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
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.