Understanding The Kent State Shooting, May 1970
Insights into the Kent State shooting and what really happened.
Some historians have mentioned the Kent State shootings in May of 1970 as a cultural end of the Sixties as a phenomenon. Certainly, the climate of protest had taken a drastic blow once the National Guardsmen fired directly into a crowd of unarmed students. Counter-culturalists pointed to Kent State as the Establishment's willingness to use force to quell peaceable dissent. Members of the 'Silent Majority' expressed horror at what happened to the protestors, but felt that a civilized society had an obligation to maintain a sense of law and order. Many other average citizens formed opinions ranging from an unfathomable overuse of force to a completely justifiable act of self-defense. Kent State became a divisive issue in American homes. But what events lead up to this tragic day in history, and were the results inevitable and immutable?
In order to understand what happened at Kent State, one must understand the town of Kent. At the turn of the century, Portage County had two cities large enough to support a proposed Teacher's College. Ravenna was a thriving community, with a reputation for being a little rough around the edges. Kent was a quieter town, with a successful grain-processing industry. When Ravenna became the county seat, Kent was given the ignoble honor, in its opinion, of hosting the new college. At first, Kent embraced the economic shot in the arm represented by a state facility. After many years, however, the influx of out-of-state students with liberal leanings began to wear on the nerves of Kent's more conservative citizens. By the late 1960s, the city of Kent and the Kent State campus were barely tolerant of each other. Students who visited the downtown bars were occasionally destructive, and the rough 'townie' crowd did not appreciate having to fix the damages themselves. By 1970, tensions between city officials and University leaders were palpable.
The one issue that became a rallying point for the political left was Cambodia. President Nixon had already promised the American people that he was not going to escalate the war in Vietnam past the borders. When news leaked out of Nixon's secret war in Laos, Cambodia and Thailand, many of the younger generation felt betrayed by their leader. In May of 1970, Nixon had not yet been implicated in any wrongdoing, so his credibility level was still fairly strong. By lying about the escalation of the Vietnam War, Nixon had alienated many young people, including those attending Kent State. Politically-active students began forming action committees to study possible protest strategies. Soon, these groups would agree to coordinate a peaceful demonstration on May 4th, at 11:00 am.
Meanwhile, the town of Kent braced for the usual end-of-class mayhem that weekend. Rowdy groups of students, not necessarily associated with any of the political machinery at KSU, began milling around the downtown streets. Several townie biker groups were also present. The atmosphere became charged with negative energy from both sides. As the bars began closing their doors early to avoid trouble, the students became more agitated. Finally, violence erupted. Store windows were smashed, property was vandalized and shops were looted. This was not in connection with the Cambodian protest movement, but had more to do with the town/college tensions that had been brewing for a long time.
Concerned students came into downtown Kent to offer their time and services with cleanup efforts. While many shop owners appreciated this gesture, others were demanding an end to the violence that caused the damage. Kent's mayor agreed that some decisive action was necessary, and ordered a curfew until further notice. The stage was now being set for a tragic confrontation.
Angered by the city's sudden curfew, students once again looted downtown Kent. In response to this action, the mayor contacted Ohio governor James Rhodes, asking for state-level assistance in dealing with the violence. Rhodes, a political conservative, ordered a division of National Guardsmen into Kent, ostensibly to restore peace in the downtown district, not the campus itself. These Guardsmen were already involved with a volatile strike in Akron, and were not anxious to go into yet another dangerous situation. Some of the Guardsmen were the same age as the protestors, and shared their views on the Cambodian situation.
Meanwhile, the campus itself was faced with a crisis. Several students had set fire to the ROTC building on campus, for unknown reasons. While attempting to extiguish the fire, several Kent firemen and police officers were pelted with rocks and other projectiles by those standing near the fire. Again, a call for action went out. The National Guard entered the campus for the first time, and set up camp directly on campus.
May 4th started out as a typical college day. Students were streaming in and out of class buildings, and discussing the weekend's strange turn of events. For most, the presence of the National Guard was a curiosity. Many of the students were not planning on attending the rally at 11:00, but were curious to see how it would turn out. Those who were planning on attending the rally started milling about in the commons area. Meanwhile, the Guardsmen began a series of drills intended to generate a sense of control over the crowd. These maneuvers were standard procedure, consisting mostly of marches and organized retreats. The more politically active students started taunting the Guardsmen verbally, but the troops paid little attention.
As the crowd began to grow larger, the Guardsmen began to feel uneasy about their vulnerable position in the open field. Rumors had been spreading about snipers, and FBI agents were seen in the crowd. In order to regain a position of power and control, the Guardsmen began a march up Blanket Hill, towards a decorative Japanese pagoda. By now, the Guardsmen were wearing full gas masks, and had difficulty communicating. Tear gas had been thrown into the crowd as a defensive tactic, but the students threw the canisters back towards the Guard formation. As the Guard reached the pagoda area at the high point of Blanket Hill, a confusing set of events took place. Allegedly, an officer swung his right arm towards the crowd, his service revolver clearly visible. Some of the Guardsmen interpreted this action as an order to fire, while others either did not see this signal or openly disagreed with the implied 'order'.
A thirteen second barrage of automatic gunfire erupted from the ranks of the National Guard. Two students involved with the rally were killed instantly, while two others who were changing classes lay fatally struck by stray bullets. Nine other students were injured to various degrees, from a grazed thumb to a shattered spine. The campus was in complete chaos from that point on, and the National Guard was ordered to stand down.
A subsequent trial acquitted the Guardsmen of any wrongdoing, although the facts in the case are still a point of controversy. A clear command to fire was never established, although officers did agree that the swinging gesture may have been interpreted as an order. No snipers were ever found on campus, although members of the Weather Underground had been spotted at various meetings held off campus.
The Kent State shootings marked a turning point in American history. Conservatives and liberals alike were forced to acknowledge the limitations of their ability to effect change. Protests can indeed go too far in their quest for radical change, and law enforcement can indeed go too far in its zeal for maintaining law and order. There were no victories at Kent State, only enlightening