All of us have that moment: the one that brings the world into focus and changes everything. Perhaps it’s a moment of triumph (the moon landing or the election of the nation’s first African-American President); perhaps it’s a moment of despair (the assassination of John Kennedy or the attacks of 9/11).
From the May 4 museum.
The iconic image of Mary Vecchio
screaming over the body of Jeffrey Miller.
I was 14, finishing up 9th grade in a few weeks. My father, a loyal supporter of President Nixon, was President of one of the SUNY campuses, so I literally lived on a college campus: the view out of my bedroom window was of two dorms and a dining hall. Speaking of windows and dorms… as Curmiphiles who know me personally may be aware, I’m currently at an NEH Summer Institute at Kent State. I’ve been here a week, with another fortnight to go, living in a dorm. And as I look out my window I see the building where the May 4 museum/visitors’ center is located. I can’t see the site of the killings themselves, but it’s just the other side of that HPE annex that was built in the late ‘70s.
This afternoon I wandered over to the museum. It’s quite small, and the May 4 Memorial could readily be mistaken for just another piece of public art. There’s also a walking tour: again, very restrained. There are couple of markers, a bit of text; some stained glass in one of the library’s reading rooms; a fountain dedicated to all students who died in residence, a deft inclusion of the May 4 victims without making it about them. But the university appears to have been quite adept at walking a very fine line, simultaneously commemorating the chilling events of 45 years ago and moving on with the academic mission of the institution.
I need to make three points. First, the fact that the museum doesn’t take up a lot of space doesn’t mean it doesn’t pack a punch. I was fortunate enough to be the only visitor in the place this afternoon (a couple was leaving just as I entered), which allowed me to stand in the main video room and just be surrounded by the sound and images. It took less than a minute for the tears to come, only a little longer for the insensate impulse to hunt down the National Guard officers most directly responsible for this outrage and either rip their throats out or piss on their graves, as the case may be. The locals who opined that a few dead kids was an unfortunate but reasonable price to pay for law and order… I would, at that moment, have cheerfully given any one of them a splenectomy by reaching down their throats.
Second, I need—for my own reasons—to come to terms with just why this moment in American history struck me so profoundly. It was partially the “bringing the war home” element, partially the ensuing nationwide student strike (and further deaths at Jackson State less than two weeks later), partially the fact that students were protesting the expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia, directly contrary to what candidate Nixon had promised. But it was more than that for me, personally. As noted earlier, I was the son of an ardent Nixonite college president. In both those capacities, my father exercised a lot of influence on my thinking. In many ways this process was positive, or at the very worst benign. He was also struggling to keep order on his own campus, and (I found out later) some student radicals had made veiled but ominous threats against me as a way of blackmailing him into agreeing to their demands.
I was a pretty conservative and very naïve kid. I had long hair (shorter than it is now, but what of that?) and I listened to the Beatles and Rolling Stones and Iron Butterfly, but I hadn’t yet become a Deadhead, or even really tuned into Bob Dylan or Joan Baez or Pete Seeger, as I was to do in college. I’d never tried any illicit drugs; I hadn’t participated in any kind of political activity beyond hanging a couple of generic peacenik posters on my bedroom wall. I was, in the eyes of the Establishment, a “good kid.”
But every time I heard about the Kent State shootings as the inevitable result of the undisciplined disobedience of the student protesters, that the Guardsmen were legitimately in fear for their lives, that the Guard leaders were trying valiantly to defuse rather than aggravate the situation (gee… which side was armed to the teeth and which side completely unarmed?)… well, for the first time, I began to detect the distinctive aroma of bovine fecal matter in the government’s proclamations, in the press, and even in my Dad’s pronouncements.
It turns out, of course, that my suspicions were correct. The Guardsmen, seemingly retreating to avoid further confrontation, turned in unison to fire into the crowd. The nearest of the four students fatally shot by the Guard was about 85 yards away and simply observing the activities, not even taking part in the protest. And this is according to Nixon’s own appointed commission, headed by former Pennsylvania governor William Scranton. The nearest of the nine students wounded in the 13-second fusillade (a total of 60+ shots fired from 28 military-grade rifles) was 20 yards from the Guardsman; the furthest was nearly 250 yards away. Think about that. 250 yards away, and he was shot in the neck… by the alleged good guys? Only two of the 13 casualties were shot from the front. They were the aggressors? I don’t think so, criminal acquittals of the killers notwithstanding.
No. The Kent State killings (and the disingenuous aftermath) were indeed the ultimate declaration of war by the authorities on my generation, and I knew then, with my 15th birthday still nearly five months away, not only that I’d have to take sides, but which side I’d have to take.
Don’t get me wrong. I was still a “good kid.” I still didn’t go on protest marches or smoke dope—that... erm... may or may not have come later. But I never uncritically believed either the government or the press again. Intellectually, as a functioning member of a democratic system, I grew up that day. We were talking this morning in the Institute about the process of finding “gain” in “loss.” What I lost that day was precious. What I gained has defined me for the 45 subsequent years.
Finally, let’s talk about today. In this regard I’d make two observations. First, I fear there couldn’t be a Kent State today. Yes, I fear that, because such a declaration betrays a profound and disturbing apathy among today’s post-adolescents. This isn’t true of all late-teens and 20-somethings, but a terrifying percentage of my students can’t be bothered to fulfill their responsibility (yes, responsibility) as citizens and even vote, let alone write letters to Congresscritters or actively engage in political campaigns, either for specific candidates or for issues (abortion rights, gay marriage, etc.). The overwhelming majority of people under 30 are liberal on social issues, but that doesn’t matter if making their voices heard isn’t worth a few minutes of their time.
Secondly, the 1st Amendment rights so central to the protest at Kent State in 1970 have been eroded, precipitated by both the right (qualitatively) and the left (quantitatively). The right’s ululations about “political correctness” may be exaggerated, but they’re not without merit: you can get into big trouble—as student or faculty—for expressing an opinion the
My own campus has a “Free Speech Area” which a). isn’t, really, and b). suggests (accurately) that the rest of the campus doesn’t qualify. Curmie is a progressive, yes, but he’s more of a civil libertarian, and that means healthy arguments, not suppression of ideas. That doesn’t mean we need to suffer trolls on our Facebook pages or blog posts; it does mean that debate is always encouraged: I can’t learn anything from those who always agree with me. If I want to be agreed with, I’ll just talk to myself.
I leave you with another “gain” from that horrible day in 1970: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s brilliant “Ohio.”