Yesterday was the forty-fifth anniversary of the day when Ohio National Guardsmen fired 67 rounds of live ammunition into a crowd of peaceful protesters at Kent State University. The crime took 13 seconds. The tragedy endures.
As usual, the campus I call home closed for half of Remembrance Day. Many separate remembrances take place each May 4, as well as in the days leading up to it. Student organizations, such as the May 4 Task Force, remain vigilant and active even if the student body’s politics have quieted and atomized since 1970.
The remembering is national in scope. Rick Perlstein has argued that the shootings at Kent State were the hinge on which America turned toward being “Nixonland,” a place where the mass solidarity of the New Deal era steadily broke down. There is a racial component to the widespread memorialization of the Kent events: The four students murdered by the guardsmen on May 4, 1970, and the nine they wounded, were all white. Eleven days later, police killed two black students and injured many others at Jackson State College (now University) in Mississippi. These students were also protesting the wars in Vietnam and Cambodia, but they are rarely mentioned alongside the four dead in Ohio.
I have lost count of the number of people I have taken to Blanket Hill, where the students initially gathered and were tear-gassed, or the nearby rise where the pagoda sits and from which the guardsmen fired, or the four spots where the victims died. Since the first-rate visitors’ center opened in 2012, I have led a parade of family, friends and colleagues through it. Going there over and over makes me think about Kent State, but now it also makes me think of every place where armed police or soldiers have confronted civilian protesters. I can pinpoint when that mental shift took place.
No visit to the Kent State sites stands out in my memory like that when I went with Sharif Abdel Kouddous in November 2013. Sharif had traveled to Cleveland to speak about Egypt for the Northeast Ohio Consortium on Middle East Studies directed by Pete Moore and me. At the visitors’ center, we walked through the context of the wars in Vietnam and Cambodia and the movements against the fighting. We stopped at one wall, where a map of the United States is dotted with markers of the campus protests over President Richard Nixon’s decision to invade Cambodia in late April 1970. “Look,” said Sharif. “It was a national uprising.” I realized he was thinking of Egypt—the upheaval that toppled Husni Mubarak, the ensuing optimism, then the counter-revolution and coup. In Egypt and in the middle of Ohio, the state had visited violence upon mobilized citizens we know or might have known had we been alive.
We watched the video accompanying the Kent exhibits and discussed how no court ever found anyone guilty of anything. Gov. Jim Rhodes signed a letter of apology, along with other complicit state agents. Eventually, after it was clear that no one would go to prison, there was a civil settlement and the families of the dead and wounded received a total of $675,000. Sharif and I were floored—relooking at the events with shared eyes, we saw America’s failure all over again in Egypt, but repeatedly and on a far more lethal scale.
Finally, Sharif broke the silence (and I am paraphrasing): “All this over four killed. You cannot go from one part of Cairo to another without seeing a place and saying, ‘Three killed here, 27 killed at Maspero, 45 murdered at Muhammad Mahmoud Street, 12 murdered in ‘Abbasiyya, 15 killed at Parliament.’ They are everywhere, but they don’t get remembered. The entire city is an unmarked memorial site.”
The movements in Kent and Cairo were obviously different. And the four lives at Kent State were neither more valuable than those of the martyred Egyptians nor any cheaper to the state that murdered them as they pushed for change. But yesterday when we remembered Kent State, I also remembered Egypt and Ferguson and Cleveland and Baltimore.
One of the culminating moments on May 4, 1970 came when a geology professor named Glenn Frank pleaded with the students to leave the common after the 13 seconds of shooting. Some of the students were milling about, angrily contemplating a charge at the guardsmen. Frank, who died in 1993, rightly feared the worst. He said, “I don’t care whether you’ve never listened to anyone before in your lives. I am begging you right now. If you don’t disperse right now, they’re going to move in and it can only be a slaughter. Would you please listen to me? Jesus Christ, I don’t want to a part of this.”
At that moment, as Frank said, there could only have been more bloodshed. After such grim moments of state violence, citizens have to live to fight another day. That’s the rub: No one wants to be a victim of state violence because they disagree with a state’s policies or trajectory. But those who are vocal and persistent in their dissent always run that risk. And some citizens continue to remember and act even when it looks like society is depoliticized and apathetic, or the situation fills many with despair. And therein lies the hope.