We came, we saw, we rioted: Halloween weekend in Madison

When riots broke out at student demonstrations back in the 1960s and 1970s, the authorities would often pin the blame on “foreign elements” – apocryphal groups of communist infiltrators and Bolshevik thugs thought to be secretly working behind the scenes to incite peaceful students to violence.

A similar foreign element is being blamed for inciting the riot in Madison, Wis., last weekend, only it is not communists. Rather, it is a hellbroth of hard-partying students from Minnesota.

The broken glass was still on the sidewalk when authorities in Wisconsin started pointing their fingers in our direction. On Monday, The Capital Times, a Madison newspaper, reported 91 of the 334 citations handed out by police at this year’s Halloween festivities in Madison were issued to Minnesotans. After a brief riot broke out early Sunday morning, Madison City Council President Mike Verveer was quoted by another newspaper, the Badger Herald, as saying 90 percent of the trouble was caused by a hard core of “yahoos from out of town.”

I was one of the yahoos. I spent the weekend with some friends in Madison and, although I didn’t cause any trouble, I did happen to be present when the first half-empty beer bottles went sailing into the night sky over the 500 block of State Street.

In all fairness, it would be nearly impossible to say who started what Sunday, but I can vouch for the fact that the whole city was filled with students from Minnesota and that we were all anticipating a riot.

Early Saturday night, I wound up at a kegger just off the University of Wisconsin campus and, with the exception of the hosts, almost everyone I talked to was from a Minnesota college, including the University of St. Thomas, St. Cloud State University, Gustavus Adolphus College, Hamline University and the University of Minnesota.

These people, like me, had come to Madison because of its reputation for throwing the biggest Halloween party in the Midwest. The people there are wilder, the parties bigger, and every year the weekend closes with a grand finale in which literally tens of thousands of elaborately costumed drunks make a mass exodus down State Street and blow off one final load of collective steam before an army of anxious cops and a few hopeful members of the press.

In the past, these mass parties went off without a hitch, but last year a riot broke out. Reports are conflicting, but the story I heard over and over again is that an obese woman inadvertently started the riot by exposing herself out of a window overlooking State Street. A crowd of apparently disgusted revelers responded to the sight of her disrobing by furiously smashing the windows of the building she was in, which set off a full-scale riot.

Regardless of whether this is true, such stories get around, and they serve to elevate Halloween in Madison to the stuff of legend. These legends – veritable fairy tales of outrageous behavior and apocalyptic parties – are what attract the nefarious foreign elements to Madison.

It is no secret that this generation of Americans has taken partying to a new level. Drugs, booze and sex just don’t cut it anymore. The new fad is to smash things. Every party must be a riot, or else it wasn’t a party at all. When students from Illinois, Michigan and Minnesota come to Madison thinking they are going to see a riot, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The memory that will always stay with me from last weekend was of standing on State Street at about 1 a.m. Sunday in a sea of people so thick it was nearly impossible to move. A group of mostly young males, flanked on all sides by row after row of police officers in riot gear, occupied the center of the block and focused its attention on three very teenage-looking girls peering out a fourth-story motel window overlooking the mob below.

Suddenly, a great cry went up. It is the now-familiar war cry of inebriated college men everywhere – the universal chant of drunken mobs that are about to spin out of control and are looking to rally the troops: “Show your tits!”

The girls stared agape for a few moments, a mixture of hilarity, amazement and fear on their faces. Finally, one of them responded to the crowd by giving them the finger. This, in turn, elicited a barrage of foul expletives from the people below, who started hurling trash, beer bottles and anything else within reach at the girls, who stood transfixed in the window. It was a virtual repeat of the conditions that led to a riot the year before, and everyone recognized it. The air was electric. There, in the freezing rain, another riot was about to happen.

What happened shortly thereafter is history now. Another year gone by, another Madison legend born.

Nicholas Busse is a columnist. He welcomes comments at [email protected]