For those of us who were in college in the late 60s and early 70s -- and, as I learned so well a few years ago -- for many who were not, the early days of May bring back memories of a time before the Bush administration when our world went crazy. We remember when another President invaded a sovereign country, declaring that the "limited incursion" was "not for the purpose of expanding the war ... but for the purpose of ending the war." We remember when a governor, embroiled in a nasty campaign to win the rapidly approaching primary election for the Republican Senate seat in his state, pounded the table while decrying a generation of student activists as "worse than the brown shirts and the Communist element and also the night riders and the vigilantes. They're the worst type of people that we harbor in America." And, most of all, we remember the horrible photo of a young man lying dead in a roadway with a young girl screaming in horror over his lifeless body. We remember going to sleep that night, wondering if we would be the next to die. We remember May 4, 1970 and we weep.
Many of us have never been able to shed the memories of that traumatic weekend that ended with the deaths of Allison Krause, Bill Schroeder, Sandy Scheuer and Jeff Miller at Kent State University. This year, as the calendar comes into conjunction again, the dates match the days in 1970 and, once again, we are faced with a Monday, May 4 and all the memories that that brings. When 12:24 PM arrives this Monday, 39 full years will have passed since the horrible events that claimed the lives of four, wounded at least nine others, and changed the world for untold millions.
Several years ago, I did a comprehensive seven-part series on the shootings at Kent State for DailyKos. My purpose here is not to re-create that effort. If you want in-depth accounts of how Nixon's shamelessly provocative speech on Cambodia set the stage for the events at Kent State or how the events of that weekendplayed out or exactly what happened on that fateful Monday or how the aftermath unfolded, including what the various investigations found, or what happened in the resulting criminal and civil trials, I refer you to those original diaries. You can also read about my first trip to Kent State in 35 years and my own experiences of that day. This diary is for a briefer recap and remembering.
Things had been heating up for a long time before that day in May 1970. When I think back, it seems as though everything started to crumble with the 1963 Kennedy assassination. The memory of standing next to the television the Sunday after the assassination, as I waited for my ride to come to take me to swimming practice, and being just inches from the screen at the moment that Lee Harvey Oswald was shot, still stands out as one of the most shocking things I've ever witnessed. And, five years later, how my parents wouldn't allow me to go to a party after MLK was assassinated because Cincinnati was exploding. And, a couple months later, when I woke up to the news that Bobby Kennedy had been shot and stumbled out to the den and turned on the TV and my mother came in and yelled at me for turning on the TV before school. And then when I said, "Bobby Kennedy's been shot" and she sunk into the couch next to me. 1968 went by in a blur, as events across the world seemed to be spinning out of control.
But then came the spring of 1970 and, for me, nothing ever seemed to be quite the same after that. I don't really remember Nixon's speech about invading Cambodia. Not surprising since, in those days, TVs were rare on college campuses. But I heard about it the next day, as people began to organize protests. At Kent State, a group of students, dubbing themselves World Historians Opposed to Racism and Exploitation (WHORE), gathered on the campus Commons to bury a copy of the Constitution, charging Nixon with having killed it. The protest didn't amount to much, maybe 100 people in all gathered. But, at the end, they announced another demonstration for noon on Monday. That night, as usual, the Water Street bars were filled with Kent State students. Many had gone down to watch the NBA playoffs. Outside in the streets, there was more of a festival atmosphere. But then things started getting out of control. Some students decided to block off a street for a street dance and a motorcycle gang decided to perform some stunts to entertain themselves. Motorists didn't take too kindly to any of this, especially when kids started quizzing them about their views on the invasion of Cambodia. The mayor and police chief, reacting to rumors about Weathermen supposedly heading for Kent to dump LSD in the water system, panicked. They closed the bars, throwing hundreds of half-drunk and angry kids in with the restless crowd. In short order, things spun out of control and some of the rowdier members of the crowd (no one can say for sure that they were KSU students) started smashing some of the windows in some of the downtown businesses. The police crackdown escalated and the kids were driven back to campus. The night ended when a fluke accident left a repairman hanging from a traffic light. Everyone cheered when he was successfully rescued and, with tensions dissipated, everyone drifted off to where they belonged.
Things escalated further on Saturday night when, under very mysterious circumstances which to this day have never been fully explained, a crowd gathered around the ramshackle building that housed Kent's ROTC program and burned it to the ground. What is really odd about that event is that the kids who tried to burn it down were spectacularly unsuccessful in several attempts until they finally got bored and drifted away. Only then did the building somehow manage to go up in flames. Even James Michener, who did a pretty good job of whitewashing what happened that weekend in favor of the always popular "Oh what a tragedy" explanation, had to admit that something about the ROTC fire seemed suspicious. Despite the circumstances, it certainly got roaring at an auspicious moment. As the flames licked the sky, the Ohio National Guard, called into town by the increasingly panicky mayor, conveniently appeared. They would have had no cause to go onto campus except, well, look at that!! The ROTC building is burning. So the Guard didn't stop in town, they just rolled right onto campus.
Sunday passed quietly. Students and guardsmen mixed freely on campus. That night, students gathered just off campus to protest the curfew that had been in effect since Friday night. They occupied the street and asked to speak to KSU's president. After they were promised he was coming, the guard announced the curfew was being moved up and that they had ten minutes to disperse. Tear gas started flying as the kids tried to flee. Some weren't fast enough and ended up getting bayonetted. A lot of kids spent Sunday night wherever they could find shelter, listening to helicopters whip-whipping overhead and (reportedly) scattered gunshots. By Monday morning, everyone -- students and guardsmen alike -- was sleep-deprived and on edge.
The Monday rally announced on Friday started like most demonstrations at Kent State, with ringing the Victory Bell on the Commons. Students didn't need a whole lot of reason to gather by this point. While many of them were still angry about Cambodia, most of them were angrier about the Guard being on campus. They wanted to know what was happening, how long the Guard was planning to stay, when they'd get their campus back. Several professors even encouraged kids to attend to try and find answers for these questions. See, even though the state would later claim that all campus gatherings had been banned, classes were still taking place although a few had been disrupted by fake bomb scares. And, with a noon rally on the Commons, a central location on campus, a lot of kids who were just on their way to class or lunch, stopped to see what was going on. Even so, the crowd was neither huge nor violent. Yes, once the Guard started firing tear gas, some kids did throw the canisters back but I ask you -- what would you do if a tear gas canister landed at your feet? And, yes, there were some rocks thrown -- by both students and guardsmen. But the most common "missiles" were epithets.
I've looked at so many pictures of that day that I can "identify" all kinds of students although I have no idea who most of them are. Having scrutinized them endlessly for clues and having listened to the recording of the shootings on many occasions, I thought I was way past having a photo from that day stop me cold. But, last week, I received one from a newly-obsessed researcher in Australia that did just that.
You see, that's not just any picture of the crowd. See the girl towards the back of the crowd in the red shirt and blue jeans? That's Sandy Scheuer. And right over her right shoulder, see the girl with the tan jacket and her hair pulled up in a modified pony tail? Allison Krause. And to Sandy's right, the boy in the distinctive orange bell-bottoms? Bill Schroeder. Within half an hour, they will all be dead or dying. And, yes, that picture gives me the chills.
Within minutes of this photo being taken, the Guard will start to push the crowd over Blanket Hill. The crowd, and the guardsmen, will split to go around Taylor Hall. The main contingent of guardsmen will continue on to the practice field, where they will find themselves surrounded by fences, topography and students in the parking lot and on the hill.
They'll hang out for about ten minutes while emotions escalate. At one point, a number of them will drop to their knees and aim at the students in the parking lot. Someone will fire a gun while on the field (a signal?) but nothing more will come of that. Eventually, they will realize their position is untenable and they will retreat back up the hill in front of Taylor Hall. The kids will cheer, believing they've "won."
But when the Guard reaches the top of the hill, at 12:24 PM, they will stop, pivot 135 degrees in virtual unison and fire some 67 shots in 13 seconds towards the students in the parking lot who had been harassing them earlier. Most of the casualties will be in the parking lot. (The lighter lines in the above photo indicate the spray of gunfire.) By the time they are done, 13 students will be on the ground wounded, with two of them dead, two of them dying and another two critically wounded. The victims:
Joseph Lewis, Jr., standing some 60 to 70 feet away, was shot in the abdomen and lower leg. Joe would admit later that he had been giving the guardsmen the finger when they shot him. As he lay wounded, the second shot hit him in the leg.
John Cleary, 110 feet away, was shot in the chest.
Tom Grace, 200 feet away, suffered a shot to the foot.
Alan Canfora, 225 feet away, had taunted the guard with his black flag and was hiding behind a tree when a shot ripped through his wrist.
Dean Kahler was lying prone 300 feet away when he was shot in the back and permanently paralyzed. Kahler, a conscientious objector, had been home that weekend celebrating his birthday.
Douglas Wrentmore, 329 feet away, was shot in his knee.
The closest fatality, Jeff Miller was standing 265 feet from the guardsmen when a bullet slammed into his mouth and exited his posterior skull, killing him instantly and leaving a huge pool of blood running down the driveway to the parking lot.
Allison Krause was 343 feet away when the shooting broke out. She and her boyfriend, Barry, hid behind a car. After the shooting ended, Barry thought everything was OK until Allison whispered, "I'm hit." The bullet had entered her armpit and ripped through most of her major organs. She died en route to the hospital.
Jim Russell was ninety degrees removed from the others but still 375 feet away when he was slightly wounded in the thigh and forehead by buckshot. Sadly, Jim Russell died suddenly last year of a heart attack.
William Schroeder, who was attending Kent on a ROTC scholarship, was shot in the lower back when he was 382 feet away. The bullet exited his shoulder. Bill survived the trip to the hospital but died as he was being wheeled into an operating room.
Sandra Scheuer was 390 feet from the guard when a bullet severed her jugular vein. She bled to death in the parking lot. She was on her way to class when shot.
Robbie Stamps, about 500 feet away, was shot in the right buttock. Robbie Stamps also died last year, from complications of Lyme Disease.
Donald Scott MacKenzie was 730 feet away when a bullet struck him in the neck and exited his cheek. MacKenzie would almost certainly have been killed had the bullet that hit him not been deflected prior to the strike.
After that, everything would descend into chaos. Both at Kent State and around the country. As the news spread that Monday afternoon, students all over the country heard it in shocked disbelief. By the end of Tuesday, hundreds of campuses nationwide had been shut down by student strikes. Thousands of students poured into Washington, DC for a mass protest that weekend. Richard Nixon, unable to sleep, in one of the weirder episodes in his very weird presidency, would wander over to the Lincoln Memorial to meet with some of them and end up discussing football and surfing and encouraging them to travel abroad.
And, for those of us who lived through that day, for those of us who spent the next few days wondering who would be targeted next, the memories would never go away. No matter how old you were, if you were old enough to understand what had happened that day, you aged a few years in a matter of seconds. You realized that, yes, your government would shoot you down if they disagreed with your beliefs. You realized that, if someone pointed a gun at you, you better assume it was loaded. And, contrary to popular myths later, no, the Kent State shootings did not bring the war in Vietnam (or Cambodia) to a faster conclusion. The war dragged on another three -- or five, depending on how you count -- interminable years. What the shootings did accomplish is what I, and many other of the Kent State researchers, believe they were intended to accomplish: they scared students into an eerie silence which reverberated on most college campuses when they opened again later that spring or in the fall. The era of big campus protests was over, not even to raise its head again when, some thirty-three years later, we invaded the sovereign nation of Iraq.
But my story of Kent State doesn't end there. Aside from years of obsessive investigation and more days of pain and sadness than I care to remember, there have also been good moments and good friendships made. In particular, I cherish my friendship with Jeff Miller's mother, Elaine Holstein, whose heart-wrenching and beautiful story of her son can be read here. And that very special relationship was renewed the last time I posted about Kent State when kossack sfbob, who is Jeff Miller's cousin, saw my diary and helped me get back in touch with her after some years of silence. Two summers ago, when she was traveling west for sfbob's nephew's wedding, she and her husband stopped to visit me in Laramie, WY. Since they happened to be here on a Friday, which I always spend part of on a downtown street corner protesting the war in Iraq, I asked her to join with us and she happily agreed. Despite the rainy day, it remains a cherished memory upon which I am sure Jeff was smiling.
There have also been numerous people on dKos who have sent me information and links to information they've found on-line about Kent State, including this amazing compilation of news footage from a Cleveland TV station that arrived just a few weeks ago. And that doesn't even mention all the people who participated in my earlier diaries who helped me understand that I wasn't alone in my grief. All of you helped me heal in ways I can never fully enumerate and for which I will be eternally grateful.
Finally, in mid-March, I had the opportunity to do something I have wanted to do for a very long time: scold Richard Nixon for his role in the killings at Kent State.
Yes, OK, maybe I had to wait until he was in his grave but I got the last word. And I dressed in my best hippie garb to deliver it. It was sweeter than I had expected after seeing how the Nixon Library whitewashes the events of that day:
The photo is too small to read the text but notice the absence of any photos of the guardsmen, except as they "guard" the burned-out ROTC building. Their description of events includes a remarkable avoidance of culpability: "Tragically, in the ensuing panic, shots rang out." A truly astounding avoidance of truth-telling which beats the hell out of the ever-popular "mistakes were made."
And so, now, if you've taken the time to read all this, please join me in a moment of silence as we remember everything that was stolen from us that day. And, remember, as Holly Near reminded us, "It Could Have Been Me," a song she wrote about Kent State.