An encounter with whiteness and violence on UW-Madison's fraternity row.
The Circus is an essay series chronicling formative moments of race, class, and identity through the eyes and experiences of one man's time in Madison. Read the previous installments here.
I remember the first fall in Madison to be something out of the brochure. If you measure your milestones in cinematic form, like I love to do, it felt like the opening sequence was supposed to: colorful leaves on the sidewalk, faces jogging in the background, constant prayers for the absence of first-week assignments.
Though I arrived in the city in June 2011, with a bushel of my scholarshipped peers for a primer program, that was a mere preamble for this time. Here’s where you deal with the seasonal hoopla, the time that serves you your future with a free bookmark and a mascot photo-op. Your parents will shuffle past more parents, and your room will feel as though every dream you’ve ever had was shoved into a cubicle-sized space with a twin bed.
You made it, and now you must make of it.
On June 8 of that same summer, an elder in our community, Danez, took a snapshot of a doll, hanging from a place called Badger House. It was a Venom doll, from the Spider-Man universe: a tall, dark thing hanging off the balcony on a warm Wisconsin night. It’s anyone’s burden to guess the fun in evoking a hanging body for a quick chuckle, let alone rope around the neck of a dark thing, but it was taken down after witnesses reported that it looked like a lynching.
From the UW-Madison response by Dean of Students Lori Berquam and Vice Provost for Diversity Damon Williams:
We ask that everyone play a role in the learning that should — and needs to — follow this incident. It is simply not enough to talk about respect, civility and awareness. Each of us has much to learn about what it means to be an active player in creating a safe environment for all.
We also do not want to engage in a cyclical pattern of negative events, followed by meaningful dialogues, and then return to business as usual. We are committed to looking at the issues raised by this incident and to making progress.
This was my first introduction to how the Circus cycles: An incident occurs, people are rightfully enraged, university officials condemn the incident, those involved may apologize or reconcile, and we pause until the next instance. I knew nothing of this night in June because I hadn’t yet arrived, but sure enough, the Langdon Street where this occurred on would soon become very familiar to my flock.
Back to that first fall. We spent plenty of time in rooms with each other, watching bodies like ours be the first to inform us of which parts of the Circus to avoid: Stay cliqued up with those who understand you, be supportive through the rough, be wary of folks who’ve never seen you before, focus on the books you’re paid to be here for. Together, you’ll be… we hope you’ll survive.
The Badger House Venom picture was high on the agenda. It let us know that Langdon Street is not a place where we can move freely. It’s where whiteness earns its stripes, where men can be men and the bar closes when it wants. The climate is just different: the city’s smaller Greek life system primarily exists on one long strip of homes and mansions, flowing with money and alcohol and drugs and EDM blended with Chief Keef. If you trace far enough, you’ll find Ku Klux Klansmen in formation, back when this place of learning wasn’t trying to carve a space for colors. If you don’t know the code, or care to, tread this strip cautiously, because you know what may come from the wrong step, shove, or party entrance.
I acted accordingly for my college career, but never grasped the fear the way I did until one evening during my junior year. By this time, plenty of friends had spots on Langdon—a friend’s apartment was tucked off a backstreet, with a huge window. We congregated at one for a while, seven or eight deep, nothing unusual for a typical evening. We turned to music, one of the only ways of coping with the hellhole this Circus can become. It was a night of freestyling and crate-digging and cyphering like many of the nights that bring warmth to my memories.
By the time we filed out, someone in our group noticed an altercation happening nearby. In a part-inquisitive, part-instigative nature, some picked up the pace to see just what tonight on Langdon had to offer. What we found was something that didn’t make the news, didn’t earn a press release, and felt eerily like “business as usual”: Several young white men were jumping a Latino man we knew. The pacing became hurried shuffling as we swamped the situation, trying to figure out what the hell was going on and how the hell all of this came to be.
One man had his shirt off and circled our friend constantly. The other three were busy teasing him on how he just got his ass beat. Our friend was walking with several women we also knew, all women of color, who tried their damndest to intervene. There was no telling how long this went on for; apparently it began with a simple nudge on a passing sidewalk. Liquor may have been involved prior to the contact, and the resulting skirmish was dead-center on Langdon with no good end in sight.
The squad I came with immediately went into zone formation to keep the young men away from our friends while negotiating our own defense and interrogating the perpetrators via shouting match. The shirtless man kept trying to take every ample opportunity to get another swing, to hit our friend again, and he hit a woman - bystanding - in the process. Tonight, in this drunken playground, he was the law and the only justice was best served by a face on a slab of concrete.
I was thrust into a Worldstar moment: detached, infuriated, oddly numb with no course of action besides trying to stand in the way and searching for anyone to call for help. I thought of all the times I cut around this neighborhood, every party I stumbled into, every passing nigga joke, rape joke, the Venom doll, the loud rap songs and the grill-smoke scent on every gameday. Every voice became noise as we stood there, cliqued up as a unit of several shades on the same plane of targeted. Langdon will eat the outsiders alive, and we intruded on dinner.
The skirmish lasted 10 or so minutes, but it felt like an hour. I kept asking what happened and how we got there, as if it mattered more than ending the Circus act. At one point, I approached my friend and felt the irony of slight relief: his pride was more beaten than his body, but the rage of this kind of normal was clear in his blood and sweat. I, not a fighter, told him to skip retaliation and leave with his friends since they didn’t want this to go on anymore. He looked me in my eyes and asked me why I asked him. I told him what I told you, that pride will come back and it’s better to end this. I couldn’t help but feel my own cowardice.
A cop car passed by, eventually. An officer exited and approached the skirmish. We pulled our defense back, and pointed at the perpetrators who caused all this to escalate, citing everything we saw like instant replay. The men we found, rewards thoroughly reaped, retreated expeditiously around the corner, evading questioning, citation, detainment, anything that may have brought about consequences for attacking our friend. Once they retreated, the police did too. Maybe it was to save the paperwork? A way to save everyone the trouble? Whatever the motive, we were left with nothing but a badge number and a card. I remember the shirtless man jogging around the corner, getting freer with each pace he took away from punishment for such foolishness.
Surely they’d laugh about this later, over another drink. We stood there for a moment, dumbfounded at the Circus our simple night became, staring up and down the street at demons we couldn’t see. Nothing? No justice? Were we surprised?
The fight was not a product of alcohol. It was the product of Langdon as a long-fostered public square for whiteness to flourish and actively protect itself. It’s a playground for those who assimilate into the culture, Greek or not, where darkness is a memory from that one time in college.
This serves not to indict or typecast all Greeks or Langdon residents—that’d be a foolish stain on a belated point—but consider the reputation of how moments like this, attitudes like these continue to permeate the spaces of kids who just come to learn and enjoy themselves. It’s a grand metaphor for the city: a grisly facade disguised in pretty houses and red t-shirts. It’s a high-grossing attraction for the Circus, a sample size of the offspring of the rich, who coast through their college careers confirming their whiteness as the most powerful tool at their disposal. They go unchallenged and unashamed when their whiteness oppresses the bodies surrounding them.
Who wouldn’t want this slice of life?