Choosing a subject for this weeks piece was tricky – should we go with Karl Marx’s 202nd birthday or the 41st anniversary of Thatcher’s first election win or the 75th anniversary of the defeat of fascism in Europe? Spoilt for choice. In the end we decided to go with this:
In 1968 Richard ‘Tricky Dicky’ Nixon had been elected American President partly on a promise to end the Vietnam War. Promises, promises huh? Instead of doing that he instigated the bombing campaign in neutral Cambodia, oversaw the My Lai massacre of civilians and instigated the ‘draft lottery’ in which groups of people (students and teachers amongst them) were no longer to able to defer military service. Cue much consternation among the populace.
Fast forward to 1970 and there was a campaign nationally of ‘student strikes’ – essentially campuses across the country staging demonstrations, sit-ins and the like. Kent State University in Ohio was no different. There comes a point, in extremis, where people just feel that they have no choice but to step up and voice their opposition. Starting on Friday 1st May there were protests on campus and in the city of Kent itself. A building was burned (without injury) and the police and National Guard became involved using tear gas and other forms of riot control.
By Sunday May 3rd Ohio Republican Senator Jim Rhodes held a press conference and said this:
“We’ve seen here at the city of Kent especially, probably the most vicious form of campus-oriented violence yet perpetrated by dissident groups… they make definite plans of burning, destroying, and throwing rocks at police and at the National Guard and the Highway Patrol. …this is when we’re going to use every part of the law enforcement agency of Ohio to drive them out of Kent. We are going to eradicate the problem. We’re not going to treat the symptoms. …and these people just move from one campus to the other and terrorize the community. 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 harbour in America. Now I want to say this. They are not going to take over [the] campus. I think that we’re up against the strongest, well-trained, militant, revolutionary group that has ever assembled in America”
Strong words (and not necessarily accurate).
On Monday 4th May a further gathering was held at the university, possibly of up to two thousand people by common consent. The Ohio National Guard was present and at some point tensions rose to the extent that the guardsmen (some seventy-seven of them), seemingly without an official order, opened fire on a group of students. Twenty-nine of the guardsmen later confirmed that they had discharged their weapons. Four students were killed and nine injured (some of them were merely ‘passers-by’ going from one class to the next). Eventually, at the behest of some faculty members of staff, the crowd was dispersed and further death and injury were avoided.
In the aftermath some things came to light: No member of the National Guard was convicted of wrongdoing (despite some legal challenges), the average distance from shooter to victim was 105 metres, a Gallup poll at the time found that some 58% of respondents blamed the students. The later President’s Commission On-Campus Unrest, despite blaming both students and guardsmen, did conclude that “the indiscriminate firing of rifles into a crowd of students and the deaths that followed were unnecessary, unwarranted, and inexcusable.” The Vietnam War carried on for a further five years.
As a (musical) footnote both Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders and Gerald Casale of Devo were present and knew some of the victims. Also Neil Young was moved to pen the tune “Ohio” in response to the event. It would be too easy to reproduce that here so we’re going for Paul Weller’s incendiary cover.