"They're worse than the brownshirts and the communist element and also the nightriders and the vigilantes. They're the worst type of people [Ed.-biker rioters and students at Kent.] that we harbor in America. I think that we're up against the strongest, well-trained, militant, revolutionary group that has ever assembled in America." --Ohio governor James A. Rhodes, May 3rd, 1970.
The United States of America--Examining events like these usually serve as a reminder that human history is cyclical, and that the same themes and problems face most generations. Kent State (May 4, 1970) was over the frustrations and division surrounding that other unpopular conflict, the Vietnam War. The Boston Massacre (March 12, 1770) was more complicated--it was a riot over the billeting (housing) of British soldiers and sailors in Boston's households, and rising taxes and duties on nearly everything to pay for the Crown's costs in defending the American colonies during the Seven Year's War (aka"The French and Indian War"). But most of all, American colonists simply hated having an open military presence in their communities.
But both incidents were confrontations with the symbols of the state, which in 1770 was a monarchical one, while in 1970, a parliamentary one with an imperial presidency ruled by money (we still are). It's in the particulars of both events where we can see the similarities: there is considerable ambiguity over what actually caused the British troops and the Ohio National Guard to fire on Americans. The numbers of dead and wounded are also similar, with four dead at Kent State, and five in the Boston Massacre.
Captain Thomas Preston was in command of these soldiers. All could tell the soldiers were nervous and the crowd began chanting. Above the chants and yelling someone rang the church bell, which meant to come outside because of a fire. The crowd then was huge. A soldier shot and then others followed his act. Other weapons such as clubs, knives, swords, and bare hands were also used to fight. The smoke cleared and five innocent Americans, fighting for freedom, died. The most known of the dead was Crispus Attucks, an African-American sailor and escaped slave. Others were: Samuel Gray, worked at a rope walk; James Caldwell, mate on an American ship; Samuel Maverick, seventeen-year old boy; and Patrick Carr, feather maker. ("What Made the Boston Massacre a Massacre," bostonmassacre.net)
It's interesting to note that in both incidents, there is confusion over who--if anyone--ordered the soldiers to fire on the civilians. What's also similar are the allegations in both cases of a cover-up. Both events were riots, not insurrection. This is what makes the actions of the British colonial authorities and the governor of Ohio obvious overreactions. Another similarity is that both events became examples of the brutality of the state (and the powers they represent) in our political iconography, and are likely to remain so as there is an United States of America.
To say both groups of soldiers blundered is an understatement. We'll probably never know precisely what happened in Boston in 1770, but we still have evidence that needs serious examination regarding Kent State--it's within living memory. A serious inquiry never really happened. It should be remembered that the riots at Kent State were over President Richard Nixon's illegal bombings and incursions into Cambodia during the Vietnam War after promising the public an early ending to the conflict.
It should be noted, however, that Kent State SDS confronted Nixon in 1968 by heckling him when he spoke at the university during his campaigning for president--he was a man who remembered his enemies and who held a grudge. Before the invasion of Cambodia, Kent State was known as a "hotbed" of university radicalism, arguably more intense than at the Columbia or Berkeley campuses. As a result, they stirred the interest of the Executive and legislative branches:
Canfora points to definitive proof that Kent State's SDS was on Uncle Sam's radar by citing hearings held by the U.S. House of Representatives' Committee on Internal Security on June 24 and 25, 1969. The subject of the hearings? SDS activities at Kent State during the 1968-69 school year. These hearings are detailed in the July 1970 issue of American Legion magazine in an article which tries to blame the SDS for the May 4 killings, accusing the group of consciously working toward achieving a violent conflict to produce martyrs. The story notes an April 21, 1969 article in The Daily Kent Stater that spelled out SDS strategy's goal as "a major confrontation." (associatedcontent.com, 07.10.2005)
Like most campuses at that time, it was thought by many student activists that there were a number of "infiltrators," informants, and provocateurs on the government payroll. Their goal was likely causing disturbances under the guise of being students to direct blame for their own criminal acts onto local activists. In other cases involving such COINTELPRO actions, they also attempted to persuade activists towards violent and illegal actions.
On May 1st, there had been a riot outside of a bar on North Water Street where bikers, townies, and students hurled rocks, bottles, and insults at Kent Police. Were there provocateurs yelling at the cops? A series of FOIAs could answer these questions. A fire was built in the street, and Mayor Leroy Satrom read the riot act to the crowd, declaring a state of emergency. Did an infiltrator start the fire? It's not an impossibility.
Regardless, tensions were extremely high. Also on that day at Kent State was a large protest of around 500 students after President Nixon's aforementioned announcement of the invasion of Cambodia. Somehow, these two events became fused in the minds of the authorities. Were they itching for a confrontation? There was an air of panic throughout American universities at this time over student radicalism that reached points of total hysteria, and Kent State was no exception.
From May 2nd-to-3rd, there were violent confrontations between Kent State students, anti-war protesters and the Ohio National Guard. By May 4th, two students had been bayoneted. What were the soldiers told about the students by their commanders and the governor? When the Guard arrived at the university, the ROTC was burning-down. The arsonists have never been identified, just like the Haymarket bomber(s). Also within this context was the student activist call at that time to "bring the war home," and there were several acts of vandalism and taunting of the authorities (informants? provocateurs?). Ohio Governor James A. Rhodes only fanned the flames by referring to the protesters as "brownshirts," "communists", and as "dangerous revolutionaries." Similar conditions existed in the run up to the Boston Massacre.
Now, it seems we have something that got scant attention from the FBI's original investigations. A Kent State survivor, Alan Canfora, has unearthed an audiotape from the archives at Yale that could have a recording of the orders to fire on the students. Canfora played the tape at Kent State on Tuesday. Predictably, the media's reaction was dismissive.
He played two versions of the tape -- the original and an amplified version -- in which he says a Guard officer issues the command, "Right here! Get Set! Point! Fire!" Background noise on the recording made it difficult to understand as it was played for students and reporters in a campus theater Tuesday. The word "point" is clear, followed by the sound of shots being fired. There is no indication on the tape of who said the word. The tape was given to Yale in 1979 for its Kent State archives by an attorney who represented students in a lawsuit filed against the state over the shooting. Canfora said he found out about it six months ago while researching the shooting.(CNN, 05.02.2007)The FBI only reviewed segments of the tape in their investigations, and so, the sections that Canfora has unearthed are new evidence that was never seriously considered. The question is: why? The likely answer is that the authorities, and much of the public, wanted to put the incident behind them. All this ever did was submerge the divisions, and revealing the truth is the only way things will ever be healed, including the mistrust that the whole event generated in our government.
Roughly a year after Kent State, unknown activists broke-into the FBI's field office in Media, Pennsylvania, and subsequently outed the COINTELPRO programs to the New York Times and other papers. The FBI's investigations into Kent State during the era it happened cannot be take at face value in the context of their actions against the anti-war movement (and sundry others). It's akin to asking a burglar who's been caught if they're innocent, then taking them at their word. It's faulty logic, and expected from cultural managers in academia (historians) and the media (the press).
The mistrust created by such events can be allayed with transparency and declassification. The privacy of government informants is not important in this light, and they should be outed. Many of them are probably still alive today, and might know an entirely different story about Kent State than we all do. The truth must be known, and it will eventually, but we've waited long enough. A serious and honest investigation is in order.
Just six years after the Boston Massacre, America declared her independence from the Crown. History doesn't repeat itself exactly, but there are things about our peculiar system of governance that are worth saving. Ignoring these problematic events isn't going to preserve these liberties, and these issues affect us all, even 37-years-later. It's important to remember that Kent State wasn't the only incident of this type. That same month, on May 14-15, two Black students at Jackson State University were shot-and-killed by Mississippi Police (who were armed with carbines and submachine-guns).
12 other students were wounded in the hail of bullets fired by the 75 officers. This was the atmosphere throughout the nation in the Spring of 1970, and many feared a civil war had begun. What we should all learn is that communication is vital, and that we have to look at each other as human beings when this kind of social division and tension are prevalent. Fortunately, things aren't quite as contentious regarding Iraq--2/3rd's of the public want the war to end soon and think it was a mistake. Before the war, the numbers were the same over whether we could tolerate a prolonged-conflict: 2/3rd's said "no." Today, we have a silent minority, praise God.
Kent State, the Boston Massacre, and Virginia Tech didn't have to happen, but they did. We should heed the warnings of this senseless violence. It was more dangerous to be a college student in 1970 in many respects, but the Virginia Tech shootings are Kent State eight-times-over. Communication is the key, even if it's acrimonious and angry, it must be present for civil society to exist. Mediation should have occurred in all of these kinds of incidents, though this writer acknowledges that there are some gulfs that are too-far to bridge.We can't prevent every slaughter, but we can at least try. To do nothing is criminal, insuring more disaster. Moralizing isn't understanding or solving. We need to face the hard-truths and confront them, non-violently. That being said, people also have the right to defend themselves from undue force. Nobody said any of this was simple or clear-cut.
On the Boston Massacre: http://www.bostonmassacre.net/academic/essay4.htm
CNN on Canfora's discovery, 05.02.2007: http://www.cnn.com/2007/US/05/02/kent.state.ap/index.html
More Sources on the Kent and Jackson State shootings: http://www.may41970.com/Books%20and%20Sources/books_and_reference_on_may_4.htm
Jackson State, May 14-15: http://www.may41970.com/Jackson%20State/jackson_state_may_1970.htm
Kent State Timeline: http://www.may4.org/4.html & http://members.aol.com/nrbooks/chronol.htm
Alan Cafora's website: http://alancanfora.com/?q=node/10