Pre-Exam Party Grows Into Violent 'Drink Fest' In Madison

Officials in Madison, Wisc., are hoping to tamp down a traditional spring bash that's gotten out of control in recent years. Gilman Halstead reports the Mifflin Street Block Party keeps police and first responders busy dealing with violence and intoxicated crowds. This weekend students are being urged to attend an alternate event instead of the off-campus gathering.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Tomorrow, in Madison, Wisconsin, college students will be partying, and it's not your average University of Wisconsin party. It's the annual Mifflin Street block party, a pre-exam bash. And as we hear from Gilman Halsted of Wisconsin Public Radio, the tradition has morphed into a sometimes violent 24-hour drinking fest, and the city and university are not happy about it.

GILMAN HALSTED, BYLINE: In 1969, when the first party was held, it was the height of the antiwar movement. The first party was held, it was the height of the antiwar movement. The mood is much different today. This song recorded for last year's party sets the scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) Drinking from the a.m. You all know what I'm saying. Red cup sipping, and the coppers be tripping. But we're taking over Mifflin, yeah. We're taking over Mifflin, and no one....

HALSTED: This local TV newscast paints the picture of what the party has become.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV NEWSCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Mifflin Street 2011, the infamous block party turns violent. Police officers get hurt. Two people are stabbed, and 161 revelers are arrested.

HALSTED: Mayor Paul Soglin was a student antiwar activist and was arrested at the first party. He was elected as mayor in the mid-1970s and presided over many peaceful block parties that often featured just a few kegs of beer and concession stands selling marijuana brownies. Now, 44 years later, Soglin is mayor again, and he's horrified at what the event has turned into.

MAYOR PAUL SOGLIN: When I was mayor in the '70s, I didn't have to worry about the events of the first Saturday in May whether or not I'd have to talk to somebody's parent about why they'd died from an overdose, why we had 15 witnesses to a stabbing and not one of them was sober enough that they could give testimony that would stand up in court.

HALSTED: The police and the mayor blame the binge drinking culture that's become prevalent on campus for the violence. YouTube videos shot in recent years feature students chugging from gallon bottles of vodka. Freshmen Tom Farley and Brian King are selling block party T-shirts for this year's event to raise money for their fraternity Pi Kappa Alpha. They're disappointed the city has turned against the event.

TOM FARLEY: It's a big tradition. And I mean, there's people who...

BRIAN KING: One last little hurrah before finals just to get it all out of your system and time to buckle down for finals, but we want one last, you know, party...

FARLEY: Yeah. I mean...

KING: ...before we start stressing.

HALSTED: Madison Police Officer Dave McCaw says trying to keep peace at the party is increasingly difficult. Last year, it cost the city more than $190,000 to police it.

OFFICER DAVE MCCAW: We're filling detox numerous times during the day and then the - when detox fills, then we take people to the hospitals, and the hospital E.R.s get filled. Last two years, there have been times where every ambulance in the city of Madison has been on Mifflin servicing calls.

HALSTED: So this year, the police, the mayor and university officials are promoting a different event for students to attend tomorrow: a concert called the "Revelry" that features a lineup of bands at one of the student unions. Senior Josh Lieberthal is helping to organize it.

JOSH LIEBERTHAL: I like to day drink as much as the next person, but I think people take Mifflin as a right and not a privilege. And when you look at the negative effects and repercussions it has on the city and university, I think we've definitely drifted very far past what the original message was.

HALSTED: It's likely many students will go to both parties tomorrow, but police have promised to be very strict on enforcing underage drinking laws and noise ordinances. The mayor jokes he's praying for freezing rain only on Mifflin Street and sunshine for the rest of the city. For NPR News, I'm Gilman Halsted in Madison.

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