Monday, April 22, 2013

The More Things Change...

I’ve been fascinated by the Kent State shootings for as long as I can remember. I'm not sure why.

I guess the unprovoked shooting of unarmed college students by the Ohio National Guard on May 4, 1970, has always stuck with me as a prime example of government suppression, the risk of protest, and what can go wrong when young soldiers are sent to quell “disorder.”

People were killed and injured that day. Young people. People who had done nothing wrong, who didn’t deserve to lose their lives just because they either opposed an unjust war or were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Around 2,000 people had assembled that Monday morning near Taylor Hall on the campus of Kent State University in Kent, Ohio, to protest President Richard Nixon’s expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia. (The war looked like it was winding down throughout 1969 so people were more than a little disappointed when Nixon announced his “Cambodian Campaign” on April 30.) Just after noon, after repeatedly demanding that the students disperse, National Guardsmen charged the students, forcing them to retreat from the Commons and scatter. Then, without provocation, the guardsmen fired 67 rounds at various protestors, killing four and wounding nine. Not all who were shot had been protesting; some were just on their way to class or had stopped to observe the commotion.

According to reports, none of those wounded was closer than 71 feet to the guardsmen and of those killed, the nearest, Jeffrey Miller, was 265 feet away. The average distance between student and guardsman was 345 feet. It’s therefore a tad implausible that the guardsmen felt threatened by the students, as some later claimed.

A President’s Commission on Campus Unrest created by Nixon a month after Kent State later found the shootings “unjustified.” It concluded that "the indiscriminate firing of rifles into a crowd of students and the deaths that followed were unnecessary, unwarranted and inexcusable.”

Not surprisingly, Allison Krause, Sandra Scheuer, William Knox Schroeder and Miller remained dead in spite of the commission’s verdict.

Hundreds of universities, colleges and high schools had to close in the days and weeks that followed the shootings because of protests and sit-ins by an estimated four million students. Kent State has been referenced in countless books, poems, songs, films and TV shows and is considered a landmark event in the history of the anti-Vietnam War movement.

I had just turned eight years old when this happened and I don’t remember hearing about it – but I was alive during the Detroit riots, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, the Apollo 11 moon landing, the trial of the Chicago Seven,
Woodstock and Watergate and I don’t remember these events either. I often don’t remember what I’ve named a document or when I last filled up my gas tank. Thankfully, I have Facebook and the Internet to bring me up to speed on key historical events.

I met a guy in Facebook named Brad Lang who was right in the middle of the action in the 1960s and 1970s. In fact, he was arrested for inciting a riot during a demonstration he organized after the Chicago Seven verdicts came in. I asked him about Kent State and his response follows:

Brad Lang
I was 23 and a student at Michigan State University when the Kent State shootings took place. At the time, we were outraged at the idea that the government was willing to go so far as to shoot at peaceful crowds of protesters. We reacted by protesting peacefully, hoping we wouldn't be shot. A student strike shut down MSU only five years after a petition supporting the Vietnam War was signed by a majority of MSU students. The times were changing.

But the more things change, the more they stay the same: 11 days after Kent State, students at Jackson State protesting the war were attacked by police with shotguns.  Two students were killed and 12 were injured.  It barely caused a ripple.  How could that be?  Because Jackson State was a black college.  Those of us in "The Movement" made a point of saying "Kent State and Jackson State," but the fact is that shooting white kids was what set people off.

Sound familiar? Twenty little white children are shot at a school in Connecticut and the nation is outraged. Little black children are killed every day in Chicago and Detroit and…crickets. So looking back on Kent State, I see the same thing I see today. Also, it's another story about guns, because the National Guardsmen were kids just a little older than the protesters, who were given rifles with live ammunition and sent out to face people who many of them believed were dangerous communist radicals seeking to overthrow the government, because that's what the media and their President told them. What did they think was going to happen?

What do they think is going to happen when assault rifles with huge clips are made available to anybody with a little room on his credit card? The same kind of people who sent those Guardsmen out against the students at Kent State are standing four square against gun control. The only thing that's different is that I'm no longer a student, and I’m too old to throw my body against the gears and levers of the machine, to steal a phrase from the late Mario Savio.  I hope today's students will at some point get similarly outraged. Spring is in the air so we'll see.

I’ve also become acquainted online with a woman in Clearwater, Florida named Deborah Gelep who became an activist at a young age and remembers protesting Vietnam and Kent State, among other events. I asked her about it and this is her reply:

It was quite a time in our society. I only wish we did more, fought harder for what we knew to be right. We dropped out, sat in and stood for individuals’ rights, peace, equality and voices. We were kids being drafted into a war we didn't believe in by a government we didn't trust. We became the SDS, Students for a Democratic Society, yet were labeled as anarchists, traitors, a secret society...all of which was directly the opposite. We wanted transparency. Civil rights and liberties. We were peaceful protestors and yet the National Guard was called in to quell the mania they created.

Deb Gelep
I was just a teenage girl who already knew you don't kill to win. That we are all just people. A girl who knew her voice should be heard and count, as should everyone's. That all the Vietnam Wars, Kent States, Tiananmen Squares, Cuban Missile Crises, assassinations of great men and unjust treatment of blacks and women had no place in my world, in anyone’s world. 

I have never quit believing that. I have never quit working toward that. My voice has never stopped, although my fingers do more work now than my mouth. I am still an activist. For the underdog or underprivileged. For our planet and all that occupy it. It has been 45 years. I have not witnessed all that I set out to do when I was young, eager, naive and fearless. And except for the young part, the rest is still true. Yep, even the naive part, because I still have high hopes for the world to one day have peace. Some call that naive. I call that my dream.

Maybe one of the reasons why I’m so fascinated by Kent State is because there were people during that era who got off their bean bag chairs, started fighting the good fight and haven’t stopped yet. It’s too bad there’s still so much to protest but I’m glad for people like Brad and Deborah who’ve been showing us how it’s done for decades.

"Get The Hell Out of Vietnam" photo courtesy LBJ Library/Frank Wolfe.

John Filo won the Pulitzer Prize for his iconic photo of Mary Ann Vecchio kneeling over the body of Jeffrey Miller minutes after he was shot by the Ohio National Guard.

1 comment:

  1. My dad was working in downtown Detroit in 1967 during the height of the race riots. He and his coworkers were told by the Detroit police to hole up in their building until given the all clear, and to "drag the dead ni**ers" into their vestibule until things cooled off. The Detroit police told him that they would come pick up the bodies as soon as they could. He was holed up in that building for 3 days.

    At that time, I was a fetus. I only know about it from my dad's recount and from what I've read. From then on, I watched RKK's assassination and the moon landing from my crib, and whined when my mom wanted to watch the Watergate hearings while I wanted to watch Bugs Bunny.

    I never got into politics until college, when a girl I was dating announced she was denouncing Apartheid at the same time she was denouncing Secular Humanism. I did not recognize at the time what a paradox this was.

    I could fill a long pile of space here, but you get the idea.

    Thanks, Pat!