I had decided to skip the anniversary this year, to not re-post anything about the 1970 Kent State killings. Then last night I changed my mind.
The deaths of four student protestors at Kent State University in Ohio, USA, at the hands of the American National Guard on May 4, 1970, changed me. More than 50 yearsw later, I am still processing it.
I wasn’t in the same country. I couldn’t conceive of such a thing happening in Canada. Yet somehow it felt personal. It was as if I could have been there, I could have been one of the four.
Perhaps it affected me so much becasue it was the first time I really understaood the naked power of the State and the lengths it would go to control its citizens. Which is strange, given that the National Guard apparently acted without orders when the shots were fired. It isn’t as if the authorites ordered the deaths. But someone placed soldiers with guns on a college campus.
Maybe that is the point. The State and its agents are fallible, and bad things can happen when the state tries to regulate the thoughts and beliefs of the citizenry. When armed troops are used to control the people, how can the outcome ever be good?
It was a time of tension in the United States as people were increasingly realizing that particpating in the Vietnam War was an exercise in futility. Young people especially, the ones who would be drafted and sent to fight in what they considered a pointless war, were especialy concerned.
Politicians seemed ambivalent. Hundreds of thousands of young American men were sent to fight – but there was no clear objective, no formal decalration of war, and five years after the Kent State shootinsg the Americans would just withdraw from Vietnam and let their allies be overrun by the enemy.
Things are different today. Or are they?
I posted this the first time on May 4, 2015, and have re-run it on this date most years since. Will you join me in remembering?
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 50 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, six years ago that spurred the Black Lives Matter movement (and other American protests since). 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.