It was one of the pivotal events of my teen years, one that shaped my attitudes towards government and the place of protest in society. Every year, on May 4, I remember the Kent State killings. The original of this post ran on this date in 2015.
Forty-nine years later their names are a footnote to history. But I remember them.
May 4, 1970, Kent State University. A student protest against American expansion of the Vietnam war into neighboring Cambodia left four people dead, shot by the Ohio National Guard who had been called in to maintain order on the campus,
To this day I think of those four whenever I see a car with Ohio licence plates, or hear the song that Neil Young wrote upon hearing of the shootings, a tune that is still a staple of rock radio.
As an aging adult I am only now beginning to fully comprehend the effect the deaths of those four students had on me. Those deaths changed how I saw the world.
I was a teenager at the time. I remember the shock and horror that those who were supposed to preserve order would open fire on those they were there to protect. I remember reading a book, perhaps a year later, and being further saddened by the discovery that two of those who died were innocent bystanders. They were not taking part in the demonstration; they were taking their usual route between classes. It just didn’t seem fair.
I was raised with a firm sense of right and wrong and respect for authority. Respect didn’t mean unquestioning acceptance. The government (and other leaders) didn’t always get it right; it was incumbent on citizens to hold the authorities accountable. Peaceful demonstrations were part of the system. Police (and in the American scenario the National Guard) were supposed to protect citizens, not kill them.
I have more sympathy now for those young National Guardsmen than I did at the time. They were in a pressure situation, wrong decisions were made, people died. Not just on the campus of Kent State either – the shootings sparked a wave of protests and student strikes across the US, with more students being killed at Jackson State University in Mississippi later in May. I am willing now, though I wasn’t 49 years ago, to give them the benefit of the doubt. Maybe it wasn’t a gross abuse of power, maybe they were just poorly trained and overreacted to the situation. I am willing, but I don’t know if I am able.
Remembering Kent State give me a better understanding of the protests surrounding the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014 (and other American protests since leading to the Black Lives Matter movement). There are big differences between the two incidents, but a similar theme: Agents of the state killing citizens without apparent cause. When the state turns on its people it loses its legitimacy.
In a way the Kent State shootings robbed me of my innocence. Never again would I see government as relatively benign; I still respect authority, but I don’t trust it.
Join me today in remembering four young students who were tried, convicted and executed by agents of the state all in a few seconds on May 4, 1970 on the campus of Kent State University in Ohio: Jeffrey Glenn Miller; age 20; Allison B. Krause; age 19; William Knox Schroeder; age 19; Sandra Lee Scheuer; age 20. May their names and the circumstances surrounding their death be a warning to us all.