Campus legends spread quickly, such as Michigan State’s ‘party school’ reputation. Over the years, MSU has earned a similar reputation for being a ‘riot’ school. “I knew MSU had a riot school reputation, which played into its party school reputation,” International relations, telecommunications and economics sophomore Kris Wesslen said. “The stereotypical MSU riot, burning down couches and everything, has always been a big joke with me and my friends.” Many may be inclined to agree, especially after Cedar Fest 2008.
Tradition though it may seem, this riot phenomenon is new to MSU. During the 1960s and 1970s, MSU students participated in protests related to racial discrimination and the Vietnam War. But MSU was never known to be an extremely active campus, compared to Kent State or Berkley. “I have always been bewildered by the ‘riots’ in East Lansing,” MSU James Madison College professor Ron Dorr stated. “What a contrast to antiwar demonstrations, protests against the Kent State killings in 1970, and marches after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., which my wife and I experienced in the late 1960s and early 1970s.”
The mood shifted at the end of the 1970s. “After Vietnam, the whole world calmed down a little bit,” MSU alumni Dave Lawler said. He attended Michigan State University from 1979 to 1983. During this time, “I did not do anything as far as any kind of protest, and I really don’t remember anything like that being popular at the time.” He participated in Cedar Fest his junior and senior year, when he lived in Cedar Village, but remembers them as “just a party. I mean, it was a party that was huge, but I wouldn’t say it was out of hand. There wasn’t cars flipped over, cop cars burned, it was just a huge party, an excuse for everyone to be outside.” Cedar Fest escalated in the mid-to-late-1980s, eventually being shut down by the police.
According to reports by both The State News and The Lansing State Journal, there have been six significant riots on MSU’s campus, starting in 1997.
Between 400 and 500 students gathered on Gunson Street on Sept. 8, 1997, for a block party. The party soon took a tumultuous turn, as students began to set furniture on fire and smash beer bottles into the street. Officers from five police departments arrived at 1:45 am to break up the mob, dressed in riot gear. The students resisted arrest for over two hours, pelting the police with shards of glass and chanting “F*** the police!”
Students congregated on Munn Field on May 1, 1998, to protest the university’s decision to ban alcohol from Munn Field during football tailgating events. The students began arriving at Munn Field around 9:00 pm, only to discover that the police had blocked off the entire field. A mass email sent to students about the protest had inadvertently alerted the police as well, an eerily familiar tale in today’s world of social networking. The crowd of 3,000 marched toward then-president M. Peter McPherson’s house. He was not home at the time, so the students continued onward to Grand River. Police officers from 10 local departments responded to the protest, with riot gear in one hand and tear gas in the other. 11 hours and 300 canisters later the crowd dispersed. Police arrested 15 students. On Tuesday, May 5, district court judge Richard Ball ruled that as a bail condition the students must leave East Lansing by 8:00 pm that night. Amid public outcry following the sentencing, Ball modified the bail terms, allowing the students to remain in East Lansing with a curfew of 8:00 pm and no alcohol consumption.
An estimated 5,000 to 10,000 Spartan fans took to the streets on March 27, 1999, following the MSU men’s basketball team’s 68-62 loss to Duke University during the NCAA Final Four. The students lit 61 bonfires and burned eight vehicles, among other destructive actions which resulted in $325,000 in damages. Police seized photographs from an Associated Press freelance photographer and subpoenaed local news organizations for photographs and videos of the riot. They set up a website to post the photographs and videos, asking the community to identify possible suspects. These actions sparked a debate over privacy rights and unlawful search and seizure issues, particularly among the subpoenaed press. In total, police arrested 132 people.
A similar riot occurred on March 29, 2003, after the men’s basketball team suffered another loss, 85-76, to Texas University during the NCAA Tournament. The comparably smaller crowd of 2,000 packed the streets around campus, starting eight fires and overturning four cars. Once students lit the first fire on Grand River near Espresso Royale, officers began to tear gas the crowd. The students congregated at Cedar Village, with police close behind. Officers used more tear gas, along with pepper spray, to disperse the crowd once more.
On April 2, 2005, yet another basketball-related riot occurred. More than 3,000 people crowded the streets after MSU lost to North Carolina in the NCAA basketball tournament. The event cost East Lansing $190,000 in total, about $5,775 due to the crowd’s actions. To control the crowd, 247 canisters of tear gas were used by officers from 8 different police forces. Police began preparing for the event a month in advance, beginning on Feb. 24.
And then there was Cedar Fest 2008, an event still fresh in the minds of most. Due to a Facebook group calling for the revival of the popular 1970s and 1980s block party. On April 5, more than 3,000 people stormed into Cedar Village. Dressed in riot gear, police contained the area for most of the night. International relations, telecommunications and economics sophomore Kris Wesslen described the night as “crazy and chaotic, to say the least.” At first, the police monitored the party to ensure it didn’t get out of control. “They [the police] weren’t worried,” Wesslen said. But once the police interfered with the party, the atmosphere changed. “People started ripping down a stop sign. Mob mentality really kicked in,” Wesslen explained. “They were focused on ripping down this stop sign, just to piss off the police.” Wesslen observed the mob’s increasingly hostile actions from the woods nearby. “The mob believed they were in a fictitious, imaginary battle with the police. That’s when it started to get out of hand and started throwing bottles.” The police used tear gas and sting ball grenades to break up the crowd, which eventually dispersed. Police arrested 52 people, half of which attended Michigan State University.
The arrests and trials that followed Cedar Fest compelled Assistant City Attorney Tom Yeadon to draft a series of amendments to add to Ordinance 1216, colloquially known as the anti-rioting ordinance. During this set of prosecutions, “there were a number of claims that peoples’ conduct at the riot was not meant to further the riot,” Yeadon stated.
The ordinance’s ambiguous language had created confusion amongst those being prosecuted and jurors, Yeadon explained. “We thought it would be helpful for everybody – for potential participants, for the police, for jurors – to all understand what kind of conduct we consider to be conduct that promotes the purpose of the riot,” Yeadon said. “It’s conduct that we’ve already prosecuted for.”
The problems prosecutors faced were not unique to Cedar Fest, but “the fact that we spent the entire summer in court magnified the problem,” Police Chief Tom Wibert said.
Yeadon added 14 separate acts that are now explicitely prohibited during riots. Wibert emphasized that “the law is ambiguous as it stood before this ordinance. It needed to be clearer so that people understood before an event what was legal and what wasn’t.”
The East Lansing City Council adopted these amendments on March 17, despite concerns from both the Lansing ACLU branch and the MSU ACLU branch.
Political science and constitutional democracy and English senior Marc Allen, founder and president of the MSU ACLU chapter, commented that student ACLU members were concerned about the civil rights violations present within the new ordinance – specifically, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.
“We still weren’t happy with the way Cedar Fest was handled last year, so we were sort of wary about the police giving themselves more authority to arrest students for this kind of stuff,” Allen stated.
Chief Wibert, in reference to the new ordinance, said, “I’m comfortable with the way it was written. It’s not like it’s different than before the council meeting. Just now it’s spelled out.”
But Allen contends that the new ordinance makes it easier to prosecute citizens for riotous behavior. “If you think that prosecuting more people is going to stop the riot, than it’s probably a good idea spelling out things,” Allen said. “But, I don’t think that’s how you stop it.”
Those who disagree about the anti-rioting ordinance still agree on one issue – they want the riots to stop.
Be it a comfort or not, MSU’s riot culture is not an anomaly. In 1998 alone, there were outbreaks of violence between party-goers and the police at Washington Sate University in Pullman and Plymouth, N.H., University of Connecticut in Storrs, and Ohio University in Athens.
Some still ponder about the May 1998 riot – which many consider a ‘starting point’ for the following riots.
“I have to wonder,” Wibert said about the May 1998 riot, “if that, if they [the students] were allowed to take the field, would it have been contained there and would it have dissipated and then, maybe, the whole culture wouldn’t have been started.”

One thought on “Legend Has It”

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