Blast from the past

Alumni, officials recall semiannual Cedar Fest parties from 1970s, 1980s


Darth Vader was on top of a cop car, swinging a light saber and yelling, “Kill the pigs.” That’s one of the memories Tim Miller, an MSU student from 1979-83, has of the first official Cedar Fest in 1983. The event was semiannual, occurring in October and May, and often resulted in mass partying and property damage. Informal block parties began in the ’70s and got bigger, lasting through the ’80s. “It was the party to go to,” Miller said. “It was just known that Cedar Fest was going to be the wild party.” The 1983 party coincided with the release of “Star Wars: Episode VI — Return of the Jedi” and fell on Halloween. About 40 people were arrested and seven police officers were injured that night. Darth Vader was a Lansing Community College student who was later charged with inciting a riot.

“I was scared — people were being thrown, there were fights everywhere,” Miller said. “One of the balconies there got overcrowded and collapsed.”

Donald Martin, who was the Ingham County prosecutor at the time, remembers the parties escalating throughout the years.

Cedar Fest history

Oct. 28, 1983 First “official” Cedar Fest; 1,000 attend, 37 arrests

May 19, 1984 5,000 attend, no major incidents

Oct. 27, 1984 5,000 attend, more than 30 arrested

May 18, 1985 6,000 attend, 14 arrests, 10 injured, approximately $2000 in damage

Oct. 26, 1985 4,000 attend, no major incidents

May 17, 1986 500 attend, 25 arrests, 22 injured

Oct. 25, 1986 5,000 attend, 35 arrests, 24 injured

May 16, 1987 200 attend, 44 arrests, no damage or serious injuries

April 5, 2008 4,000 attend, 52 arrests

Source: The State News

State News photo / The State News

“The gatherings were getting to be such that there was a lot of street congregation, fires, property destruction and drinking situations that were maybe a little bit out of control,” Martin said.

Dave Lomas, a student from 1981-85, said he remembers the 1984 party becoming too big.

About 5,000 people attended the October party, which was held during the Tigers’ World Series run. There were more than 30 arrests made that night.

“It got so crowded people on the street couldn’t move,” Lomas said.

Lomas, who lived in McDonel Hall, had friends in Cedar Village and said it got so crowded residents were turning people away from the block party if they didn’t know them.

Michelle Bott, also a student from 1981-85, remembered leaving the block parties once they started to become out of control.

“It got to be so crowded,” she said. “You could feel the energy that something was going to happen. I just got out of there.”

At its peak in 1985, the celebration was responsible for more than $2,000 in damage when about 6,000 people came to the October event.

“The sheer number of people was astounding,” Bott said. “It was everywhere. You could see people starting to climb lamp posts and people on the street. Everywhere it was wall to wall people.”

Martin said the festivities sometimes were too rowdy, putting some people in harmful situations.

“There was a plate glass window in Cedar Village over an entryway. Someone threw a large object through it and a huge chunk of glass nearly missed a girl that was going through the door,” Martin said.

Things would start out slow, but as darkness fell, the crowds would become crazier, he said.

Tom Watts, a student from 1984-87, remembered the parties as pure mayhem.

“The guys who wanted to get attention did everything from bringing out couches, climbing light poles, to flipping cars,” he said.

“I would think, ‘These can’t be students, why would you destroy where you live?’”

Watts said he and many of the people he knew went just to see what would happen.

“The crowds were so big,” he said. “I’ve never seen a bigger gathering of people.”

The celebrations got so bad that East Lansing and DTN Management Co., among others, wanted to put a stop to them, Martin said.

In April 1987, the East Lansing City Council passed an ordinance that allowed police to surround the area when they believed there could be a disturbance. And in May of that year, the police did just that.

“There was a big warning telling us, ‘You must stay away from Cedar Fest,’” Watts said.

Students who lived in the apartments were given passes that would allow them to cross the police line.

“We got all sorts of calls,” said Dorean Koenig, who, along with the American Civil Liberties Union, or ACLU, fought to have the city ordinance revoked. “People were saying, ‘I invited people for Homecoming and now they have no place to stay.’”

Koenig said she remembers there were several arrests in May 1987 and students couldn’t hang out in groups near the apartments. Of the 200 people in attendance, 44 were arrested.

“They put all the students together as if all of them were violent,” she said. “Like there is something suspicious about being a student. Students couldn’t even get in unless they had their magic pass.”

The police planned to take the same measures to prevent Cedar Fest in fall 1987, but the party never happened.

In 1990, the 6th U.S. District Court of Appeals struck down a section of the ordinance that allowed police to set up a line on the “probable cause” that a public disturbance would occur, ruling it unconstitutional. But by then, the party had died down.

East Lansing police Chief Tom Wibert, who witnessed Cedar Fest in its heyday, was puzzled as to how students knew about it. After last weekend’s riot, during a press conference at City Hall, 410 Abbot Road, Wibert vowed to bring an end to the mayhem, hoping to leave Cedar Fest in the past.

“I’m surprised they even know about it,” he said. “Most college students had never heard of it unless it came from a legend from their parents.”

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