I hate being a killjoy – really, I do – but for me, May 4 has never been the bad pun May the Fourth Be With You, a play on that Star Wars line about fictional, justifiable force. Rather, it’s always been about Kent State, the non-fictional use of unjustifiable force in 1970.
It’s become oddly more real for me this year, the 45th anniversary of the tragedy. I was talking to this woman who takes the same bus as I do, works in the same building, on the same floor as I do. In the course of a conversation, I discovered that she was attending that university in 1970, that she heard the bullets, that she knew the sister of one of the students who were killed.
For those of you unfamiliar with the event, there are elements of disagreement as to what happened to cause a dozen National Guardsmen to fire on students, killing four and wounding nine. But some facts are not in dispute:
- The United States’ decision to invade Cambodia was announced on national television and radio on April 30, l970 by President Richard Nixon. Its stated purpose was to attack the headquarters of the Viet Cong, which had been using Cambodian territory as a sanctuary. However, it was seen by many as a widening of the Vietnam War.
Protests occurred the next day, Friday, May 1, all over the country, usually on college campuses, where anti-war sentiment ran high, including at Kent State University in Ohio.
Friday night around midnight, some folks in downtown Kent participated in vandalism – a “mix of bikers, students, and transient people” – which led to “the entire Kent police force [being] called to duty as well as officers from the county and surrounding communities. Kent Mayor LeRoy Satrom declared a state of emergency…and ordered all of the bars closed. The decision to close the bars early increased the size of the angry crowd. Police eventually succeeded in using tear gas to disperse the crowd from downtown.”
Saturday, “city officials and downtown businesses received threats, while rumors proliferated that radical revolutionaries were in Kent to destroy the city and university.” After meeting “with Kent city officials and a representative of the Ohio Army National Guard,” the mayor called “Governor Rhodes and [asked] that the National Guard be sent to Kent, a request that was granted.”
On Sunday, “during a press conference at the Kent firehouse, an emotional Governor Rhodes pounded on the desk and called the student protesters un-American,” and a whole lot of other things.
Another antiwar rally had been called for noon on Monday, May 4, scheduled three days earlier, before the vandalism. About 20 minutes later, “several Guardsmen could be seen huddling together, and some Guardsmen knelt and pointed their guns… The Guard then began retracing their steps from the practice football field back up Blanket Hill. As they arrived at the top of the hill, twenty-eight of the more than seventy Guardsmen turned suddenly and fired their rifles and pistols. Many guardsmen fired into the air or the ground. However, a small portion fired directly into the crowd. Altogether between 61 and 67 shots were fired in a 13 second period.”
The Kent State shooting was caused by “the only nationwide student strike in U.S. history; over 4 million students protested and over 900 American colleges and universities closed during the student strikes. The Kent State campus remained closed for six weeks.” Violence against other protesters took place on other campuses as well.
The legal aftermath of the May 4 shootings ended in January of 1979 with an out-of-court settlement involving a statement signed by 28 defendants as well as a monetary settlement, and the Guardsmen and their supporters view this as a final vindication of their position [that they acted in self-defense].
The financial settlement provided $675,000 to the wounded students and the parents of the students who had been killed. This money was paid by the State of Ohio rather than by any Guardsmen, and the amount equaled what the State estimated it would cost to go to trial again. Perhaps most importantly, the statement signed by members of the Ohio National Guard was viewed by them to be a declaration of regret, not an apology or an admission of wrongdoing.
President Nixon and his administration’s public reaction to the shootings was perceived by many in the anti-war movement as callous.
As a kid in high school, I was outraged by the shootings. While we didn’t participate in a school strike (as far I can remember), my friends and I attended antiwar activities with a renewed vigor, believing that the expansion of the war into Cambodia was unconstitutional without Congressional approval and that the killings at Kent State, and, 11 days later, two at Jackson State in Mississippi, not to mention numerous other injuries at campuses across the country, were wrong.
Two notable songs came from the Kent State incident to listen to: the rather anemic Student Demonstration Time by the Beach Boys, based on the song Riot on Cell Block #9 – Rolling Stone didn’t like it, either – and the anthemic Ohio by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.