Forty years ago tomorrow, May 4, 1970, the Ohio National Guard committed murder on the campus of Kent State University.
It was the single most important formative event in my young life and one that changed my personal and political views forever.
I was a freshman on the University of Wisconsin at River Falls campus that day. I remember it like it was yesterday. One of the first warm days of spring that year and not a cloud in the sky. I was back in my dorm room, 209 Johnson Hall, studying when someone on the floor yelled "They're killing students in Ohio!" I thought at first it was just a normal afternoon drunken outburst on the floor. Then someone walked in with his transistor radio set on WCCO radio from Minneapolis. They gave complete coverage of the carnage, at least as much as they knew at the time. As we all sat around listening to the news a feeling of gloom set over us.
Granted, UW River Falls wasn't a hotbed of political activity in those days but we had experienced our share of campus protesting of the intractable unwinnable, unnecessary war in Viet Nam. Now Richard Nixon had expanded the war into Cambodia and our few campus activists were more agitated. I wondered as did most of the guys on my floor, if the Wisconsin National Guard was going to show up and start shooting us.
Kent State happened because of the over reaction of the Ohio National Guard in response to legally assembled (according to the United States Constitution) students exercised their legal right (according to the United States Constitution) to protest an illegal war (the President never asked Congress for a formal declaration of war therefore it wasn't a legal war) and its expansion. I will never forgive the Ohio National Guard for what they did that day forty years ago.
When it finally sank into my thick skull that students were being killed for exercising their rights, and the government that sanctioned this killing was a Republican government, I rejected all of the conservative mantra that my ultra conservative mother ever spewed (were she alive at 80 years old today my ultra conservative mother would be one of the Tea Bag anarchists who think Sarah Palin has an IQ greater than a cucumber and that Faux "News" is fair and balanced). The next day May 5, 1970, I started to let my hair grow longer, I participated in my first anti-war sit in. My politics and my outlook were radicalized.
Just two days before the massacre, Richard M. Nixon, made the following statement regarding the campus unrest. Never once in his statement did Nixon acknowledge that it was HIS actions that were causing the unrest.
You know, you see these bums, you know, blowin' up the campuses. Listen, the boys that are on the college campuses today are the luckiest people in the world, going to the greatest universities, and here they are, burnin' up the books, I mean, stormin' around about this issue, I mean, you name it - get rid of the war, there'll be another one. -- Richard Nixon, New York Times, May 2, 1970
Fuck you Richard Nixon. It is my sincerest hope to one day piss on your grave.
Despite the tragedy that day there were some positive things that came out of it. Most importantly for me is the very real fact that my political beliefs were forever altered on that fateful day. In response I have voted in every election since my first election in 1972 (the first vote I ever cast was for George McGovern and I feel proud of that vote). In that election I voted a straight Democratic ticket. I have never missed an election since that day in November 1972 and I have never once voted for anyone who was not with the Democratic Party.
I would eat a steady diet of used kitty litter before I would vote for a Republican. Ever.
Another positive thing that came out of the murders was this song with its haunting music and haunting lyrics written by Neil Young.
On May 4 1990 while living in Grand Island Nebraska I contacted every radio station in town and in the surrounding area and asked them to play, at 11:27 a.m. Central Time that morning (the exact minute the murders took place at Kent State 20 years earlier) "Ohio" by Neil Young as a memorial to the fallen students. All the stations agreed to do it but one where I was told by the programming director "We don't have the music or I would play it." I asked if they'd play it if I brought the music to them. They would.
I was standing outside the music store in Conestoga Mall at 10:00 a.m. when the door opened. I darted in and purchased the vinyl album and raced down to the south side of town to the radio station. I arrived there by 10:30 with 57 minutes to spare. Breathlessly I told the woman behind the counter that her station was going to be playing this song as a memorial to the murders 20 years earlier. She looked at me with a deer-in-the-headlights look on her face not understanding a thing I'd said. Finally I asked her age. "I'm 19" she said. She wasn't even born when the single greatest formative moment in my life occurred. I would be afraid to ask the question again today.
Finally the murders at Kent State were the catalyst in 1988 for the University to establish the Institute for the Study and Prevention of Violence. The mission statement for the Institute reads:
The Institute for the Study and Prevention of Violence:
* promotes interdisciplinary research on the causes and prevention of violence
* engages in the design, implementation and evaluation of community-based programs for violence prevention
* trains teachers, law enforcement personnel and other professionals on principles and practices related to violence prevention
* helps bridge the gap between science and practice to effectively inform public policy related to violence prevention
Some good has come out of the insanity of that day after all.
In 2005 I traveled from Washington DC to Kent State to be there for the 35th anniversary of the murders. Stepping from my car in a University parking lot I asked a couple I saw walking "where's the Hill?" Without batting an eye they pointed to the west. As I walked toward the hallowed grounds that are the site of the murders several students came up to me and asked "were you there?" I told them I was there in spirit alone that day.
On getting near the Hill I found four curious areas cordoned off with light fixtures. Asking what they were I learned that they were permanent memorials that marked the outline of where each of the four kids died that day. The first one I found was Alison Krause.
Standing on the Hill overlooking the scene I met a mother and her college freshman son. The son was showing mom the campus and brought her to the Hill. I saw them and made a comment about the tragic deaths that day. The mom, about my age, snapped back in reply saying "Those fucking kids DESERVED what they got that day."
Shocked I said "you mean Jeffrey Miller deserved to die for protesting something that was wrong?" Mom said "You're god-damned right he did. All of them did."
Her son then jumped on her case and backed up what I was saying. They walked away yelling at each other. I guess, at least 5 years ago, there was still a lot of angst and anger on the Hill.
And a note for any Vietnam Veterans reading this post - know up front that our protests were designed to get you home and we didn't even know you at the time. We were mobilized against the war, not against you.
Tomorrow morning, May 4, 2010, the Kent State University Historic Site will be dedicated on the campus as a memorial to the tragedy of that day. Just like 40 years ago I will not be there physically, but I will attend in spirit.
Never EVER forget Kent State.