Friday, April 10, 2020

'Drunken debauchery': A look back at the '99 riot

Patrick Muir was on Grand River Avenue when he saw a couple of young men marching down the middle of the street, carrying the front grill of a police car like a trophy.

“We kicked it a lot and we ripped it off,” one of the men told Muir. “About 10 minutes later we got tear gassed for the fifth time, or was it the fourth time?”

THE BUILD TO ‘99

For the first time in 20 years, the Michigan State men’s basketball team made it to the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament. But around 10 p.m. on March 27, 1999, Duke ended the Spartans’ championship hopes, 68-62.

What followed was destruction leading to 132 arrests and 113 convictions, $250,000 to $500,000 in damages and eight student suspensions, not to mention the lasting scars on the MSU and East Lansing communities.

The 1999 riot wasn’t an isolated incident. In 1998, MSU banned alcohol from Munn Field, a popular student tailgate spot. In protest, thousands of students faced off with police. In 1997, 400 people lit a fire in the middle of Gunson Street.

“There was definitely a feeling campus-wide that something was going to happen, win or lose,” Muir said. “So we were ready. Every reporter and every editor was on call, ... maybe already gathered at The State News in the old office in the Student Services building. It wasn’t a surprise when it started happening, I think it was a surprise how big it got. No one expected that.”

Hours later, the editors pieced together the next day’s paper. The lead story, headlined “Devils’ night,” was set to be about MSU’s loss to Duke. But as more reporters were sent into the field, they decided to switch the main story to reflect the riot.

They didn’t need to change the headline.

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ON THE SCENE

Mary Sell is a politics and state government reporter in Alabama. But in 1999, she was a sophomore at MSU working as The State News’ minority affairs reporter. The chaos started in Cedar Village, first with fires, then with beer bottles being thrown. People cheered, jumped fires and overturned a car. 

“This was before any of us had cell phones, ... so I was just walking around out there by myself with my notebook,” Sell said. “It was just drunken debauchery ... Looking back, most of the people who were there were just spectators, just watching. There was a smaller group of people actually participating.”

Then came the tear gas. Sell ran, and so did everyone else. Her eyes watered and her throat burned. By the end of the night, 300 canisters of tear gas were used to try to break up the crowds, composed of up to 10,000 people.

“I’m not blaming the police at all for launching 300 cans of tear gas. I mean, I don’t know what else they could have done. The crowd was not dissipating on its own; there were significant fires and cars flipped over.”

Around midnight, another wave of police were sent out, upping the number of officers on the streets to 230.

By the end of the night, 61 fires had been set, eight cars burned and 24 windows smashed. The riot sent 24 people to the emergency room. There was damage to parked cars, streetlights, trees and street signs.

“It’s amazing to me that no one was killed or seriously injured in that riot. It so easily could have happened,” Muir said.

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THE NEWSROOM

Back in the newsroom, editors listened to the police scanner, reporters made calls and designers laid out the next day’s paper.

Chad Swiatecki, now a copywriter in Texas, was in the newsroom most of the night. He was interning with The Saginaw News at the time, but offered to help his old stomping grounds with coverage.

“I’m in a wheelchair, so being in the middle of riotous disturbances isn’t the greatest move for me,” Swiatecki said. “I went into the office and said, ‘Let me just take phone calls and take dictation from the people who are out there.”

Editor-in-Chief Sharon Terlep, now the consumer products reporter for The Wall Street Journal, spent her time in the newsroom evaluating the disturbance. What was the bigger story: The end of MSU’s NCAA tournament success or what was going on outside?

“Now it’s normal; it’s not a huge deal when the Spartans get to the Final Four. But this was only a few years after (coach Tom) Izzo had gotten there,” Terlep said. “This was a giant, giant story that we had made it this far in the tournament, so to knock that down to the second story was a pretty pivotal moment.”

Finally, the paper was put to bed. Muir walked home around 4 or 5 a.m. The street — which had hours before been chaos — was now empty, but the damage was visible.

“I remember being sad and I remember being angry,” Muir said. “This is my town, my city, where I live. My college. And you guys just tore it apart for no reason except for that you wanted to.”

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THE MORNING AFTER

Most of the staff slept at The State News that night. Terlep woke up on a battered newsroom couch. The State News didn’t usually publish on Sundays, so after driving to the printer and back, the staff delivered the papers in the morning, then jumped back into reporting.

The smell of tear gas lingered on Sunday as businesses cleaned up. Not many people wanted to talk about what had happened.

“The entire city and the entire MSU campus woke up the next morning and thought, ‘Oh my god, what did we do?’” Muir said. “It was really easy to get caught up in it and do things you wouldn’t otherwise do, but in the morning, everyone woke up and the town was ruined. People started getting arrested and kicked out of school.”

The community was disgusted, embarrassed and pissed. It hurt the school’s reputation and landed MSU securely on lists of best party schools, but Swiatecki said it was more of a short-term ding than anything else.

“It’s not like this riot signaled anything that was cancerous or endemically wrong with the university. ... God knows we’ve found out just a few years ago that there was a whole other big problem,” Swiatecki said. “It was a black eye, but black eyes heal.”

In the aftermath, East Lansing police wanted State News reporters to testify against rioters. They also wanted to use unpublished photos. 

The student paper resisted, saying it would violate a trust between The State News and students and endanger staff members.

“There was a lot of fear from the photo staff that if we start cooperating with police, we don’t have riot shields and tear gas, so we’re going to send these photographers out that now will appear as if they’re cooperating with the city police agencies, and they’ll be very vulnerable,” Terlep said. “That was one of the biggest reasons we didn’t cooperate.”

In the years following the ‘99 riot, The State News reported on the university and city’s efforts to prevent anything like it from happening again. MSU and East Lansing developed reactionary policies that changed the way these institutions reacted to civil disturbances.

The 1999 riot will eventually slip out of memory, but something similar does have the potential to happen again, Swiatecki said. Even today, there are no guarantees.

“Every once in a while when there’s another couch burnt in Cedar Village or whatever and it makes the news, I just sort of think, ‘I understand you guys don’t remember 1999. So it makes sense that you think that that’s fun,’” Muir said. “But if you were there, you wouldn’t ever want to be a part of another college riot.”