic forces in City Hall took it away from us for sound reasons.
Most defenders of Mifflin insist that the event is a tradition, which syllogistically makes it a right. Just look at the pages of this newspaper for proof – my fellow The Badger Herald Editorial Board member John Waters won the hearts of thousands of undergraduates when he wrote earlier this month that “the idea that we want to stand outside on the first weekend in May, wear silly shirts, take a beer bong and yell for no reason other then it feels damn good bothers [the city and university administration] to no end.”
Of course, none of Mifflin’s defenders are willing to admit that if the block party is a tradition, sexual and physical violence are equally traditional occurrences.
The most customary reaction to this argument is to claim that violence will happen on any weekend, at any place or at any time. We do have a crime problem downtown, even if national magazines tell us Madison is one of America’s safest cities. And if the police have the ability to prevent an assault from happening, it’s their social responsibility to do so.
Sexual assaults happen at Mifflin, during Mifflin, because of Mifflin. Physical violence has happened at Mifflin, during Mifflin, because of Mifflin. And had Mayor Paul Soglin and the Madison Police Department embraced the politically unpopular student perspective that Mifflin should continue in spite of its flaws, they would have failed the city they represent.
But, alas, honing in on an incubator for the most egregious human behavior is dubbed a “War on Mifflin” that has created a “downtown police state.”
MPD and several mayoral administrations have given Mifflinites the opportunity to at a minimum prove that the event doesn’t cause harm to either a single individual or the city at large. But we have failed. We brush off the reported sexual assaults like they are the necessary byproducts of enjoying the “steam blowing” and refuse to acknowledge that every year, in the basement of homes in the Mifflin Street area on the day of the party, more assaults likely occur without ever being reported.
The reaction to MPD’s fatally flawed message to the students earlier this month, that there will “be no Mifflin Street Block Party” this year, has been the most disappointing display of this avoidance of the topic at hand I’ve noticed as a student here. I’ve seen students scoff at the thought that an epidemic of assaults in a concentrated area isn’t a good enough reason to curb the event.
The worst part of all of this is that Mifflin’s non-harmful attractions are, in fact, wildly fun. Day drinking is popular for a reason, and Mifflin Street itself has a special character that separates it from even the most exciting college town neighborhoods. I remain skeptical that Revelry, the nonalternative alternative to Mifflin, will be successful this year in large part because of the city’s botched messaging that confused student organizers. MPD and Soglin, who appear to view the debate about Mifflin as meaningless and petulant, have worsened the “student rights” narrative.
But if this column or any of the dozens of others about the subject that have appeared in the student press are to serve as an epitaph for the Mifflin Street Block Party, allow me to add my contribution:
Here lies the Mifflin Street Block Party
Beloved by students so much that they ignored its dangerous drawbacks and continued abusing police politeness until, one day, the too-good-to-be-true privilege of drinking, without consequence, during the day, in a place with unguarded and unprotected corners, relinquished itself to common sense city policymaking as narcissistic group thought led students to ignore the plight of the victims of a three-block stretch of anarchy.
Ryan Rainey (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior majoring in journalism and Latin American studies.