Community on a Larger Scale: Why I Have Always Hated Michigan State Riots


By: Daniel Hodgman

On Saturday, December 7th, the Michigan State football team beat Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship game. Sealing the deal and stamping tickets to the Rose Bowl for the first time in over 20 years, Michigan State won the game in a 34-24 fashion. What happened afterward was what most people would call a “riot.” This is what I have to say:

I had the fortune of growing up in East Lansing, Michigan nearly my entire life. Blessed beyond belief, I think about the city almost everyday and how it has shaped me as a person. I love the city, I love the neighborhoods, I love campus, I love the little city secrets, I love the Children’s Garden, I love the sod farms, I love the Lake Lansing Speedway and yes, I even love the Grand River strip (I wish CD Warehouse, Barnes & Noble and Tower Records were still present).

With this, I have many memories of East Lansing that I have stored in my mind bank, both the good and the bad, the witless and shrewd. One memory in particular sticks out like a sore thumb, especially now after all the festivities and the post-Big Ten Championship Game East Lansing riot.

Back in 1999, sometime in March, Michigan State played Duke in the Final Four. It was Izzo’s first of six (hopefully after this season we can say “seven”) Final Fours, and he was facing a Duke squad with the prototypical “man I really hate this basketball program” feel. Led by Coach K, Elton Brand, Corey Maggette, Shane Battier and William Avery, Duke overpowered Michigan State 68-62 to face the eventual champion Connecticut Huskies.

What happened before the final result of the game is a bit of a blur to me. I do remember that I was with my parents, and we were guests at someone’s house. We were all sitting and standing in front of the television watching the game. After the final whistle, it seemed like everyone went through the same motion: one minute of groaning, one minute of “that one guy” who has to bring up the officiating, five minutes of silence, one minute of recovery and the rest of the night to go on with our lives.

Shortly afterward, my parents took me and my sister and we left to go home. Again, I can’t really remember the drive, but I do remember the radio announcement about students and non-students in and around campus and East Lansing. I remember that night it was a lot brighter than usual. At the time I probably thought the street lights were extra bright, but now I can gather that it was probably due to couch fires and “activity.” When we got home it was fairly late, so my parents rushed my sister to bed. I kind of lingered in the living room, staying close to the windows, ears a little perkier than usual.

As I had my 8-year-old ears next to the window, with my face pressed up against the glass, I remember going outside for a little bit to sit on the porch. Helicopters kept passing overhead, whirring loud and without care for everyone sleeping below, and police sirens were abundant, creating a symphonic harmony of panic. Yelling and “activity” wasn’t as clear, but it was still faint.

After a while I went back inside and into my room. I tried falling asleep, but the helicopters and sirens kept me up for most of the night until the activity died down. I remember a couple of things from lying there, eyes wide open, brain swirling with thoughts. One of them was simply: are my parents sleeping? How can they sleep through this? Another was a bit more fearful: Is this going to keep happening? Will it spread? And the last thought was plain: what now?

ELPD during the 1999 Michigan State riot. ’99 til infinity? Let’s hope not.

For the most part it was all just intrigue. But something inside of me was afraid for a while. I guess it had never occurred to me as a small child that East Lansing was capable of producing flames, even ones as – taking things into perspective – small as the ’99 campus riot. It was a learning experience, sort of, but it stuck with me, and still sticks with me to this day.

When everything cleared, and all the national media outlets covered that specific night in East Lansing, some “stats” were made available. Between 7,000 and 10,000 people gathered in and around Michigan State’s campus that night. Damages ranged somewhere between $250,000 and $500,000. 132 people were arrested. Compared to the one that happened on Saturday (around 2,000 were involved, $5,000 in damages), the ‘99 riot was massive.

The ’99 East Lansing riot wasn’t the first. In fact, one year earlier, there was a protest over the ban of alcohol on Munn Field, which can be cited as the “one that started them all.” In 2005, a small band of people rioted after the Final Four loss to North Carolina, and with Cedar Fest and a whole slew of other small riots, East Lansing has been known for damaging its own image.

It remains though that the 1999 riot was the biggest, the one that cost the most, the one with the most arrests and the one that gained much notoriety on national news.

Because of this event, I have always hated Michigan State-related riots. Whenever one happens, I always think back to that night as a child, and I always remember how clueless, scared and worried I was, lying in my bed with my eyes wide open. I think about where my friends were that night, probably doing the same exact thing as me. I think about the hundreds of families and non-student residents that call East Lansing home, and pride themselves for living in such a great community. I think about the diverse range of foreign families, foreign students and foreign professors in East Lansing who have travelled thousands of miles and have spent thousands of dollars just to find peace, betterment, well-being, an education or anything else they sought out to pursue. I think about the reputation of the city itself, and what strangers will respond with when I tell them I grew up in East Lansing, Michigan. And I think about Ann Arbor, a town that lost to us this year in football, but at least had the class not to destroy itself from within.

What gets me about this latest riot is that it’s over a football game, and not even one we lost. As a lifelong Spartan, I get it: we’re going to the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1988, and there’s a reason to celebrate. But why celebrate by uplifting 70-year-old Cedar trees, flipping over random cars and creating large bonfires in the street? Why would you wreck chaos and destroy what you call home over a FOOTBALL GAME? Why would you create an unneeded citywide disturbance over a FOOTBALL GAME?

Saturday night’s antics included flipping over this car, which was owned by a fellow Spartan.

First, take a look at the state of Michigan as a whole: aren’t city budgets and state funds strapped enough to where they don’t need to be paying for these riot damages? Do you think city officials woke up the next morning with a smile saying, “ah yes, now it’s time to waste our work day by cleaning up this mess?” Just because this recent riot was only a fraction of what ’99 was, doesn’t mean that it won’t cost thousands of dollars to repair the damages.

Secondly, stop for a moment and take a look around. I’m not talking around your house or around East Lansing. I’m talking about: take a look globally around the world. Doesn’t it have enough destruction and utter chaos as it is?

For the most part, our world exhibits riots and riot destruction due to effects on deprived sections of society. A lot of riots happen within the inner city that involve the working and lower class. Riots can happen out of frustration and anger, alienation and resentment. Riots can happen due to inequality, poverty, oppression, resentment and lack of material goods or a decent job (something that Western society has literally INGRAINED into our way of thinking as the only successful thing one can do). Now, I don’t condone these actions and riots, but what I’m trying to get at is that riots in this world have motivations and reasoning as to why they’re started.

After the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, over 60 American cities erupted in riots, with Baltimore, Chicago, Kansas City and Washington D.C. experiencing the worst. Chicago had 30 blocks consumed by the riot, with more than $10 million in damages, 11 dead and 48 injured; Washington D.C. rioted for four days, which resulted in mass looting, mass injuries and swarms of people coming within two blocks of the White House; Wilmington, Delaware experienced riots for two days, and a nine month occupation by the National Guard.

These riots were sparked by King’s assassination, a man who was a leader for a generation of oppressed people. He was the icon during the heat and precipice of the Civil Rights Movement, and his sudden death acted as one of the darkest moments of the 60s. This led to millions of Americans engulfed with sadness and anger.

In 2007, Kenya was pulled into the teething mouth of riots after President Mwai Kibaki was declared the winner of the presidential election amid charges that it was rigged. Kibaki trailed in all the opinion polls, and in a joint statement made by the British Foreign Office and Department For International Development, there were claims of “real concerns over irregularities.” In Nairobi’s slums, protesters clashed with hundreds of riot police who had sealed off the election commission headquarters ahead of the result announcement.

Even as recently as last June, riots and protests broke out in Brasil during the Confederations Cup. This wasn’t in response to the national team, officiating or even soccer however; it was a response to an increase in bus fares, which turned into a nationwide movement against the country’s health care system, the status of education and governmental corruption. Brasilians live and breathe soccer and it’s part of their culture, and for them to protest the Confederations Cup (essentially the prelude to the World Cup), means that the oppression and corruption they were facing was much more than a sport they so cherished.

Protesters in Brasil, 2013.

These three events are just a fraction of relevant riots and protests in our history, but they showcase why riots and civil disobedience happen. Whether it’s due to hundreds of years of oppression and the slaying of a leader in its resistance, governmental voting fraud that re-elects the incumbent and maintains control, governmental corruption with poor education and health care problems, riots always have a cause, motivation and a catalyst.

Why do we as a Spartan community have the nerve to actually cause destruction and riot over something so meaningless in life? Like I said before, our world’s riots have motivations and reasoning. The one that just took place in East Lansing did not.

What was the motivation behind rioting after a Big Ten football title? What was the endgame?

There are bigger things here people, and I hope we can all put things into perspective.

So while I get that going to the Rose Bowl and beating those Buckeyes from Ohio merits a need for celebration, I must say that rioting was the worst possible choice. It damages the university’s image, East Lansing’s image, the city itself, the communities that call East Lansing home, the non-student residents, the families, the businesses, the city budget and one student’s car (thankfully someone started a donation fund to get him a new one). Before we as a community go out and celebrate something, let’s think about the consequences and everyone that will be affected.

On a larger scale, what was the sole reasoning for causing civil disobedience with this recent Michigan State riot? Unlike other riots, like the Rodney King Riots of 1992 – an event caused by the acquittal of four LAPD officers involved in police brutality and mounting racial tension, that eventually led to department analyzation of police force, an increase in minority officers and critique on the political structure of the city – this riot had no motivation, no need and nothing close to a hopeful outcome or vision. Considering that all riots have a source that stem from the ranges of oppression, inequality, poverty and many other incentives, going out and rioting on Saturday night after the game is ignorant to the fact that civil disobedience has roots so deep in the confines of what’s actually important. This was a football game, and rioting shouldn’t be some sort of privilege for winning or losing.

All I’m asking is for us to collaborate and think about the bigger issues. We need to stop tarnishing our world before it’s too late for future generations. We need to pride ourselves on our location, our classiness, our willingness to provide for the community and drive to do what’s right. We need perspective, and we need a sense of understanding. All I’m asking for is some common sense.


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One thought on “Community on a Larger Scale: Why I Have Always Hated Michigan State Riots

  1. keith wagenmaker says:

    It is damaging, and it is disappointing. East Lansing is better than this. When I drive in for a visit from time to time, I always marvel at its beauty. Its a place I would like to be.

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