When the Madison Common Council voted on Sep. 19 to establish a fencing and admission system for the 2006 Halloween parties on State Street, there were only five people who stood up to publicly speak on the matter. Four spoke in support of the city's plan, while only one person opposed it. This was Phil Ejercito -- a downtown resident, member of the city's Housing Committee, progressive activist and technology enthusiast -- who criticized the plans as poorly conceived and potentially dangerous, particularly in terms of liability and the safety of neighborhoods adjacent to State Street. In the weeks since that meeting, Ejercito has turned his criticisms into action by organizing CRASH Madison, a service to provide text messages about and relevant to the Halloween festivities set for the last weekend of October.
The self-described mission of CRASH Madison is to help revelers "have a safer, happier time in Madison during Halloween." Ejercito says he can do this through providing regular text messages to subscribers before, during, and after the festivities that are being organized for the night of Saturday, Oct. 28. He says these messages will feature updates on everything from the basic (ticket locations, stage times, weather conditions) to the breaking (crowd concentrations and behavior, safe transportation options, and police actions and behavior). Ejercito plans to start with the basics before the partying begins on Friday, Oct. 27, and will continue with updates in the days after the event, focusing on metrics like arrests, injuries, and other fallout from the partying both on and off State Street.
Ejercito established the service via Upoc, a mobile messaging service that allows for the creation of themed groups. Participation in CRASH is free (outside of basic texting/mobile user fees), both for the group and for any person who subscribes to the service. Persons can sign-up either at crashmadison.com, or by following the instructions at its Upoc Mobile Group.
CRASH's rationale and goals
What are the reasons Ejercito gives for creating CRASH Madison? He cites five points he considers to be problems with the city's Halloween plans:
- Being forced to pay to walk or cross our own fenced-off streets is an affront to everything Madison stands for.
- The fencing off of State Street will not make anyone safer and will only serve to displace crowds to adjacent residential areas.
- The City has yet to provide clear answers about how, when, or why State Street will be cleared at the end of the night.
- The City has yet to provide clear answers about oversight of private security and the extent of their authorization to use force.
- Halloween planners have failed to provide any off-State Street draws and have failed to provide alternative all-night entertainment options.
He also names six goals for the project:
- Keep people safe and happy on Halloween weekend by providing instant text message updates during the festivities.
- Provide resources and information about the festivities to keep people safe and happy.
- Provide resources and information about sexual assault awareness, harassment reporting options, and safe transportation options to keep people safe and happy.
- Maintain pressure on the city to be accountable for its choices and actions which are potentially detrimental to people's safety and happiness.
- Facilitate sousveillance, not surveillance - help participants record the experience and share it, both for the fun and amusement, and also to discourage dangerous crowd and police behavior.
- Encourage pot smoking. Everyone agrees that Halloween would be a much happier and safer time if the drunks were replaced with stoners. We encourage police to approach marijuana-related incidents under the auspices of Madison General Ordinance 23.20, which states in part that "A person may casually possess marijuana or cannabis in a private place. Such casual possession is not a crime and is not subject to forfeiture."
Ejercito emphasizes that while he hopes Halloween on State Street will be free of trouble, his skepticism runs strong about any such prospects this year, particularly with regards to what happens around bar time. Over the last four years, the climactic confrontation between revelers and police occurred in the early morning hours, when law enforcement declared the crowds to be an unlawful assembly due to its members' behavior and subsequently cleared the streets.
In 2005, this occurred around 2:15 a.m. on Sunday, Oct. 30. Feeling like 3:15 a.m. due to that weekend's end of Daylight savings time, crowds near the intersection of State and Frances streets began to sing "Olé, Olé," the universal soccer chant that has become a signal for the start of trouble at the Halloween festivities. As the chant became accompanied by moshing and persons climbing atop structures like planters and bus shelters, the police determined to disperse the crowds with uniformed officers. When they were unable to do so and began to feel physically threatened, the officers returned to their command center at the University Inn and changed into protective hard gear and helmets, subsequently clearing the streets with batons and pepper spray.
This confrontation eventually consumed the entire 500 and 600 blocks of State Street. Ejercito was observing these events at the intersection of State and Gilman streets, and shot six video clips of the confrontation, including the use of pepper spray upon a woman obliviously walking and talking on her cell phone. It was this experience, along with his doubt that the city's plans adequately address the issue of clearing the streets peacefully, which spurred him to create CRASH Madison for this year.
R U Ready to Party?
This kind of application of text messaging -- or short message service (SMS) -- is not novel. Similar systems have been harnessed over the last few years in a broad variety of situations involving large crowds, everything from multi-day music festivals to political revolutions. With this year's high-profile addition of live music, the ongoing confrontations between police and partiers, and a municipal fencing and ticketing system that turns a public street into an amorphous private party, Freakfest on State Street offers a heady combination of circumstances for CRASH Madison.
Ejercito says the direct inspiration for setting up his texting system were his experiences at several years ago at the Coachella Music and Arts Festival. Held every spring in Indio Valley, California since 2001, the festival attracts tens of thousands of persons for its massive line-up of rock, hip-hop, and electronic music, so many for so much that it could be credited as the preeminent cultural event of its kind in the country, an American equivalent of Glastonbury, Roskilde, or Rock am Ring. In 2004, Coachella created an SMS texting service that offered information on stage times, traffic and weather updates, and breaking news about time changes, among other information. This concept has since spread to other music festivals, including Bonnaroo in Tennessee and Lollapalooza in Chicago.
More significantly, though, organized text messaging has played an important role in several high-profile political upheavals this decade. In the first half of 2001, SMS was instrumental in the organization of massive protests and counter-protests in Manila during a succession struggle over the presidency of the Philippines. On the Saturday immediately following the Mar. 11, 2004 bombings (Thursday) of Madrid's commuter train system, spontaneous demonstrations in that city, Barcelona and elsewhere in Spain were organized in large part via text messaging, a visible precursor to the defeat of the incumbent conservative People's Party in the following day's national elections. Since then, texting has become an increasingly used communications tool in the organization of political movements throughout the world.
Ejercito says CRASH Madison is not directly comparable to either situation, be it an official communications system of a major rock festival or a massive political demonstration. But the system does represent a significant change, he continues, in how similar events can be approached on a smaller and more local level. In fact, Ejercito says it's a service that the city should be providing itself as a safety measure for Halloween.
Two weeks out
CRASH is also is an acronym for the Coalition for Reclaiming Area Streets on Halloween. This name illustrates Ejercito's serious yet in some ways playfully subversive approach towards the conventional wisdom about Halloween in Madison. For instance, take the sixth CRASH goal to "encourage pot smoking." It's not only a riff on the city's weedy reputation, but a criticism of the role alcohol plays in the annual Halloween revelries.
With this goal Ejercito plays upon the cultural clichÃ of the aggressive alcoholic and the bucolic stoner, using this to condemn the role alcohol plays in the annual trouble. This is an element he considers to be as problematic as inappropriate police behavior when it comes to unsafe and unhappy Halloweens in Madison. It is also a position that aligns closely with those of city hall. One of Mayor Cieslewicz's stated goals for Halloween to reduce the level of alcohol consumption, and his staff's primary liason for the event is city alcohol policy coordinator Joel Plant. It's the irony of it all -- the possibility that the fencing and ticketing system may simply push more dangerous alcohol-fueled behavior into residential neighborhoods adjoining State Street -- that Ejercito says he's trying to address.
Ejercito says he's continuing to solicit support for CRASH. Persons and groups that "share a principled opposition to the current Halloween plan" and agree with its "mission of keeping people safe and happy" are welcome to affiliate themselves with the project. This already includes the UW Student Labor Action Coalition (SLAC) and Dane101 (which describes the system here). Ejercito is also pursuing collaboration with the UW Campus Women's Center and the UW LGBT Campus Center in order to provide its subscribers information about sexual assault, a significant and underreported problem at large events like Halloween.
Meanwhile, there are technical limitations to the project. For one, onlyd subscribers from certain networks (Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, Cingular and Alltel) will be able interact directly with the system via SMS, as detailed here. Secondly, the amount of mobile phone traffic generated by a gathering of persons as large as a typical Halloween on State Street may slow down all cellular voice and text communications in the vicinity, including CRASH.
Besides looking to build institutional support and work out any technical bugs in the system, Ejercito says his primary goal in the next two weeks is to promote CRASH and build as large of a subscriber base as possible. In addition to soliciting reports in the media (like this one), he plans to focus his promotion on Facebook. The original home for the "Move Halloween to Landon 2006" group that subsequently transformed into the Halloween Action Committee (HAC), Ejercito thinks he can similarly harness the online social network to build awareness and interest in the texting project.
This is the motivation for the CRASH Madison Facebook group, which was already picking up members by the evening of Friday, Oct. 13. Its membership includes Madison Ald. Austin King and Dane County Supv. Ashok Kumar, who represent heavily student populated areas in and adjacent to the UW campus. Whether or not this group can achieve rapid growth similar to the group created by HAC founders Tom Wangard and Brandon Sivret remains to be seen, but it seems safe to say that CRASH Madison will not go unnoticed as Halloween approaches.
Note: Details about the availablitity of the service to various cellular networks is updated.