"Lest We Forget..."
It's was 35 years ago when "tin soldiers and Nixon" come to Ohio's Kent State University
The Ethical Spectacle, May 1995, http://www.spectacle.org
Kent State, May 4, 1970: America Kills Its Children
Twenty-five years ago this month, students came out on the Kent State campus and scores of others to protest the bombing of Cambodia-- a decision of President Nixon's that appeared to expand the Vietnam War. Some rocks were thrown, some windows were broken, and an attempt was made to burn the ROTC building. Governor James Rhodes sent in the National Guard.
The units that responded were ill-trained and came right from riot duty elsewhere; they hadn't had much sleep. The first day, there was some brutality; the Guard bayonetted two men, one a disabled veteran, who had cursed or yelled at them from cars. The following day, May 4th, the Guard, commanded with an amazing lack of military judgment, marched down a hill, to a field in the middle of angry demonstrators, then back up again. Seconds before they would have passed around the corner of a large building, and out of sight of the crowd, many of the Guardsmen wheeled and fired directly into the students, hitting thirteen, killing four of them, pulling the trigger over and over, for thirteen seconds. (Count out loud--one Mississippi, two Mississippi, to see how long this is.) Guardsmen--none of whom were later punished, civilly, administratively, or criminally--admitted firing at specific unarmed targets; one man shot a demonstrator who was giving him the finger. The closest student shot was fully sixty feet away; all but one were more than 100 feet away; all but two were more than 200 feet away. One of the dead was 255 feet away; the rest were 300 to 400 feet away. The most distant student shot was more than 700 feet from the Guardsmen.
Some rocks had been thrown, and some tear gas canisters fired by the Guard had been hurled back, but (though some of the Guardsmen certainly must know the truth) no-one has ever been able to establish why the Guard fired when they were seconds away from safety around the corner of the building. None had been injured worse than a minor bruise, no demonstrators were armed, there was simply nothing threatening them that justified an armed and murderous response. In addition to the demonstrators, none of whom was closer than sixty feet, the campus was full of onlookers and students on their way to class; two of the four dead fell in this category. Most Guardsmen later testified that they turned and fired because everyone else was. There was an attempt to blame a mysterious sniper, of whom no trace was ever found; there was no evidence, on the ground, on still photographs or a film, of a shot fired by anyone but the Guardsmen. One officer is seen in many of the photographs, out in front, pointing a pistol; one possibility is that he fired first, causing the others, ahead of him, to turn and fire. Or (as some witnesses testified) he or another officer may have given an order to fire. It is indisputable that the Guardsmen were not in any immediate physical danger when they fired; the crowd was not pursuing them; they were seconds away from being out of sight of the demonstration.
There was also an undercover FBI informant, Terry Norman, carrying a gun on the field that day. Though he later turned his gun into the police, who announced it had not been fired, later ballistic tests by the FBI showed that it had been fired since it was last cleaned-- but by then it was too late to determine whether it had been fired before or on May 4th.
It would be too charitable to say that the investigation was botched; there was no investigation. Even the New York City police, who are themselves prone to brutality and corruption, do a better job. Every time an officer discharges his weapon, it is taken from him, and there is an investigation. Here--to the fatal detriment of the federal criminal trial which followed--it was never conclusively established which Guardsmen had fired, or which of them had shot the wounded and the dead. Since all were wearing gas masks, it is impossible to identify them in pictures (many had also removed or covered their name tags, a classic ploy of law enforcement officers about to commit brutality in the '60's and '70's), and though many confessed to having fired their weapons, none admitted to being in the first row and therefore, among the first to fire. The ballistic evidence could have helped here, but none was taken.
One rumor has it that the Guardsmen were told the same night that they would never be prosecuted by the state of Ohio. And they never were. The Nixon administration stalled for years, announcing "investigations" that led nowhere; White House tapes subsequently released show that Nixon thought demonstrators were bums, asked the Secret Service to go beat them up, and apparently felt that the Kent State victims had it coming. As did most of the country; William Gordon calls the killings "the most popular murders ever committed in the United States."
The history of the next few years is very sad. A federal prosecution was finally brought, but the presiding judge is said to have signalled his preference for the defendants, guiding their attorney's conduct of the case to help them avoid legal errors. He dismissed all charges at the close of the prosecution's case, avoiding the need for a defense and taking the case away from the jury. Among his reasons: a failure to prove specific intent to deprive the victims of their civil rights; due to the lack of any investigation, it was almost impossible at this late date to show which Guardsmen shot which victim.
In the New York City police force, which is far from perfect, officers who have killed or injured someone under questionable circumstances are often dismissed from the force even though there is not enough evidence for a criminal conviction; the standard of proof is not the same for an administrative action as for a criminal case. You don't want an unstable, sadistic person on the force, even though there may not be enough evidence for a criminal conviction. But the Guardsmen--even the one who confessed to shooting an unarmed demonstrator giving him the finger--were not deemed unfit to serve the State, even though they had fired indiscriminately into a crowd containing many passsersby and students on their way to classes.
A civil suit brought by the wounded students and the parents of the dead ones deteriorated among infighting by the plaintiffs' lawyers. Unable to agree on a single theory of the case, they contradicted each other. The jury returned a verdict for the defendants.
This verdict was overturned on appeal--the main ground was that the judge did not take seriously enough the attempted coercion of a juror who was assaulted by a stranger demanding an unspecified verdict--and a retrial was scheduled. On the eve of it, the exhausted plaintiffs settled with the state for $675,000.00, which was divided 13 ways. Half of it went to Dean Kahler, the most seriously wounded survivor, and only $15,000 apiece went to the families of each of the slain students, a pathetically small verdict in a day when lives are accounted to be worth in the many millions of dollars. The state issued a statement of "regret" which stopped short of an apology for the events of May 4th, nine years before.
I write this just a week after the Kansas city bombing that appears to have taken 200 lives (the rescuers are still searching the wreckage) and the theme today is the same as 25 years ago. Hate was in the air then, as it is today. Admittedly, the First Amendment protects hate speech, whether it comes from the most marginal extremist or the highest public official. Demonizing someone else for their beliefs or their race, or even calling for their immediate assassination, is legal in America today and was twenty-five years ago. But the fact that something is legal to do does not make it right to do, or relieve the speaker of any moral responsibility for the consequences.
President Nixon created a public atmosphere in which students who opposed the war were fair game for those who supported the government. In the week following Kent State, construction workers rioted on Wall Street, attacking antiwar demonstrators and sending many to the hospital, some permanently crippled. It was reported at the time that, a day or two after the deaths, President Nixon called the parents of the only slain student known to be a bystander--he was a member of ROTC--to express condolences. The phone never rang in the other parents' houses. The message couldn't have been clearer: they had it coming.
I was fifteen that year, raised in a very comfortable middle class environment and very naive. Kent State was my political education. What I discovered that week, and that year, was that America in those times was perfectly willing to harass, beat and kill its own children if they disagreed with government policy. The step from being a member of the protected American mainstream to being a marginalized outsider, not entitled to the protection of law enforcement and fair prey to any violent, flag-waving bully who happened to pass, was to stand up and say you did not believe the Vietnam war was right.
I am not sure that anyone too young to remember those times can really appreciate what it was like. We know today the extent to which the FBI was involved in dirty tricks, illegal wiretapping and burglaries against even moderate antiwar organizations. Prior to Kent State, I had joined an organization called Student Mobilization Against the War. One day, their offices were burglarized and their membership lists stolen. We had no doubt at the time that it was the government, and we were right.
I led demonstrations that week outside my high school protesting the Kent State killings and, afterwards, the principal summoned me and my father to his office and threatened to have me expelled as a trouble-maker. My father--I am very proud of him, as he was not an ideological man and his opposition to the war was very muted--replied that if I was expelled, he would fight it "all the way to the Supreme Court." I had done nothing else than exercise my First Amendment right of protest. We heard nothing more about expulsion, but a close friend of mine, who didn't have an assertive parent to stand up for him, was thrown out of school.
That week, people came out of the woodwork--wearing black leather, chains wrapped around their fists, waving American flags--people we had never before seen in our neighborhoods. These patriots set up a counterdemonstration across the street from ours. For hours, a rumor was rampant that they would attack us and that the police would not intervene--exactly what had happened on Wall Street a day or so before. Their cursing and chain-rattling became uglier until finally they summoned their courage and charged. Someone shouted "Link arms!" and five or six teenagers, me among them, joined to interpose our bodies between the attackers and demonstrators. The Brooklyn police, unlike those on Wall Street, or the National Guard in Kent days earlier, did not seek or condone the killing of children. They ran in and forced the attackers back. I was fifteen then and am forty now, but I have never had a finer moment in my life. It was the only moment in my life that I came close to living up to Gandhi's statement that "we must be the change we wish to see in the world."
Here are the names of those who died at Kent State, so that they may not be forgotten:
My source for many of the details in this essay is William A. Gordon, Four Dead in Ohio (North Ridge Books, 1995.)
And on the 14th of May, 1970
(Text from the Jackson State University web site-Photos by Mike)
(For Additional Information on the Jackson State shootings scroll to end of this page)
The May 1970 Tragedy at Jackson State University
"Lest We Forget..."
In the Spring of 1970, campus communities across this country were characterized by a chorus of protests and demonstrations. The issues were the escalation of the war in Vietnam and the U.S. invasion of Cambodia; the ecology; racism and repression; and the inclusion of the experiences of women and minorities in the educational system. No institution of higher education was left untouched by confrontations and continuous calls for change.
At Jackson State College in Jackson, Mississippi, there was the added issue of historical racial intimidation and harassment by white motorists traveling Lynch Street, a major thoroughfare that divided the campus and linked west Jackson to downtown.
On May 14-15, 1970, Jackson State students were protesting these issues as well as the May 4, 1970 tragedy at Kent State University in Ohio. Four Kent State students -- Alison Krause, Sandra Scheuer, Jeffrey Glenn Miller and William K. Schroeder -- were killed by Ohio National Guardsmen.
According to reports, the riot began around 9:30 p.m., May 14, when rumors were spread that Fayette, Mississippi mayor Charles Evers (brother of slain Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers) and his wife had been shot and killed. Upon hearing this rumor, a small group of students rioted.
That night, several white motorists had called the Jackson Police Department to complain that a group of blacks threw rocks at them as they passed along the stretch of Lynch Street that bisected the campus. The rock throwing was later attributed by witnesses to a group of non- students.
The rioting students set several fires and overturned a dump truck that had been left on campus overnight at a sewer line construction site. Jackson firefighters dispatched to the blaze met a hostile crowd that harangued them as they worked to contain the fire. Fearing for their safety, the firemen requested police back-up.
The police, who later told the media that they had received reports of gunfire in the area around the college up to an hour-and-a-half before they responded to the call, blocked off Lynch Street and cordoned off a 30 block area around the campus. National Guardsmen, still on alert from rioting the previous night, massed on the west end of Lynch Street. Mounted on Armored Personnel Carriers, the guardsmen had been issued weapons, but no ammunition.
Seventy-five city policemen and Mississippi State Police officers armed with carbines, submachine guns, shotguns, service revolvers and some personal weapons, responded to the call. Their combined armed presence on the Lynch Street side of Stewart Hall, a men's dormitory, staved off the crowd long enough for the firemen to extinguish the blaze and leave.After the firemen left, the police and state troopers marched along Lynch Street toward Alexander Center, a women's residence, weapons at the ready. No one seems to know why.
Falling back before the approaching officers, the students congregated in a thick not in front of the dormitory. At this point, the crowd numbered 75 to 100 people. Several students allegedly shouted "obscene catcalls" while others chanted and tossed bricks at the officers, who had closed to within 100 feet of the group.
The officers deployed into a line facing the students. Someone in the crowd either threw or dropped a bottle which shattered on the asphalt with a loud pop. At the same time, an officer fell, struck by a piece of thrown debris.
Accounts disagree as to what happened next. Some students said the police advanced in a line, warned them, then opened fire. Others said the police abruptly opened fire on the crowd and the dormitory. Other witnesses reported that the students were under the control of a campus security officer when the police opened fire. Police claimed they spotted a powder flare in the Alexander West Hall third floor stairwell window and opened fire in self-defense on the dormitory only. Two local television news reporters present at the shooting agreed that a shot was fired, but were uncertain of the direction. A radio reporter claimed to have seen an arm and a pistol extending from a dormitory window.
Whatever actually occurred, the police opened fire at approximately 12:05 a.m., May 15, and continued firing for more than 30 seconds. The students scattered, some running for the trees in front of the library, but most scrambling for the Alexander Hall west end door.
There was screaming and cries of terror and pain mingled with the noise of sustained gunfire as the
students struggled en masse to get through glass double doors. A few students were trampled.
Others, struck by buckshot pellets or bullets, fell only to be dragged inside or left moaning in the grass.
When the order to cease fire was given and the gunfire ceased, Phillip Lafayette Gibbs, 21, a junior pre-law major and father of an 18-month-old son, lay dead 50 feet east of the west wing door of Alexander Hall. Two Double-0 buckshot pellets had punched into his head while a third pellet entered just beneath his left eye and a fourth just under his left armpit.
Across the street, behind the line of police and highway patrolmen, James Earl Green, 17, was sprawled dead in front of B. F. Roberts Dining Hall. Green, a senior at Jim Hill High School in Jackson, was walking home from work at a local grocery store when he stopped to watch the action. He was standing in front of B. F. Roberts Hall when a single buckshot blast slammed into the right side of his chest. The police later claimed that they had taken fire from the direction of B. F. Roberts Hall.
Twelve other Jackson State students were struck by gunfire, including at least one who was sitting in the dormitory lobby at the time of the shooting. Several students required treatment for hysteria and injuries from shattered glass. Injured and carried to University Hospital for treatment were Fonzie Coleman, Redd Wilson Jr. , Leroy Kenter, Vernon Steve Weakley, Gloria Mayhorn, Patricia Ann Sanders , Willie Woodard, Andrea Reese, Stella Spinks, Climmie Johnson, Tuwaine Davis and Lonzie Thompson.
The five-story dormitory was riddled by gunfire. FBI investigators estimated that more than 460 rounds struck the building, shattering every window facing the street on each floor. Investigators counted at least 160 bullet holes in the outer walls of the stairwell alone -- bullet holes that can still be seen today.
The injured students, many of whom lay bleeding on the ground outside the dormitory, were transported to University Hospital within 20 minutes of the shooting. But the ambulances were not called until after the officers picked up their shell casings, a U. S. Senate probe conducted by Senators Walter Mondale and Birch Bayh later revealed.
The police and state troopers left the campus shortly after the shooting and were replaced by National Guardsmen. After the incident, Jackson authorities denied that city police took part in the fusillade. That the highway patrolmen fired was never at issue.
On June 13, 1970, then President Richard Nixon, established the president's Commission on Campus
Unrest. The commission held its first meeting June 25, 1970. Subsequently, it conducted thirteen days of public hearings in Jackson, Mississippi; Kent State, Ohio; Washington, DC; and Los Angeles,
California. At the Jackson hearings, the administration, faculty, staff and students testified. There were no convictions and no arrests.
In subsequent action, the Jackson City Council voted to close Lynch Street to through traffic. Mayor Russell Davis and Commissioner Tom Kelly voted in favor of permanently closing the thoroughfare while Commissioner Ed Cates cast the only negative vote. It was during this same council meeting that the initials J. R. were added to the existing street signs, denoting J. R. Lynch Street, named for one of Mississippi's leading black statesmen who served during Reconstruction -- Congressman John R. Lynch.
Shortly after the closing of John R. Lynch Street, a plaza was constructed near Alexander Center. The Gibbs-Green Plaza is a favorite gathering spot for students and the site of many outdoor programs and activities. Just north of the plaza and directly in front of Alexander Hall is the Gibbs-Green Monument, a permanent memorial to the slain students and a tangible reminder to all students that the Jackson State Tragedy must never be forgotten.
In March 1996, a national conference was held at Jackson State University. "From Tragedy to Triumph: Perspectives on the Jackson State University Gibbs/Green Experience" examined the impact the May 1970 tragedy had upon the local, state and national communities, both African American and at
large. With major support from the Mississippi Humanities Council, the conference called for papers and involved middle and high school students, survivors of the tragedy and nationally recognized scholars. The conference opened with Tim Spofford, editor of the Albany Times, who spent several years researching the death of the two students who were slain at Jackson State. His interest and his research led to his writing Lynch Street: The May 1970 Slayings at Jackson State College. Conference materials as well as other
artifacts related to the Gibbs/Green tragedy are housed in the H. T. Sampson Library Archives at Jackson State University.
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