Monday, May 3, 2010

Kent State Plus 40 Years

Tomorrow is the 40th anniversary of the Kent State shootings. For those who are too young to remember anything about it, four college students were shot dead by Ohio National Guardsmen as they were protesting the war in Vietnam, among other things. In comparison to, say, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, this seems like small potatoes but at the time the seismic waves of this event shook the country to its core.

It's impossible to truly understand Kent State without understanding the context of the country in 1970. The nation was truly in turmoil, probably the most profound it had experienced since the Great Depression or the Civil War. The war in Vietnam was going badly and was polarizing the country intensely. Richard Nixon was president and he was truly one of the most psychotic and unpopular presidents in history. His administration was top-heavy with right-wing creeps and rife with paranoia; they were sure that hordes of dirty hippies were crawling out from under every stone to destroy everything that was good in this country. They apparently couldn't figure out that hippies were stoned all the time and could barely get it together to go to the store and buy a box on Twinkies, let alone subvert and corrupt an entire country. The sexual revolution was in full bloom, and conventional morals and gender roles were being swept aside for the then-salacious "if it feels good, do it" maxim. Timothy Leary was urging everyone to "turn on, tune in and drop out," and the nascent women's movement was turning everything upside down, from the home to the workplace.

Additionally, the country had gone through the disastrous Democratic National Convention in Chicago during the presidential elections of 1968, and the media had shown mobs of long-haired anarchists trashing the streets and getting arrested. The previous year, the infamous Summer of Love in San Francisco in 1967 brought the libertine, anything-goes counterculture to every corner of middle America, and people were appalled and frightened. Everything sounds pathetically dated and antiquated now, just like watching a rerun of "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In," but back then it was heady, radical stuff. Rarely in this country's history had so much changed so drastically and completely in such a short time, and the sense of disorientation and confusion was palpable.

So, into this intense cultural and social maelstrom I was dropped. I had just graduated high school in June of 1969 and was preparing for my freshman year as an astronomy major at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland that September. Just going to college was a very dislocating experience for me - I had led a very sheltered life in a small steel-mill town in western Pennsylvania and was now facing a big and totally alien world on my own, away from everything with which I had become familiar. I also learned more about the socio-economic class system in this country because at college I was rubbing elbows with students who came from very well-to-do families in ultra-wealthy, upper-class New York enclaves like Rye and Scarsdale and White Plains and they kind of regarded me as a poverty case from the wrong side of the tracks. I felt alone and isolated a lot of the time.

Monday, May 4, 1970 started out like any other day. A very pleasant mid-spring morning, the trees on the grounds of the student union were blooming and warm breezes blew through the Lagoon park, a favorite place to hang out. But that afternoon, news of the shootings spread through the campus like wildfire. People went NUTS! Students poured out of the dormitories and classrooms. Euclid Avenue, a main thoroughfare in east Cleveland which ran right through the campus, was blocked by thousands of angry protesters. The police quickly showed up with some officers on horseback. They started charging the crowd to try to break us up, but the crowd quickly re-formed in their wake. I will never forget seeing a young mother pushing her baby daughter in a stroller, right in the front of the line of students, facing the police on their horses with a grim look on her face. The stand-off lasted several hours and eventually Euclid Avenue got freed up. The students went back on the campus grounds, and the mounted police stayed to maintain order. Despite all the anger and outrage, a short time later we were coming up to the policemen and talking to them, and petting the horses. Classes at the university were suspended for weeks, and I spent my days going to workshops and seminars put on by various radical political factions. I attended speeches and rallies by such notables as Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin.

Kent State University is located in Kent, Ohio, about 35 miles south of Cleveland, so the shootings had a real sense of urgency to us. It was personal because it was so close to us, and we all knew it could have easily happened here. The incident was my first real indication that our government was not always the benevolent, remote presence in our lives, but could be corrupt, dangerous and murderous.

The actual act of shooting took 13 seconds. In the end, four students died and nine more injured. Not one of the National Guardsmen who fired into a crowd of young people was ever punished, another indication to me that justice in America is not independent and objective, but rather situational and relative, and easily influenced by politics and driven by motives other than fairness for all.

A lot has happened since then. Forty years - 1,261,440,000 seconds- a whole lifetime. But I will never forget how on that pleasant spring day in 1970, my world expanded exponentially and 13 seconds changed my life.

1 comment:

  1. For the best eye witness accounts of the Kent State shootings by various Kent students and national guardsmen who shot students, check out the Emmy Award winning documentary, "Kent State, The Day the War Cam Home." It was just released on DVD for the upcoming 40th anniversary. In its review of the program, The Hollywood Reporter stated, "This extraordinary hour long doc is so good, so well constructed, that it can't help but leave viewers feeling as if they themselves were on the bloody scene of the Kent State carnage..." for more go to