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Fifty Years Later, the Gunfire at Kent State Still Echoes Through America

Today’s pandemic alters our tradition of protest and dissent.

Mary Ann Vecchio kneels over the body of the student Jeffrey Miller, who was killed by Ohio National Guard troops during an antiwar demonstration at Kent State University on May 4, 1970. (Photo: John Paul Filo/Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.)

Mary Ann Vecchio kneels over the body of the student Jeffrey Miller, who was killed by Ohio National Guard troops during an antiwar demonstration at Kent State University on May 4, 1970. (Photo: John Paul Filo/Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.)

There are certain events in the life of the nation we revisit whenever there’s a significant anniversary. The assassination of President Kennedy, 9/11, the moon landing, even Woodstock—these are iconic milestones we think are worthy of remembrance and reflection—especially because so many of us experienced them together.

In 2025, assuming the world is still around, we’ll be noting the fifth anniversary of COVID-19 in America, mourning the dead and recalling how so many of us pulled together in the face of adversity—despite the appalling and inhuman behavior of our pathetic president manqué. Not only has he displayed a stupefying degree of ignorance and woeful governance, Trump has endorsed the defiant unthinking acts of those who would put the rest of us in jeopardy—all in the name of a twisted sense of freedom.

But this week, in the midst of a still burning pandemic and shrill demands for a return to normalcy, we mark the 50th anniversary of the killings at Kent State University in Ohio. Some of what you’ll read below may seem familiar; I’ve written about this before. But in the spirit of something old, something new and certainly something borrowed here and there, bear with me:

I was a freshman at Georgetown University in Washington when it happened, half a century ago on May 4. Most of us didn't know what had taken place until late in the day. We were in class or studying for finals, so hours went by until my friends and I heard the news. On that warm spring Monday, the Ohio National Guard had opened fire on an anti-war demonstration at Kent State University. In just thirteen seconds, 67 rounds of ammo left four students dead and nine others wounded.

It took a while to sink in. This was the sort of thing that happened in South American dictatorships—student protestors gunned down for speaking out against the government. Not here.

Then I remembered that some of my high school classmates were at Kent State, a campus fewer than 250 miles from my upstate New York hometown. But I had no phone numbers for them; there was no immediate way to find out if they were safe (they were).

In those faraway days before 24-hour cable news, Internet and social media, the details were hazy and slow in coming. That night, friends huddled around the tiny TV I had in my room—one of those early Sony tummy tubes with a fuzzy, black and white picture the size of your hand. With each sketchy report, anger and frustration grew but didn't start to boil over until, believe it or not, The Tonight Show came on after the 11 o'clock news.

Johnny Carson's guest was comedian Bob Hope, and when Hope, a staunch defender of the Vietnam war, launched into his standard routine those days—lots of jokes about long-haired hippies and smelly anti-war demonstrators—the half-dozen kids crowded into my tiny dorm space were furious. On this of all nights, how could he be so heavy-handed and clueless to trot out those tired one-liners about, well, us?

By the next morning, groups of students gathered around the campus talking about Kent State and the events leading up to the killings. A few days before, President Nixon had revealed the invasion of Cambodia, justifying the so-called "incursion" as necessary to protect our troops in Vietnam. Kent State had been just one of many schools where protests had erupted after his announcement. Now, after the deaths there, we wondered what would happen next.

A crowded meeting in the school's main assembly hall that night lasted well into the next day, filled with the earnest bombast of callow youth and plans of action that ranged from Do Nothing 101 to Advanced Anarchy. The bookstore's stock of Georgetown t-shirts sold out as kids scooped them up and stenciled defiant red fists on the backs.

By mid-week, two parallel strategies emerged: a national strike would shut down the country's colleges and universities—as a protest and to give students the freedom to devote all their time to mobilizing against the war. And there would be a massive rally in Washington, DC, on Saturday, May 9.

As did approximately 450 American schools, the Georgetown administration yielded to the strike. We were given the option to finish finals or take the grades we already had for the semester. We used the time going to Capitol Hill trying to see our hometown members of Congress to let our opposition to the war be known, then turned our attention to the big Saturday rally. Because we were already in DC, much of the logistics fell to us and the other colleges in town.

I volunteered to be a rally marshal, directing crowds and hoping to prevent violence. On the main campus lawn, we were given a crash medical course in how to cope with dehydration, tear gas attacks, broken bones and even gunshot wounds.

At breakfast early Saturday morning, with an overdose of macho-infected concern, we told our girlfriends to stay away from the rally. There might be trouble, we warned, acting as if we were about to join the Underground in occupied France. Instead, we suggested they go to the protest headquarters to help out. As it turned out, they wound up in greater danger than we were—a small group of neo-Nazis attacked the rally offices. Luckily, no one was seriously hurt.

As for me, I was issued a powder-blue cloth armband and stood with other marshals on the periphery of the 100,000-person rally, enjoying a lovely sunny day. For its protection, the White House nearby had been ringed with DC Transit buses parked nose to tail.

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Nothing happened until late in the day, when an army water truck came barreling toward us and we linked hands, as if somehow that would ward it off. Luckily, the truck veered away just before it reached our paltry line of defense. The next day's paper reported that the vehicle had been hijacked by Yippies and was last seen barreling across a Potomac River bridge into the wilds of Virginia.

And then it was over. That night, rumors spread that police were going to clear out groups of out-of-town demonstrators camped out in Potomac Park near the monuments. We were told the protesters would flee to the college campuses. We stayed up all night waiting to take them in, but it never happened.

The following Friday, May 15, National Guardsmen and police fired more than 460 shots at Jackson State University in Mississippi. Two more students were killed and 12 wounded, but with nowhere near the attention Kent State received. The kids at Jackson State were black.

Sadly, the mobilization that was supposed to continue with the close of school fizzled out. Most Georgetown students took advantage of the early end of the semester to indulgently bask in the sun and play on the lawn, or simply go home.

A friend wrote an editorial in one of the campus newspapers headlined, "The Frisbee Revolution." Those of us trying to keep the protests alive were annoyed by his words mocking the abandonment of commitment, but in the end he was more right than wrong. Once the impetus of the big rally was over, motivation vanished except for those few who kept organizing and agitating. The other kids went back to being kids. The war retreated, out of sight, out of mind, especially for those with a draft lottery number sufficiently high to keep them from being shipped out to southeast Asia, even after their student deferments ended.

There would be other rallies and marches, countless petitions, even more violence. But the Vietnam war dragged on for another five bloody and futile years.

Now, as The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Will Bunch observes, “[I]n many ways, the gunshots still echo in 2020. It’s no accident that in the months immediately after Kent State, business leaders and other conservatives began looking for ways to quash liberal thinking on campus and counteract it with the conservative web of noise that became talk radio and Fox News. Right-wing pols cut funding for public universities like Kent State, helping to send tuition skyrocketing and making college more about careerism and less about such dangerous ideas. And a dog-eat-dog economy forced young America to comply with that.

“But the greatest impact was largely psychic—the shock and cynicism that the government was capable of gunning down its own youth. And that no one—not the Guardsman or their higher-ups—would ever be held to account for the massacre.”

Because of the protests and student strike in 1970, that year there were far fewer college graduation ceremonies. Now, five decades later, because of the pandemic, hardly any commencement exercises will take place except online. The joyful ritual so sacred to the halls of ivy will have to be conveyed via YouTube and Zoom—unless you’re one of the thousand cadets being dragged back to West Point for a combined quarantine and commencement so Donald Trump can address you in person and boost his ego and reelection campaign. Even a big concert and commemoration of the anniversary at Kent State have had to be reshaped for the new reality.

In fact, COVID-19 has forced the very nature of protest—which has exploded since Trump’s inauguration in 2017— to be reevaluated. Yes, some rightwing knuckleheads, many with firearms, are taking to the streets demanding businesses be reopened and insisting on a restoration of creature comforts they’ve been denied—exposing themselves and the rest of us to further sickness and death. But for the majority, marches and lobbying face-to-face for good causes just cannot safely take place.

“Traditional protests are now violations of stay-at-home orders,” David Weigel noted in The Washington Post. “Politicians are quarantined. Legislative chambers are empty. That has sent organizers searching for new tactics and temporarily has deprived activists of their most powerful, visible tools — right when state and federal governments are moving billions of dollars around.”

Micah L. Sifry writes in The New Republic, “We are entering a new era, of politics without bodies, of empty auditoriums and virtual voting… Looking ahead, we need to think bigger about how we ‘do’ virtual politics together, beyond remapping old political functions onto digital formats.”

Meanwhile, despite it all, this weekend in my West Village neighborhood in downtown Manhattan, too many young, well-off and entitled thought about none of this and celebrated the first warm sunny weekend of May by refusing to wear masks, crowding the sidewalks and parks, ignoring social distancing.

Talk to anybody who has really been slammed by this virus, anyone who has survived the horrific fever, debilitating pain and exhaustion, and they will tell you: the last thing you want is to have this highly infectious disease. Do whatever it takes to keep it from happening to you or anyone else.

Unfortunately, in my neighborhood, all too similar to those days not long after the tragedy of Kent State, self-indulgence once again reared its sleek and shiny head. The Frisbees were flying.

Michael Winship

Michael Winship

Michael Winship is the Schumann Senior Writing Fellow for Common Dreams. Previously, he was the Emmy Award-winning senior writer for Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, a past senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos, and former president of the Writers Guild of America East. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWinship

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