Monday, April 30, 2012

Kent State Shootings Still Echo


This is the first of three reports on the Kent State Shootings.  The next two will be posted later this week.

As I recall, May 4, 1970 was a cool, but pleasant day at Kent State University in northeast Ohio.  I wore a light jacket and went to a student gathering on the north side of Blanket Hill, a small rise at the south end of the Commons.  On the west side of the crest was Johnson Hall, a dorm where I lived.  On the crest was Taylor Hall, the journalism/architecture building that was my home for the four years I studied for my undergraduate degree at KSU.

On that Monday, now 42 years ago, about 100 or so people joined me on the side of Blanket Hill, so named because romantic couples used the gentle slope for evening rendezvouses.  No one in the small crowd at noon could know that one of this country’s most significant events was about to take place.
While still a junior, I was also there as a reporter for the afternoon Canton Repository, where I was to start an internship in another month.  The others were there out of curiosity or in response to a brief call for such a gathering that appeared in the last paragraph of a front page story in the student newspaper the previous Friday.

I had worked for the (almost) daily student paper – published Tuesday through Friday -- for three years, but skipped this quarter because the editor had lied to me.  He asked me to be managing editor and then simultaneously offered it to a woman on the staff because she agreed to live with him during the semester.  I clearly lacked the necessary charms, but was not unhappy because the editor was perhaps the only conservative student on campus.

He had declined to publish a special edition on that Monday, possibly because his last attempt the year before had led to immense derision after he included a cartoon that labeled anti-war protesters as rats.

As a result, little information was available to students when we met on Blanket Hill.

Perhaps two dozen Ohio National Guard stood across from us on the Commons.  They were posed in a line in front of the charred remains of an ROTC building (left) that had been burned down Saturday night.  That was the key event in the preceding three-day uproar.

It had begun on Thursday night, April 30, when President Richard Nixon announced on national television that U.S. troops had invaded neutral Cambodia, located to the west of Vietnam.  Our soldiers had been battling Viet Cong guerrillas in a Southeast Asian war for most of the 1960s.  On paper, the North Vietnamese were fighting the South Vietnamese, but it was really the Communists against the capitalists – the U.S.S.R. against the United States.

Since the Northern troops were entering South Vietnam via the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Cambodia, Nixon chose to attack although only Congress was accorded the power to declare war.

At Kent State the following morning, I joined maybe 15 people who buried a copy of the Constitution in protest of Nixon’s decision.  The mild protest on the Commons was led by a bearded history graduate student.  (I went back later, but someone had already dug up the copy.)

I left Saturday after to spend the weekend with my girlfriend in her home in Parma, a Cleveland suburb.  That was after a riotous Friday night when local officials closed the downtown bars that catered to students.  I don’t drink, but friends told me about the broken windows and an overturned car.  Apparently, the driver had tried to motor through a crowd and ended up on his roof.  
 
While staying at her parent’s house Saturday night, my girlfriend and I were stunned to watch the news about the ROTC fire and to see pictures of troops moving (right) onto the KSU campus early Sunday morning.  The governor, Jim Rhodes, later better known for his connections to the Mafia and to the Wendy’s hamburger chain, had decided to order National Guardsmen, fresh from confronting Teamsters on strike in Cleveland, to travel south to Kent.

They arrived exhausted and bivouacked in the gym, which had no curtains and was overlooked by a women’s dorm.  They both kept each other awake for the rest of the night.

My girlfriend and I arrived back on campus late Sunday morning.  Overhead, military helicopters kept close watch on the campus.  On the rear door of our cafeteria I found a copy of the riot act, which banned large gatherings.  I did not see it posted anywhere else on campus, and I looked.  Later, some students tried to march downtown and were turned back by police firing teargas.

It was only noon or so a day later, May 4, when a National Guard jeep carrying two people rode toward us.  Up to then, everyone was just chatting.  Suddenly things got quiet and serious.  A Guardsman in the jeep stood up and read something to us.  I presume it was the Riot Act, which would have required us to disband.  However, I did not hear what was said.  The wind blew away any words.

A few people tossed pebbles at the jeep, which caused the driver to scurry back to his side of the Commons.  There was a brief delay while an ambulance took away a Guardsman who had collapsed.  That was a strange foreshadowing of what was to follow.

I glanced around and was amazed to see that the Commons had turned into an amphitheater.  What must have been thousands of people standing 6 to 10 deep had gathered in a semicircle in back of the Guard and were watching the few hundred of us on Blanket Hill.

Finally, after the ambulance left, the Guard knelt down and fired teargas at us.(left)  At first, the wind carried it away, but the breeze shifted.  I discovered that while teargas burns, its effects are quickly dissipated with cold water.  We found plenty of water in Taylor Hall bathrooms.

The guard then split into two units: one marched to the east of Taylor Hall; the other, the west side.  We followed.  They re-formed on the paved parking lot behind Taylor and then marched to the end of the soccer practice field that abutted the parking lot and the gym. The topography today is different.

At the end of the field, the Guard spun and knelt again.  They pointed guns at us, but did not shoot.  Students whispered that the Guard had no more gas.  A few students threw pebbles retrieved from a gravel parking lot across the street to the east.  They didn’t come close to the Guard at that distance.

Finally, the Guard began to move again.  Wearing gas masks, they marched into the crowds of students. They were yelled at, but not touched.  No one could throw a stone – despite later FBI claims.  There were too many students, and there was no room anyway.

The Guard started back along the west side of Taylor Hall, heading toward me.  I retreated to the sidewalk between Johnson and Taylor.  I was standing with Bob Pickett, then vice president of the student body.  I heard what to me sounded like fireworks and asked why anyone would set off fireworks.  Bob was not so naïve.  He immediately recognized gunshots and left.  I stayed.

The Guard had fired (right) into the thinning crowd, killing four students and wounding nine others.  I heard shouting and watched the Guard resume their march down the hill.  I grabbed my dorm-mate’s coat, trying to get him out of the way. Bill was taking a picture of the Guard.  I told him they couldn’t tell the difference between a camera and a gun.  Later, Bill said he got a good picture. 

I was later immortalized – albeit at a distance – in the Scranton Commission report of the Kent State shootings, photographed yanking at Bill’s coat.

I did not know exactly what happened, although I could hear people shouting angrily and see a variety of people, most notably Geology Prof. Glenn Frank, trying to get people calmed down.  Some people tended the injured. (left)  There had been other volunteers who had served as peacekeepers throughout the weekend, but with little success.  This time, they seemed to gain the upper hand.

I went into the student newspaper office and called the Repository.  I told whoever answered what I understood had happened, and then the line went dead.  Later, the city editor told me they had decided they’d wait for the Associated Press rather than listen to some “hotshot reporter.”

That ended my chance of an international scoop.

As we waited, we saw the Ohio State Police arrive.  The crowd melted away.  The National Guard may have been thought of as toy soldiers, but no one wanted to fool around with the police.

Wednesday: Aftermath
Friday: Long-Term Impact

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion, religious history and, occasionally, American history.  He holds an M.A. in journalism and an ABD in American Studies.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at www.williamplazarus.com.  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  You can also follow him on Twitter.


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