In April of 2008 I was eighteen years old and a freshman at Michigan State University. The movie 300 hadn’t been out for more than a year and a half and seemed to constantly be playing in every dorm room. That movie resonated with the student body for obvious reasons, but perhaps should have been looked at as a cautionary tale rather than a source of pride. When I was a teenager I saw that movie as a symbol of Spartan bravery and unflinching resolve, whereas now I’ve come to realize it’s more so a parable about hubris. I lived in Mason-Abbot Hall, which was located directly across the street from the notoriously riotous Cedar Village. I had heard the legends of Cedar Fest, the most tremendous story being about the enormous one a few years earlier that left East Lansing in shambles, where tear gas had been dispensed pell-mell, and notably several cars had been flipped. But it felt like a ghost story, a spectral piece of the past, something that would never happen again.
However, one of the main differences between Cedar Fests of the past and the one in 2008 was that it had become tremendously easier to organize students thanks to websites such as Facebook. A small group of students created a Facebook page to revive Cedar Fest, and it didn’t take long for word to spread around campus. I didn’t join the Facebook group, but it wasn’t exactly the type of party requiring an RSVP. Needless to say, when the night of Cedar Fest finally arrived, I took it upon myself to see what all the hype was about.
I remember walking through the streets of apartment complexes in a mob of people. There were people everywhere drinking on the small patches of lawn and sidewalk, chanting and cheering, throwing footballs, balconies flooding over with people looking out from their apartments, and a strong presence of police in riot gear. Yet, the atmosphere was surprisingly jovial, and even the police seemed to be having a good time. They didn’t object to the drunken mobs of people taking pictures with them in the background or to the loud music and shouting, obstreperous hoi polloi. Most of them were loquacious when asked by curious students (such as myself) what to expect. However, there was a large paddy wagon that slowly was getting filled with the rowdiest members of the crowd. Several women had been hoisted up onto the shoulders of the crowd, flashed their breasts, and were subsequently escorted in handcuffs to the back of the wagon. Someone threw a beer bottle, and they were on the ground almost immediately. Anyone that looked like they were considering setting a fire was promptly dealt with. Sometime around two o’clock in the morning, I heard a warning to disperse bellowed through a loudspeaker, and casually walked back to my dorm room, as I was not interested in tarrying with tear gas, and immediately went to bed.
When I woke up in the morning, the first thing my roommate said was, “How’d you not wake up last night? There was tear gas coming through the window.” It was early and my mouth was dry, but I had not noticed when tear gas drifted through our window around 2:30 a.m. Later when I walked outside, I could see that the streets were littered with paper, trash, and beer cans. Everyone I talked to that day wanted to discuss the riot. A female acquaintance of mine claimed she had been raised on some guy’s shoulders, and that the surrounding crowd had started chanting “Tits! Tits! Tits!” but she shook her head to say no and was put down. Another friend said he was with a guy that had tossed a beer bottle against a brick wall, and watched as he got slammed up against it and was cuffed instantly. One friend even claimed he’d seen someone snapping photos through the clouds of tear gas, wearing safety goggles and a bandana over his mouth. Odds are all of these stories were embellished. One thing was clear though. Cedar Fest was back.
The haunting message I gathered even as a freshman in college was evident: this was a conspiracy to riot. While this event could have been nothing more than a tremendous party, and an opportunity to celebrate the consistent success of Tom Izzo and our basketball program, it was instead set out to be a horde of truculent adolescents famously burning couches. Michigan State hadn’t even made it that far in the tournament that year, losing in the second round. Cedar Fest became a perpetuating prophecy of angry students tearing apart their own town, damaging cars and getting arrested. No one expected a party—they wanted to see the haze of tear gas encompass Cedar Village.
My junior year there was a smaller, unperturbed, spontaneous Cedar Fest immediately after Michigan State made it to the final four. It was minuscule enough that I don’t think it even got mentioned in the State News. All I remember is taking one step into the street, a police officer saying, “Son, you leave the sidewalk again and I gotta cuff you,” or some such warning, and I left right away. But during the rest of my time as an undergrad, no one seemed to want to relive the disaster of 2008. Certainly, the East Lansing Police Department wanted it to never happen again.
Then we beat Ohio State this year. Cars were flipped, fires were started, and East Lansing was again in an uproar. Now, as an alumnus, six years after witnessing my first riot, I can’t say I’m not slightly disappointed. This wasn’t even some tragic, belligerent reaction to a loss. Spartans destroyed their own town after making it to the Rose Bowl for the first time in my lifetime. Again, I fear that it was nothing more than some smeared, skewed idea of tradition. Rioting has suddenly become what we do.
The tragedy of this is that it distorts the remarkable reputation Mark Dantonio has built around this football team. This year’s Rose Bowl team has been built on patience and cool-headedness, at least from an outsider’s perspective. That Spartan hubris that ultimately dooms Leonidas in 300 never saw the light of day under Dantonio’s football team as they played Ohio State. While the game was up and down for the Spartans, with Ohio State scoring twenty-four points unanswered, there never seemed to be a moment of panic or desperation. To use a phrase I despise, this is easily a signature win for Mark Dantonio and our Michigan State Spartans. So nothing is worse than having it tarnished by inane rioting and destruction.
Perhaps, it’s easy for me to develop this perspective now that I’m no longer a student at Michigan State. Maybe I’m just getting old. I’d like to hope I’m even gaining a little wisdom. But what I do know is this: I’m proud of our Spartan football team. They’ve earned their spot in the Rose Bowl. They deserve the spotlight and the accolades they’ve achieved. Every second of time sports commentators and news reports take towards discussing our habit of burning East Lansing to the ground takes away from that achievement. Coaches like Mark Dantonio and Tom Izzo have made winning a Spartan tradition. They have exhibited loyalty and dedication and composure and made us look good. If we truly treasure and value these excellent coaches, shouldn’t we mirror their example?