May 6, 2007

From the “Things that Make Me Angry” files — the 37th anniversary of the Kent State shootings

Posted in History, Musings, Politics at 10:14 am by The Lizard Queen

[I fear I’m going to have people telling me to think of my blood pressure at far too young an age.]

After reading the entry about the recently released tape upon which the order to fire on students at Kent State on May 4, 1970 can be heard on the Radical Vixen’s blog, I went over to CNN.com to read the full story (and try to watch a video, but of course it requires Windows Media Player, so no dice there). Once there, I came across this choice quote:

“I think both sides were at fault,” said Brett Wilson, 18, a Kent State student. He said students were trying to provoke the Guard and Guardsmen overreacted with deadly force.

WRONG. I’ll concede that the protests that began May 1st (after Nixon announced on April 30th that American and South Vietnamese troops would be invading Cambodia) were not always peaceful. The National Guard was called in after the campus ROTC building was burned down — however, I feel it’s extremely important to note that the building was boarded up and scheduled for demolition. And then on May 4th some of the protesting students threw rocks at the guardsmen. Bad ideas? Sure. Equal to the guardsmen advancing on the unarmed protesters with bayonets affixed to their weapons, and then firing? HELL NO.

Furthermore, there are certain problematic details regarding the shooting itself. From the Wikipedia entry on the shooting (standard disclaimer: yes, Wikipedia can be unreliable, and no, I don’t accept it as a source when my students are writing papers. However, for my blog, I evaluate entries on an individual basis, and I find the Kent State shooting entry to be thorough, as well as well-researched and -cited — and it’s a subject that gets enough attention that I think any misinformation or discrepancies would be pounced on immediately by the community)(emphasis and commentary added):

As the guardsmen advanced, the protesters retreated up and over a hill (Blanket Hill) heading out of The Commons area. Once over the hill, the students, in a loose group, moved northeast along the front of a building (Taylor Hall), with some continuing toward a parking lot in front of another building (Prentice Hall, slightly northeast of and perpendicular to Taylor Hall). The guardsmen pursued the protesters over the hill, but rather than veering left as the protesters had, they continued straight, heading down toward an athletic practice field enclosed by a chain link fence. Here they remained for about ten minutes, unsure of how to get out of the area short of retracing their entrance path (a move some guardsmen considered could be viewed as a retreat). During this time, the bulk of the students were off to the left and front of the Guardsmen, approximately 50 to 75 meters away, on the veranda of Taylor Hall. Others were scattered between Taylor Hall and the Prentice Hall parking lot, while still others, perhaps 35 or 40, were standing in the parking lot, or dispersing through the lot as had been previously ordered.

While on the practice field, the guardsmen generally faced the parking lot which was about 100 meters away. At one point some of the guardsmen knelt and aimed their weapons toward the parking lot, then stood up again. For a few moments several guardsmen formed a loose huddle and appeared to be talking to one another. The guardsmen appeared to be unclear as to what to do next. They had cleared the protesters from The Commons area, and many students had left, but many stayed and were still angrily confronting the soldiers, some throwing rocks and tear gas canisters. [The students had access to tear gas canisters because the guardsmen had thrown said canisters at them earlier.] At the end of about ten minutes the Guardsmen began to retrace their steps back up the hill toward The Commons area. Some of the students on the Taylor Hall veranda began to move slowly toward the soldiers as the latter passed over the top of the hill and headed back down into The Commons.

At this point, a number of guardsmen at the top of the hill abruptly turned and fired their M1 Garand semi-automatic military rifles into the students. The guardsmen directed their fire not at the closest students, who were on the Taylor Hall veranda, but at those on the grass area and concrete walkway below the veranda, at those on the service road between the veranda and the parking lot, and at those in the parking lot. Bullets were not sprayed in all directions, but instead were confined to a fairly limited line of fire leading from the top of the hill to the parking lot.

The audio recording just released indicates that the firing was not random on the part of the guardsmen, but was, in fact, ordered. (I’ve read that some have claimed that the guard’s firing was preceded by a sniper shot, but this claim is unsubstantiated.) Furthermore, firing toward the parking lot rather than at the closest group of protesters (who seem to me to be the group presenting the most imminent threat) was clearly a conscious decision rather than, again, random. Those two decisions are what led to the deaths of two students who were not participating in the protest: Sandra Scheuer and William Schroeder. The other two students killed were Allison Krause and Jeffrey Miller, who were protesting. They may have even been throwing rocks. Does that really make them equally to blame for their deaths?

I know that the man the AP quoted in that article is only 18, and so one might simply pass his statement off as youthful ignorance. Unfortunately, that “youthful ignorance” is all over the place. Here’s a comment that got to me (“Your highness, think of your blood pressure!”) from the thread related to this YouTube video (it’s well worth watching, but about halfway through it shows photos of the aftermath of the shooting, some of which are quite graphic — don’t say I didn’t warn you…):

thats not political dissent, that was misguided violence by people to dumb to understand that communism was and is a real threat. who cares if students strike? who are they harming??!! hahaha!! they are just kids in a classroom, they know they have to grow up sooner or later. so self important.

I skimmed some of this commenter’s other statements to see if maybe I just misunderstood this one, but no — this man holds the protesters responsible for the shooting.

The invasion of Cambodia doesn’t seem so different from the troop surge in Iraq, or an invasion of Iran. I guess we just have to wait and see what The Decider decides next.

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1 Comment »

  1. DavidD said,

    In the fall of 1971, my college roommate had his leg in a cast from something I’ve forgotten. He had an electric cart to get to classes. So whatever it was that triggered what was pretty much the last round of violent campus protests over Vietnam then, he wanted to go watch from his cart. I rode shotgun. It was interesting to go around the mob and see everything as they paraded around campus, ending up at the administration building, the fervent leaders in the front, more surly types in the back. Viet Cong flags flew among various other displays. We passed some science buildings and someone in the back starting breaking windows with rocks. The leaders whipped around and yelled that there had been enough of that already.

    There certainly had been. Around that time the university fired a Marxist, tenured English professor for inciting violence previously. I don’t remember if that was May, 1970, but I heard a recording of his speech where he said breaking windows wasn’t violence. He said if the bookstore wanted to expand they’d have to break windows to do it (couldn’t they just take them out gently?). It got worse from there.

    As many windows were broken, I doubt it was all his fault, but human justice demands scapegoats. There was one building I remember vividly that was all glass and remained boarded up for most of my college years. Why put the glass back when it will just be broken again? I forget if the fall of Saigon came first or if they felt safe enough to replace the glass before that, but there was a feeling that Vietnam was just about over when they did that.

    So back riding shotgun on that cart in 1971, the mob occupied the administration building without breaking more windows this time. The Santa Clara County Tactical Squad was there to root them out, not the first time. I wish I knew how to briefly build the proper context for this. Deadly urban riots filled the sixties. Previous campus riots hadn’t killed many more than those 4 at Kent State, but there was plenty of real violence on both sides. Mostly it did look like the Chicago riots at the Democratic Convention of 1968. One could say the police were the bad guys, but they didn’t have the training in riots that police do now. They did their job. The Tactical Squad had to root out these illegal trespassers as both their bosses and the university wanted. An explanation of the crime was shouted out over a bullhorn. Time for the mob to withdraw was given. The protestors weren’t there to withdraw.

    Being between two battle lines is such a great view in a movie or in reality. There’s a problem with that in reality. I forget if our cart was on the street or the sidewalk, but we were squarely in between the Tactical Squad and the administration building, far enough away that we didn’t think that message about trespassing applied to us. What were they going to do about it anyway? Well in an instant we learned as a line at least 20 officers across charged the building, big, fast guys wielding batons. I can see it as I did then. Of course the shotgun side of the cart was closer to the police. So I was the very first thing this charge encountered on the way to subdue their enemy. I don’t think I had time to consider if the officer coming straight at me would hit me. He didn’t. He slowed up as his buddies roared past and yelled at us to, “Get this out of here!” which we did.

    Nobody died that day. No more windows were broken. Whatever scuffling happened in clearing the administration building was violent, but not memorably so. Yet how much would it have taken to be much worse? Not much. I agree with you Liz that rifles with fixed bayonets are an unequaled factor in causing the deaths at Kent State. I’m not sure what caused those to be ordered. But I am sure that whether an officer in fact did order his men to fire or someone got trigger happy, everything else snowballing from that, what happened at Kent State was that some number of people got carried away, as is natural for people to do.

    I don’t suppose that officer in 1971 was close to swinging his club at me, first thing in his way, just to emphasize his determination that we get the hell out of his way, but it would have been so human to do so. One blow to my unprotected head, and I may never have had children. Whatever lawsuits and criminal investigations that followed wouldn’t have changed that. It would mostly have been about my being at the wrong place at the wrong time. I don’t mind putting everything in that wastebasket that I can.

    One of the few things I’ve heard Antonin Scalia say that I agree with is that the legal system does not exist to deliver justice. It exists to deliver a verdict, something in the direction of justice, but never perfect. It exists for us to put something behind us. It doesn’t always succeed in that for everyone, but that’s the best the legal system will ever be.

    People say such strange things when they fix blame on others, especially in being quantitative such as saying the fault in some incident was 50:50 between two side or 90:10 in either direction. Any tragedy, any evil, any suffering has multiple parents. It’s exactly my experience of the Vietnam era riots that both sides were enraged. When does it become acceptable for someone to answer a thrown rock with much more lethal bullets? Beats me, I just know that it’s going to happen eventually unless the guys with the bullets are very well trained for this, which no one was in 1970. It might even happen if someone with a rifle imagines or anticipates rock throwing.

    I can think a little about what judgments I would make about who did what at Kent State. Things I’m sure of are that everything that happened there happened because human beings do what human beings do in such circumstances and that it was a long time ago. Nonviolent protest is a tricky thing. Gandhi was willing to go on a hunger strike to his death if his followers didn’t stick to nonviolence. More recent leaders haven’t been strict about that, with varying degrees of violence resulting. If police escalate in response, that’s their job to meet violence with overwhelming force.

    It doesn’t matter what I think. None of the campus protests may have mattered. The country was against the war anyway. Nixon couldn’t have been pushed to get out any faster perhaps. Police learned whatever they learned. That’s a profound thing to contemplate – none of it may have mattered. Then again it mattered in many little ways.

    I doubt that the murders at Kent State made a difference in that one officer not hitting me with his baton, but who knows where his restraint came from? Bad things have to happen before people can realize how real bad things are. Then they have to happen again. I suppose that’s a nature that’s beyond even human nature. So do you want to look at things from the biggest possible perspective or the narrow one of rank ordering who did worse than whom? That perspective from between the battle lines was an interesting one, but it is a good thing to know when to get out of there, until everyone is ready to make strife a thing of our past.


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