Thursday, April 21, 2016

67 Shots: Kent State and the End of American Innocence

On May 4, 1970 the Ohio National Guard and student protesters engaged in a conflict that resulted in four students dead and nine wounded. It was the culmination of days of increased emotional conflict that began when President Nixon announced that American troops were going into Cambodia to cut off supplies to the Viet Cong. He thought it would help end the war. Students at Kent State University did not see it that way.

Fueled by 3.2 beer, the fine spring weather, high emotions, and a culture of idealism, students began protesting. They burned down the campus ROTC building. The Ohio governor called in the National Guard and the campus was put under a military take-over. Students protested the military presence, attacking the Guard with curses, throwing stones and bricks and bags of human feces and urine. And at some point the Guard felt vulnerable, and either were instructed or emotionally reacted with use of force. And 67 shots from military grade rifles splattered the crowds--the innocent and the threatening, and those walking to class and the merely curious.

In May of 1970 I was a senior in high school and the heady last weeks of school activities and parties betrayed my inner life, my deep sense of loneliness, self doubt, and a longing for connection. My diary pages are filled with everyone I talked to, joked with, every event I attended, poetry, dreams, mentions of books I read. But the greater world is not present.

I was aware of the cultural and political climate, but I resented the confusing conflicts of the world; I was a girl still trying to figure myself out. The body counts, protests, generational war, violence, hate, distrust, drugs--these were scary. While the events of May 4, 1970 at Kent State University occurred I was avoiding television news and hoping someone, any one, would ask me to the senior prom. It was as big a problem as I could handle. I was seventeen years old.

I have never had any illusions about the 1960s being the 'best of times' to grow up. For years I avoided thinking about those days. Starting with the Cuban Missile Crisis to The Ballad of the Green Berets, the War on Poverty to Hell No, We Won't Go, and sit-ins and Hippies and Earth Day-- it seemed I grew up in one long arc of culture and political wars. There were the assassinations and the brutal response to Civil Rights workers. We went from the bubble gum silliness of I Want To Hold Your Hand to Hey! Look! What's that Sound! and the drop out idealism of The Age of Aquarius. On May 6 anti-war protesters at Memorial Park in my home town of Royal Oak, MI marched to the local draft board; it turned into a melee. In August the park was the scene of riots between thousands of youth and the police. The national discord had come to my hometown.

I requested 67 Shots: Kent State and the End of American Innocence by Howard Means because, nearly fifty years later, it was past time I dealt with those days and understood what had happened. It was a painful trip, like witnessing a horrible accident you can't look away from.

Howard Means' book is thorough and detailed, including newly available oral histories. He recreates the events that escalated fear and high emotions, politicizing students who reacted in visceral hate against the overwhelming military presence on the campus: 1,317 Guardsmen with bayonets on their powerful M1 rifles, hundreds of trucks including armored personnel carriers, mortar launchers, and helicopters. Rumors spread fear. Town residents boarded up businesses and family men kept armed watch over their homes.

Human beings, young men and women in their late teens and early twenties, lost their identity and became bums, pigs, commies, traitors, hoodlums, hippies. The students were no longer 'our children', they were the enemy. Rational thought was lost. Compassion was dead. The opposing forces were just a bunch of kids, really, scared armed boys and angry kids yet to understand the deadly earnestness of this escalating local war.

After the shootings the students could have easily been sucked into the moment, charging the Guardsmen, resulting in more deaths. Thankfully, four men stepped in. A highway patrolman, Major Don Manley, convinced General Canterbury of the National Guards to give students time to disperse before further action. Graduate student Steven Sharoff meet with Gen. Canterbury and was told to move the students off. Sharoff told the students to sit down and popular geology professor Glenn Frank, an ex-Marine with a flat-top haircut, addressed the students with anguished voice and in tears, pleading for them to disperse before there was a slaughter. He convinced them, saving lives. The Guard who had surrounded the students made exits and the students slowly left.

The aftershock rocked the country. Protests and student strikes rocked the country. People tried to understand what had happened and how it had happened, who was to blame. The President for taking the war into Cambodia? The Ohio governor for sending in the National Guard? The Kent State leadership for it's 'appeasement' when the students burned down the ROTC? The protesting students who threatened and cajoled the Guardsmen? The Guard for ordering fire? Guardsmen who were scared and reacted viscerally in self-protection?

Here's the kicker. There is no resolution. No PI, detective, policeman, rounds up the usual suspects, details the series of events, and IDs the murderer. No court case judge found a guilty party. We do not know exactly how the National Guards came to shoot at the protesters.

The great divisions in America have changed but survive. The dehumanization of people who do not fit our world view or philosophy is rampant. I see comments on social media from individuals who have no compunction in announcing they hate so-and-so. When will we learn to talk and listen? To seek common ground? To build bridges and not walls?

Means ends the book with a quote stating that without forgiveness there is no healing and "the murder goes on forever." That does not mean to forget what had happened; the deaths of the four students must serve as a reminder and lesson.

I received a free ARC through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.
"Using the university's recently available oral history collection, Howard means delivers a book that tracks events still shrouded in misunderstanding, positions them in the context of a tumultuous era in American History, and shows how the shootings reverberate still in our national life."
67 Shots: Kent State and the End of American Innocence
Howard Means
DeCapo Press
Publication Date: April 12, 2016
$25.99 hard cover
ISBN 9780306823794