Monday, May 04, 2020

Kent State - 50 Years Later

The Kent State student massacre was 50 years ago today.  At the time, it was one of the worst events in a series of social conflicts that had been going on for years.  For me, it marked the point at which I began to realize that my values were different from many around me.

Quick recap: the late 60's saw increasing disruption over the Vietnam War and race relations.  There had been the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King a couple of years previously.  Race riots had torn up cities across the country.  The Vietnam war was getting bigger, the draft was underway, and a great many people didn't see any reason why we were involved there at all.  There were increasing numbers of anti-war protests at colleges all over the country. 

In May, 1970, I was finishing my junior year in high school.  My parents and most everybody I knew were staunch Republicans.  I supported the war without really thinking about it because everybody else did.  One guy from my neighborhood got commissioned in the Army, went to Vietnam, and was back in just a couple of months, minus one eye.  Everybody thought he did his duty.

Then the Ohio National Guard opened fire on a protest at Kent State University.  They killed four students and wounded nine.  Their claim, at the time, was that the students were throwing rocks and bricks at them and the Guardsmen were afraid for their lives.

I was horrified at this.  I couldn't believe that a troop of soldiers, armed with rifles and tear gas, would be afraid of students.  To me, it was murder, pure and simple.

And this is where I ran smack into the wall of my conservative environment.  My parents didn't have much sympathy for the students.  My high school friends had none.  "Serves 'em right.  They asked for it.  Damn longhairs."  I couldn't believe it.  They were just students.  But they weren't just students to most of those around me.  They weren't people at all.

I read everything I could on the event - Time, Newsweek, US News and World Report, a few others.  It became clear that the initial reports of rock-throwing and "threatening" students were wrong.  They were unarmed.  Of the four dead, two weren't even protesting, they were just watching in the background, and one was a ROTC student.  It just reinforced my sense that it was murder.  But nobody else in my family or circle of friends saw it that way.  Meanwhile, more mass protests and riots erupted across the country, over both the war and the Kent State shootings.  I wasn't interested in protesting or rioting because I still supported the war, but thought the over-reaction of the Guard was totally wrong.

Over the next few years, some members of the Guard faced criminal charges that were dismissed.  Then they faced civil charges that were also dismissed.  It made me sick.

Still does.

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