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home : insight & opinion : guest columns August 16, 2017

5/9/2017 10:24:00 AM
Kent State legacy still troubling, 47 years later
For the Daily News

I was in college in May of 1970 at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. I worked nights for the newspaper in a variety of jobs and had been cross-trained in the pressroom and darkroom tasks in return for my promise to stay on campus through break and see to it that the paper got out.

There were adult supervisors for the student-run paper, and they mostly dictated policy as editors do everywhere, but when the demonstrations started to sweep the country after President Nixon invaded Cambodia, and said as much on TV, the mood changed.

There were demonstrations on campus against the war, and the ROTC boys got dressed up and the local Army Reserve from somewhere showed support from a distance.  An ROTC building had been burned earlier up at the University of Michigan, so we all knew it could happen. I went out to watch and noticed some photographers with very nice equipment at the edge of the crowd taking photos of the students, not the action, and began to wonder why. 

Later than night, after I reported to work, I saw them again in the office discussing something with my supervisor, and after they left I was called in and handed a bag of undeveloped 35 mm film.

I was told to develop them and make contact prints so could see if he could identify any of the faces of the students.  When I asked my supervisor why, he said it was because they were going to be expelled for demonstrating. 

We had a brief exchange about what my view of that was. It was made clear he didn't care and I was sent off to do as I was told.  Unfortunately, the film was all left in the chemical developer too long and none of the pictures came out, something that had never happened before, but for which I apologized and offered to try again if they had any more.  They didn't, so there were no expulsions that I knew of.

The next day was May 4, and the news broke that four students had been shot and killed on the campus of Kent State University by the Ohio National Guard. Depending on who was writing the lead on the story, it was either "justified" or "perpetrated," but the kids were dead all the same and I was out of politics for good.

Twenty-nine Guardsmen fired about 67 rounds over a period of 13 seconds hitting 13 students; four died, nine were wounded, one was paralyzed. The gloves were off and the revolution was on.  Only one side of the revolution, the student side, was unarmed and without supporting armor or heavy weapons.  The outcome was inevitable, of course, but those of us who lived through it made choices that we carry with us still.

My country was murdering civilians in another country we were not at war with.  You can have a parade and make speeches and shout patriotic slogans with bands playing "The Stars and Stripes Forever" all day, and it won't make that right.  Those of us in college taking the opportunity seriously, to learn to use our minds and improve our thinking, thought this was lunacy. 

It was nearly as illogical as the Democratic National Convention I had attended in Chicago to say much the same thing about ending a war we were losing while destroying a country that didn't want to be saved, except from us. Given the setting, it never occurred to me that Nixon could win re-election, but he did, on a promise to end the war, which he didn't. 

Unfortunately a lot of time has passed since this happened, and revisionist historians have changed the times to suit their patrons.  I was repulsed by the PBS documentary "The Day the 60s Died," in which the killings were excused as a necessary part of the triumph of the right-wing elements of American society in reclaiming their leadership of the country's future by joining the Republican Party. The cited source for this idiocy was Pat Buchanan, who smugly proclaims the four dead students as radical extremists who deserved what they got. None of them deserved to be shot down while protesting an illegal war while unarmed and specifically two of them were merely walking between classes on campus and were not involved at all.

Fifteen were indicted by a grand jury and charged with responsibility for the deaths and injuries - not Guardsmen, students. That's right, the law decided the students were responsible for being shot because they demonstrated against the war.

Much later I happened to interview one of the Guardsmen who had done the shooting, and he not only had no remorse but wished he had gotten more of the "Commie bastards" who were trying to ruin our country.  I told him there was no danger of that; it was already done.

It was a time I hoped to live through, get behind me, and never have to go through again.  A time of intolerance, labeling and hatred. It seemed to be the worst of times.

We don't shoot students on campus now of course, which is better, but we are still at war and looking for a fight, and we feel the need to go back and retell history to make it come out the right way - that's "right" with a capital "R." I no longer see the T-shirts with the box score that reminded us all of what had happened;

"Kent State, May 4, 1970: National Guard 4 - Students 0."

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