Tuesday, May 4, 2010, marks the fortieth anniversary of the murder of four students (and wounding of nine others) at Kent State University in Ohio. There is something about this horrific and surreal moment in time that is still chilling, as I vividly remember this picture on the front of the New York Daily News the next day.
I had heard about the shooting on the radio as I ate breakfast, but seeing the now iconic image of Mary Ann Vecchio kneeling over the body of Jeffrey Miller shook me in my seat. I still can’t believe what happened, just as Mary Ann could not believe it at that second the picture was taken, her incredulous expression showing the outrage so many Americans felt after this senseless shooting of students by the Ohio National Guard.
Photographer John Filo won the Pulitzer Prize and deservedly so, for the photograph’s sheer power still grips you even looking at it 40 years later. I remember putting that newspaper down, going to school (where I was in fourth grade), and thinking that something was truly wrong with the world. I haven’t changed that opinion much 40 years later.
School is supposed to be a safe haven, but that shooting kind of shattered the rules. Wasn’t the Ohio National Guard supposed to be protecting American citizens and not shooting them? We hear great indignation from our elected officials when things like this happen to protesters in Tehran and Tibet, but let us not forget that the blood shed that day was caused by our own troops.
According to the web site May 4, a total of 67 shots were fired in 13 seconds. This was after the guardsmen had lobbed tear gas on the windy campus to disperse approximately 500 protesters and, as the smoke streamed all over the place, the shots started ringing out. What were these guardsmen expecting from these unarmed students? They weren’t stuck in the jungles of Vietnam waiting for a vicious enemy; they were standing on an American college campus. Did they think the students were going to attack them with textbooks?
It still boggles the mind to think that they actually fired their weapons that day, sending live ammunition into students. Later on all charges against the Guardsmen were dismissed based on their testimony of firing in self defense. Yes, it’s hard to believe that any court could accept such an outrageous claim, but it did.
Of course, there were students protesting at Kent State that day because about a week earlier, President Nixon announced that U.S. ground troops were going into Cambodia. Many Americans were angered by this obvious escalation of the war, so there had been many protests on campuses all around the country. By 1970 the population was growing weary over the long and seemingly unwinnable war (sound familiar?), and an evacuation of troops was what people were hoping for, not an increase in hostilities.
So, even is there was a protest, how could that in any way make it necessary to shoot those protesting? All you need to do is look at the pictures of the four students killed that day, and then you would have to feel some outrage. It is impossible for me to look at these four pictures and not feel angry. Do these kids look very dangerous to you? To me they look like four average American students, ones who were unlucky enough to get caught in a frenzied hail of gunfire that has no explanation to this day, even if the court accepted the ludicrous “self defense” claim of the Guardsmen.
After all these years, whenever I think about Kent State I always think of musician Neil Young, who was brave enough to write a song that condemned what happened, pointing a finger not just at the Ohio National Guard but at President Nixon as well.
Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,
We’re finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drumming,
Four dead in Ohio.
If ever a song captured the feeling of a moment, this song did so powerfully. It effectively summed up the feelings of those who believed that the government obviously didn’t care about its citizens, particularly the young people, many of whom were off fighting and dying in Vietnam. Even more poignantly, Young goes on to hit the message home:
What if you knew her
And found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know?
That last line is the most effective because after this happened people could not turn away from the truth. No one could run away from the fact that four students lay dead on that campus, and at the time Young’s song was a call to action, and people responded in kind. There would be many more protests across the nation, and eventually President Nixon had no choice but to pull American forces out of Vietnam.
Despite all the political ramifications of the tragedy at Kent State, what it really comes down to is a very personal issue. Every parent sends a child to school thinking he or she will be safe. What happened at Kent State that day is every parent’s worst nightmare, but the fact that the four died at the hands of National Guardsmen still is a national disgrace, a travesty that has never been fully addressed. Those parents sent children off to college, and they were never coming home. Not because of an accident or because the kids did something stupid, but rather because they got caught up in moment that was supposed to be for peace, but it ended up like a war.
With the Guardsmen having been exonerated in criminal court, eventually the families did get a modest financial settlement, but this is nothing considering these people lost their children. Forty years later, those faces stare out at the world like the faces of any young people wanting and hoping for the best things in life; however, they would never be able to know anything past that May 4 in 1970.
Every American is called to remember those fallen in battles fought for this country. We even have an official American holiday, Memorial Day, that honors those soldiers who have died in conflicts. Well, May 4 should be a day to remember those four American kids who died in a different kind of battle: a battle for free speech, freedom of expression, and a push for peace.
We must remember the stories of Allison Krause, William Schroeder, Jeffrey Miller, and Sandra Scheuer. They were murdered on American soil, but their blood will not have been spilt in vain as long as their story is always told to honor their memory and in order prevent such a senseless travesty from ever happening again.