KENT, Ohio — While most people now think of May 4 as Star Wars Day, to those of us affiliated with Kent State University it will always mark the day on which Ohio National Guardsmen fired their rifles at anti-Vietnam War demonstrators on our campus, killing four students and wounding nine others.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of that event. It was an incident that shocked the nation in many ways. Many Americans were disturbed by the fact that armed troops had fired upon unarmed young people. Others felt that public opposition to the war was unpatriotic and should be stopped by whatever means. The incident became a focal point in the highly charged public discourse of that time about the appropriateness of the Vietnam War. It reminds us that the much decried present state of political polarization in this country is neither new nor unique.
I am a retired professor from Kent State University who produced a television documentary about the shootings in 1995 for which I interviewed many eyewitnesses to the incident, including wounded students, faculty marshals and National Guard commanders. I also served on the committee that established the May 4 Visitors Center on the campus of Kent State, which provides exhibits that describe the incident, along with material about the social and political context of that era. I have read many of the books about the shootings, from James Michener’s “Kent State: What Happened and Why” to Howard Means’ recent “67 Shots: Kent State and the End of American Innocence” (the basis of a soon-to-be-released motion picture).
The campus demonstration on May 4, 1970, at Kent State University has sometimes been depicted as uniquely or excessively “violent” and therefore a justification for the shootings. However, it was simply a demonstration like hundreds of others at the time taking place on college campuses throughout the country. The throwing of rocks at guardsmen is often offered as a justification for the shootings, but it was not unusual for rocks to be thrown at anti-war demonstrations. At one of the demonstrations I joined as a student at the University of Michigan in 1969, I was almost accidentally hit by a piece of brick. What made the Kent State demonstration unique was not the behavior of the protesters, but the use of deadly force by the Ohio National Guard.
So how does this 50-year-old incident relate to our lives today?
First of all, it was a clear instance of what now would be called “fake news,” providing an excellent example of how events can be misreported, misinterpreted and manipulated. At first, it was inaccurately reported in some newspapers that guardsmen had been shot. Then there were false claims that a sniper’s presence on campus had prompted the shootings. Guard commanders insisted that their soldiers had been attacked by the demonstrators and fired in self-defense.
Ultimately, none of these versions of events was substantiated. At the time of firing, none of the slain or wounded students were physically close to the guard, with the nearest wounded student more than 50 feet away and the nearest fatality about 250 feet away. In fact, two of the four slain students were not even participating in the demonstration, but were simply watching from a distance of almost 400 feet (Scranton Commission Report p. 273). The federally appointed Scranton Commission’s report investigating the incident concluded that “the indiscriminate firing of rifles into a crowd of students and the deaths that followed were unnecessary, unwarranted, and inexcusable (p. 294).”
The gunning down of political protesters has been practiced by autocratic regimes throughout history.
I have personally visited sites in other countries where such incidents have taken place (Beijing, China; Johannesburg, South Africa; Bangkok, Thailand; and Cairo, Egypt; to name a few). Recent examples can be seen in countries like Iraq, Venezuela, Hong Kong, Chile, Iran and Ecuador. Those of us in the Kent State community appreciate the official recommendation to “Learn, Inquire, & Reflect” that is etched into the memorial built to honor those who were shot. Many of us feel that an equally important message should be “Never Again.” Such practices should have no place in the United States.
The incident at Kent State University in 1970 was a violation of the constitutional rights cherished by American citizens. The campus protest on May 4 was an exercise of the First Amendment right to “peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances,” protected as an aspect of “freedom of speech.” If the United States is going to uphold these traditions, it needs to allow political dissent without interference or intimidation on the part of law enforcement. The shooting of political demonstrators at Kent State will hopefully be remembered in American history as both an aberration and an anomaly.
None of the Ohio National Guardsmen who fired their weaponry at unarmed students were ever held legally accountable. Their “self-defense” argument is sadly still with us today, having been used repeatedly in similar types of cases over the ensuing decades. Police who face charges for shooting civilians have repeatedly claimed they thought their victim was reaching for a gun, even when there was no weapon. The Black Lives Matter movement has hopefully raised the nation’s awareness about these issues and the need for accountability. An often underappreciated legacy of the Kent State shootings was the manner in which the justice system failed afterward.
The Kent State shootings were a result of opposition to an unpopular, unsuccessful war conducted in Asia. Unfortunately, over the course of the past half-century we have witnessed a number of similar overseas military misadventures, wherein we have lost many American lives, killed thousands and spent huge sums in the process. The famous quote by historian George Santayana that “those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it” surely applies here. Another lesson associated with the Kent State shooting incident might be that war not continue to be waged in other countries whose citizens prefer to determine their own destiny.
Finally, the Kent State shootings took place in a political context wherein a president sought to enhance his power, silence the media and punish his enemies. That president, Richard Nixon, ultimately had to resign during impeachment proceedings against him. The parallels to today’s Trump administration are difficult to miss. It is clear that, like Nixon before him, Trump intends to disrupt the traditional balance of power between the executive, legislative and judicial branches. The enormous powers of the U.S. presidency have been abused in the past, and they can be abused again.
Hopefully the Kent State shootings will never become an obscure footnote in American history. The incident represents an inappropriate use of deadly weaponry to silence dissent, followed by misrepresentations of facts and a miscarriage of justice. Such challenges to our democratic values seem particularly relevant in today’s “post-truth” political era. Commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Kent State shootings can serve to preserve the heritage of freedom that the United States of America represents, both for its own people and as an example to the rest of the world.
Dr. Drew Tiene is a professor emeritus, Kent State University.