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    Sunday, June 16, 2024

    Echoes of Kent State ring true today

    For 54 years, there has rarely been a day when my mind has not relived some of the horror of May 4, 1970. I was a student antiwar activist and eyewitness to the Kent State massacre. Now, there are alarming threats for new bloodshed on our campuses.

    In a May 4, 1970 file photo, Ohio National Guard moves in on rioting students at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio. Four persons were killed and eleven wounded when National Guardsmen opened fire. (AP Photo, File)

    On April 30, 1970, President Richard Nixon announced the invasion of Cambodia, a major escalation of the war in Southeast Asia that took the lives of millions and caused enormous human suffering.

    The invasion sparked widespread outrage. At Kent, a series of protests took place, during which time the ROTC building, a dilapidated wooden structure scheduled for demolition, was torched, under circumstances that reeked of agent provocateurs.

    Using that event as a pretext, Ohio Gov. James Rhodes ordered the Ohio National Guard onto the campus. Over the next two days, students were bayoneted, clubbed and tear gassed. Helicopters with searchlights hovered overhead at night.

    Nixon had branded the student protesters as “bums.” On May 3, 1970, Gov. Rhodes visited the Kent campus and railed against “outside agitators” that were “the worst kind of people in America.”

    “They have only one thing in mind; that is, to destroy higher education in Ohio … We’re going to eradicate the problem. We’re not going to treat the symptoms …”

    His threats came frightfully to life the next day.

    On May 4, we peacefully gathered on the commons to protest the war and the military occupation of our campus. Guardsmen, armed with live ammunition and firing tear gas canisters, advanced on our peaceful assembly. We fled, but the Guard continued the barrage, and our gathering was dispersed.

    We watched in horror as the soldiers, unprovoked, turned on us and fired their weapons. Sixty-seven shots in 13 seconds left our campus strewn with dead and wounded.

    The victims were not even near the troops. Sandy Scheuer, Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller and Bill Schroeder lay dead — nine others were wounded.

    Ten days later, shootings at Jackson State in Mississippi, took the lives of Phillip Gibbs and James Earl Green, along with an unknown number of wounded. Jackson was a predominately Black school and the massacre there received less attention than Kent.

    Nixon and Rhodes hoped these cold-blooded killings would quell the protests. Instead, the shootings sparked an unprecedented national student strike. Millions of students stopped business as usual. They began meeting, discussing, debating, creating and using their campuses as a base for organizing — reaching deep into the heart of the country with their antiwar message.

    We provided support to the thousands of active-duty anti-war GIs who became a key factor in ultimately compelling the U.S. to withdraw from Southeast Asia.

    Now, House Speaker Mike Johnson, echoing Rhodes, visits Columbia University, condemning “lawless agitators and radicals” and repeating overwrought and disproven fabrications to justify repression. He says, “If these threats are not stopped, there is an appropriate time for the National Guard. We have to bring order to these campuses.”

    This threat of violence is an attempt to quell the protests over the genocide in Gaza. He is attempting to intimidate young people whose only crime is to speak out against the genocide of a people.

    The decade-long struggle over Vietnam proved that only a massive movement could end the war. The spread of encampments and demonstrations are symbols — part of an emerging global movement that rejects the relentless violence of the warmakers and envisions a world of peace and justice.

    The threats, arrests and repression taking place on campuses is directed at those who value human solidarity over corporate profits. They are fighting against endless wars and occupations. They will not be intimidated. They deserve our support.

    They are the progeny of the martyrs of Kent and Jackson.

    Editor’s note: This first appeared in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

    Mike Alewitz was the founder and chairman of the Kent Student Mobilization Committee Against the War in Vietnam. He was an eyewitness to the massacre and a leader of the national student strike that followed. Today he is a well-known muralist, professor emeritus of Mural Painting at Central Connecticut State University, and Artistic Director of Red Square studio and gallery in New London.

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