Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.
The Daily Cardinal Est. 1892
Saturday, May 25, 2024
front 05032012

Though police responded to students protesting the Vietnam War on West Mifflin Street with tear gas and pepper spray, students kept the party going on the block for three days.

From tear gas to beer bongs: Students’ anti-war protest defined first Mifflin party

Mifflin then and now

1969 marked Richard Nixon’s first year in office. “Sugar Sugar” by The Archies topped the music charts. And in May, UW-Madison students threw the first Mifflin Street Block Party.

The block party was born out of the climate of social protest, the shadow of the Vietnam War and a polarized national political system.

Students at colleges across the country rallied for an end to the war and campaigned for equal rights for African-Americans and women, with some of the fiercest battles waged on this campus.

Many UW-Madison students protested Dow Chemical recruiters on campus in October 1967 for creating products for use in Vietnam. Students virtually shut down campus in February 1969 to demonstrate against the UW administration for refusing to create an African-American studies department.

Today’s well-known spring celebration began when a few UW-Madison students living on Mifflin Street decided to host a party Saturday May 3. They posted homemade signs throughout the neighborhood inviting people to the 500 block of Mifflin Street at 4 pm.

The porches that existed in most of the houses along Mifflin Street allowed students to easily gather for the party.

“You sat on your porch and you met your neighbors that way. In the optimistic world in which we lived … those porches and that sidewalk and that street served that purpose,” UW-Madison alumnus Allen Swerdlowe said.

Many past students said the atmosphere of political activism and social interaction laid the groundwork for the original block party.

“It’s kind of the fault zone in an earthquake,” Swerdlowe said. “Everything lined up exactly there.”

Around 300 students were dancing in the 500 block of West Mifflin when law enforcement arrived in the neighborhood Saturday afternoon. Police entered the crowd to break up the gathering, arresting several dozen people.

Students responded by barricading Mifflin Street with scrap lumber, garbage cans and dirt. Police rammed their patrol cars into the barriers at speeds up to 40 miles per hour.

Students attempted to rebuild the barricades multiple times, but police broke them down.

Enjoy what you're reading? Get content from The Daily Cardinal delivered to your inbox

“At one point, a house at 526 West Johnson was entered by police carrying rifles who forced the students inside to go upstairs at gunpoint,” The Daily Cardinal reported in an article on Monday, May 5, 1969.

The confrontation continued on Sunday as police arrived with paddy wagons and declared the gathering an unlawful assembly. Police sprayed tear gas throughout the neighborhood and used pepper spray on students.

Students at the party said they believed the confrontations between students and police were the result of clashes between the different political and social views that divided society.

“All of these diametrically opposed forces sort of light up like the stars lighting up and they came to blows with each other,” Swerdlowe said. “What happened that day is only the result of these bigger issues.”

According to Swerdlowe, many officials in city government and the police department were opposed to the political ideas and social values held by many students who attended Mifflin.

“You had the larger community which controlled all the elements of power and the university community in which there was a subculture of people that wanted to express themselves,” Swerdlowe said.

Unlike the block party today, students focused more on political ideals rather than consuming alcohol.

“People didn’t drink a lot because drinking dulls the senses, and in that era, we didn’t want our senses dulled,” Swerdlowe said.

Madison Mayor Paul Soglin, who was arrested twice during the party and ensuing riots, said the party had deep political undertones as it continued through the 1970s, but began to transform in the 1980s.

“Certainly by the time we get to about ’87 or ‘88, there’s no political content, there’s no message of social justice, no discussion about war,” Soglin said. “As the years went by through the 90s, the party was simply an opportunity to blow off steam and get wasted on that last Saturday before you had to prepare for finals.”

Despite the violence between students and law enforcement, many still reflect on the first Mifflin block party with nostalgia.

“I didn’t go to Woodstock,” said Steven Reiner, UW-Madison alumnus and 1969 Daily Cardinal editor-in-chief. “But that was our Woodstock.”

Support your local paper
Donate Today
The Daily Cardinal has been covering the University and Madison community since 1892. Please consider giving today.

Powered by SNworks Solutions by The State News
All Content © 2024 The Daily Cardinal