Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Kent State: 50 Years Later

It’s been 50 years since the Kent State Shootings.  I don’t know how time has passed that quickly.  There was supposed to be a major commemorative event on campus this year, but the virus ended that possibility.  Instead, I decided to retell what happened.
These are my memories of the four days in May, an event that still reverberates in American society today.  I understand that others saw and heard different things. That’s all right.  We had different perspectives.  At least, I can prove I was there. My picture is in the Scranton Commission Report on the events in northeast Ohio.

Taylor Hall on Blanket Hill
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 six years I studied for my undergraduate and graduate degrees at KSU.  It only opened a couple of years before I enrolled in 1967.

On that Monday, May 4, 1970, about 200 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.

I have seen pictures that seem to show many more people than I remember.  I was in front near the bottom of the hill.  I definitely did not realize how many people were gathered behind me.

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 Daily Kent Stater, 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 reportedly 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.

Burned ROTC building
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 that had been burned down Saturday night.  That was the key event in the preceding three-day uproar.

The road to the Shootings began 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 and Laos, Nixon chose to attack although only Congress was accorded the power to declare war.

Burying the Constitution
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 soon 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 National Guard troops moving onto the KSU campus early Sunday morning.  Ohio 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.

Jeep nears students
On Monday, May 4, we gathered on Blanket Hill.  It was only noon or so when a National Guard jeep carrying two uniformed men rolled toward us.  Up to then, everyone on Blanket Hill 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 those of us on Blanket Hill.

Finally, after the ambulance left, the Guard knelt down and fired teargas at us. 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.  Some students trailed each unit, merging behind Taylor Hall.  I went west, close to Johnson Hall.  The Guard 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 teargas.  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.
13 seconds of gunfire

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 na├»ve.  He immediately recognized gunshots and left.  I stayed.

According to reports, 28 National Guard had fired 67 rounds into the thinning crowd, killing four students and wounding nine others. Another person was paralyzed. I remember the four killed: Jeffrey Miller, Sandy Scheuer, Allison Krause and William Schroeder.  Dean Kahler was paralyzed.

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 told me that 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.
Glenn Frank ( wearing a tie)
I still did not know the exact events, although I could hear people shouting angrily and saw a variety of people, most notably Geology Prof. Glenn Frank, trying to get people calmed down.  Some people tended the injured.  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.

Finally understanding what had happened, 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.

The effects of the shooting were immediate. More than 400 schools shut down nationwide.  There were marches against the Shootings and the War.

The Shootings have not been far from public consciousness ever since.  There have been multiple books, songs, plays and movies about the Shootings or which reference them.  For example, in 2013, a Louisiana State University fraternity had to apologize for making an insulting reference to the event.  Put up prior to an LSU-Kent State football game, students posted a painted bed sheet that read: “getting massacred is nothing to Kent State.”  By the way, LSU won 45-13.

A year later, Urban Outfitters put out a KSU sweatshirt with faux bullet holes.

That was created more than 44 years after the Shootings, yet the event remains fresh even in the minds of students born decades after the tragedy.  Other major events have faded: the savings & loans scandal, Operation Desert Storm and the related invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, 9/11, the election of the first black president, a pandemic and so much more.

Even the memory of Watergate has faded, leaving only the “gate” suffix to mark other scandals.  Who
talks about Vietnam anymore?  Nixon is dead; the Oliver Stone movie about him garnered little interest and lost an estimated $21 million.  The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan seem far away and get little coverage these days. 

Why does memory of the Kent State Shootings linger?

Authors Jerry Lewis (my one-time sociology professor) and Thomas Hensley gave three reasons in their 1998 paper titled The May 4 Shootings at Kent State University: The Search for Historical Accuracy.   

       1) The shootings have “come to symbolize a great American tragedy which occurred at the height of the Vietnam War era, a period in which the nation found itself deeply divided both politically and culturally.”
       2) Those wounds created by the war have not healed.

       3) The Shootings provided a way to learn from the past. “…better ways have to be found to deal with these types of confrontations.”

That’s not as true today.  Wounds have closed.  American veterans have returned to Vietnam and met their counterparts there.  We now have open relations with that country.  Certainly, police agencies have learned how better to cope with rioters, such as happened in California not that long ago when drunken students attacked law enforcement officers.  Pepper spray, tear gas, and rubber bullets substituted for live ammo.

Kent State, however, continues to hold onto public imagination. The Shootings changed attitudes
toward education and careers.  Students started going to school largely to get prepared for a job, not to expand their mind, which had been the reason for education for 1,000 years. The Shootings also launched the “me” generation into the self-serving approach that evolved into insider trading scandals and other frauds.

At same time, the divide between sections of the population, highlighted by the war, was irreparably ruptured by the Shootings.  Liberals were seen as coddling protesting students while conservatives wanted the law-and-order of a dimly imagined earlier era.  The liberal-conservative split radiates through all aspects of society, reflected in highly partisan elections and dire claims made by both sides.

National polls showed that half of Americans thought the students were rioters who deserved to be shot, even after legal proceedings proved there was no riot.  (Actually, we were standing quietly on the Commons when National Guard troops fired tear gas at us.)  Courts also held that the students had the right to meet.

Opponents held to their opinions even after the state of Ohio agreed to pay $675,000 each to the families of the wounded and dead students and issued the following statement:

In retrospect, the tragedy of May 4, 1970 should not have occurred. The students may have believed that they were right in continuing their mass protest in response to the Cambodian invasion, even though this protest followed the posting and reading by the university of an order to ban rallies and an order to disperse. These orders have since been determined by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals to have been lawful.

Some of the Guardsmen on Blanket Hill, fearful and anxious from prior events, may have believed in their own minds that their lives were in danger. Hindsight suggests that another method would have resolved the confrontation. Better ways must be found to deal with such a confrontation.

We devoutly wish that a means had been found to avoid the May 4th events culminating in the Guard shootings and the irreversible deaths and injuries. We deeply regret those events and are profoundly saddened by the deaths of four students and the wounding of nine others which resulted.

Boston Massacre
Since the Shootings, too, anti-government sentiment continues unabated.

Their place in history has also been established.  Historians have called it the first shooting of American civilians since the Boston Massacre in 1770. 

That’s not quite true: in 1770, there were no American citizens.  The country wasn’t born until 1776.  Moreover, American troops were involved in the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794, which led to the deaths of several people.  In addition, Washington, D.C., police attacked U.S. veterans living in a so-called “Hooverville” in 1932. Two of the campers were killed.  In addition, an estimated 55 vets were injured when the Army besieged the camp and dispersed the residents. 

In that light, Kent State represents a further continuation of government attacks on citizens protesting against its policies.

Each of these dramatic events had a lingering effect on this country’s history.

The Massacre occurred when British troops were sent to enforce the Townsend Acts – passed to raise money to cover costs of officials and to prove that the English Parliament could tax the colonies – and fired on protesting Americans.

Five people died, giving the rebellious colonialists their first martyrs.  As news spread, the State Street Massacre (as it was known then) galvanized public opinion and united the 13 colonies.  The shootings led directly to the Revolutionary War. 

It had a secondary effect of underlining American belief in laws.  Future President John Adams defended in the soldiers accused of shooting into the mob.  The captain and six of the men were found innocent by an American jury in two separate trials.  Only two were convicted despite the overwhelming emotion, emphasizing the American demand by both justice and fairness.

Both are still hallmarks of American jurisprudence. 

In the Whiskey Rebellion, President George Washington sent in troops to Pennsylvania to enforce an unpopular tax on whiskey, a tax that hit poor people particularly hard.  Then, drinking hard liquor was endemic because rivers were often too polluted.  

Two distinct lessons grew from the event.  First, the government showed that it would enforce its laws against American citizens.  That helps explain why National Guard troops were sent to Kent State.  At the same time, the Rebellion revealed that poor people would protest laws passed by wealthy lawmakers.

Troops close in on Hooverville.
The massive assault on a veteran’s camp in the capitol in 1932 also had a long-term effect.  It led directly to the G.I. Bill, which helped millions of returning World War II soldiers and established the precedent that American veterans have earned economic and psychological support in their return to civilian life.

As with the other climatic events that preceded it, the Shootings also became a watershed in American history.

All of these significant events are worth remembering.  If nothing else, they remind us what can happen if we ignore the past.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history with an occasional foray into American culture.  He holds an ABD in American Studies from Case Western Reserve University and an M.A. in journalism from Kent State University.   He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at wplazarus@aol.com. He is the author of the recently published novels Revelation! (Southern Owl Press) and The Great Seer Nostradamus Tells All (Bold Venture Press) as well as a variety of nonfiction books, including The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information and Comparative Religion for Dummies.  His books are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.