Being ‘welcoming’ versus being ‘safe’ — soul searching in a Madison suburb

In the context of recent events in the statehouse, the U.S. Capitol and the escalating war in the Middle East, the decision by the Village of Maple Bluff to move Halloween trick-or-treating from Tuesday, Oct. 31, to Sunday, Oct. 29, was not exactly headline news.

Still, residents of the Madison suburb packed a village board meeting this week to express their passionate views on a subject that, on a small, local level, goes to the heart of some of our current political crises.

Standing at the back of the crowded upstairs meeting room in the village hall, I felt encouraged listening to the outpouring from my neighbors, who showed up to tell the board they were upset by the exclusionary, unwelcoming feeling of the new policy. 

Shortly before Halloween, a newly formed “citizen safety subcommittee” persuaded the board to cancel trick-or-treating on the day when kids from the much more diverse community immediately outside the neighborhood usually show up to try their luck on the tree-lined streets around the governor’s mansion. Some of the big houses there have been known to give out full-sized candy bars.

This year, there was a separate Halloween for village residents. I didn’t see the news in the local newsletter when it came out. Instead, I learned about it from neighbors and from a sign that went up at the end of the block a few days ahead of time. Maple Bluff, which is completely surrounded by Madison, was the only community in the area to move the holiday, and many people, who hardly notice where the city ends and the village begins, probably didn’t think to check whether trick or treating was still on. 

I handed out candy on both days — to the little dinosaurs and superheroes who showed up on Sunday, and again on Tuesday to the handful of princesses and ghosts who didn’t get the memo. One young mother came to my house holding the hand of her little girl who was dressed as a mermaid and had to screw up the courage to shyly ask for treats from a stranger. That rite of passage was made more awkward this year by my neighborhood’s sudden official withdrawal.  

The sadness of so many dark houses on the real Halloween came up over and over again at this week’s meeting. So did the sudden recent appearance — another innovation of the safety subcommittee — of signs at local parks announcing “WARNING: WE CALL THE POLICE.”

“Those signs are racist,” said Maple Bluff resident Bob Gingras. Gingras is a civil rights attorney whose firm won a historic settlement from the city of Milwaukee after former Milwaukee Bucks player Sterling Brown was tased by police in 2018 while cooperating during a traffic stop. Police brutality and bias are Gingras’s stock in trade. The message on the signs fits a pattern of discrimination and threatened violence that, to him, is all too familiar.

Other residents were more circumspect. They believed there was no ill intent behind the signs or the rescheduled trick-or-treating, they told the board. Still, they lamented what they saw as a loss of the friendly, welcoming feeling they loved about their neighborhood.

One college student and several parents of young adults described their children’s embarrassment at having friends visit from outside the neighborhood. The signs, they said, confirm the worst stereotypes about the community. 

Although the members of the public who spoke at the meeting overwhelmingly opposed both the signs and what some privately derided as “white Halloween,” a handful of members of the “citizen safety subcommittee”  showed up — standing to one side of the room in a tight little knot — to defend the policies. “I have young children!” a mother on the subcommittee told the board, turning to glare at the crowd of mostly older parents when they laughed out loud. “Why is that funny?!” demanded another young mother who had arrived with her friend, each carrying an identical Louis Vuitton bag. “Because we’ve all had young kids,” one of my neighbors explained, not unkindly.

It’s true. I knew most people in the room from baby groups and Camp Ya Gotta Wanna, the resident-founded day camp at the park. We attended the same neighborhood high school graduation parties. Now there’s a new crop of young parents. Some of them, apparently, regard Maple Bluff as a dangerous place.

The safety committee moms, although they were outnumbered, behaved as though they were running the meeting. Instead of sitting at the table facing the board, they turned around and took on the crowd. One demanded a show of hands, asking where people lived. One said she didn’t like the teenage trick-or-treaters who “smelled like drugs” when they came to her door. Another asked if residents are so fond of welcoming people from outside the neighborhood on Halloween, “Why don’t you welcome them here every day?” 

Right. Why not?

There were several good results from the meeting. Many residents observed, and the board seemed to agree, that the safety committee is not representative of the village as a whole. Residents who never heard of it and don’t agree with its goals are now following its activities, and some dissenters are likely to get more involved in decision-making. Beleaguered board members who, like most community volunteers, do a lot of work without sufficient help or recognition, remarked that they would welcome more participation from residents. Residents who have felt alienated seemed galvanized to take them up on that offer.

That could mean a more lively debate about the trade-offs between being welcoming and being safe — and whether those ideas are really in conflict.

One of the moms for safety remarked that it doesn’t matter what we think — within five years the village is going to change and the safety measures the committee wants to put in place are going to happen whether we like it or not. She might be right. But a nascent effort to turn Maple Bluff into a gated community was recently nipped in the bud. 

Despite the urgent safety concerns, there has been no crime wave in Maple Bluff, which has remained a sleepy, safe community in recent years.

There have been a couple of attention-grabbing recent events.

One member of the safety subcommittee said she frequently jogs past a park where this year someone died of a drug overdose in the parking lot across the street. She was grateful for the neighborhood watch sign posted there. Perhaps she thought it might redirect future overdose victims to a different park.

There were also two dramatic high-speed chases through the neighborhood in the last year. On Nov. 20, 2022 Brandon Gulley, age 28, was chased through the neighborhood by police after evading a traffic stop. He crashed into a tree one block from my house. He got out of his car and tried to flee on foot, was caught and pronounced dead from his injuries at the local hospital.

That incident propelled a lot of conversation about safety, and the fact that Maple Bluff, unlike the city of Madison, allows police officers to engage in high-speed chases for non-lethal reasons like evading a traffic stop.

On Aug. 10, 2023, in the middle of the day, the Maple Bluff police were involved in a chase on the Beltline after another failed traffic stop. A department press release explains: “The vehicle refused to stop, and a pursuit was initiated. The pursuit lasted approximately two minutes and spanned four miles, reaching speeds of approximately 125mph. The pursuit ended when the suspect vehicle crashed into an uninvolved occupied vehicle.”  (Emphasis added.) In other words, some poor innocent driver was hit at 125 miles per hour as a result of this chase.

As Maple Bluff cops chase more people into Madison, city officials have been trying to get the village to adopt a more cautious approach. Madison police follow a practice recommended by national policing experts that restricts high speed chases to serious threats involving people who are committing or planning to commit a violent felony. Madison cops would not have chased Gulley at highway speed through a residential neighborhood. Several residents have pointed out that the high speed chases, not criminals coming into the village from the outside, are the real safety concern.

Gingras warned the board that the current policy leaves the village open to massive liability if, say, a local police officer runs over a 3-year-old while engaging in a reckless high-speed chase. There is no cap on damages in such cases, he added.

Meanwhile, there is the question of whether withholding candy from kids and putting up threatening signs really makes anyone safer. In their hubris, the citizen safety subcommittee – a group that started meeting in the Maple Bluff Country Club and somehow gained the power to shift both the schedule and the spirit of an ancient holiday — have forgotten the traditional meaning of trick-or-treating. 

Going back to its pagan roots, Halloween was all about mischief making. The idea that you could mollify tricksters with candy evolved as a kind of safety measure. That’s worth considering in our current context. Being welcoming and inclusive isn’t just an act of charity. It fosters goodwill — and tamps down resentment.

Living fearfully, worrying about protecting your property, your family and yourself by turning your back on others is bad not just for the people you turn your back on but also for you. It ramps up tension. It makes the world a more pinched, stingy, anxious place. And you miss out on the biggest treat of all: the feeling of connection to other people, the pleasure of realizing you’re not all alone. There are other people out there who will help you if you need it. And you, too, could be needed.



originally published at https%3A%2F%2Fwisconsinexaminer.com%2F2023%2F11%2F16%2Fbeing-welcoming-versus-being-safe-soul-searching-in-a-madison-suburb%2F by Ruth Conniff

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