Kent State Thirty Years Later

Kent State Thirty Years Later

Mac Lojowsky

What We’re Still Fightin’ For

MAY 4, 2000 It was just after noon and the Victory Bell began to ring across the Kent State University Commons. The bell rang fifteen times. Thirty years earlier, Ohio National Guard members had opened fire on a campus Vietnam War protest. Four students were killed, nine were wounded. Two weeks after the Kent State shootings, Mississippi police killed two protesting students at Jackson State University.

The shootings have been commemorated each year since at Kent State, bringing in speakers and performers whose names have become synonymous with activism: Helen Caldicott, Jane Fonda, and William Kuntzler; Peter, Paul, and Mary; Joan Baez; and Crosby, Stills, and Nash. This year was no different, spotlighting some of the most prominent U.S. leaders of social and political change: death-row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal, Philadelphia MOVE member Ramona Africa, Global Exchange’s Julliette Beck, the American Indian Movement’s Vernon Bellecourt, environmental and social justice advocate Julia Butterfly Hill, and political theorist Noam Chomsky.

Kent State graduate student Kabir Syed, a ten-year member of the May Fourth Task Force–which has been organizing commemorations for the past twenty-five years–said this year’s ceremonies reflected the solidarity and interconnectedness of current national movements:

The wide variety of issues speaks to the growth of the social-political movement which exists in the U.S. We see a range and, yet, an integration of ideology here today. Though there are differences between us, we are growing aware that these differences need not separate us from accomplishing our tasks.

Notably, this year also was the first time all of the nine wounded had gathered together on campus since 1970. Alan Canfora, who was struck in the right wrist, came with his sister Chic, who also was present at the Kent State shootings. “May 4 is not just about tragedy,” Chic Canfora explained to the audience. “We assemble here each year not only to remember our fallen friends but to resurrect the issues and ideals for which they died. The most important of which, for all of us, for every American citizen, is freedom of speech.”

They were two of some 3,000 students, Vietnam War veterans, activists, and others who travelled from as far away as Seattle, Washington, and Quebec, Canada, not only to remember what had happened in 1970 but to celebrate the long tradition of protest and resistance that stemmed from it.

What Really Happened?

On April 30, 1970, U.S. President Richard Nixon announced to the nation that he was expanding the Vietnam War into neighboring Cambodia. College campuses across the United States immediately rose in protest. At Ohio’s mid-sized public university, Kent State, Nixon’s announcement began four days of protest that culminated in four deaths and nine woundings.

To this day, heated controversy and questions surround the events at Kent State between April 30 and May 4, 1970. Perhaps most debated is the burning of the university’s Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) building the evening of May 2, 1970.

In response to the two previous days of demonstrations, Kent, Ohio, Mayor Leroy Satrom had declared the city in a state of civil emergency. The sale of alcohol, firearms, ammunition, and gasoline was prohibited and a citywide curfew of 8:00 PM was put into effect. Kent State’s curfew, however, had been 1:00 AM, SO at 8:00 PM on May 2 some 1,500 students gathered at the ROTC building to protest what they saw as the actualization of marshal law. Alan Canfora participated in the demonstration and in one of several recent interviews told me what he recalls about that night:

Some of the students there did try to light the building on fire. It was like the Three Stooges trying to burn the ROTC building; throwing matches through the windows. Then the fire trucks showed up with the sheriffs, state troopers, campus police, and Kent police and thoroughly doused out the few curtains that did catch fire. Then they started taking flash pictures of us and then they started using tear gas, so we left. When we left, that fire was completely out.

At that point, the group decided to head towards town to gather more people. When we did come back about an hour later, the building had burned to the ground. It is important to understand that the building burned while it was under control of the authorities. Today, it remains one of the biggest mysteries of Kent State because that was the excuse to bring in the National Guard.

The October 16, 1970, Report of the Special Grand Jury under Portage County Common Pleas Judge Edwin W. Jones seems to support Canfora’s description of the event. The report concludes, “It is obvious that the burning of the ROTC building could have been prevented with the manpower then available.”

Six years later, a Senate investigating committee led by Frank Church issued a report exposing years of CIA, FBI, state, and local sabotage of social and political movements in the United States. Although the report says little about Kent State, the FBI admits that on May 7, 1970, agents deliberately set an ROTC building on fire in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. And in FBI memos on Kent State I obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, much crucial information is missing. Not only are entire pages concerning the fire blacked out but at least six pages of the ROTC fire reports are listed as “deleted.”

As the ROTC building smoldered, Kent Mayor Satrom called in the Ohio National Guard. They were on duty in nearby Akron for a Teamsters strike. And by the time they arrived in Kent at 10:00 PM on May 2, they had replaced their rubber bullets with live ammunition.

The next day, Ohio Governor James Rhodes held a press conference in downtown Kent about the unrest on campus. Pounding a table with his fist, Rhodes declared:

These protesters are the worst type of people we harbor in America, worse than the brown shirts and the communist element…. We’re going to use every force of law that we have under our authority…. We are going to employ every weapon possible. There is no place off limits. There is no sanctuary and we are going to disperse crowds.

Rhodes refused to close down the campus despite the advice of the Portage County prosecutor. Closing the university, the governor said, “would be playing into the hands of the SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] and the Weathermen [a militant protest group that had grown out of SDS].”

During these early days of May, Rhodes was waging an uphill battle in a Republican primary race for U.S. Senate against incumbent Robert Taft (whose son is Ohio’s current governor). The week before the May 5 elections, Rhodes was 7 percent behind Taft in the polls. Rhodes’ strategy was to take a vocal hard-line stance against campus activists in an effort to appeal to the traditionally conservative Ohio voters–and to some extent he was successful; one day after the Kent State shootings he lost the primary by less than 1 percent. Canfora firmly states:

There is every reason to believe that Nixon was helping Rhodes in his election race against Taft. This was a desperate politician trying to get votes. [The May 4 shootings were] very likely planned and approved by U.S. military and political leaders, including President Nixon and Governor Rhodes. In particular, President Nixon had a personal grudge against Kent State anti-war activists since October 1968, when the Kent SDS repeatedly shouted him down during his speech at nearby Akron University.

Indeed, in transcripts obtained from the 1975 Cleveland federal court civil lawsuit against Rhodes and the Ohio National Guard, Rhodes admitted under oath that he had twice committed perjury in earlier trials regarding two telephone conversations he had with President Nixon in the days prior to the shootings. The topic of their conversations, Rhodes finally admitted, was the Kent State anti-war students’ militant actions on Friday, May 1, and Saturday, May 2.

Then on Monday, May 4, as classes were letting out for lunch, around 300 students gathered on the Kent State Commons for a rally. The Victory Bell rang out, calling all students to gather for a demonstration. Guard members stood at the other side of the Commons as the number of students swelled to more than 2,000. They addressed the students over a bullhorn: “This assembly is unlawful. The crowd must disperse at this time. This is an order!”

The message was repeated five times. Each time students responded with chants of “Power to the people, pigs off campus!” and “One, two, three, four, we don’t want your fucking war!” A few minutes later, campus police pleaded, “For your own safety, all you bystanders and innocent people, leave.” Tear gas was fired on the crowd and students sent back the canisters.

With more tear gas, Guard members–then numbering about 100–corralled the demonstrators between two buildings and up Blanket Hill. Students began throwing sticks and gravel pebbles at the advancing troops as they retreated toward the Prentice Hall parking lot. Canfora points out that, at the beginning of the tear-gas barrage, the Guard “suddenly prevented the TV and news media from following the troops as they began their march on the unarmed students.”

A July 1970 U.S. Justice Department summary of FBI reports states that, a few moments later, “members of Troop G were ordered to kneel and aim their weapons at the students in the parking lot south of Prentice Hall. They did so, but did not fire.” Guard members quickly assembled together for a short conference, then moved back to their positions and focused on the most vocal contingent of demonstrators, who were now below Blanket Hill, on the Prentice Hall parking lot.

At 12:24 PM the thirteen members of Troop G simultaneously turned, aimed their M-1 rifles, and opened fire on the crowd of unarmed students. The Justice Department summary reveals that “no verbal warning was given to the students immediately prior to the time the Guardsmen fired.” Canfora states, “It is clear there was a verbal order to fire. The well-coordinated actions of these triggermen seemed quite planned and executed like a firing squad upon orders to shoot.”

After thirteen seconds and seventy-six bullets, Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Scheuer, and Bill Schroeder were dead. Alan Canfora, John Cleary, Thomas Grace, Dean Kahler, Joseph Lewis, Donald Scott Mackenzie, James Russell, Robby Stamps, and Douglas Wrentmore were wounded–Kahler permanently paralyzed from the waist down.

The day before, Krause had placed a daisy in the rifle barrel of a National Guard member and told the troops, “Flowers are better than bullets.” Jeffrey Miller previously was an active member of SDS and was saluting the troops with his middle fingers when a bullet entered his jaw. Scheuer was not involved with the demonstration, only on her way to a speech therapy class. And, although Schroeder was an ROTC student, he also was not involved, only trying to make sense out of the confusion.

One of the initial reasons the Ohio National Guard gave for firing into a crowd of unarmed students was that its members felt threatened because the crowd was closing in on them. However, a photograph taken of Guard members only seconds before the shooting began shows the main body of students gathered in the Prentice Hall parking lot–about 300 feet away–and absolutely no students were behind the soldiers to hinder their retreat. The Justice Department summary says, “Only two [students] were shot from the front. Seven students were shot from the side and four were shot from the rear.” And it concludes, “The Guardsmen were not surrounded…. they easily could have continued going in the direction which they had been going.”

In an immediate show of solidarity, the only national student strike in U.S. history erupted with over four million students shutting down some 800 campuses across the country. Thirty ROTC buildings were burned in protest. Maryland students blocked Highway 1 outside Washington, D.C., and President Nixon found himself trapped inside the White House surrounded by 150,000 student demonstrators. In San Francisco students stormed and occupied city hall, demanding Nixon’s impeachment. Nixon responded with an address to the nation that was aimed at political activists. “When dissent turns to violence,” he warned, “it invites tragedy.”

Despite clear evidence that the Guard had fired in offense rather than defense–derived from over 1,000 pages of FBI reports, countless eyewitness testimonies, and a thorough investigation by local, state, and federal authorities –the courts ultimately blamed the student protesters. The Report of the Special Grand Jury under Judge Edwin W. Jones concluded:

We find … that those members of the National Guard who were present on the hill adjacent to Taylor Hall on May 4, 1970, fired their weapons in the honest and sincere belief … that they would suffer serious bodily injury had they not done so. They are not, therefore, subject to criminal prosecution under the laws of this state from any death or injury resulting there from [October 16, 1970].

The Thirtieth Anniversary

According to MOVE activist Ramona Africa, the government’s attitude towards political activism has not changed over the past thirty years. Africa is the only adult survivor of the May 13, 1985, police bombing of a MOVE household in Philadelphia. Five children and six adults were killed. At this year’s ceremonies commemorating the thirtieth anniversary of the Kent State shootings, Africa called for an end to the abuse of official force:

This country was founded, was born of violence, rape, robbery, the massacre of indigenous people of this country, and nothing has changed since that time; the methods have just become more sophisticated, more treacherous. We all have to come together, work together to end this insanity. If we don’t we are all doomed. There will be many more Kent States, Jackson States, Mumias, MOVE bombings, Amadou Diallos, Big Mountains.

In a move that prompted outrage from Ohio Governor Bob Taft, the Fraternal Order of Police, and Kent State officials, the May Fourth Task Force invited death-row inmate, journalist, and political activist Mumia Abu-Jamal to send a three-and-a-half-minute taped speech. Abu-Jamal was convicted in 1982 of murdering a Philadelphia police officer, but the prosecution has since been accused of a politically motivated vendetta.

Even members of Kent State’s elected student government (whose tuition is paid by the university and who regularly attend lunches with university administrators and Ohio politicians) publicly denounced the task force. Undergraduate Student Senate Executive Director Nic Smith was quoted in the May 4 Daily Kent Stater, the campus newspaper: “In the future, we need to make sure the historical aspects of the May 4 incident are remembered and cease to become a showcase for personal political gain. It is my firm belief that this [Mumia Abu-Jamal’s case] has no correlation to the events of the May 4th incident, despite the arguments of a handful of student organizations.” But former task force member and current Evergreen State College graduate student Rochelle Gause disagrees:

The same system which killed Jeff, Bill, Allison and Sandy is the same system which wants to kill Mumia. With the recent case of thirteen Illinois death-row convictions being overturned and the investigation of the Los Angeles police department, you simply can’t say that his case does not reflect a greater symptom of our system. It’s pretty clear how corrupt things are, and if this doesn’t apply to May 4, then I don’t know what does.

Abu-Jamal’s tape-recorded speech did not talk about his own situation but of the lessons that May 4, 1970, offers activists today:

Kent State teaches that a so-called free society will slaughter students who are exercising their alleged Constitutional rights of demonstrating for peace, and then give awards to the killers. Kent State was indeed a bloody marker, but as Amadou Diallo shows, the blood continues to run.

Not surprisingly, the mainstream media mostly ignored the other eighteen speakers at this year’s commemoration ceremonies and focused on the controversy surrounding Abu-Jamal’s speech. For example, the May 1 Cleveland Plain Dealer (which touts itself as “Ohio’s largest newspaper”) mentioned only one speaker by name: Mumia Abu-Jamal. “Various speakers will reflect on the last three decades,” the newspaper wrote in a schedule of events, “and a taped message from Mumia Abu-Jamal, who is on Pennsylvania’s death row for shooting a police officer, will be played.” And there was no mention of Abu-Jamal’s long history of political activism or the numerous claims that he deserves a new trial. Four days later, the May 5 Plain Dealer gave more coverage to the three anti-Abu-Jamal protesters who showed up for the speech than all of the commemoration’s political speakers combined.

To few students’ surprise, the Daily Kent Stater followed suit. Its coverage of the controversy overshadowed commemoration events. The May 4 Kent Stater even managed to criticize the task force in four separate articles without once mentioning the lineup of speakers. Mike Pacifico, a May Fourth Task Force historian and longtime supporter, says the campus newspaper’s coverage is largely influenced by the Kent State administration. He says administrators have long tried to “bureaucratically eliminate the May Fourth Task Force from campus through their ultimate control over the student press and student funding.”

Despite the media’s slant on this year’s commemoration, however, those in attendance heard the message of growing solidarity from one speaker after another. Julliette Beck of Global Exchange–the San Francisco-based organization that helped orchestrate the recent protests in Seattle against the World Trade Organization and in Washington, D.C., against the World Bank and International Monetary Fund–spoke of the links between the student movements of the 1960s and today:

I think it is critical that we begin to connect with our history. [U.S. Undersecretary of Defense] Robert MacNamara, as soon as he was done with the war in Vietnam, went on to become the president of the World Bank. [In its fifty-year history] the World Bank has increased poverty, increased debt, it has caused ecosystem disasters of unbelievable proportions. We are living in a world where seven million children die each year by the economic policies perpetrated by the World Bank, by these structural adjustment policies which MacNamara masterminded.

At the ongoing Kaiser-Aluminum lockout affecting plants in nine states, steelworkers have joined with environmentalists against company owner Charles Hurwitz. Hurwitz also owns Pacific Lumber, which is currently responsible for cutting down some of the last of California’s ancient redwoods. Commemoration speaker and activist Julia Butterfly Hill spent 738 days in a 200-year-old redwood tree named Luna in an effort to protest Pacific Lumber’s logging of old-growth forests. “I’m here today because I realize that the environment and social justice issues are one,” she said, “that it all becomes a target until we as people stand up and exercise our muscles.”

Overall, the thirtieth-anniversary ceremonies proved to be a showcase for how the current student movement is not only well informed but making the necessary ties of solidarity outside of college campuses. The ceremonies were a celebration of activism, an exercise of free speech, and a demonstration that all issues address the same system. As May Fourth Task Force Co-Chair Jeff Ritter observed, “So many movements are represented here today–the American Indian Movement, the environmental movement, anti-globalization, the MOVE organization. It’s a real symbol of solidarity, of all the things that are going on today.”

Alan Canfora agrees that there clearly is a great new trend of modern student activism in 2000. “Many of the veterans of our earlier student movement remain active across America today and contribute effort and awareness to assist younger activists today.” And as American Indian Movement elder Madonna Thunder Hawk recently said in Olympia, Washington, “The young people are again on the move. When the young people of this country move, things change.”

Brad Myers, an Ohio State University history major who attended the commemoration, said he has seen a dramatic increase in student activism on his campus in recent years. “There are always demonstrations going on now at Ohio State, whether it be another Home Depot going up or forests coming down,” he said. “I think that students are beginning to understand that things aren’t okay anymore. More than that, they’re doing something about it.”

For Rochelle Gause, this year’s ceremonies summed up many of the issues being raised by the current movement: “The growth of the movement that’s happening nationally is really represented here today. People realize that we’re all in this fight together, and it’s time to stop fighting each other and focus on the real issues.” For Gause, May 4, 1970, is more than just a historical remembrance; it is a source of inspiration and action:

As students, we must remember our past and continue the work that students before us began. Bill, Jeff, Sandy, and Allison are always in my heart, every protest I attend, every time I raise my voice in opposition. To me, May 4 represents everything that I fight for: truth, justice and freedom.

Kent State senior and commemoration organizer Wendy Semon agrees. “The living legacy of those four students [who were killed by National Guard members] is activism,” she said. “The only appropriate way students of today can keep that legacy alive is to promote activism and educate others.”

Mac Lojowsky is a former member of the May Fourth Task Force and a graduate of the political economy program at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington.

COPYRIGHT 2000 American Humanist Association

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