Last week, the Legislature passed a drunken driving bill that fell far short of the mark. While the intention was to help curb the instances of people getting behind the wheel while tipsy, lawmakers failed to include the most important provision that had been proposed: making a first time offense a crime instead of a traffic violation.
It's good that our elected representatives are at least listening to public outcry over the shamefully high rates of OWI-related injuries and deaths in Wisconsin. Their inclusion of higher fees for those convicted of the crime and installation of ignition locks for all repeat offenders were also steps in the right direction (even Rep. Jeff Wood, three-time OWI offender, agrees). But that Wisconsin continues to be the only state in the nation where a first offense is punished by a measly traffic ticket is an embarrassment.
Some of the most heated debate between legislators was over how the state would pay for the logical increase in jail time, probation, and treatment that would result from the bill. But it's not exactly crazy to suggest that placing stricter penalties on first offenses might help deter further incidents-thus lowering the number of people who end up in prison. And if we couple that with providing better and more affordable access to treatment options, I suspect it would all put a substantial dent in the problem.
Because Wisconsin really does have a problem, and the first step toward improvement is really admitting to it. Some 41 percent of all traffic deaths in Wisconsin in 2008 were alcohol related, which is several ticks higher than the national average. Honestly, anything over 0 percent should be considered unacceptable, but I'd be happy with any decrease in the statistics.
We need to pressure our representatives into further work on the subject. But we also need to look ourselves and our culture in the eye and come to terms with our own shortcomings. I have too many friends who think nothing of driving a car after a few drinks, and a few who'll even do so when they can barely fit the key into the ignition. They need to shape up, but we, their friends, also need to know when to step in and stop them. Better to have your friend be annoyed with you than dead or in jail. Better to catch and address a problem when it first rears its head, instead of allowing it to grow and grow until everyone's paying the price.
Hip hop is not the problem
The Alcohol License Review Committee last week permitted local hip hop promoter Shah of the Midwest Co-op to present a list of "hip hop best practices" that could be implemented to ease fears around town about having venues host that particular genre of show. The list can be viewed here and was created in partnership with alcohol policy coordinator Katherine Plominski "in response to discussions with Police Chief Noble Wray."
All of the items on the list make good sense and seem to me (and I'm certainly not alone) to be an entirely reasonable set of guidelines for all venues and all types of shows.
That we're so focused on hip hop as being a bad actor speaks, I suspect, to a cultural divide and a deep-seaded misunderstanding of an entire subculture. Whether the underlying issue is racism, classism, cultural differences, or just plain old ignorance is a huge, surely heated debate for another day-but the important thing for us all to recognize right away is that the music is not the problem. Nor are most of its fans.
The problem is that, for one reason or another, negative incidents at some hip hop shows around town have come to taint an entire genre. But fights and other problems happen at all sorts of other concerts and events as well. It's just that the press like to focus on the things that go wrong when a hip hop artist or DJ is the main attraction at the venue where a few bad apples decide to act out.
Take last February's incident at the Brink Lounge, for instance, wherein 16 police officers responded to a call from venue security about a small fight that had broken out at the end of a hip hop show. Security had already gotten a handle on the situation before the thick blue line came storming in and decided to arrest four people. In response, the Brink announced that it would indefinitely ban all hip hop concerts. After public outcry, they rescinded the ban -- but have still not since had any hip hop acts.
Compare that to an incident that same month where six fights broke out at a concert by rock act Clutch. I never was able to find a report in the press about it.
Fact is, we have a morbid fascination with any disturbance that happens at or even just near a show that features hip hop music. But I can find no real statistics that illustrate a higher number of problems with hip hop and rap gigs than with any other genre of music. I'm pretty sure, though, that if one did a count of the number of articles written about the former compared with the latter, there would be a significant difference.
So what's the deal? Madison boasts what's likely to be a higher per capita ratio of (really good) hip hop and rap acts than any other US city of comparable size. Some of these artists have even gone on to land record deals and tour regionally and nationally. The city also just got its first hip hop-centric publication in 608 Magazine. The UW has a first-of-its-kind line of study focused around hip hop culture in the First Wave program, and part of that is even a series of hip hop lectures given by various prominent members of the worldwide community.
All of that and still more I haven't listed here is why I'm always baffled to hear such misguided, negative things said about hip hop music and the community as a whole whenever someone gets into a fight at a show. Didn't we already go through this with rock n' roll and pretty much every other new genre of music that's sprung up in the last 100 years? Haven't we learned the very simple lesson that a few bad apples do not a whole style of music or community of people make?
Hopefully, with the impressive number of involved and engaged hip hop heads who call Madison home -- people like Shah, who took the time to come up with a serious plan of action to help assuage and address fears -- we'll finally be able to move past blaming entire subcultures for the problems of a few. And then maybe we can figure out meaningful ways to deal with the real issues that cause discord. That's the huge and surely heated debate to which I already referred.
There's plenty going on around town to keep an eye on, but really, 'tis the season for taking a little break. Here's wishing you a very merry Christmas, or happy Hanukkah, or even just an appreciation of the fact that the days are officially getting longer again. I hope you're able to get in a bit of relaxed downtime this week-and be ready to tackle the end of the year with far more gusto than, say, the Packers defensive line tackled the Steelers yesterday.