The Ethical Spectacle, May 1995,

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.)