The city recently announced that the Freakfest Halloween celebration on State Street has been canceled for a third year in a row. The last two cancellations were due to COVID, but this one could spell the end of the event.
As the mayor who started Freakfest you might think I’d have some personal investment in it and object to its apparent demise. Not really. These things run their course. In its day Freakfest was cool. But as things age they become less fashionable. I’m 63. Trust me. I get it.
But I do think that the event is a template that can be used when needed in the future — and something like it will be needed in the future for sure.
Because history repeats itself, let me offer some. When I took office in 2003, the annual celebration on State Street was more or less spontaneous, disorganized and increasingly dangerous. Tens of thousands of people were showing up to show off their costumes. While it was mostly good fun, the evenings would end with some bad behavior. In fact, the year before I became mayor, the event had ended with a group of revelers starting bonfires in the street and pelting police with bottles and other objects.
In 2003 we stepped up the police presence and I came downtown to walk the street. I could feel some tension in the crowd — there was some pushing and shoving — but then a cold rain began and I went home, feeling confident that we’d be okay. But my phone rang at 2 a.m. with then Police Chief Richard Williams telling me that his cops had just deployed pepper spray to disperse an unruly crowd. I got out of bed and drove downtown to walk the street again. Windows had been broken. It looked worse than it was, but it wasn’t great.
So, in 2004 and 2005 we tried different strategies. We brought in big lights, we worked with student groups to sponsor costume contests, we offered free food and we basically did anything we could think of to try to turn the event from a bacchanal to more wholesome activities.
And none of it worked. Each year the same thing would happen. A group of revelers would mass on the 500 block at around bar closing time (which was delayed an hour thanks to the end of daylight saving time on that night) and start to jump and chant in a circle. Fearing a riot like the 2002 and 2003 events, police would move in to disperse the crowd. It was an ugly scene eagerly covered by the television news. It made for great pictures, which the local stations would play for weeks leading up to the next year’s event. It was like an advertisement. Halloween in Madison. Come for the costumes. Stay for the riot!
By 2006 I was as fed up with the whole damn thing as were most of my constituents. The incremental changes we had tried weren’t doing the trick. We needed to do something radical. Closing down a public street and charging to get in was certainly radical.
That first year was a white knuckle ride. My staff worked with a group of volunteer ad professionals to brand the event “Freakfest.” The idea was to make this a music festival with costumes. We couldn’t get a music promoter to touch it, so Bridget Maniaci, who was a student intern in my office and later a Madison alder, booked the bands. The Parks Department stepped up to sell tickets out of a trailer. City Engineering designed ingenious soft barricades that would help us control access without injuring anyone if they were stormed. A private security company we hired bailed at the last minute, so we had to scramble to get city employees to fill in. My aides Joel Plant and Mario Mendoza oversaw the whole thing and were on the street all night reporting in to a command center we had set up at the Water Utility conference room a couple of miles away.
As we got closer to the date all kinds of people and groups were making public statements and sending me emails to cover their asses. If things went south it would be very much the mayor’s idea. (When things went well some of those same people and groups were eager to take credit.) I don’t mean to suggest that Freakfest was all about me because a lot of people contributed. But in a political sense it, in fact, was all about me. Nobody else would take the blame if things went wrong and I would be up for reelection in only five months.
And it came very close to going wrong. At the end of the evening, sure enough, a group gathered in the 500 block and began chanting. Police moved in on horses to try to both show strength and calm the crowd, as horses will do. Then somebody tossed a necklace (the crowd liked to throw necklaces as they would at Mardi Gras) at a mounted cop. The cop caught the necklace, twirled it about his head and tossed it back. The crowd erupted in laughter and applause. The tension was defused. We did a lot of things right with the wolves at the door ready to pounce on us if we failed, but it was that one mounted cop who may have turned the whole event. I wish I knew who he was because he deserves our thanks.
And the rest is pretty much history. There was no more trouble at Halloween. A professional promotion group, Frank Productions, took over booking the bands and selling the tickets. Freakfest did well for about a decade.
But now enthusiasm for the event has waned and so it appears the city will move on. That’s okay, but let’s not forget that history will surely repeat itself. Going back to the 1930s there has always been an almost hormonal urge (maybe it’s not “almost”) for a big student blowout in the fall and spring. Violence at these events is rare, but it seems to start small and become more intense over time. Unless they’re making young people differently these days, that will happen again and the city will have to respond.
And Freakfest is there as a template to regain control when things get out of hand. It’s an event whose time has come and gone and will probably come again.
A version of this piece originally appeared in Isthmus.