Why I think beer fences are a bad policy…

We’ve had this beer fence debate going on in Wausau for years and I started trying to knock some of them down in 1998. After three terms of office, we were able to get an exception put into the ordinance that allows for waivers, but the problem now is that some people don’t want to grant them and we’re on our second police chief who feels that way.

I’ve heard some people say that it is inconsistent to require beer fences at some events and not require them at others. I agree, but I don’t think that logically leads one to conclude that requiring a beer fence at every event is therefore the correct response. The fact is that we have all kinds of inconsistencies on this issue. I hate to even point them out because for some, it might lead them to think we ought to come down on those events that don’t have them. But with a long track record of no real problems, what would be the justification?

You can have a beer in the stands at a Woodchucks game and it’s an all-ages event. I’ve never heard complaints about it. Go to Marathon Park and sit in the grandstand for a music performance or a demolition derby and you can’t have a beer. What’s the difference? Is it that we’re preventing all the problems that are already NOT occurring at the baseball park?

At concerts on the square we have 2,000 or more people on summer Wednesday nights. I’ve seen everything from martinis to wine and beer. Events like this are not unique to Wausau. It’s essentially the same thing that goes on with tailgating at Miller Park, Lambeau Field and many other venues around the country. Would you want to be the one to end those things because we don’t have a handle on exactly who is doing what all the time? Not me – and I would be hard-pressed to tell you that having people carry in their own supplies from hundreds of different sources is any kind of superior control mechanism than selling beer from a central source with wristbands to control access.

The unfenced Big Bull Falls Blues Festival is a long-running event and I’ve attended it for a number of years, both before and after the fencing came down. The only difference I’ve noticed is that young people are allowed to come and enjoy the music instead of being told they’re not welcome. People regularly come up to thank me for working toward a better environment at the event.

Why do I feel so strongly about this? Because I think that beer fences are counterproductive and a bad policy. They are aimed at a very narrow group. We know that 12 year-olds aren’t going to be served and we don’t care about 21-year-olds, so the fences are all about people from late teens to 20 years old. Beer fences don’t teach anybody anything. They just make events unnecessarily non-inclusive. Many people have been to many different events – some of them here in Central Wisconsin – where the organizers find a way to stage them without wasting the resources involved with fencing and the negative message that beer fences send.

The Renaissance Festival outside Minneapolis serves beer and I think it’s a great illustration of a good event where alcohol is de-emphasized by not making such a big, hairy deal out of it. If you want to order two beers, then the person who will be holding the other one will have to be by your side. There are no pitchers or oversized glasses. There isn’t much of a drinking venue, either. People get a glass of beer just like they would be getting a glass of Coke. Then they move on to enjoy everything else that the festival has to offer. All ages enjoy the event and they don’t worry about what someone has in their hand as they walk around.

There are both subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle social sanctions that serve as at least somewhat of a deterrent to irresponsible alcohol use in these seemingly less-controlled settings. These things that we can begin to agree on as a society can actually be far more effective than laws. Think about it. It’s perfectly legal for people to use the “N-word,” but you may well find yourself looking for a new job in many settings if you do it and you will also be ostracized in many other groups and settings. That’s what effective and accepted social sanctions do effectively – (and attempting to abridge freedom of speech would not.)

Contrast that with beer fences. We corral everyone up within 20 yards of a tap where there may be little else to do but drink. We create a DRINKING VENUE. And that’s exactly what people do! There is nothing but negative peer pressure in such a venue. How can people feel like they’re making asses of themselves when you’ve circumscribed an area that is exclusively devoted to that activity in the first place? It’s like trying to promote a positive concept of diversity at a Ku Klux Klan rally!

We set up beer fences because we don’t want minors to drink. The truth is that people of legal drinking age are the biggest alcohol problem we’ve got – and our “forbidden fruit” mentality is contributing to the problem with young people. We’ve had more than enough time with this failed “let’s stop them while they’re young” idea since President Reagan signed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act in 1984. That is also a failed policy, just like national prohibition was in the 1920s and 1930s. While it may be awhile before we get some sanity into our minimum drinking age in this country, we can do a better job of what we’ve got until sensible efforts like “The Amethyst Initiative” hopefully produce “an informed and dispassionate debate” over the issue.  http://www.amethystinitiative.org/ 

I do a bit of travel. I’ve been to Europe more than 30 times and I don’t think any country I’ve visited has a 21-year-old drinking age. The unaccompanied drinking age is 16 in France – and I’m not sure how closely it is enforced. What I will tell you is that in the bistros and brasseries, all ages are welcome. In what we would call “bars” in small French villages, you’ll see old men playing cards, kids playing darts, some people drinking and some people having coffee or soft drinks. It’s like a community center. Here, we can keep young people out and then we’re free to act like the bunch of hypocrites we are instead of actually modeling any kind of healthy attitudes, setting a decent example or worrying about anyone ever calling us on it.

Young people in Europe – at least in my experience – don’t consider “drinking” to be some kind of an activity. It is incidental. And that is the way we need it to be here, too – if we can ever work our way out of our “abstinence-only” approach. We’re putting alcohol on nearly an equal footing with other dangerous drugs, if you’re underage. By doing so, we send our young people out to hidden backwoods locales and drunken house parties. Out of sight, out of mind – until something tragic happens, as it regularly does.

If our only policy goal were to prevent anyone under 21 from having a drink AT OUR PUBLIC EVENTS, then I would say a beer fence is a great approach. But let’s pull our heads out of the sand and realize that the only thing we’re doing is making young people a little less welcome – and a little more likely to end up somewhere else, where there are NO adults around. Beer fences don’t stop drinking by young people in an absolute sense. Conversely, welcoming young people into an environment where access to alcohol is adequately controlled encourages them to spend a few hours NOT DRINKING alcohol with other members of the community of all different ages. A mixed crowd may also encourage more responsible behavior by people of legal age, too.

Our only policy goal should NOT be focused exclusively on the potential for underage drinking at events. It should be to have good events that anyone can enjoy. Adopting better control policies that do away with beer fences, the unhealthy drinking venues they create and the counterproductive messages that they send is the right approach to re-focusing on other activities in a more positive way.



4 Responses to “Why I think beer fences are a bad policy…”

  1. Mary Koepke Fields Says:

    Can’t agree with you more! Well said!

  2. Adrian Rinehart-Balfe Says:

    Well said Jim.

    I remember being under the legal age for drinking in the UK (it is 18 there) and not once being tempted to go to large public events. Why? The last thing I wanted as an illegal drinker was large crowds that could include those in the community who knew me. Going there and drinking would have been inviting trouble. We sourced our drinks from older siblings and friends and would then inbibe away from those who would stop us, whether out in the woods or in safe apartments.

    Those at that oh so dangerous age are more than capable of aquiring fake ID cards. If they are determined to drink, they will, no matter how draconian the laws. All that these ridiculous laws do is punish those who are legally able to be there. Those that they are aimed at controlling couldn’t care less about them and probably find it all very amusing.

    Keep up the great work!

  3. Jim,

    You raise very valid points, and stated them well. Frankly, a large public event is a very high risk venue for minors to try to drink at, which Adrian also pointed out. Unless all the parents in Wausau will start to lock up their licquor cabinets at home, that would seem the easiest place for minors to get alcohol.

    One point I’ve not heard mentioned much is the impact on ‘the rest of the story’. An antiquated policy like this applied universally does have a substantial ripples:
    ~ The behavior of those at the event: People tend to act more like they are treated. Treat them as responsible adults, and they tend to act accordingly. When you force people to stand in a fenced in area that is often crowded, the point becomes drinking. Often too much, and the behavior to match.
    ~ The competitive positioning of Wausau: Like it or not, Wausau competes day in and day out for jobs, new people to move to the area and events to come here that draw in people and money to our area. When Wausau continues to stand behind this parochial law, events and people will travel to other cities. Including our nearby neighbors in the Wausau ‘metro area’. Wausau is a SMSA, but don’t seem ready to embrace that reality yet.
    ~ Successes at similar events: The Concerts on the Square are a classic example. Plus the many you listed. Have some faith in the citizens to do the right thing.
    ~ Personally, I would not be in favor of a blanket repeal. If there was just cause (prior problems or some other serious issue), it would not be unreasonable to allow the City to require more security for the safety of the people. However, THAT should be the exception. Not the other way around.

    Thank you for doing the right thing, and doing it with well reasoned positions and a long term perspective. I can respect that a lot more than “we’ve always done it this way.”

    Tim McManus

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