Tuesday, May 4, 2010

40 Years Ago, 4 Dead in Ohio

This will be the only post for today.

Forty years ago, Govenor James Rhodes of Ohio ordered the National Guard onto the campus of Kent State University in the wake of an arson fire of a small garage that housed the Army ROTC.  The fire came in the wake of the invasion of Cambodia ordered by Richard Nixon as he pursued a "secret strategy" to ring peace in Southeast Asia.  This expansion of the war drew half-assed protests at Kent, a full-time midwest party and bar school.  But Rhodes, was the archetypical demagogue and in the middile of a US Senate race which he would lose, Rhodes decided it was in his political interests to teach those filthy hippy malcontents a lesson.  Rhodes came into Kent, Ohio and in a Sunday afternoon radio address denounced the "protestors," calling them "brown shirts" and issuing a warning that he and the Guard would not tolerate disobedience. 

Govenor Rhodes diatribe was braodcast among the troops and tents of the bivouacing troops which had just been pulled off duty from a Teamster's strike where some of the men, (all were young men in those days) had been exposed to genuine threats of physical violence.  This was during an age when the National Guard were known as "sunshine soldiers" who did not typically see active duty--and, were in fact pretty much avoiding service in Viet Nam. 

One of the great myths of Kent State is that there was martial law, and that this was one big riot.  Quite to the contrary, classes were in session and when shortly after noon on May 4th, 1970 a confrontation unflolded, most students were in transit between classes.  One of the children, Sandy Sheurer was crossing between buildings when a National Guard bullet blew her brains all over the parking lot.  No one is for certain what caused the fussilade (28 Guardsmen shot 67 rounds in 13 seconds) of gun fire.  In the days, weeks, months and years following the killings at Kent State, the National Guard and their defenders claimed that sniper fire came from the students and this caused them to shoot, or alternatively the Guard thought they were about to be overrun by protestors.  All of this has been thoroughly debunked--there is video and it shows the crowds of protesting students being moved backwards from one side of hill towards another side of building with the Guard in an elevated position.  There were some rocks thrown at the Guard, but the shootings are inexplicable, unforgettable and unforgivable.  The nearest kid killed, Jeffrey Miller whose dead body Mary Ann Vecchio wails over with her arms outstretched in the famous Pulitzer Prize winning photo--was 265 feet away from the Guardsmen.  One of the other dead was shot at a distance of 345 feet.  Four Ohio young Ohio students were murdered by the State of Ohio, 9 others were shot and in the case of Dean Kahler's injuries severed a vertebrae and caused paraplegia. 

I was a High School junior when this event happened.  Afterwards I read and researched collective behavior and violence with Dr. Jerry M. Lewis a sociologist and parade marshall who was standing a few feet from Sandy Sheuer who as I said was walking between buildings during a break in college classes.   Dr. Lewis, an Army veteran, reports that he knew within moments that Sandy Sheuer was dead and Dr. Lewis ran around telling students to leave the area, that the Guard was shooting "real bullets."

I've read extensively in the archives of the local Kent newspaper.  I scrolled through the microfilm of all of the local news accounts of the events leading up to the shootings, the shootings, the aftermath and even the trial transcripts from the civil lawsuits in US District Court in Cleveland in the decade that followed.  The most shocking aspect of it, and you see it almost invariably in the fresh aftermath of these sorts of things was the hateful blaming of victims; it was not uncommon to hear adults say "they should have shot them all."  Or, "they had it coming." One of the children murdered in the hail of gunfire, Allison Kraus, was falsely rumored to have been dying of end-stage venereal disease.  False reports of Guardsman being killed were circulated in fact one Guardsman was treated for "hyperventilation."   Professor Lewis calls this "victimology," in other words, blame the victims.

I've attended many of the candle light vigils over the years--I can attest that Kent (I was there recently) is a far different place than it was in those days.  Kent was never terribly a hotbed of political activity, it's less so now. 

When the Bad Lawyer talks about these tough guy politicians and the dangers of demagoguery, my remarks spring from opinions formed in those years.  I perceive the consequences of law enforcement thuggery and tough talk.  The bullets that came from National Guard guns were triggered by angry words and tough guy talk from the likes of Nixon, Agnew, Colson and Rhodes.  Nowadays this sort of demagoguery comes from the likes of Govenor Perry, Sheriff Arpaio, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, and Glenn Beck.  Will we ever learn?

Children, that's right, children were killed and injured as they attended a state college.  Now after all these years, having a daughter almost at an age to leave for college, I grieve.

1 comment:

  1. In Leviticus, Moses warns the Israelites that you shall not surrender any of your children to Molech. While I am far from a theologian--I believe that this command relates to killing your own chldren in sacrifice to another god--which I suspect is nothing more than a projection of ego. At Kent State in 1970 the State of Ohio sacrificed 4 chldren and spiritually so many other children in a manifestation of demagoguery that is nothing short of surrendering children to Molech.

    I think it's still possible to learn those lessons and yet in many areas of our country we continue to sacrifice children of "illegal" aliens, to child abuse and neglect, to the justice system, to violence and sexual exploitation. All in sacrifice to our ego as it manifests in our countless thoughtless decisions as individuals and collectively. I hope today's May 4th remembrance will help re-center us.