Kent State 43 Years Later


Respectfully submitted by Lawrence E. Rafferty (rafflaw)-Guest Blogger

Yesterday was the 43rd anniversary of the day when time stood still for me.  As a freshmen in college at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale,  Illinois, I was stunned to learn of the killing of 4 young people by the Ohio National Guard during protests on the campus of Kent State University.  The protestors were using their First Amendment rights to voice their opinion on the United States participation in the Vietnam War and the military’s recent incursion into Cambodia upon orders from then President Richard Nixon.   Those events not only scarred me, but they also opened my eyes to the power of the government and more importantly, the power of the people. 

When I read fellow Guest Blogger Mike Spindell’s wonderful article titled, “You Say You Want a Revolution”, I started thinking about Kent State and what the country went through and what, if anything the country learned from those tumultuous times.   Sadly, the killings at Kent State were shortly followed up by city and State police killing two students and injuring 12 others at Jackson State University, in Jackson, Mississippi on May 15th. Jackson State

The Kent State killings and the Jackson State killings were perpetrated by National Guardsmen and city and State police and the victims were protestors and bystanders alike.  The First Amendment was in full bloom in the 1960’s and 1970’s, but the authorities were not happy with the students standing up to the government.  When we consider if this country is really ready for or in for another revolution, I submit that we have already experienced a revolution in my lifetime.  It was the protests during the Civil Rights movement and the Women’s Rights movement and culminating with the unrest surrounding the Vietnam War.

One author thinks that there is a distinct connection between the 1960’s and today.  “The question of why the 1960s matter to me is one thing, but what’s important is, should the events of 50 years ago matter to the rest of us? Is what happened on May 4, 1970 – and in the tumultuous years leading up to it — still relevant on May 4, 2013? OK, I’ve clearly revealed my bias, but I think the answer is undeniably yes — because there is a straight line between the skirmishes people fought then and the all-too-real war for the future of America that is taking place today.

Here’s another question to put that era in perspective: Was what happened on the homefront just a brief time of heightened social upheaval, or was there really a full-blown revolution in this country? Well, before you jump in with what seems like the obvious answer — consider the hallmarks of the other revolutions that you’ve seen. You’d see peaceful protests escalate to street violence, with a mounting death toll and with the military eventually called up. You’d see revolutionary cadres form, and intensifying government efforts to stop them but also legitimate protest. with wiretaps and informants, leading up to targeted killings. There’d be deadly suppression of protests, and daring acts of defiance. Yet in some revolutions, the government is ultimately toppled, its leaders put on trial, its secrets aired in a national reconciliation effort. But the underlying tensions remain.”

Think about the last sentence in the above quote.  The “underlying tensions remain”.  There are tensions in this country between the right and the left and pro-lifers and pro-choice advocates.  There are tensions between gun control advocates and the NRA and those who do not want any limitations or controls put on gun ownership.  Once again there are wars and various incursions and drone attacks that are dividing the country.  There are divisions between those that want austerity to rule the economic day and those that believe that the government must be involved in spending our way  out of the recession/depression that we are ever so slowly coming out of.

The above quoted author goes on to claim that although the Kent State killings were a kind of end to a movement and at the same time they are related to the strife we are going through even today. “For a few days after Kent State, the volley of National Guard bullets that inexplicably killed four young people (none of whom were breaking the law, including two bystanders who weren’t involved in the anti-war demonstrations) felt like the start of an even bigger revolution, but in the reality is was the end; campuses closed for the summer and when the students came back in the fall, the active protests were all over but the shouting. Killing people has a way of doing that. We don’t like to admit it, but too often, violent repression works.”

I have to admit that I agree that the killings at Kent State and Jackson State did slow or impede the protests.  On May 11th and May 12th, 1970, I spent the early morning hours of my 19th birthday in the Jackson County, Illinois jail as I was arrested for “unlawful assembly” because I was in a group of people who numbered greater than 2!  You read that correctly.  The city ordinance stated that when there was a protest the police could arrest anyone found in groups larger than two people.  I was later acquitted of these obviously unconstitutional charges, but they had succeeded in ending the protest and getting students off the streets.

Our campus was closed a day or two later, like many campuses across the country and when we returned in the Fall, our desire to take to the streets and exercise our First Amendment rights were dampened.  They were dampened in my case because I could not afford to get arrested again because I was placed on probation by the University, even though I was acquitted of any charges.  The protests did aid in getting us out of the Vietnam War, but I do not think they succeeded in stopping government from overstepping its bounds.

The protests of the 60’s and 70’s may have spurred the government into looking for additional ways to spy on its citizens with and without a warrant.  Did we learn anything from these protests and from their aftermath?  We are still fighting against government aggression overseas.  We are still fighting to reduce the numbers of poor and uneducated and we are still battling to end discrimination.  We are still in a fight over the extreme financial inequality in our country.

While the arrests and abuses of the Occupy movement protestors were abhorrent, they did not reach the extreme of that warm day in May of 1970, but the police may have learned from Kent State that arresting people and worrying about the legality of those arrests later can be successful.  Does that mean that Kent State cannot happen again?  Can this country heal its many fractures and divisions and prevent another Kent State or Jackson State episode?  If the Occupy police violence and spying episodes are any indication, we have not learned the lessons that Kent State taught us.

While I do not expect or want another revolution, I fear that more will have to suffer in the fight to protect our right to redress our grievances with an ever-expanding secret government.  What do you think?  What can we do as citizens to make sure that the government actually operates to serve all of us?

Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandy Scheurer and William Knox Schroeder lost their lives 43 years ago at the hands of the Ohio National Guard.  I do hope their violent deaths have taught us something!  Peace.

69 thoughts on “Kent State 43 Years Later”

  1. randyjet,
    I got more interested in the anti-war movement because of my arrest in May of 1970 and because my brother was in Viet Nam during my freshman year.

  2. SwM,

    I stayed out of the public demonstrations against the Nam war because my brother and and three of my best friends were in-country. All four returned but one was minus a leg.

    1. I got involved in the anti-war movement BECAUSE a number of my friends were in Vietnam. Most of them wanted OUT NOW! The only people who loved the war were the lifers who saw it as a means of promotion and career advancement.

  3. nick,
    300 was a great number back then.
    That was good news for your husband.
    Great song and video!

Comments are closed.