WHAT HAPPENED? (1)
On May 4, 1970, 28 National Guard soldiers fired 67 rounds over a 13-second period killing 4 students and wounding 9 others during a protest. All of the students were unarmed.
The students had been protesting against the bombing in neutral Cambodia by United States Military Forces, which had been announced by President Nixon during a television address on April 30. Some of the students who were shot were attending the protest, while others were simply walking by, or observing the protest from a distance.
The shootings garnered a significant national response. Hundreds of colleges and high schools closed down due to a 4-million student strike. The event further affected the already contentious public opinion of the United States' involvement in the Vietnam War.
THE TIMELINE, BEFORE THE SHOOTING (1)
For a little bit of background, when Nixon was elected in 1968, he had promised to end the Vietnam War. By 1969, the war had been winding down, and so the announcement to invade Cambodia in 1970 angered a lot of people, because it seemed like a move that would only exacerbate the conflict. This lead to protests on college campuses all over the nation, as the draft process could affect many college students and teachers. Before the massacre, Kent State students had been protesting in various different ways since 1966.
On Thursday, April 30, President Nixon announced the "Cambodian Incursion" had been launched by the U.S.
On Friday, May 1, Kent State held a demonstration with about 500 students. The crowd dispersed as students went to classes, but they had planned a rally on May 4 to protest expanding the war into Cambodia.
Around midnight, when leaving a bar, students began to throw beer bottles at police cars and downtown storefronts. Others joined in on the vandalism, and by the time police arrived ,more than 120 people had gathered. Beer bottles were thrown at police, and all bars were ordered to close. Tear gas was used to disperse the crowd.
On Saturday, May 2, city officials and businesses began to receive threats, being told if they didn't display anti-war slogans, their business would be burned down. The ROTC building, the army recruiting station and the post office had been, allegedly, targeted for the coming night. Rumors spread that students planned to spike the local water supply with LSD and threats of bombs were heard.
At this point, it was requested that the National Guard come to Kent to help keep the city under control, as officials were not able to handle the disturbances. That night, before the National Guard arrived, the ROTC building was set on fire. The arsonists were never found or apprehended, but no one was injured in the fire.
That night, non-peaceful protesting continued, with firemen and police being struck by rocks while trying to extinguish the burning ROTC building. Protestors were slashing the fire hoses, as well. (At this point, I will mention that not all of the protestors were students, many just lived in the area). Once the national guard arrived, they made numerous arrests and deployed tear gas to break up the demonstrations.
On Sunday, May 3, the Governor held a press conference in which he called the student protestors un-American revolutionaries who were destroying higher education in Ohio. In his statement, he said:
"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 campus. I think that we're up against the strongest, well-trained, militant, revolutionary group that has ever assembled in America."
Now, I was not there and I certainly would not approve of setting buildings on fire, throwing objects at police and damaging buildings, but I don't even think this is the worst of the riots that I've personally written about (though this may have been the first chronologically). Seems like a tough sell to describe a bunch of angry college students as a well-trained militant group.
Students came downtown to help cleanup after the rioting, an action met with mixed reactions from local business owners. Frightened citizens pushed the Mayor to order a curfew until further notice.
A rally was held at 8 PM, and by 8:45, it was broken up with tear gas. The students reassembled elsewhere, holding a sit-in with hopes of meeting with the Mayor and University president. They were sent home at 11 PM due to the curfew.
THE MASSACRE (1)
On Monday, May 4, a protest was scheduled at noon. It had been planned for days. Though university officials had tried to ban the gathering, handing out thousands of leaflets canceling the gathering, nearly 2,000 people gathered for the rally. It began with the ringing of the campus's Victory Bell, and protestors began to speak.
Many different entities tried to disperse the crowd (an action that's legality was argued in trial, though it was eventually ruled that authorities had the right to attempt to disperse the crowd). Students were told to disperse or they would face arrest. They responded by throwing rocks at the officers.
Before noon, the National Guard continued to order the crowd to disperse, but they refused. Tear gas was used again, but the windy afternoon rendered it mostly useless. Protestors launched rocks towards the Guards, and lobbed the tear gas canisters back at the Guardsmen who had dispersed them.
It was clear that the crowd was not going to disperse. 77 National Guard troops, with bayonets fixed on their guns, advanced upon the protestors. They began to retreat, but not disperse. They continued together. The troops continued toward them. The students were to the left and front of the guardsman, or scattered around the campus buildings and parking lots, while the guardsmen were on a practice sports field.
While some students left the protest at this point, many stayed behind, yelling at the guardsmen while throwing rocks and canisters at them. The guardsmen huddled and spoke, and then began to retrace their steps back, going over a hill, keeping their eyes on the students in the parking lot.
Ar 12:24 PM, a sergeant turned and began firing into the crowd with his pistol. A number of other guardsmen turned and began firing their weapons. 29 of the 77 guardsmen admit to have fired their guns. The shooting lasted only 13 seconds, and 67 rounds were fired. The reasoning for the guardsmen firing their weapons is still widely debated.
The adjutant general of the Ohio National Guard claimed that a sniper had fired at the guardsmen, but that is a pretty highly debated allegation. Guardsmen testified that they feared for their lives, but that didn't seem likely given that the students were unarmed and there was a pretty significant distance between the 2 groups at the time.
The President's Commission on Campus Unrest did not answer why the shootings happened, though they did harshly criticize both the student protestors and the Guardsmen. But, it concluded that "the indiscriminate firing of rifles into a crowd of students and the deaths that followed were unnecessary, unwarranted, and inexcusable".
4 students were killed in the massacre, and 9 were injured, including 1 student who was paralyzed. Of the deceased, Allison Krause and Jeffery Miller had been participating in the protest. The other 2 victims, Sandra Scheuer and William Knox Schroeder, had merely been walking from one class to the next. Schroeder was actually a member of the campus ROTC battalion. In my opinion, if the threat you are so afraid of is so far away that 50% of the people you kill weren't even at the protest, you didn't need to fire your weapon. In fact, of the wounded, no one was even within 71 feet of the guards, and the average distance between the guards and those they killed was 345 feet.
Eyewitnesses remember the absolute terror as the afternoon went from a contended protest to a bloodbath. One student remembers all of the guardsmen turning around and getting onto their knees, aiming at the crowd. Until people began dying, they did not believe they would even shoot, and if they did, they assumed it would be blanks.
Another student remembers hitting the ground to avoid the parade of bullets coming their way. Students were falling, running, bleeding. Students were crying and screaming for ambulances, some still in shock that they hadn't just shot blanks to scare them.
Student Chrissie Hynde remembers hearing the gunshots and then hearing someone yell "they fucking killed somebody!" The entire mood shifted. The guardsmen were on one knee pointing their rifles into the crowd. She recalls even the guardsmen looking stunned, as they weren't much older (if older at all) than the students in the crowd they had just shot at.
Another student, Gerald Casale, was good friends with the 2 protestors who were killed. He said that once they heard gunshots, they sprinted away. "They shot into a crowd that was running away from them!" he said.
Immediately after the shooting stopped, students were, rightfully, terrified and full of rage. They wanted to launch an attack on the National Guard, but faculty members pleaded with the students to not give into their rage and to clear the area.
Geology professor Glenn Frank said: "I don't care if you've never listened to anyone before in your lives. I'm begging you right now. If you don't disperse right now, they're going to move in and it can only be a slaughter. Would you please listen to me? Jesus Christ, I don't want to be a part of this."
Luckily, after 20 minutes of Frank and other faculty members speaking, the students dispersed, allowing ambulance personnel to tend to the wounded. Professor Frank's son, a protestor that day, credits his father's speech with saving his life and the lives of many other students that day.
Jeffery Glenn Miller was 20 years old when he was shot and killed. He had transferred to Kent State from Michigan State only 4 months before his death. He was close with his older brother whom he shared a birthday with, and they were in the same fraternity when he was at Michigan. He and his like-minded anti-Vietnam friends decided to transfer to Kent State. (2)
Allison Krause was 19 when she was shot and killed, and was from Cleveland, Ohio and had one sibling, a younger sister. In 2010, her sister co-founded the Kent State Truth Tribunal which was organized to uncover, record and preserve testimonies of the witnesses, and her father became an outspoken advocate for truth and justice for what happened that day, fighting in court for nearly 10 years after the death of his daughter. (3)
Sandra Scheuer was 20 when she was shot and killed, and was an honors student in the speech therapy program at Kent State, and was not a part of the protests. She was shot in the neck walking between classes and died from blood loss within a few minutes. She was a member of Alpha Xi Delta, who honors her yearly by speaking about her at the commemoration. (4)
William Knox Schroeder was 19 when he was shot and killed, and was a middle child from Cincinnati Ohio who was an honors student and outstanding high school athlete. He applied to be in the ROTC in school, and received various awards for excellence. He was shot in the chest while walking between classes, and died hours later at the hospital during surgery. (5)
The other wounded victims include Joseph Lewis Jr. who was shot twice in the abdomen and leg; John Cleary, who was shot in the chest; Thomas Grace, who was shot in the ankle; Alan Canfora, who was shot in the wrist; Dean Kahler, who was shot in the back and permanently paralyzed from the chest down; Douglas Wrentmore, who was shot in the knee; James Russell, who was shot in the thigh and forehead; Robert Stamps, who was shot in the butt; and Donald MacKenzie, who was shot in the neck. (1)
THE AFTERMATH (1)
After the massacre, news and images of the killings were distributed worldwide, and further amplified the general public's uncertainty about the invasion of Cambodia. An image captured of a 14-year-old runaway over the body of Jeffery Miller won a Pulitzer prize, and became an enduring image of the anti-Vietnam War movement.
100,000 people demonstrated in Washington D.C. against the war, and the killing of the unarmed student protestors. There were protests and student strikes on more than 450 college campuses that required them to close down.
8 of the guardsmen were indicted by a grand jury, but all charges were dismissed for lack of evidence. Civil actions, including wrongful death and injury, were filed against the guardsmen, as well. Ultimately, a payment of $675,000 was made by the state of Ohio to all of the plaintiffs.
Various memorials have been put up all over the nation, including on Kent State's campus and some of the hometowns of those who died in the massacre. Documentaries, movies and plays have been made, portraying the horrors of the shooting. Many songs have also commemorated the event, most famously the protest song "Ohio" by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Songs were also written by Steve Miller, the beach Boys and Bruce Springsteen, among many others.
Living in Ohio all of my life and going to a college close to Kent State, I have always heard of this event but didn't know much about it. Like the Orangeburg Massacre, there was a buildup to the killings - there had been various protests, both peaceful and non-peaceful, and it came to a head days after it began.
Yes, many students (and non-students) had helped to damage businesses and set a building on fire. But none of that happened on May 4, when the guardsmen started shooting. Yes, many students had thrown rocks and canisters and different items at the guardsmen, but by the time they started shooting, they were not really even close enough to be able to hit them with the things they'd been throwing. Did angry, violent protesting exacerbate the situation? Sure. But was shooting aimlessly into a crowd of unarmed students the answer? Absolutely not. And despite what seems like a cut and dry case of trigger-happiness, no one has ever been charged.
4 people died that day. 2 of them were unarmed and protesting, while the other 2 were simply walking to and from their classes. Senselessly and tragically, 4 19-20 year olds lives ended. I think Kent State, Ohio and the U.S. do a good job of remembering this event yearly, but on the 50th anniversary of the tragedy, be sure to think of those victims and the senseless tragedy of their deaths today.