Forty Years On, Kent State Shootings Remain One Of America’s ‘Most Startling Confrontations Between Innocence And State-Sanctioned Force’

“Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,
We’re finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drumming,
Four dead in Ohio.”
– from the song ‘Ohio’, written by Neil Young shortly after four students were killed and nine others were wounded in a shower of bullets fired by Ohio National Guardsmen on the campus of Kent State University on May 4, 1970.

By Doug Draper

Several years after writing ‘Ohio’ – a song he recorded with Crosby, Stills and Nash, only to see it banned on several radio stations in that state and others in the summer of 1970 – Neil Young commented in the liner notes of an anthology of his music; “It is still hard to believe I had to write this song. It’s ironic that I capitalized on the death of these American students. Probably the biggest lesson ever learned at an American place of learning.”

An unknown child prepares to lay flowers on a parking lot where one of four students was shot dead by U.S. National Guard troops at Kent State University in Ohio 40 years ago this May 4. Photo by Doug Draper.

Could very well be until the last couple of decades when we’ve had the Columbine High School shootings in Colorado, the Universite de Montreal’s Ecole Polytechnique shootings in Quebec, and a rash of others on both sides of the Canada/U.S. border. But the majority of those bloodbaths were carried out by random nuts – not by an arm of our government!

That is one of the reasons Young was far from the only one who expressed disbelief at what happened on that campus in the heartland of Ohio 40 years ago this May 4. As someone looking forward to finishing high school and going on to university myself that year, I recall most people my age and older, regardless of how they felt about the War in Vietnam and the student protests raging against that war at the time, expressing shock when they heard the news of this terrible moment.

After all, two of the four students who were killed at Kent State that day – Sandra Lee Scheuer, 20, and William Schroeder, 19 – were not even participating in the demonstrations that were taking place on campuses all over the country that spring due to U.S. Nixon administration’s the escalation of the Vietnam conflict into neighbouring Cambodia. Scheuer and Schroeder were on their way to classes and were shot dead with textbooks in their hands.

The other two students were participating in the protests which had turned increasingly ugly two days earlier when the campus’s old ROTC (Reserve Officers’ Training Corp.) building was burned down by a few in the crowd who were apparently never identified.

Before he was shot, Jeffrey Miller, 20, told a friend he was participating in the demonstrations because “I want to be there to be counted.” Miller, a sophomore psychology major, turned out to be the one whose bleeding body was captured in the iconic photo we are posting here of a young girl – 14-year-old Mary Ann Vecchio – kneeling in a parking lot over him with outstretched arms.

Kent State student Jeffrey Miller dies on the spot where, years later, that little girl placed flowers.

Allison Krause, 19, is remembered as the student who a day or two before she was gunned down, placed a flower of a rifle of one of the National Guard troops brought in to quell the protests and said; “flowers are better than bullets.”

It was a nice thought, but someone in authority allowed the troops to load up their rifles with bullets that were steel-jacked rather than the rubber kind sometimes used for crowd control, and to let go with a fusillade of them across an all-American university campus.

At a memorial I attended at Kent State in 1995, for the 25th anniversary of the shootings, Barbara Agte, one of Allison Krause’s teacher’s, called the act “a startling confrontation between innocence and organized, state-sanctioned force.”

Indeed, the Kent State shootings were just one more in a series of shocker toward the end a decade of the 1960s that was earlier spirited by dreams of peace and love (in 1967, The Beatles helped usher in the ‘summer of love’ with the anthem; “All You Need Is Love”) and flower power, but had grown increasingly divisive as the bloody and unpopular war in southeast Asia dragged on. The rhetoric was also growing increasingly toxic on all sides. Anti-war demonstrators had taken to calling Nixon and others in his administration “pigs” and “fascists” and the president was openly referring to them as “bums.”

A month before the Guard troops opened fire at Kent State, Ronald Reagan, who was then governor of California was quoted saying of campus protestors; “If it takes a bloodbath, let’s get it over with. No more appeasement.”

A memorial to the four gunned-down students, dedicated five years after the shootings by the faculty of Kent State University. Photo by Doug Draper.

The climate was growing ripe for a tragedy and it happened.

It may be something we might all want to keep in mind in today’s divisive times where we have everyone from some of our politicians, to radio talk show hosts and people in the crowd making remarks that sound as if they are encouraging armed revolution or inciting someone out with a trigger finger to back up their extreme views to do something drastic.

We may never get back to the kind of innocence Allison Krause portrayed when she planted the stem of a flower down the barrel of that gun. But when will more reason and intelligence prevail?

(Click on www.niagaraatlarge for Niagara At Large and more news and commentary on matters of interest to concern to our region and world.)

Niagara At Large also wants you to know that this May 3 and 4, filmmaker Michael Moore is livecasting the hearings of the Kent State Truth Tribunal, streaming in real time the accounts of participants, witnesses and family members of the 1970 Kent State shootings that left four students dead and nine injured. The live cast is the first real-time broadcast of a truth-seeking initiative of this kind and will air on www.MichaelMoore.com from 10am-7pm daily eastern.

The Kent State Truth Tribunal was convened by family members of students killed at Kent State in order to record and honour the stories of those directly affected by the shootings. The Ohio National Guard who opened fire on the protesters has never publicized the findings of its investigation of command responsibility for the shootings. And there has never been a public inquiry to hear, record and preserve the stories of those directly impacted by what happened on May 4th, 1970, at Kent State.

“It is an honour to work with the families of the victims and the participants in the May 4, 1970, protest at Kent State University to bring you their stories, beamed in from the Kent State Truth Tribunal through my website. We have never been told the whole truth about these killings and we deserve to hear that truth,” said Moore.

For more information, visit: http://www.truthtribunal.org

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5 responses to “Forty Years On, Kent State Shootings Remain One Of America’s ‘Most Startling Confrontations Between Innocence And State-Sanctioned Force’

  1. Rosemary Drage Hale

    Doug, thank you for this. Yes, I was there. Graduated from Kent State. The hillside had been a wonderful site for winter antics — cafeteria tray-sledding and during the spring rains — rolling down a muddy slope and then off for a night’s revelry. Those memories of the site still so precious to me.

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  2. Was that a report on Tienanmin Square in 1989 China?

    Or Kent State U in 1970 USA?

    Let’s hope that governments are growing up too.

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  3. For people interested in learning more about the Kent State shootings and for the best eye witness accounts of the shootings by various Kent students and national guardsmen who shot students, check out the Emmy Award winning documentary, “Kent State, The Day the War Cam Home.” It was just released on DVD for the upcoming 40th anniversary. In its review of the program, The Hollywood Reporter stated, “This extraordinary hour long doc is so good, so well constructed, that it can’t help but leave viewers feeling as if they themselves were on the bloody scene of the Kent State carnage…” for more go to kentstatedvd.com

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  4. Merilyn Athoe

    Today I spent many hours glued to, http://www.MichaelMoore.com, watching the testimonials of students and teachers who were present that horrible day in May when the lives of four innocent young people were blown away by the National Guard.

    Take some time tomorrow to watch the last day of the live stream – and be sure and watch the video of Bill Arthrell, a most amazing man whose life was profoundly changed by the awful experience.

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  5. These old bones at the time of Kent State were heading to Germany/exile and proclaiming that I was a pacificist…but primarily an obstructionist and a conspirator against the american regime. There were some that talked about an armed rebellion in 1977…it just seemed that by then everybody would be ready and the revolution would happen. Then the military started killing. It was a wake up call for the young white students of the land…that when it came to rights, when it came to civil liberties and when it came to power….the students , the youth, the blacks, the chicanos, the people didn’t have it and we’d have to figure out what to do… its no wonder that the weather underground got started …

    anyways after all this time, the dead bodies are still lying in the ground. the war machine is in full bloom and the ‘system’ is still functioning. I suppose we can say that something good did come out of the antiwar movement….except now the american public is put to sleep each nite by the tele and the packaged information designed by FOX or by the power brokers in charge of our medical/social/industrial and banking systems. I honestly don’t know what the youth of today is thinking….but maybe we could reach them and tell them that it requires more than simply adjusting to the pressures from the corrupted systems…it takes more that just ‘going along’ etc…what it takes is a simple statement: “I am fed up, tired, wearisome and intelligent…aand maybe with some effort we can change the society without the anger, belligerance, and reliance on ‘fascism’. for some sort of justifiication. steve

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