On 5/4/1970, fifty years ago as of the day I’m writing this, four students at Kent State University were killed, with another nine injured. Many of the students were protesting against the Cambodian Campaign, an occupation of Cambodia done by the United States and South Vietnam that was announced by President Nixon on 4/30/1970, the day after it started.
Kent State had already been home to four anti-Vietnam protests by that point. One in 1966, one in 1968 (which was even organized by the Black Student Organization and Students For A Democratic Society) , one in 1969 (which was also organized by Students For A Democratic Society), and one earlier in 1970.
The whole thing had been building since Nixon’s address. The next day, a protest was held with about five hindered students against the actions of President Nixon. Later that night, a handful of drunk students started throwing beer bottles at police cars and breaking windows. When the police showed up later, around one hundred twenty people — a mix of students, bikers, and homeless people — were in a crowd, and a few threw more beer bottles and shouted mean words at the police. This caused the mayor of Kent, LeRoy Satrom (D), to declare a state of emergency and order the closing of all bars.
The next day, paranoia spread through this small part of Ohio. These included the idea that students would spike the water supply with LSD, that businesses that didn’t display anti-war slogans would be brunt down, and that communists planned on destroying the city of Kent. Mayor Satrom called Ohio Governor Jim Rhodes (R) and requested that Rhodes send in the national guard, which he did. When the guards showed up, the Reserve Officers Training Corps was on fire — although no evidence exists that this was done by an arsonist. Although, that didn’t stop the President’s Commission On Campus Unrest from saying:
Information developed by an FBI investigation of the ROTC building fire indicates that, of those who participated actively, a significant portion weren’t Kent State students. There is also evidence to suggest that the burning was planned beforehand: railroad flares, a machete, and ice picks are not customarily carried to peaceful rallies.
Hey, maybe the students were hardcore Trotskyists — okay, I’m not helping my case.
Reports say that some of the Kent firemen and police officers were struck by rocks and a handful of other objects while trying to put out the fire. The National Guard also made numerous arrests, although a majority of them were for curfew violation. The National Guard also used tear gas and wondered one student with a bayonet.
The next day, Governor Rhodes said the following during a press conference at the Kent firehouse:
We’ve seen here at the city of Kent especially, probably the most vicious form of campus-oriented violence yet perpetrated by dissident groups… they make definite plans of burning, destroying, and throwing rocks at police and at the National Guard and the Highway Patrol. …this is when we’re going to use every part of the law enforcement agency of Ohio to drive them out of Kent. We are going to eradicate the problem. We’re not going to treat the symptoms. …and these people just move from one campus to the other and terrorize the community. They’re worse than the brown shirts and the communist element and also the night riders and the vigilantes. They’re the worst type of people that we harbor in America. Now I want to say this. They are not going to take over [the] campus. I think that we’re up against the strongest, well-trained, militant, revolutionary group that has ever assembled in America.
Governor Rhodes also stated that he planned to put Ohio under martial law, although he never did such a thing. Mayor Satrom also ordered a curfew until further notice. A small rally was held at 8 P.M. that night, although it was broken up less than an hour later. The students reassembled later in hopes of talking to both Mayor Satrom and University President Robert White, although the National Guard broke it up before such a thing could happen, with the students being told a curfew had gone into effect.
The next day, a protest was scheduled to be held, which was announced three days earlier. University officials tried to cancel the event, however, 2,000 students still showed up. Then, the guards tried to order the crowd to disperse, and later started using tear gas — which had little effect. This later led to students throwing objects, most infamously rocks, at the students. Finally, a student by the name of Terry Norman pulled a gun and started charging at the Guardsman. This led to four students being killed, with nine others being injuries.
I made sure to include the crimes of the students in the details to make it clear that they were not angles. However, rather those students deserved to be shot is still up for debate — and I’m on the side of the students.
Theories exist that Terry Norman was planted by the FBI so the Guardsmen could kill students, no evidence of this exists however. Although, Norman had taken photos for the FBI (then still under the control of J. Edgar Hoover) of a Neo-Nazi rally.
Obviously, the guards were in the right to shoot at Terry Norman specifically, and if he was the only one who was killed, I would not be talking about this story. However, Norman was not killed — in fact, Norman somehow survived without a scratch. He’s still alive to this day in fact, odd that someone who caused the National Guard to start shooting wasn’t himself shot — those guys must have worse aim than the storm troopers (get it, because of another holiday that is happening today).
Seriously, think about that, thirteen people shot — yet, somehow, not one of them was the man who was actually charging at a National Guardsman with a pistol. How the hell is that even possible? I seriously don’t mean to dwell on this point, but the fact that the man who caused a National Guardsman to open fire, and shoot thirteen people including four who died, should be suspicious as all hell.
I believe the most likely theory, that the Guardsmen were motivated by slightly more than self-defense. If they were simply motivated by the desire to remain alive (an understandable one), they would have shot Norman, maybe injured one or two others on accident, and moved on. However, Norman failing to even get a minor injury leads me, and many others, to believe something else was going on here.
Regardless of what theory you believe, one should not hesitate to point out the irony here. The students were shot down for (possibly) engaging in major acts of violence — to protest a highly violent war waged by Presidents Johnson and Nixon.
Remember, Vietnam also involved massive shadow wars in Laos and Indochina, both of which were only known to President Nixon and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger (who called military troops “dumb stupid animals”). It is impossible to not look at the standards being applied to the students versus that of who they’re protesting (the Nixon administration and his military occupation) and not at least find the logic to be slightly hypocritical.
For that matter, those who blame the students for causing trained professionals to “fear for their lives,” are also engaging in an odd form of logic. The idea that random citizens must keep their cool and prepare for the violent actions of those who have been trained as public servants.
We still see this argument today, that victims of police brutality deserve it as they were “doing something stupid.” Eric Garner was selling lose cigarettes while also being fat, Tamir Rice (who was twelve) was playing with a toy gun (which the person who called the police to report Tamir said twice was almost certainly fake), and Trayvon Martin didn’t walk home while on the phone just because a guy he didn’t know was stalking him. (Yes, Zimmerman wasn’t a police officer, but he was head of the Neighborhood Watch and got off Scott free for shooting the kid he stalked, so I still count him.)
This all reeks of the worst kind of victim blaming, a kind that views it as our role in society to make things as easy as possible for the government or risk being killed. This is not the view of free society takes, this is the view of an authoritarian society ran by trigger happy nut jobs.
Yet, if you want to know where this blame game started, you can look back at when thirteen students were shot — and none of them were the guy who caused the government to start shooting.