12 of the World’s Most Violent Student Riots
12 of the World’s Most Violent Student Riots

12 of the World’s Most Violent Student Riots

Tim Flight - July 26, 2018

12 of the World’s Most Violent Student Riots
A 20th-century depiction of the St Scholastica Day Riot, England, 1907. Oxford History

The St Scholastica Day Riot, 1355

Like the rioting at the University of Paris, the St Scholastica Day Riot all began with a day of celebration, and an altercation in a bar. On the 10th February 1355, the town was celebrating the feast day of the patron saint of school, books, and reading. A group of students were drinking in the Swindlestock Tavern, but complained to the proprietor that the wine was of poor quality. The landlord, John of Barford, also Mayor of Oxford, responded with ‘stubborn and saucy language’, and a student unwisely threw a drinking vessel at his head. Things then escalated quickly.

As at the University of Paris, there was great resentment between the Town and Gown, chiefly over the students’ behaviour, wealth, and clerical immunity from prosecution, whereas the students resented high rents, harassment, and inflated prices. The townsfolk rang the bell of Carfax Church to summon the town to arms, and the university rang its own alarm bell at nearby St Mary’s Church, and all converged on the Swindlestock Tavern. A large battle took place between town and gown, with both sides making liberal use of bows and arrows. The fight lasted all day, until everyone was tired.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t the end of the matter. The university owned vast amounts of land across the county, and as a landlord was hated by many. Thus, when word spread to the outlying districts, the university’s rustic tenants rose up and arrived in the city in a 2, 000-strong mob, chanting ‘slea, slea…. havock, havock…. smyte fast, give gode knocks’. They broke into colleges and killed every scholar they came across. By the end of the day, 62 students had been massacred, along with 30 townsmen. The university’s retribution was swift, and its effects are still felt to this day.

King Edward III’s investigation decided entirely in favour of the university. The Mayor of Oxford, his bailiffs, and 62 townsmen had to march bareheaded to attend a Mass for the dead every St. Scholastica’s Day thenceforth at the university church, and to pay a 63 pence fine for each of the 62 students (plus one for good measure) killed every year on the same day. It was traditional for the penitent procession to be baited and pelted by the students, and even in the nineteenth century St Scholastica’s Day remained an opportunity for disgruntled students to settle scores with townsfolk.

Moreover, every year the humiliated group of townsfolk also had to swear an oath of allegiance to the university’s privileges. This reasserted the university’s independence and actually increased the institution’s power over trade in the area. Although the Mayor refused to honour the obligation in 1825 and no one cared enough to force him or his successors to comply in future, the University of Oxford continues to be the financial powerhouse in the city. It owns vast amounts of land and property, for which locals have to pay often exorbitant rent. The town won the fight, the University the aftermath.

12 of the World’s Most Violent Student Riots
The Tuscaloosa News reports on the controversy surrounding the admission of the first black student, Autherine Lucy, to the University of Alabama, February 6th, 1956. Canterbury Chapel

University of Alabama, 1956

600 years after the St Scholastica Day Riot, a long way from Oxford, students in Alabama were in uproar. This time, however, there ire was directed towards one of their own: a studious young woman named Autherine Lucy. Her admission to the University of Alabama in 1956, after several failed attempts, was very controversial, and most students opposed her enrolment. Who was this young woman whose mere presence invited so much ire: a violent criminal, a terrorist, an unpopular policitican, or a practicing Satanist (remember we’re talking the Deep South, here)? None of the above, actually: she was black.

Autherine was the daughter of a sharecropper from Shiloh, Alabama. She had already graduated with a BA in English from Selma University in 1952, and wanted to add a Masters Degree in Elementary Education from her home state to enable her to become a teacher. At the time, the University of Alabama was an all-white institution, but Autherine and her friend, Pollie Ann Myers, rightly felt that education should have no colour, and were accepted in 1952. They were then summarily rejected when admissions officers noticed that the bright young women were black when they came to enrol in person.

Autherine and Pollie tried unsuccessfully to overturn the decision, but two years later, in 1954, the famous Brown v. Board of Education case made racial segregation illegal in public schools. They petitioned again, and in 1955 a federal judge ruled that the university had to admit the two women, but the University of Alabama did manage to reduce their population of black students by 50% when it discovered that Pollie had been pregnant out of wedlock. Bravely, Autherine decided to go ahead with the MA, and enrolled on 1st February 1956. Legal or not, many would not accept the ruling.

Autherine was not allowed to live on campus, and had to be ferried to and from her classes by supportive members of the black community. Although some white students quietly supported her, after only a few days of studying her family were receiving death threats. By the third day of her classes, an angry mob had formed, waving Confederate Flags and burning desegregation literature. Chanting racist slogans, they threw eggs at Autherine, and threatened to kill her. Fortunately, Autherine managed to lock herself in a safe room, and was escorted from campus by the police. She only wanted to study.

So what happened next? Autherine, who really had done nothing wrong, was expelled from the university. Having seen the angry mob, the bonfires, and the widespread disorder on campus, the university board decided that it was unsafe for Lucy to attend. Whether this was out of cowardice or racism outdated even in 1956, their decision stood, and the angry mob got their way. It was not until 1988 that the University of Alabama lifted her ban, and she returned to study, receiving her MA in 1992 at the age of 62. In penance, the university named a scholarship after Autherine.

12 of the World’s Most Violent Student Riots
A student lobs rocks at police, Paris, May 1968. New York Times

French May, 1968

The 1960s brought a cultural sea-change in attitudes across the globe, radically opposed to the conservatism of the post-war years. Social norms changed to embrace a liberal sexuality, racism and sexism were no longer seen as attractive qualities, and peace and tolerance, rather than warmongering, were the order of the day. Inevitably, students were important to this change. Free from the conservatism of their parents, and inspired by a younger generation of teachers and lecturers, they could explore a different way of doing things and living that was utterly revolutionary. Nevertheless, the decade saw its fair share of bloodshed.

There were many student protests in the 1960s, and the year of 1968 was particularly rich in Higher Education disturbances. France at the time was ruled by President Charles de Gaulle, whose Gaullist Party was stifling and tediously conservative. On 22nd March, 150 students at Nanterre University, Paris, staged a sit-in to protest against the ban on male and female students sleeping together. This ended peacefully when the police were called, but the tensions between students and the Nanterre officials did not. Nanterre was eventually shut down on 2nd May after months of friction between students and university authorities.

This was, in turn, protested by the University of Sorbonne, and when police were called to close the university, the Union Nationale des Étudiants de France organised a protest of 20, 000 students, teachers and supporters. There were violent clashes, with the police responding to being attacked and pelted with stones by using teargas and batons. Hundreds of protestors were arrested, and another protest against the arrests and police brutality was arranged for May 10th 1968. Their demands were for Nanterre and Sorbonne to be reopened, the police to leave the universities, and for the criminal charges to be dropped.

There followed a huge riot in the early hours of the morning of 11th May, with police again using teargas, and protestors fighting back and setting things on fire. Sympathy for the students was widespread, and left-wing thinkers including Jean-Paul Sartre addressed disgruntled workers and told them of the coming liberal revolution that the protesting students would bring, urging their support for the movement. The workers’ unions called a one day strike, and 1 million people marched through Paris in support. But even when the Sorbonne reopened and the police left, protests against the Gaullist Government did not end.

The workers continued to protest with the students, organising 50 factory occupations with 200, 000 on strike in protest at workers’ rights. Charles de Gaulle left France for Baden-Baden, where he liaised with the military to ensure that he had their support, though this lead to dangerous rumours of his resignation. Eventually, the workers managed to negotiate better pay and working conditions, and left the students to it in early June. France had narrowly avoided another revolution. The 1968 protest very nearly toppled a government and has left a lasting legacy of liberalism and tolerance in French culture.

12 of the World’s Most Violent Student Riots
Protestors are held at gunpoint, Mexico City, 1968. The Guardian

Tlatelolco Massacre, 1968

When Mexico won the bid for the 1968 Olympics, the government wanted to make a good impression. Spending $150 million (c.$1 billion in today’s money) on preparations was intended to showcase Mexico to the world, but others saw a similar opportunity to showcase the oppressive government to the world. The government had arrested numerous political prisoners and employed a ruthless police force which viciously put down fights between gangs from Mexico’s universities and colleges. The student movement was initially confined to volunteers boarding buses and informing passengers about the government’s corruption, asking for donations to effect political change in Mexico.

However, on August 1st 1968, 50, 000 students marched in protest, without any violence or arrests. Others began joining the students on subsequent demonstrations, and eventually the government, fearing negative publicity during the Olympics, sent the police to occupy university campuses and end the protests. The Zacotenco and Santo Tomas campuses in Mexico City held out against the police for 12 hours, trading Molotov cocktails with police bullets and bazooka fire, leading to fifteen deaths and many being injured. In response, the CNH, which was behind the protests, organised a demonstration in La Plaza de Las Tres Culturas, Tlatelolco district.

Around 5, 000 students arrived, expecting a peaceful protest, but the square was swiftly surrounded by tanks, snipers, and armed police. The police began firing into the crowd, killing between 200 and 300 protestors; the official ‘count’ was 4. Many sought refuge in surrounding buildings, but were dragged out and either arrested or shot. The government claimed that protestors had opened fire on the police, but fortunately scores of foreign journalists were there for the Olympics, and gave a damning report of events. Many today see the massacre as the start of the decline of the dominant political party, PRI.

12 of the World’s Most Violent Student Riots
Protestors stand outside the bullet hole-ridden dormitory at Jackson State College where two African-American students were shot by the police, Mississippi, 1970. Alchetron

Jackson State College, 1970

In 1970, Jackson State College, Mississippi (now Jackson State University), was a mostly black college. On May 14th, a false rumour spread that Charles Evers, the black mayor of Fayette, Mississippi, and his wife had been assassinated by white supremacists. The demographic of Jackson State meant that it was frequently the site of racially-charged confrontations, and so it made sense that even non-students gathered there to protest against this latest show of racism in the Deep South. The protestors threw rocks as passing white motorists, started fires, and overturned a nearby dump truck. Several motorists called the police.

75 police officers and the Mississippi Highway Patrol arrived to control the protestors while fire fighters extinguished the blazes. Shortly after midnight, the police spotted a group of black students congregated outside Alexander Hall, a dormitory. Their involvement in the riot, or indeed lack of, is not recorded, but the group refused to move when confronted by the police. For one reason or another, the police opened fire on the group for 30 seconds, spraying 150 bullets at the youths, killing two and injuring 12. The police later claimed they saw snipers, but an FBI investigation found no evidence.

The two students killed were Phillip Lafayette Gibbs, aged 21, and James Earl Green, 17. The Jackson State incident happened only 10 days after the more famous Kent State shootings (below), and was investigated by Richard Nixon’s National Commission on Campus Unrest. The Commission found that ‘the 28-second fusillade from police officers was an unreasonable, unjustified overreaction’, even were there a sniper. Shockingly, though, no one was ever brought to justice for the shootings. Jackson State renamed the area the Gibbs-Green Plaza and erected a memorial stone but, symbolically, Alexander Hall still bears the scars of the police bullets.

12 of the World’s Most Violent Student Riots
John Filo’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of Mary Ann Vecchio, 14, kneeling over the body of Jeffrey Miller minutes after he was fatally shot, Ohio, 1970. Slate

Kent State University, 1970

‘Tin soldiers and Nixon coming/we’re finally on our own/this summer I hear the drumming/four dead in Ohio’. So Neil Young immortalized the most notorious campus shooting in the history of the United States. The US public had discovered that they had been misled by President Lyndon Baines Johnson about the scale of the nation’s involvement in the Vietnam War, and students were infuriated when the policy allowing college students to defer being drafted until after university was ended. In May 1970, students from Kent State University, Ohio, joined widespread protests against the Vietnam War, and specifically America’s bombing of Cambodia.

Richard Nixon had been elected president in 1967 on the promise that he would end the Vietnam War, so news of the My Lai Massacre and the bombing of Cambodia was met with fury. Kent State had been protesting the war since 1966, and on May 1st 1970, 500 students met for a rally. Rocks and bottles were thrown at the police and bonfires were lit. The National Guard were called in, as protests continued, a building was burnt down, and fire-fighters disrupted. The Governor of Ohio called the students ‘the worst type of people that we harbor in America’.

On May 4th, the National Guard used tear gas against the protestors, which proved ineffective and merely encouraged students to fling rocks at the aggressors. The National Guard advanced on the group with rifles and bayonets, but when the protest would still not be quashed, they opened fire for 13 seconds, unleashing 67 bullets which killed 4 and injured 9. The National Guard, and Nixon by proxy, were widely condemned, and the killings served to make the Vietnam War yet more unpopular. In the aftermath, Nixon began withdrawing troops, and increased protests and strikes closed many universities across the country.

12 of the World’s Most Violent Student Riots
Pu Zhiqiang protesting at Tiananmen Square, 10th May 1989, China. Wikimedia Commons

Tiananmen Square 1989

Even if you don’t know the details, you probably know the name. Tiananmen Square is doubtless the bloodiest and most tragic of all student riots, which resulted in the deaths of thousands of people, mainly students. But it had all been a long time coming. Deng Xiaoping had led China to a period of prosperity after becoming leader in 1978, opening up the economy and undoing many of ills caused by the tyrannical Chairman Mao. However, by the 1980s there were growing calls in China for liberalization, and an end to nepotism and anti-intellectualism within the Communist Party.

Central to these reforms was Hu Yaobang, the party’s general secretary. When a student protest broke out in 1986 after Fang Lizhi, an astrophysicist returning from tenure at Princeton, toured China’s universities lecturing on human rights and liberty, Hu was ousted for his soft approach to protestors. When Hu, a hero to the protestors, died of a heart attack in May 1989, many blamed his death on his forced resignation, and gathered in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, to mourn his death. Thousands of students were massed, and it soon turned into a protest against the government and a call for democracy.

On May 13th, students began a mass hunger strike to encourage the government to discuss their demands. This coincided with Mikhail Gorbachev’s historic visit to China, and thus the world’s press was in China to document the Soviet-Chinese meeting. The event was overshadowed by events in Tiananmen Square, and on May 19th a staggering 1.2 million people had gathered there. The new general secretary, Zhao Ziyang, had advocated negotiating with the protestors, and opposed the imposition of martial law, but was ousted from his post, and 250, 000 troops were sent to retake Tiananmen by any means necessary.

The troops arrived at 1am on June 4th, with instructions to retake it by 6am. Protestors were given an hour to leave, but witnesses claimed that the soldiers opened fire after only 5 minutes, massacring between 3, 000 and 10, 000 people. Students were bayoneted as they begged for their lives, a mother was shot when trying to help her injured three-year-old-daughter, and human remains were ‘hosed down the drains’. Others were deliberately run over in tanks. The massacre was well-documented by photos and videos of the dead and dying. The Chinese government still maintains that no one was killed.

12 of the World’s Most Violent Student Riots
Iranian students begin their protest peacefully, Tehran, 1999. Radio Free Europe Radio Free Liberty

Iran Student Protests, 1999

In July 1999, the Iranian reformist newspaper, Salam, was banned by the Special Court for the Clergy. The newspaper was the first publication in Islamic-revolution Iran to highlight injustice, financial crime, and corruption. Salam was critical of the Iranian government, and bravely pulled no punches in its investigative work. This made it as popular with students as it was hated by the government, and its editor, Abbas Addi, was jailed in 1993 for criticizing the government’s control of the media and highlighting its crimes. In July 1999, Salam was finally closed down when it published a secret ministry report.

Immediately, students rose up in protest at what they saw as undemocratic censorship, with the consent of their universities. Students gathered in Tehran for peaceful protests on July 9th, with no rioting or misbehavior. However, that very night, armed police and right-wing vigilantes stormed a dormitory at Tehran University. One witness described ‘walls demolished, cupboards destroyed, students’ belongings thrown out through the windows… even some students who had been sleeping or doing their morning prayers were thrown out through the windows from the second and the third floors.’ At least one person was killed, and many others injured.

The Iranian public were shocked and appalled by the attack. Over the next 5 days, 50, 000 students and sympathizers protested against the attack in Tehran, with thousands of others marching across Iran. The protests were brutally put down, and at least 5 people were killed, with thousands more injuries and arrests. Prisoners were tortured to extract information, and several are still incarcerated. The events of 1999, though, paved the way for the still-active student movement in Iran, which staged anniversary protests in 2009. Only one man was convicted of the dormitory attack: for illegally confiscating a student’s lighter.

12 of the World’s Most Violent Student Riots
University of Michigan students riot, East Lansing, 2013. Daily Mail

Michigan State University Student Riots, 1999-2013

After reading such brutal and tragic narratives, let’s allow ourselves a break, and chuckle at the next two riots on the list. In the same year that Iranian students were rioting about the freedom of the press and injustice, students at the Michigan State University had problems of their own: their college basketball team losing to Duke University in the NCAA Final Four. Between 5 and 10, 000 students mobilized at the behest of one ‘Taco Dave’, night shift manager of the East Lansing branch of Taco Bell, causing $250, 000 – $500, 000 worth of damage to the area.

Michigan State students are clearly a rambunctious lot. In 1998, 3, 000 students protesting against a ban on alcohol at tailgate parties were tear-gassed by police when they ignored orders not to trespass on Munn Field. Another loss in the 2005 NCAA Final Four, this time to the University of North Carolina, resulted in another riot which caused a slightly-more-reasonable $8, 275 worth of damage to East Lansing, but costing $198, 389 in police fees. The 2005 riot is controversial, however, as video footage shows no violence taking place until the police again used tear gas against the furious students.

However, it seems Michigan State students are equally violent even after a victory. The most recent riot of 2013 came after the college football team beat rivals Ohio State to qualify for the 100th Rose Bowl. Overjoyed, the students flipped a car and burned anything they could find: benches, couches, trees, and tables. When police walked from the main couch bonfire, rioters followed them chanting ‘nah, nah, nah, goodbye!’ Riot police eventually ended the celebration after 2 hours. The students were spared tear gas on this occasion, but there were multiple arrests. Well, Ohio State had been undefeated until then…

12 of the World’s Most Violent Student Riots
University of Maryland students ‘celebrate’ their college basketball team’s victory, College Park, 2002. Crooked Monkey

University of Maryland, 2001, 2002, 2010

Ably giving their northerly cousins at Michigan State University a run for their money, the sport-loving students of Maryland University have rioted severely on three occasions. In 2001, it was once again the basketball team’s loss to Duke in the NCAA Final Four that caused a serious student riot. After the basketball team blew a 22-point lead, Maryland students started bonfires on the streets, which inevitably got out of control, attacked police, smashed shop windows, burgled houses, and set fire to a mobile home. In all, they managed to cause $500, 000 worth of damage in College Park, Maryland.

In 2002, they were at it again, but this time it was a victory that inspired the riot (anything Michigan State can do…). The college basketball team had just managed to win their first ever title, appropriately on April Fools’ Day. Around 5, 000 celebrants went onto the streets, starting bonfires with couches and bins and generally flipping over anything unwise enough to have been left on the street, such as cars. The streets were witnesses to drunken brawls, flying beer bottles, and riot police. $50, 000 worth of damage and 17 arrests later, the students called it a night.

A more minor riot followed in 2010, when a victory against… you guessed it, Duke, led to raucous celebration. Only 1, 500 students were there for this one, which may be because the University of Maryland passed legislation after the 2002 incident expelling anyone caught misbehaving after college sports games, but they still managed to cause an incredible amount of damage by setting things on fire. The students also took advantage of chilly weather by pelting police with snowballs and ice, leading to 28 arrests. On an unsavory note, two policemen were indicted for an unprovoked assault on a celebrant.

12 of the World’s Most Violent Student Riots
Things get ugly during the UK Students Protests, as a rioter kicks in the window of the Tory Party’s headquarters, London, 2010. WordPress

United Kingdom student protests, 2010

Back to Britain for the final item on the list, this particular riot was caused by changes to the university system in the UK. Until 1998, it was free to go to university in the UK, but in September of that year it was announced that a fee of up to £1, 000 per year would be payable by students. In 2004, this tripled to £3, 000, and again in 2010 to £9, 000. This latter figure was what inspired students to take to the streets in November 2010, causing widespread mayhem, violence, and great sums of damage.

As well as being exorbitantly high, the 2010 figure was controversial for other reasons. In the 2010 General Election, the Liberal Democrat party had garnered much support amongst students when it promised to oppose any rise in tuition fees for students. When no party got a majority, a coalition was formed between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, and the latter instantly dropped their election pledge as part of the power-sharing deal. Yet whilst the fees had tripled, the government simultaneously announced that it would cut its spending on universities, dramatically reducing teaching hours. What were students paying more for?

On November 10th 2010, between 30, 000 and 52, 000 students from across Great Britain and Northern Ireland marched through London in protest at the tuition fee increase and cuts to spending. They were even joined by a few MPs. The National Union of Students (NUS) had urged a peaceful protest, but unfortunately things got terribly out of hand. The police, expecting only 20, 000 protestors, had only deployed 225 officers to maintain order on the march. Thus the limited police presence meant that 200 people were able to break into 30 Millbank, Westminster, the headquarters of the Conservative Party.

The students vandalised the building, setting placards on fire and smashing windows (see above), whilst chanting ‘Tory scum’. When riot police were eventually deployed, they were pelted with eggs, rotten fruit, and broken glass. Many arrests were made as the students were finally persuaded to leave the building, and a miraculously low number of 8 people were injured during the occupation. As well as the vandalism, if you’ve ever had the misfortune to have driven a car through London, you’ll realise the severe impact that thousands of people on the tiny, congested streets caused. The capital was at a standstill.

Protests did not end after the march on November 10th. Across the country, students and even lecturers occupied lecture halls and classrooms for days and staged protests on campuses. Subsequent marches on November 24th and 30th led to more violent clashes with police. A protest at Parliament Square on December 9th saw mounted police charged into the crowd, injuring many students. The riots ended with several hundred arrests, severe damage to buildings in Central London, and no change to the tuition fees. The current £9, 250-a-year tuition fee is set to rise again with inflation, whilst spending has not increased.

 

Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Autherine Lucy”. National Women History Museum.

“The Ghosts of Mexico 1968”. The Economist, 24 April 2008.

Gorgin, Iraj. “Looking Back At Tehran’s 1999 Student Protests”.

Leff, Gordon. Paris and Oxford Universities in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries: An Institutional and Intellectual History. 1968.

Lewis, Paul, Jeevan Vasagar, Rachel Williams and Matthew Taylor. “Student protest over fees turns violent”. The Guardian, November 10th 2010.

Lichfield, John. “Egalité! Liberté! Sexualité!: Paris, May 1968”. The Independent, February 23rd 2008.

Lusher, Adam. “At least 10,000 people died in Tiananmen Square massacre, secret British cable from the time alleged”. The Independent, December 23rd 2017.

Means, Howard. 67 Shots: Kent State and the End of American Innocence. Boston: Da Capo, 2016.

Morris, Jan. The Oxford Book of Oxford. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Siddiqui, Faiz. “The 25 Biggest College Campus Riots of All Time”. Complex.com. January 17, 2013.

Spofford, Tim. Lynch Street: The May 1970 Slaying at Jackson State College. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1988.

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