Downtown while black: On “gang” activity and Madison’s irrational fear

A rowdy stretch of University Avenue is being policed and covered in a racialized light.

A rowdy stretch of University Avenue is being policed and covered in a racialized light.



Another case of alarmist propaganda under the guise of a warning, or the beginning of the end for downtown as we know it?

According to a November 25 story in the Wisconsin State Journal, the Madison Police Department Central District have been working with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to monitor the rise in altercations during the downtown weekend rush in recent months. They’re focused in particular on the 600 block of University Avenue, home to campus-focused bars and clubs like Wando’s and Liquid. Some incidents in that area lately have turned into full-on skirmishes, requiring MPD to deploy horseback patrols and pepper gas to diffuse them.

But this escalated law enforcement activity isn’t aimed at riled-up underage drinkers. MPD Central District Captain Jason Freedman told State Journal reporter Rob Schultz that the MPD is focusing on a specific population of individuals now congregating along the University Avenue strip: some armed, some with criminal histories, some with purported gang affiliations.

As the city marks this year’s high spike in crime around University Avenue—assaults, disorderly conduct, underage drinking, credit card fraud and more—downtown establishments are shifting in response. As Schultz’s story explains, food carts have relocated, businesses have increased security, and MPD’s massive patrols are nearing omnipresent levels downtown. The latter efforts are taxing MPD resources and the State Journal reports officers have grown frustrated at how dangerous the climate’s becoming. There’s a growing concern that gang members—a term that goes mostly undefined throughout Schultz’s piece—are fighting, and that these fights may soon lead to deaths if the city’s not wary enough to take precautions.

Continuing the trend of laying blame where it doesn’t belong, Alderman Mike Verveer weighed in on the issue by blaming hip-hop’s presence at Liquid. After several fights last fall, the bar (whose troubles began years ago, when it operated under the name Segredo) made shifts to keep its liquor license while continuing to throw events for the underage campus population. While Verveer believes the recent attempted venue crackdowns aren’t solving anything, he seems to believe hip-hop remains a problem, telling the State Journal: “It is fair to say that Liquid is the latest example of being, in a way, victimized by the genre of (hip-hop) music and being victims of their own success.”

Verveer’s commentary isn’t far off from what many Madison residents say, using the underlying racism in their worldview to cast hip-hop as the villain. It comes up the same way you hear your neighbor mention how Chicago thugs are raising Madison’s crime rate, or how the south and west sides of Madison are uninhabitable war zones. They’re not founded in anything other than prejudice, and the State Journal only reinforces that prejudice by running with police language that blames an uptick in downtown crime on “gang members.” Police have often weaponized gang-related terminology against young people of color over the decades; this terminology makes one think Black, thug, et cetera. The way Freedman and Verveer tell it, we should brace ourselves for blood in the drunken streets if this gang problem goes unchecked.

But which problems are we discussing? Surely, it’s not hip-hop again: a recent study conducted by UW-Madison researchers debunked the notion that hip-hop shows are inherently dangerous. A rap show’s no more (potentially) violent than a metal show, an EDM night (like many nights at Liquid) or even your local open mic. Verveer expressed disappointment that more of the allegedly gang-affiliated, potentially violent individuals hanging out on University weren’t detained and stripped of those weapons.

Yet in Madison, a city where a licensed gun owner can carry a concealed gun on public buses or on college campuses, wouldn’t random detainments for these individuals, legal carriers or not, risk violating one’s civil rights? And if it’s not worth risking an officer’s safety to conduct mass arrests during the big skirmishes folks like these are responsible for, what’s the protocol for diffusing these situations while working within the law to not violate those rights?

Freedman, speaking to the State Journal: “If people ask, ‘You had five people fighting, you pepper-sprayed them, why didn’t you arrest anybody?’ Well, (for) what is going to end up being a disorderly conduct or maybe a battery ticket, we’re not going to have our officers risk getting injured or possibly escalate and then we have a serious incident.”

The underlying reason may be far more insidious. Madison thrives on the criminalization of the black and poor; it’s an economic staple, from prison labor to school pipelines. In an effort to deter crime, the MPD’s rhetoric and the State Journal‘s coverage only make matters worse by further criminalizing being not only Black in public, but Black in a public zone that intersects with one of the most privileged and protected classes of Madison inhabitants: the student population. When a Madison resident thinks “gang” means black, they’re likely to think “student” means white. This latter population is extensively catered to; the Central District’s designed for them to thrive, right down to the Badger branding.

This stretch of University Avenue is indeed notoriously riotous from Thursday to Saturday nearly all-year round, attracting every crime you’d expect a student-heavy area to have: robberies, physical assaults, sexual assaults and the like. None of these establishments have actively worked to deter students, even those who drink underage and wreak havoc all their own during gameday traffic or midterm season. The problem, it seems, only begins when non-white non-students become a big part of the clientele. Once another marginalized group, thus further criminalized, begins to occupy a space that’s rarely populated by that group, and often engineered to keep it at bay, any disruption raises a call to arms for everyone to prepare for the worst.

Madison’s officials are correct about one thing: the city’s identity crisis may be very close to a boiling point as the shifting identity of a further gentrified, young-professional-primed downtown is disrupted by a new influx of Black and brown bodies who are exercising their right to socialize downtown, as any citizen should be able to do. The University Avenue strip, no matter how many high rises sprout up around it, doesn’t seem bound to change all that much in its essence: a collection of red-faced civilians in search of a bottle and a good time. Yet when “gang members” make the headlines—easily code for “too many Black people together”—it forces us to ask whether or not our city’s interested in adjusting its extensive racist, classist rhetoric the way some business owners shift their dress codes to keep certain people away. The 2012 drive-by Schultz noted in his intro graf raised the same concerns, but  no gang-related crime wave appeared. Half a decade later, the same rhetorical pump-fake from our city officials blames everything but the systemic root of racial and class segregation this city’s clearly invested in maintaining, one way or another.

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