Friday, October 28, 2005

Trick or Trick
I greet you on this Friday afternoon from a little coffee shop on State Street in Madison. State Street runs from the Capitol Square to the campus, and is lined with restaurants, bars, and stores. It contributes to one of the most vibrant college-town scenes in the country. In short, it's what lots of people think of when they think of "Madison." And sometime within the next 36 hours, it's going to be the scene of a riot.

Halloween at UW-Madison has been pretty wild since the 1970s--weird costumes, strange behavior, and lots of public intoxication, with tens of thousands of revelers packing the lower State Street area. It was at its early peak around 1980, while I was a student at UW-Platteville, about 75 minutes away. I knew lots of eminent Plattevillians who traved to Madison for Halloween (although I never did myself). That wasn't unusual--I knew of students who came from as far away as Carbondale, Illinois, to make the scene, and thousands of students from Minnesota have made the trip in recent years. In 1982, a 19-year-old student died of a fall--his accident was complicated by the fact that while paramedics were loading him into the ambulance, somebody stole the keys from the ignition. The student's death seemed to tame the celebrations, which stayed raucous but under control for a long time thereafter.

In 2002, after the downtown bars closed, a student arrested for allegedly assaulting another partygoer resisted arrest, and people in the crowd started throwing bottles at the cops. Despite the addition of more cops and giant floodlights, the after-bar riot was repeated in 2003, on a larger scale. Windows were broken, and at least one store, vandalized and partially looted, was forced out of business. Last year, despite the scheduling of alternate Halloween events and massive anti-riot publicity beforehand, it happened again, complete with cops on horseback and teargas.

Since the morning after the riot last year, city and UW officials have been mixing stern warnings with draconian measures in hopes of stopping the riot this year. No out-of-town guests will be permitted in dorms; cops will be busting off-campus house parties that don't have permits; pedestrian flow is being regulated on lower State Street; there will be even more cops, barricades, and floodlights. Still, it seems doubtful to me that rioting can be avoided--because lots of students want it to happen. Most of those arrested in past years have been out-of-towners, but campus newspapers have published quotes from UW students who seem to view the riot as something they're entitled to as part of their college experiendce, like a football game or fraternity mixer. And when it starts to go down, they're no more likely to leave the area than they would be to leave the football game in the second quarter.

One of the brilliant ideas floated by city officials is to close bars early--at 1:30 instead of 2:30. Bar owners, already stung by the city's smoking ban, have refused. And it seems to me that city officials have it precisely backward--the rioting breaks out after bar time, so why not let the bars stay open all night? If 75,000 Halloween night partiers straggled home between 2 and 8AM, whenever they ran out of money or got too drunk to stand, instead of being shunted out into the night en masse at bar time, wouldn't the chances of a riot drop quite a bit? The cost of police overtime is cited as one reason why it won't work to keep the bars open, but the money would be well spent if the riot were prevented.

But that's not the biggest obstacle. The liberal bluenoses (and I say this as a liberal myself) in and out of city government who back the smoking ban get the fantods over student alcohol consumption too, and so they're constitutionally unable to abide the lesser vice, a little more alcohol consumption, in the name of preventing the greater one--a riot that costs the city and property owners hundreds of thousands of dollars. It seems clear to me that someone else is going to have to die before Halloween gets back under control, before the student revelers tone down the action, before the city decides to take a counterintuitive step that might actually work.

Temporary fencing, no-parking signs, and floodlights are already up in the downtown, along State and other nearby streets. It's going to be a bumpy weekend. I hope that wherever you are, it's an enjoyable weekend. Merry Fitzmas to all and to all a good night.

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