“Party school” is some people’s choice phrase to describe MSU, but in recent years, especially after last year’s Cedar Fest tear-gas chaos, others think “riot school” is more appropriate. But while MSU’s party school legend has been around for awhile, the history of riot outbreaks is a relatively recent one.
In the 1960s and 1970s, MSU students participated in protests surrounding the Vietnam War and Civil Rights, but there was no notable string of violent demonstrations like our generation has seen in recent years. Some suggest that riots started by MSU students are a younger generation’s form of the student protests in the Vietnam War era, but others like James Madison professor Ron Dorr disagree that they hold the same meaning. “I have always been bewildered by the ‘riots’ in East Lansing,” Dorr said. “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. “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 attended MSU from 1979 to 1983 and participated in Cedar Fest his junior and senior years but remembers it as nothing more than 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,” he said.
Today’s riots have a stronger link to partying rather than protesting, and students recognize that. “I knew MSU had a riot school reputation, which played into its party school reputation. The stereotypical MSU riot, burning down couches and everything, has always been a big joke with me and my friends,” international relations, telecommunications, and economics sophomore Kris Wesslen said.
Since 1997, there have been six significant riots on campus. The first took place Sept. 8, 1997 at a block party on Gunson Street in which 400 to 500 students attended. As the night wore on students took to activities that have become riot protocol in East Lansing — burning couches and smashing beer bottles in the street. Officers from five police departments arrived at 1:45 a.m. dressed in riot gear to break up the mob. Students resisted for over two hours, pelting the police with shards of glass, chanting “Fuck the police!”
Munn Field was the scene of the next commotion on May 1, 1998. The university had recently decided to ban alcohol from Munn Field during football tailgates, and when students arrived to protest the decision, they found 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 Avenue. Police officers from 10 local departments responded to the protest, with riot gear in one hand and tear gas in the other. Eleven 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 had to 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 p.m. and no alcohol consumption.
And then, on March 27, 1999, an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 Spartan fans took to the streets after the men’s basketball team’s 68-62 loss to Duke 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 Web site to post the photographs and videos and asked the community to identify possible suspects. This sparked a debate over privacy rights and unlawful search and seizure issues, particularly among the subpoenaed press outlets.
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 smaller crowd of 2,000 packed the streets around campus, started eight fires and overturned four cars. When the first fire was lit on Grand River Avenue near Espresso Royale, officers tear-gassed the crowd.
The streak of basketball related riots continued on April 2, 2005 when more than 3,000 people crowded the streets after MSU lost to North Carolina in the NCAA basketball tournament. But this time the police were prepared. They began preparing for post-game riots one month before the game. That didn’t prevent 247 canisters of tear gas being used or $5,775 in losses for the City of East Lansing as a result of the crowd’s actions. It took police officers from eight different forces to finally get the crowd to disperse.
Then, there was Cedar Fest 2008, an event still fresh in the minds of most. It was coined as a revival of the Cedar Village block parties from the 1970s and 1980s and posted as a Facebook event. As a result, on April 5, 2008, more than 3,000 people gathered at Cedar Village. Police came prepared before any violence occurred — they monitored the party to make sure it didn’t get out of control. Wesslen was there and said the police did not seem too concerned early on. But, when police began to address drunken behavior, Cedar Fest became a spring block party gone awry. “People started ripping down a stop sign. Mob mentality really kicked in,” Wesslen said. “They were focused on ripping down this stop sign, just to piss off the police.”
Wesslen watched 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 [students] started throwing bottles.” Police used tear gas and sting ball grenades to break up the crowd, which eventually dispersed. Fifty-two people were arrested. Half were MSU students.
As riots have become some sort of odd and destructive tradition rather than an isolated incident, City Hall has been working to put an end to East Lansing’s riot history. The arrests and trials that followed Cedar Fest compelled Assistant City Attorney Tom Yeadon to draft a series of amendments to Ordinance 1216, known as the anti-riot ordinance. Before the amendments were added, the ordinance’s ambiguous language made it difficult to classify particular behaviors as the type that incite riots, and therefore are punishable. Yeadon said the amendments are necessary because in the arrests and trials following Cedar Fest, many defendants claimed that their actions were not meant to further the riot. “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.”
East Lansing Police Chief Tom Wibert agreed. “I’m comfortable with the way [the new ordinance] is written. It’s not like it’s different than before the council meeting. Just now it’s spelled out.”
The East Lansing City Council adopted the amendments at a March 17 meeting, despite concerns from the Lansing and East Lansing branches of ACLU. Marc Allen, a political science and constitutional democracy and English senior, and founder and president of the MSU ACLU chapter, said 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 said.
As a result of the amendments, behavior like throwing beer cans at police officers, refusing to leave a street after police officers order it cleared, obstructing police and setting off fire extinguishers are all convictable offenses.
Allen said that the new ordinance makes it easier to prosecute citizens for riotous behavior, and that arresting people is not the right way to stop a riot. “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 police at Washington Sate University in Pullman, 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 rest of them. “I have to wonder,” Wibert said about the May 1998 riot, “if [the May 1998 riot], if [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.”
Regardless of its start, the Final Four games in the beginning of April may show whether or not MSU’s riotous reputation continues. E-mails with riot precautions are circling, and professors are already chiding students not to participate. Should people be fireproofing their couches and cop cars? Is basketball synonymous with riot season? In a few days, we may know whether celebrating in style can be done without damages.