The best-known popular culture response to the deaths at Kent State was the protest song “Ohio”, written by Neil Young (who was Canadian) for Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Gary was playing the song early this morning, one of only two he plays on specific days. The other is for the day he failed to pass his draft physical. Both are connected to the Vietnam War, then often spelled Viet Nam.
Forty-nine years ago today.
“The Kent State shootings, also known as the May 4 massacre or the Kent State massacre, were the shootings on May 4, 1970, of unarmed college students by members of the Ohio National Guard at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio, during a mass protest against the bombing of Cambodia by United States military forces. Twenty-eight guardsmen fired approximately 67 rounds over a period of 13 seconds, killing four students and wounding nine others, one of whom suffered permanent paralysis.
“Some of the students who were shot had been protesting against the Cambodian Campaign, which President Richard Nixon announced during a television address on April 30 of that year. Other students who were shot had been walking nearby or observing the protest from a distance.
… “The question of why the shots were fired remains widely debated.
“Many guardsmen later testified that they were in fear for their lives, which was questioned partly because of the distance between them and the students killed or wounded. Time magazine later concluded that “triggers were not pulled accidentally at Kent State.” The President’s Commission on Campus Unrest avoided probing the question of why the shootings happened. Instead, it harshly criticized both the protesters and the Guardsmen, but it concluded that “the indiscriminate firing of rifles into a crowd of students and the deaths that followed were unnecessary, unwarranted, and inexcusable.”
“The shootings killed four students and wounded nine. Two of the four students killed, Allison Krause and Jeffrey Miller, had participated in the protest. The other two, Sandra Scheuer and William Knox Schroeder, had been walking from one class to the next at the time of their deaths. Schroeder was also a member of the campus ROTC battalion. Of those wounded, none was closer than 71 feet (22 m) to the guardsmen. Of those killed, the nearest (Miller) was 265 feet (81 m) away, and their average distance from the guardsmen was 345 feet (105 m).
“There was a significant national response to the shootings: hundreds of universities, colleges, and high schools closed throughout the United States due to a student strike of 4 million students, and the event further affected public opinion, at an already socially contentious time, over the role of the United States in the Vietnam War.”—Wikipedia
There was a march in Seattle after the killings at Kent State. It was 1970, and Gary was working at the University Book Store since the year before while he was still 1A. (Few businesses would hire a man with that status—who knew when he might be called up for the war?) His physical in June of the previous year changed his status to 1Y, and he was “safe.”
That day, the management of the book store told employees if they wanted to participate in the Kent State march, they were free to go. Feelings about the war had shifted dramatically in the country. Increasingly, soldiers were not viewed as heroes, but as victims of an unjustified and criminal violence.
Gary walked from work and remembers looking down a major street as he marched and seeing a solid wall of people walking before him.
I was still in high school during those years, of course, but I also went to marches, including that most significant one. Thousands of people started in the University District, marched downtown and then back to the U District on the Express Lanes of I-5, because the mayor closed the lanes to traffic. News reports I can find describe the day in a way quite different from what I recall. Many thousands of students marching, yes. Police in riot gear, not so much. (That was a different day when I was shoved from a sidewalk onto a street downtown by officers in riot gear. Imagine the threat I posed, all 114 pounds of me!)
There are three distinct memories I have of that day in May 1970. As we walked through downtown streets, professional people came out of office buildings in their three-piece suits and in pumps and walked with us. I saw that happen. We passed buildings I knew, though I saw no one I knew. Perhaps Gary and I were walking together then, but that is not part of my memory. It was the sense that so many people opposed the war, so many ordinary decent people agreed the killings were unAmerican.
I walked quickly to get to the front of the marchers. I would not attend the rally at the end, because I had to get back to my mother’s car. I was in a hurry, because I had to be at work for the evening and closing at my job at Taco Bell where I’d been working since the year before. Because it was not my first march, I recognized people—some of them specifically from other rallies and some in a sort of general way. A handful of dark-suited men at a previous march taking photos were not part of the anti-war movement. On that day, despite the many thousands of people I saw, there were people who did not belong, men I thought of as paid agitators. Some scruffy men at the front of the Kent State march were not familiar. They turned over trash cans and newspaper stands. These strangers were trying to start trouble, trying to make a peace march violent and we didn’t let that happen. As we righted trash cans, people standing on sidewalks cheered us.
At work that late afternoon, I had changed into my uniform but I was still wearing my black armband. My boss confronted me, asked me why I was wearing it, told me to take it off. I did remove the band, but then he said it served those protesters right that they were shot. They had no right to go march, that they were throwing rocks. I said, fine, you go downhill with a handful of rocks and I will stand uphill with my rifle and let’s see who gets hurt. This exchange happened in the front, but with no customers around. I was shocked, horrified, and I remembered the people who had joined the march downtown, the ordinary adults who marched with us. And then I turned, walked around the steam case, past the sinks, the stoves, and his office, and out the back door. I got in my mother’s car and drove home. I found out later from the assistant manager that Rob thought I was in the bathroom for at least an hour before he realized I’d left. He wanted me back, but I never went back to work at Taco Bell.
I often recall those days of marching for peace, our optimism that we could make the world a better place, that our protests would change the world. In some ways they did. Anyway, times did change.
Rob would watch the store sometimes from across the street, using binoculars to ensure there was always someone up front, that we did not close early, that we did the job right. He also shorted our paychecks and did not pay us at all for closing, and I had gotten very good at that, developing a system that covered all the cleanup and mopping and storing of food to get us done and out the door in minutes.
When I found out that a new boy I was training was already paid more than I was, I confronted Rob. “But Tim is a boy and has a car,” he said as if even an idiot could see that. I might have had a car if he’d paid me more, I said, though in fact my money was set aside for college. It was really a terrible job.
I am proud of that day, start to finish. I am proud of the anti-war movement. Increasingly as I age I wonder what sort of madness takes us into sport and war with the foolish notion that the “best man” wins?
Sometimes good people are shot while crossing campus between classes. Sometimes good people have to stand up for what is decent and right. And, of course, often the “best man” is a woman.