Monday, August 14, 2006

Madison Halloween 2006: The Death of Fun And/Or Freedom

As another school year here in Madison draws near, thoughts locally turn to all of the highs and lows that the influx of tens of thousands of people bring about every year. We are in the midst of the spate of moving trucks and monumental garbage piles of the "moving-in" period (and the garbage picking mecca that is refered to as "hippie Christmas.")

Doubtless, thoughts also turn to the hoary old chestnut that is Halloween in Madison, 2006. After last year, which was more subdued that previous years, Mayor Dave still seems worried about the revelers and their antics. So, what is his plan?

He intends to charge a five dollar admission charge, barracade every entrance to State Street and set an upper limit for the number of "tickets sold. Read the full story here.

This plan has the support of the Madison Common Council and other groups such as the Associated Students of Madison, the Interfraternity Council, Downtown Madison Inc., and the State Street Business Association.

It does not, however, have the support of the UW-Madison Student Government, who claim that it punishes the innocent and presumes guilt on the part of all attendees for the rowdy acts of a few troublemakers (most of which don't even live here). Check out their objections here.

What do I think, you ask? Let's look at this from a few different angles: the city government, the partygoers and the business owners on State Street. Then, having considered that, let's take a broader view.

The City of Madison
From the city's standpoint, it seems that this may be just another bandage on a gaping head wound. Sure, the money will be welcomed and, on paper, the plan does seem to stem the tide of, well, the tide of people that crowd State Street. On paper, that is. Actually, the enforcement of this policy seems more easily said than done. Take a look at a map of State Street, scan up and down and try and count all of the access points...sure are a lot, no?

Not to mention the fact that while State Street is a pedestrian mall, it is crossed by several streets that are not (Lake, Gorham, Johnson, Dayton, Fairchild). How will traffic be directed through these areas while limiting access on foot?

Another enforcement issue comes in the counting of the admissions charged. This will take a level of coordination that, while keeping the coercive presence to a maximum, might lead to miscommunincations and other issues of coordination. Perhaps not, but it could happen.

Halloween Partygoers
This is the proverbial "x-factor." This is the reason that there is a problem in the first place. From these people's view, they want to be in public, act stupid, drink and get in fights. No amount of coercive effort will change this. What will, you ask? Well get to that, but first, the lizard brain.

The lizard brain is the brain as functioning under the influence. It is well known that the first thing to go, cognitively, when drinking is judgement. This means that the irrational becomes necessary and that doing what one would normally not do seems like the best idea ever. Now, imagine 70,000 people in a similar condition and the enormity of the situation takes hold.

O.K., the first people there will not cause a stink. What about those who are turned away or those who pay, are admitted and then are unable to access drink because bars will not allow it (not likely, but who knows)? In other words, you wanna know how to make angry drunks even angrier? Antagonize them and put a barrier between them and their goal. This will, and has, presented problems.

Business Owners on State Street
It seems from the preliminary endorsements, the business that cater to the crowd on State Street are amenable to the city's plan. Given the recent incidents (although last year was a bit less intense) and the property damage, I guess I'll buy that.

Personally, if I were a business owner (more specifically, a tavern owner), I would take considerable exception to a government plan to limit access to my place of business in order to make the government's life easier. I want to earn as much as possible and, given the no smoking ordinance and the crackdown on drink specials, every little bit helps.

I would also want to know what exactly the city plans to do with the money. If you are limiting access to my business and charging for the right, I want a detailed expense accounting of the funds.

More Kerosene on the Fire
An additional factor that could, well, complicate things comes in the fact that Halloween always comes during football season. Halloween happens to fall on a home football Saturday here in Madison (wherein the Badgers will ride roughshod over the Cryin' Illini). This means more people, more booze for more of the day. I am sure that this has been considered in all its ramifications.

It has, right?

The Broader View
What is really at issue here, given all of the above considerations, is freedom of assembly. When did it become acceptable to charge citizens admission to walk down a public street? When did it become O.K. to limit people's right to assemble by charging a fee? These are the real issues and ones that the city has yet to answer. What say you, Mayor Dave?

Another issue to consider is the notion of "rebranding" Halloween. I agree that it may do the city well to welcome visitors and make them feel at home; in some strange way, this may influence their behavior. If they come and see "Welcome to Halloween in Madison" and "Enjoy Your Stay" rather than police on horseback and barracades, things might just be different. Maybe so, maybe not.

I have not, however, seen any moves in this direction and no rumblings that things will be much diffferent.

In closing, this event will never go away. It has taken on a life of its own and anything short of martial law will not completley stop people. The primary responsibility of any government is to protect its citizens lives and property. In doing so, however, it cannot trample other rights that the people hold no less dear. It is this balance that must be struck and the plan as it stands for Halloween 2006 does not do this.

Further Reading
Oh, you might be interested to read several blog posts by former Madison Mayor Paul Soglin (yes, the serial mayor himself) about Halloween this year. Somewhat amazingly, Soglin is the voice of reason...not a usual role for him. I quite agree with him that constitutional issues are at stake and that the activities are, at their core, sophomoric and inane. Can't these kids drink in the woods on Halloween like normal people?


Matt Jenks said...

What? MADD hasn't chimed in to promote their agenda of prohibition not drunk driving? That's a shocker.

We have similar issues with Franklin Street in Chapel Hill. The problem is, a few bad apples truly do spoil the bunch. Every time there's any sort of gathering, it results in fire and dumbasses jumping through the fire and arrests. I can understand trying to keep it under control. Mayor Dave seems to confuse his Mayoral Duties with a Imperial Crown.

Matt Jenks said...

I thought this through a little more thoroughly, and I'll take the bar owner's side on this.

I want to make money. I also don't want my shit ripped up by a bunch of "lizard brains" (well put, by the way).

I know that the best way to start a fight is to antagonize a drunk guy. There will be hundreds, nay, thousands of drunk guys on the streets and IN MY BAR that night. So many so that it may be difficult to serve them all in a timely fashion. Nothing antagonizes a drunk like not having more to drink. It also causes them to piss their pants while waiting in line (or waiting-in-mob-form-in-front-of-my-bar). That's a lot of urine I got to be mucking up later.

In short, yes, they're reducing the number of people who will be in my place, cash in hand, buying my goods and services. However, restricting the size of the crowd will also mean I don't have to call in extra bouncers AND replace all the shit that got busted and/or stolen.

Now, let's toss in the football crowd. It's not THAT far from Illinois to Madison. While Illinois doesn't travel well (I mean, why would they?), there will be some students who feel that it's a good idea to drive up and antagonize the drunkies in the bar (while drowning away their own sorrows). This ups the ante on people here and people getting rowdy.

Overall, I'll take a little crowd control to ensure that I don't have added expenditures over the next month. These are days that help justify the ungodly high rent I have to pay and turns me from red to black. I don't want to turn back red.

Dom said...

Yeah, I was a little pissed at the $5 cover charge - but then I decided it would be much more fun to think of great ways to circumvent paying it - and that this could become just more of the fun of halloween on State Street.

Say, would you be interested in coming to a dinner party sometime. I can always us more intellectual, witty folks in my circle of friends.

Let me know!

Dominic Ebacher

Jonathan A. said...

Well put. However, I can't say I'm surprised that it has come down to this. Madison has always been fond of trampling on the rights of those who put the city on the map in the first place, namely, the students.

I've been attending the Halloween festivities for about 8 years and usually leave before it gets out of hand. Still, I do remember the one year where I was scared for my safety because State street became overcrowded, due to the police presence blocking off certain exits. I can only guess that, even with the limited number of tickets, something similar will happen again.

It saddens me to think that I may not be able to attend this year due to the fact that I cannot commute into the city to buy a ticket before the event date. While it is unlikely that all 80,000 tickets will be sold before then, it is still possible. If that does happen, I guess I'll just have to hang out all night at the Red Shed. ^_^ Either way, I just hope, as I have in vain for the past few years, that nothing will get get out of hand. All I want is to see some creative costumes.