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Streak raises eyebrows, keeps tradition alive

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Posted: Friday, May 1, 2009 12:00 am

All it took was a little prodding from the women of McElwain Hall.

He flung a Steelers tassel cap, a black mask and a trench coat in all directions, and before he knew it, John Zang had scampered across Mifflin Road and into a Penn State tradition.

"It's probably not what you want to be known for, but it's pretty neat," Zang, Class of 1980, said with a laugh. "I just hope my son who will be applying doesn't necessarily keep that alive."

Penn State's annual Mifflin Streak tradition began on a balmy March evening in 1977, with one man, Zang, sprinting across the street to a thunder of hoots and hollers. In 2008, seven students were arrested and charged in connection with their participation in the streak, shining a light on the evolution of an event that has been embroiled in controversy from its start nearly 32 years ago. And now, with finals week approaching, the streak is looming again.

*****

It started off tamely enough. But as the years piled on, so did the number of students leaving their underwear behind for a few seconds of glory -- and the mob of spectators grew, too.

So it goes like this: Hundreds, sometimes thousands, of students grow tired of the flashcard-making, note-taking and sleep-forsaking monotony that is the Sunday before spring finals week. So, they take a break. They head for Mifflin Road.

The dozens of brave shirt-flingers dash down the street running parallel to Pollock Halls, cheered on by a large mob of screaming, jeering spectators. Giggles abound.

But the streak hasn't always been as carefree as it may seem. Penn State officials have said that the tradition has a marred history, full of harassment and exploitation of women.

In previous years, the streak consisted only of young men running around Pollock Halls screaming at women inside their dorms to take off their clothes, Director of Penn State's Center for Women Students Peggy Lorah said.

"The focus has been women in residence halls and reducing them to body parts," Lorah said.

The streak is a nightmare for some of them -- every year, a batch of young women trickle into her office, wanting to talk about the streak and what it's done to them. And even if people aren't aware, she said, everyone knows a survivor.

"In any given residence hall, there is going to be a survivor of sexual assault and they could be triggered," Lorah said. "And we are not saying people in the Mifflin Streak are bad, but we need to think of the implications. It's all about empathizing with the struggles of other people."

This history makes recent events all the more complicated. Last year, a young Penn State student was arrested and charged with open lewdness and disorderly conduct after running naked down the street. The name? Elizabeth Burke -- a woman.

"I'd been cramped up all weekend, so I thought it would be a good time to go out for a run," Burke (senior-English) said. "My parents laughed at first. Then they got the charges in the mail and they weren't happy."

*****

As participation grew, the streak changed from a one-man show to a horde of yelling men. In the late '80s and early '90s, women's groups rallied against the tradition, demonstrating on the HUB-Robeson Center lawn and decrying the annual event some see as traumatizing.

Others have written letters to the editor of The Daily Collegian, saying they've seen the real and tangible effects of the streak. In 1989, one woman wrote in saying the students should take notice of other perspectives. The writer's friend, who had been gang-raped before coming to Penn State, couldn't handle hearing and seeing the streak from her Pollock Halls dorm room. She attempted suicide that very night in 1989.

"What it's done is objectify women," Lorah said. "It's interesting that it happens near the residence halls rather than, say, the mall near the library. It's where people are a captive audience."

Burke now knows the streak's past, too. She said she felt "awful" after the history lesson.

"I didn't think about any of that stuff and perpetuating that is not what you want to do," Burke said. "I didn't see any of that in this particular streak. But I could see how it might happen."

The streak's gender implications are a microcosm of a larger shift within the nation, Penn State professor of women's studies Cheryl Dellasega said.

"It probably parallels the evolution of how women are being treated in a larger society. Women want to be recognized and play on equal ground," Dellasega said. "The idea that she would even do something like that is similar to running for president -- why can't a woman do it?"

But Burke said her experience running naked through a tunnel of onlookers was not that of a victim or an object. Indeed, everyone was "just trying to laugh a little."

"The crowd was good mix of dudes and chicks," Burke said. "I didn't even think about gender equality, certainly. It's not like people were booing guys or girls. They were just there to see naked people run."

*****

University officials have taken issue with the event. Penn State spokeswoman Lisa Powers said the university does not condone the streak, and when it happens Sunday, officials will punish students through the university code of conduct, she said.

"The history of this event has shown that some people are offended," she said. "Some women's groups were offended that large crowds gather to urge others to take off their clothes. It's not in the best interest of campus climate."

Campus climate is also a concern for those in uniform who will be hanging around Mifflin Road this weekend -- and they aren't going for the nudity.

"It's like everything else we have to deal with -- some stuff you just grin and bear it and do what you have to do," Penn State Police Capt. Bill Moerschbacher said. "We will try to put people down there and be visible early before it. We know some people want to keep that tradition alive, and we intend to do our jobs."

And Penn State Police Deputy Director Tyrone Parham said there is the potential for more arrests this year.

Burke was nabbed by a police officer on a bicycle after she ran through the gauntlet of spectators with her friend Danny Mozer. Both were later charged with open lewdness and disorderly conduct, according to court documents.

But Mozer's (junior-telecommunications) charges were eventually dropped in July.

"I was very relieved, but I also thought about the future of the Mifflin Streak. What long-lasting ramification will I have for this event that has been going on for more than 30 years?" he said. "I was also thinking, 'Oh my God, this could legalize the Mifflin Streak or every student will hate me for getting rid of the Mifflin Streak.' "

The 21-year-old said he won't streak again, but he'd go back to watch.

It'd be tough to say borough officials have a problem with that. Mayor Bill Welch said the streak is a "campus phenomenon" that's out of his purview.

"I'm not scandalized by it, but on the other hand, as with other student behavior I wonder, "What's the point?' " he said.

State College Borough Council President Elizabeth Goreham said because she hasn't heard any concerns from residents, the streak is not on her radar. But she has one hope for this year's streakers.

"I hope it's not going to be cold."

*****

Burke fought her charges in court and won. A Centre County judge ruled in August the woman did not "affront or alarm" any of the spectators, dismissing all charges.

"I understand where they are coming from in trying to quell this," Burke said. "But I've had my fill of streaking for a lifetime."

The image of this year's streak remains to be seen. The university and police will be keeping a watchful eye. Thousands of students will likely pour into the street, looking to have a little fun. A few sexual assault survivors may sleep at a friend's place for the night in anticipation of the event.

One thing is for sure: Men -- and women, too -- will throw off their clothes and sprint along Mifflin Road, just like the hundreds of Penn State students before them.

"College is only four years, work is forever," Mozer said. "These are supposed to be the best years of our lives -- and people brave enough or stupid enough should be able to streak."

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