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“None Dead in O-hi-o”

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Yesterday was May 4th. Reading Sarah Hollander’s dramatic report in the Cleveland Plain Dealer about yesterday’s anti-war march and arrests in Kent gave me a very disturbing sense of deja vu:

    The Kent State Anti-War Committee planned the separate rally to oppose the recent war and actions in Iraq. Last week, however, the university’s Office of Campus Life revoked the group’s registration amid worries that the rally might attract violence.

    The committee decided to hold the rally anyway, meeting at 3 p.m. on Manchester Field.

    “It’s planned as a peaceful thing,” Chris Fox, a Kent student and rally organizer, said earlier this week. “The only violence we expect is from the police.”

    The group banged on drums, pans and buckets and made anti-government and pro-peace speeches for several hours before beginning to march through campus.

    Students read poems at the sites where Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Scheuer and William Schroeder were fatally shot by Ohio National Guardsmen in 1970.

    The group then continued, chanting: “Bush, you liar! Your number has expired!”

    As the group approached the edge of campus, police told marchers that it was against the law to walk in the street.

    “Anyone on the street is subject to arrest,” a policeman warned.

    The group continued into the city and made it about three blocks, to East Main Street and University Drive, before police wearing helmets and armed with tear gas, pellet guns, clubs and shields attempted to deter them and direct them back toward the campus.

    In response, the protesters retreated to a sidewalk and began chanting and yelling at the police.

    Suddenly, police began handcuffing select protesters, pushing some to the ground.

Twelve arrested, none were Kent State students. The tension rose inside me as I read, until this line – “police wearing helmets and armed with tear gas, pellet guns, clubs and shields” – filled my head to the point of explosion with 33-year-old images of armed conflict and “friendly fire” of the worst kind. For all the similarities between the unauthorized anti-war protests on the same benighted grounds 33 years apart, though, the differences are what matter.

May 4, 1970, was the day Youth Culture completed its ascendancy to dominance in the United States. The process had begun fifteen years earlier in movie theaters across the country as the electrifying downbeat of Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” opened The Blackboard Jungle, a shocking film for its time, and ignited the rock ‘n’ roll explosion.

The ’60s were years of bitter turmoil as Adult Culture – the “Establishment” – fought tooth and nail to retain its hegemony and keep the whippersnappers under heel. Vietnam exacerbated the conflict and became its lightning rod, causing many adults to side with the young against the war, and giving the generational struggle an intense objectivity it otherwise wouldn’t have possessed.

Another factor often forgotten is that by 1970 a teenager rioting in the aisles at a 1955 showing of The Blackboard Jungle was 30 years old and in many cases still determined to never “grow old” or to identify with “them.” With “4 dead in O-hi-o,” and thousands of Americans dead or injured in Vietnam, people of all ages suddenly said, “this conflict isn’t worth the price – we have already fought one civil war, we don’t want another. We don’t want to lose anymore of our children over there, or, especially, here on our own soil. Why were soldiers firing guns at our children on a COLLEGE CAMPUS? This has gone way too far.”

Adult culture – the “Greatest Generation” who had fought and won WWll – basically threw in the towel that day because it no longer wanted to fight its own children. Watergate seemed to certify the corruption and bankruptcy of the “old guard” and herald the moral superiority of the new. “Trust no one over 30″ lost its literal meaning as an entire generation grimly determined to always “think young.” And so many have: like, for example, Bill Clinton.

Yesterday ended relatively peacefully because, even in the current emotionally charged atmosphere of war, we no longer have the kind of intergenerational conflict that led to the death of four young people 33 years ago. Thank goodness.

The May4.net site boasts a wealth of sobering information, and WKSU has an outstanding radio documentary on the events of May 4, 1970, including historic audio from that day.

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About Eric Olsen