The Paradox of May 4

National Guardsmen at Kent State, May 4, 1970.

May the 4th be with you!

It is, but in a different way than I suspect it is for most people my age.  I was ten years old when Star Wars was released, and it was, without a doubt, the iconic movie of my childhood. I had the action figures, played “Death Star” behind the couch, wore a Star Wars t-shirt in my fifth grade class photo.  But the whole “May the 4th” thing is fairly recent, and the date still means something very different to me.

It was around the same time, maybe a little earlier, that I learned that the words “Kent State” were a bad thing.  Always attuned to current events, I remember reading about a controversy, reported in the Columbus Dispatch, about building a new gym at the college on land scarred by gunfire less than a decade before. Photos were produced of trees and sculptures still pockmarked from being hit, and a story told of students cut down in a riot.  And in my household, it was definitely a riot, with thousands of students said to be involved, and Gov. Rhodes definitely in the right for calling out the National Guard to stop it.  The Democrat John Gilligan, who was elected in the fall of 1970 (after Rhodes did not run after a failed bid to win the Republican nomination for US Senate) was reviled in no uncertain words, and it was only right that Rhodes had returned to his erstwhile throne, where he would serve two more terms.

Those hippies and longhairs had deserved it. They had rioted, and the Guardsmen had defended themselves, from bricks and bags of sh*t and maybe even a sniper.  Certainly, it was an incident marked with deep shame for Kent State, which clearly wanted to erase all memory of the event.

In Ohio, when you said “Kent State”, you were met with a knowing look that said “that’s something we don’t talk about here.”

By the time I was in my teens, the tumultuous times of the 60s were history.  Looking around, I saw preppies and then, later, the Dynasty look, with its huge shoulder pads and big hair.  I didn’t seen hippies or Communists or Black Panthers–I saw what were beginning to be called yuppies.  Reagan was President, and students didn’t demonstrate anymore, at least not in white suburbs like mine. We might join hands and sing “We are the world,” and the more progressive among us might write letters for Amnesty International about political prisoners in faraway countries.  We worried about the Soviets nuking us. Really worried about that–I remember viewing a TV movie, “The Day After”, which was about the aftermath of a nuclear attack.  I even took a course at Ohio State on nuclear ethics–discussing the principles of Mutual Assured Destruction.  Vietnam was over, but just beginning to be scrutinized in movies such as “Platoon.”  Rambo–the angry or scarred Vietnam veteran who was now spoiling for revenge–was now iconic, and the Vietnam war memorial in Washington was new–a deep gash in the earth filled with black granite. The scars had not really healed, as much as we tried to think they had.  It had really only been a decade or less since the fall of Saigon, but it felt to me like ancient history–like WWII, or Korea, or the other wars I couldn’t really remember.

I read James Michener’s book, Kent State: What Happened and Why, during this period.  I had picked it up in a church garage sale, wanting to know more about this event I knew about mostly from the secretive murmurs and the CSN&Y song.  Like that song, the book was written in the immediate aftermath of the shootings and released in early 1971.  It was later criticized for its willingness to buy into theories of conspiracies by radical activists to provoke the violence, but in retrospect, for its day, it was remarkably even-handed and detailed.  It’s also an interesting snapshot of the world as it was in 1970, in the waning days of the massive upheavals that had marked the 60s, before, as Howard Means, author of a more recent work on the shootings, 67 Shots, America lost her innocence and learned that guns might contain live rounds. (White America, Means is clear to state.  Black Americans already knew their government might shoot them, and apparently avoided the demonstrations at Kent State “like the plague.”)

Forty-eight years on, what I was struck most by, in re-reading these books and some of the other articles available on the shootings, was two things.  First, the polarization:  The United States was a deeply divided nation in 1970–over Vietnam, civil rights, and its role in the world.  For someone who came of age after this period, our more recent polarization can feel like a new thing.  It is not.  Other problems distracted US society for awhile–fuel shortages, hostages, Russians–but those wounds never healed, and the fundamental questions were never answered. Nixon resigned before he could be impeached, and too quickly the Watergate years were swept under the rug as an ugly aberration, with Nixon the boogeyman for what was clearly a deep culture of corruption.

The second observation is that the spread of disinformation in the wake of these kinds of events is often cast as a new thing, with every conspiracy theory getting its own blog on the Internet, victims being blamed, and trolls and bots looking to sow dissension.  It is not.  The rumours that spread in the wake of Kent State were lacking only the rapid means of distribution we have now.   With a state of emergency declared,  Kent had been more or less occupied during the crisis by over 1500 Guardsmen, most of whom were not on campus, but in the surrounding town. Gov. Rhodes never declared martial law, but there seems to have been a widespread assumption that he had.  The town already had a contentious relationship with the university, and suddenly having such a large force occupying such a small town convinced many that the situation on campus was far worse than it was.

As a result, the students were vilified with a large brush.  “They should have shot more,” was a common reaction.  Kent was actually a fairly conservative  rural commuter school, and it’s thought that fewer than 100 students were part of the core group involved in the demonstration that led to the shooting. There were probably 2000-3000 students in the area, but many were bystanders and others seem to have gotten swept up in the demonstration as “something fun to do.”  None have ever been shown to have been armed. No one was expecting to be shot– tear gas and maybe blanks, yes, but there was a widespread belief that the guns the National Guardsmen carried were not loaded.

Of the dead, two of the students killed had been involved in the demonstration, one had been an observer, and one was killed from 130 yards away as she walked to class.  All four were equally vilified.  Stories circulated that the victims were unwashed and riddled with venereal diseases, and the grief-stricken families received hate mail accusing their children of being Communists and stating that it was a good thing that they had been killed.  At the same time, in an accusation that will sound very familiar,  “outside agitators” who were said to have been “bused in” were claimed to have provoked the confrontation.

This reaction was by no means confined to the rumour mill.  One of the earliest stories on the shooting claimed that two Guardsmen had been killed in “a violent campus battle” involving 3000 students. Local radio had inflamed the situation during the crisis and was no better in the days following.  There was little compassion to be seen in the aftermath of the tragedy as students tried to evacuate their shattered college–townspeople refused to serve them or sell them gasoline (in the belief it might be used to make a bomb).  Initial reports, as we know, are key to defining beliefs about news narratives, and can override more nuanced accounts that appear later.  My own parents believed that Kent State had been a massive, violent armed riot.

And the lack of action to hold anyone accountable in the wake of the shootings will also sound familiar. The Scranton Commission, called to investigate the shootings, did not assign guilt or innocence, but condemned both protesters and the Guard. Twenty-four students and one faculty member were rounded up after the shootings and charged with a variety of offenses, but charges were dropped against most with four being convicted of minor offenses, primarily on technicalities. Eight Guardsmen were indicted on civil rights charges for their role, but claimed self-defense and the case was dropped  A civil suit brought by the families of the victims was eventually settled out of court.  but As Means states, “When it comes to official culpability for the shootings themselves, not a single person involved has ever been convicted of so much as a misdemeanor or even tried solely on the merits of the case as opposed to its technicalities. The dead, their survivors, the wounded, the shooters, their commanding officers, a host of peripheral players–they all hover still in a kind of legal limbo.  That’s what makes Kent State so hard to let go.”

Tin soldiers and Nixon coming
We’re finally on our own
This summer I hear the drumming
Four dead in Ohio

Gotta get down to it
Soldiers are cutting us down
Should have been done long ago
What if you knew her
And found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know?

—–Neil Young, 1970

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