When crowds start to gather in East Lansing, 26-year veteran East Lansing police Capt. Jeff Murphy knows points scored and season rankings don’t make a difference in whether a riot, such as Cedar Fest, breaks out.
A single bottle being thrown and shattered across the street could be enough to determine if MSU and East Lansing will once again play an unwilling host to a Cedar Fest.
“It could be stopped at the beginning,” Murphy said. “But if somebody starts cheering — that gets it going more and more.”
Murphy said during his time with the East Lansing Police Department he has seen nights defined by a single moment when a crowd either decides to support or discourage the loose cannons who begin to wreak havoc in large gatherings.
He said he’s seen crowds begin to cheer, join in throwing bottles, fight and then break into riots. He’s also seen crowds self-police by telling off other students for violent and destructive behavior.
Alumnus and East Lansing Mayor Pro Tem Nathan Triplett said stricter city ordinances, groups focused on city and university relations and efforts to inform students on how to party safely have made the difference in MSU’s party atmosphere.
Once known for the infamous Cedar Fest riots and parties, officials said MSU riots are rare and students are partying more responsibly, perhaps foreshadowing what might unfold this year as the NCAA Tournament draws near.
A history of getting down
Since MSU’s first days in the 1850s, students have been drinking, smoking, breaking the rules and having a good time, said anthropology professor and Campus Archaeology Program Director Lynne Goldstein.
“If people weren’t breaking the rules, why would there be rules?” Goldstein said.
“People think of the first students as always being serious students. … They did work really hard, but they did enjoy themselves.”
Goldstein said through excavations on campus and digging through the university archives, campus archeology has determined the university’s first students had partying habits not too unlike those of today.
She said the group has found areas where large amounts of alcohol bottles dating from the 1850s to the 1900s were discarded, and have found smoking pipes as well.
She said excavations of sites of former dumps also have shown similar results — college students always have acted like college students.
Goldstein said although no evidence has shown students had riots in the past, that doesn’t necessarily mean it didn’t happen. She said it’s important to remember that in MSU’s very beginning, students were very isolated and there was little police presence.
According to the MSU archives, Cedar Fests were once a friendly block party. Fast forward to about the 1980s, 1999 and 2008, and there is no doubt MSU has a history of partying and riots.
The infamous Cedar Fests of recent years have earned MSU a label of a party school and left East Lansing fixing hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages and strained community relations, according to local officials.
But the lingering title might be undeserved. Murphy said at least half of the individuals involved in Cedar Fests or other riots in the area typically are not students or East Lansing residents.
Riots to responsibility
Alumnus Sean Thomas said during his time at MSU, students often said the university wasn’t included in lists of top party schools because “they wouldn’t include professionals in a list of amateurs.”
Thomas saw the basis for this belief as a junior in 2008, when he witnessed firsthand one of the last riots truly recognized as a Cedar Fest.
He said it started with a happy crowd singing and shouting “Go green, go white,” but quickly escalated when people started to throw objects and women flashed their bare chests to the crowd.
He said after people began to light fires and throw rocks, which injured a friend of his, police declared the gathering unlawful. The crowd replied with chants of “We want tear gas.”
Although Thomas took this as a cue to leave his position as a spectator and return to his Bogue Street home, the crowd got their wish with, ironically, green and white tear gas. The gas seeped into the air ducts of Thomas’ home and caused “the worst 10 minutes” he had ever experienced as he tried desperately not to blink to avoid the pain as his eyes stung viciously and teared.
“I’d say around two-thirds of the people I know thought it was fun and cool, while the other one-third thought it was a disgrace to our school,” Thomas said.
Since then, Thomas, who works as a DJ for local parties on weekends, said he hasn’t seen anything come close to the Cedar Fest he witnessed, or the considerably worse one in 1999.
He said although students still know how to have a good time, partying overall has decreased. He attributed this to tighter police presence at potential riotous situations and the university taking action against drinking and shortening Welcome Week.
“Many MSU students are somewhat more responsible because they realize it’s no good,” Triplett said of the riots. “It’s a cultural change that we’ve had in the community.”
MSU Community Liaison Erin Carter said the cultural change could be related to a task force developed around 2000 in response to a particularly bad Cedar Fest in 1999. She said the task force was the starting point for the development of the Community Relations Coalition and the MSU-East Lansing Celebrations Committee, which work to develop positive relations between the communities and inform students about how to party responsibly.
Triplett said changes in noise ordinances allowing police to cite a party for noisiness without receiving a complaint and party litter ordinances likely have helped the city control backlash from partying as well.
Changes in keg laws might have affected how students party, as local businesses have reported steep decreases in keg sales.
Psychology sophomore Whitney Stallings said students definitely have decreased activity in riots, although she isn’t sure they have done so with partying in general.
“I think most people have the common sense to realize the damage caused by rioting,” Stallings said. “You don’t want to be known as a party school.”
MSU Coordinator of Health Education Dennis Martell, who co-chairs on the celebrations committee, said with continued efforts the community likely will continue to reap the benefits of responsible partying.
“These events don’t define MSU,” Martell said of riots. “These events are history. These are not tradition.”