Remembering Kent State Massacre, May 4, 1970
Gotta get down to it
Soldiers are gunning 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?
— “Ohio,” by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young
A total of 67 shots were fired on that warm spring day. It was May 4, 1970, 49 years ago, at Kent State University in Ohio. The cruel and bloody events of that day left an indelible stamp on the consciousness of a generation, including on me.
In some ways, the atmosphere leading up to the bloodshed seems eerily contemporary: an isolated and increasingly paranoid president and an administration engaged in undermining the press and lying to the public.
On April 30, 1970, a perspiring President Richard Nixon went on TV to announce the invasion of Cambodia — a major escalation of the war in Southeast Asia. His action sparked widespread outrage. At Kent State, a series of protests and rallies took place, including the torching of the ROTC building, a dilapidated wooden structure scheduled for demolition, under suspicious circumstances.
With that event as a pretext, the Ohio National Guard occupied the campus. Over the next two days, students were bayoneted and clubbed by guardsmen, tear gas inundated the campus, and helicopters with searchlights hovered overhead at night.
Nixon branded the student protesters as “bums.” Then Ohio Gov. Jim Rhodes called them “worse than the brown shirts ... we will use whatever force necessary to drive them out of Kent!" The inflammatory remarks were a prescription for repression.
On May 4, students gathered to protest the war and the military occupation of the university. Guardsmen, armed with live ammunition and firing teargas canisters, advanced on the peaceful group. We ran away, but the Guard continued the barrage.
Our gathering was dispersed and the soldiers began to march away. Suddenly, a group of guardsmen spun around, aimed and fired their weapons.
We looked about in disbelief; the victims were not even near the troops. Allison Krause, who had proudly marched in previous demonstrations, was 330 feet away from the nearest guardsman when she was fatally gunned down. A friend of mine, Sandy Scheuer, was 390 feet away, walking to class. She was shot through the neck and killed. Another friend, Robbie Stamps, was almost 500 feet away when wounded.
Four young people lay dead: Allison Krause, Bill Schroeder, Sandy Scheuer and Jeffrey Miller. Nine more were wounded. Dean Kahler was paralyzed for life.
To this day, the extent of government involvement in the massacre has never been fully revealed. Among the many photos of May 4 are some of a paid FBI informant holding a pistol in the crowd. His presence has never been explained. The truth of the massacre at Kent remains hidden in the fog of war.
The killings at Kent were followed 10 days later with a police barrage of bullets into a dormitory at Jackson State in Mississippi. James Earl Green and Phillip Lafayette Gibbs were gunned down and an unknown number of others were wounded.
The shootings sparked an unprecedented national student strike. Hundreds of thousands of students stopped business as usual. They began meeting, discussing, debating, creating and using their campuses as bases for organizing and reaching deep into the heart of the country with their anti-war 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.
The decade-long struggle over Vietnam proved that only a massive movement could end the war. Then, as now, peace will not come from a government that is without compassion or vision — and war will not be ended by a timid and impotent legislature that continues to fund the war machine.
Over the next year, there will be numerous commemorative events leading up to the 50th anniversary of the shootings. Much of this undoubtedly will continue to obscure the truth about U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia and repression here at home. The unprecedented assault on Julian Assange should remind us how much the warmakers fear the truth.
Today, along with rising nationalism and permanent war, we face nothing less than the extinction of our species in a carbon-based nightmare of climate change denial.
As in 1970, our hope for a more peaceful future lies with our own empowerment. Protests continue against U.S. wars and occupations, environmental destruction, racism and sexism. Millions of immigrants have shed their invisibility in a great new movement for civil and human rights.
In these movements lies the hope for the future — to reject corporate greed and relentless violence and to build a world that values peace and social justice.
Mike Alewitz was the founder and chairman of the Kent State Mobilization Committee Against the War in Vietnam and an eyewitness to the shootings. He was among the leaders of the national student strike that followed. A mural painter and professor emeritus at Central Connecticut State University, he lives and works in New London.