May 2010 marks the 40th anniversary of the tragic violence at Kent State and Jackson State. In response to campus protests against President Nixon’s decision to invade Cambodia as part of the widening Vietnam War, four Kent State University students were killed and nine others were injured by gunfire from the Ohio National Guard on May 4, 1970. Ten days later, two students were killed and twelve more were injured by city and state police at Jackson State University in Mississippi.
I was teaching at UC Berkeley at the time of the Kent State and Jackson State shootings. The escalation of the war into Cambodia had just transformed the campus into a beehive of alternative programs within most departments, and the decisions by then Governor Ronald Reagan to enlist massive police and national guard forces in Berkeley and San Francisco was adding to the fear of time. We also had a police sniper shooting killing one person and blinding another.
I gave some thought to the school protests at the time, of my own role several years before in helping to create the first Teach-In in Ann Arbor, and of the many subsequent efforts to bring our government into an open forum to answer to our charges of the lies, inhumanity, and costs of that unwarranted war. I reflected upon the occupation of buildings, the blocking of recruitment offices, the pouring of blood on weapons, the public burning of draft cards, and the public return of medals by soldiers.
For me, the campus killings were a reminder that the human capacity to go about business as usual, while gross violence is committed in our name, is a form of abdication of conscience. Ordinary people lack the concentrated resources of the sprawling military-media-industrial complex. Our arguments do not provide massive financial support to political leaders and the machinery of power continues to dominate the direction of international intervention. Their greatest fears come not from reasonable objections, which can be easily ignored or marginalized, but from those who will not stand for the business of exploitation and killing as normal fare. The victims of Kent State and Jackson State, the slain civil rights leaders, Rachel Corrie, Ken Saro-Wiwa, and so many more are reminders that our normal threshold for tolerance of distant evil leaves more vulnerable those with courage to protest.
I remember my immediate personal reaction. A picture flashed through my mind: The setting was the Ardennes Forest in Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge, winter 1944-45. Three hundred American prisoners of war, presumably protected by the predecessor to the Geneva Convention, were lined up on the pure white snow, machine-gunned, the red blood pouring from their bodies staining the snow. At the time, I was about 100 miles southwest.
Now, hearing the news from Kent State, and later Jackson State, without reflection I associated the behavior of the national guard with that of the Nazis. In May 1970 I was in my third year as dean of the Rutgers University Graduate School of Education, committed to transforming a previously lily-white unit of the university into one reflecting the high urban population of the state, and of giving women a much greater role. The war, however, had been very much in our minds, so that when Kent burst into the world’s news, we decided to cancel classes and devote ourselves to deliberations and reflections.
The faculty and students had become accustomed to grief, with the assassinations of Dr. King and Senator Kennedy only two years earlier. While I had had experience with teach-ins, having co-organized one at NYU and participated in another at the University of Hawaii–both in 1965–I did not consider it appropriate at this time. Students had been murdered; it was a time for student initiative and involvement. My memory of our day of memorializing is dimmer than that of the Ardennes. We shared our frustrations over U.S. foreign policy, informed our Congressional representatives of our opposition to the war, and then, like the rest of the country, returned to the demands of daily life.
But that was not the end of it for, as I reported in an article in Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, two studies show that the protests of the American people had a significant effect on Nixon, contributing to his decision to withdraw from Vietnam, and on Reagan (after he announced that a little nuclear war–in Europe of course–was acceptable), leading him to negotiate seriously with Gorbachev. Living now in Arizona, where REAL men tote guns openly, I don’t feel that far removed from Kent and Jackson, and sometimes, from the Ardennes.
When the Kent State shootings happened I had been in this country only for a couple of years. A graduate student aspiring to go back to India to teach American Literature, a relatively new academic offering in Indian colleges, I found myself caught up in the social activism of the sixties. The socio-political dynamics of the time were no stranger to this twenty-something, female student of East Indian heritage of solid middle-class background. But the intensity and turmoil on American campuses shook me to the core.
The assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King soon after coming to America had given me a front row seat to the polarization and violence in the New World. The race riots brought the color divide home, after all I was a coconut–brown from the outside, white from the inside. And then Kent State happened. That too on a college campus. It was too close for comfort.
I was from a society where the police did not have guns. I had never heard that it was a citizen’s right to carry a firearm. I was starting a family and slowly beginning to accept that I may be living in this part of the world. Yes, it was a very personal awakening, because it happened in my neighboring state of Ohio, at a time when Detroit was still trying to reduce the tensions after the race riots. For the first time I noticed that there were something called Peace and Conflict Studies Programs.
I was paralyzed yet I wanted to be able to do something when Lillian Genser, the coordinator of the program at Wayne State University, where I was hoping to focus on the poetry of Eliot and Frost and analyze the novels Faulkner and Steinbeck, asked me to help with a conference to celebrate the work of Gandhi and King. One thing led to another and even after the conference I stayed on as a volunteer in the program. Just then Lillian was developing an educational initiative for the Detroit area public schools to look at the world, not as created by soldiers and warriors but by men and women of ideas.
Lillian asked me if I would do a bibliography of children’s literature on peace and conflict resolution. The memory of Kent State was fresh in my mind, a perfect time to do something constructive. It was a tiny peace study project. That is the context in which I recall that horrible event in Ohio, a time of such destruction but also a moment of waking up. Kent State need not have happened, if many more of us had not been sleeping.
In May 2005, I was invited to deliver a keynote address at Kent State University at an international conference on conflict resolution. The location of the conference was intentional, since it was the 35th Anniversary of the tragic Kent State shootings.
I was honored to be invited to speak for a number of reasons. The most important reason, however, was that I had attended Kent State in 1963, and during that period of time, I served as a resident hall counselor in Johnson Hall which was located only yards away from the site of the shootings almost a decade later.
The very grounds where the shooting occurred were on the open field expanse on which we played football and sat on blankets on warm summer evenings talking, telling stories, and relaxing. It was perhaps the most idyllic location on the Kent State campus–a hollow plain with gentle side slopes reminiscent of an amphitheater. I knew the area well.
On May 4, 1970, I was at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu wondering whether I should join the faculty or return to the Mainland USA following a year in Southeast Asia. When the news broke, I was in shock. The horror–the sheer horror of American troops shooting American students. As I watched TV, I immediately saw the location of the shootings as the very place we had sat and talked and played touch football. Ohio was my home. Hawaii would become my home for the next 33 years.
I gave my 2005 address at Kent State on culture and conflict. Later that day, I walked to that place and stood in silence. It could never be the same. I could never be the same. Our country would never be the same.
I had been totally apolitical all of my life, just no spare time to get involved with politics to understand it fully and to take sides meaningfully. I was just working too hard and long at creating my neophyte career to even care about those extrinsic things–until I was shamed into action by my secretary at NYU’s Bronx campus in the mid-sixties.
Anne Zeidberg insisted that I had to care about nuclear warfare and to join SANE, as a model for other faculty and students. Also she urged me to protest at the Time-Life Building in NYC after Time and Life magazines published articles (September 1961) about the ways in which building a fall-out shelter could enable Americans to survive the expected Soviet nuclear attack. It underwrote accepting the inevitability of nuclear war and giving rich people who lived in the suburbs an illusion of their survival. So I found myself picketing in front of that huge tower along with other well-dressed professors from NYU and CCNY, as passersby shouted “Commies,” “Get a Job,” and assorted obscenities. That was the small foot-in-the-big political door for me.
When I read about an anti-Vietnam War all-night Teach-In at Ann Arbor (I now realize it was organized by fellow psychologist Marc Pilisuk), I worked with Anne Z. to create one at NYU’s Bronx campus in winter 1965, which was very successful. With it I got a new identity as the campus radical. So when NYU’s administration decided to honor Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara with one of its Honorary Degrees at the 1966 June graduation, I mobilized graduates, parents, and some faculty to oppose it. We politely protested honoring this man who was sending our young men to their deaths knowing the war was unwinnable and without an exit strategy–by quietly walking out at the mention of his name. About 200 of us did so, a significant enough number that it made the front page of the NY Times the next morning. It nearly cost me my untenured assistant professorship–fortunately Stanford University called me to join their psychology department and saved my day under a new sun.
When Nixon, continuing with the lies that got us into Vietnam in the first place, promised “to end the war with dignity” if elected but instead extended the war by authorizing the bombing of Cambodia and Laos (revealed in April 1970), college campuses everywhere went on strike. Protests grew louder and more violent. When California Governor Ronald Reagan shut down all UC system colleges to prevent their involvement, the usually uninvolved Stanford students decided to get involved in protesting the war. Some of it was violent, trashing campus buildings, with one group discovered to have explosives ready for use.
I helped organize many students into more positive anti-war activities, like getting out the votes for Dove candidates and against Hawks (writing a book with Bob Abelson, Canvassing for Peace, 1970, to teach people effective principles of such actionable persuasion). I was proud that our students enabled the psychology department to become the center for Stanford’s Political Action Coordinating Committee that encompassed several thousand students across many projects. There was new hope that the forces of evil could be effectively countered.
That naïve optimism came under fire with the unimaginable massacres of students at Kent State (May 4, 1970) and Jackson State (May 14) by militia “just following orders,” and suspending conscience and morality to murder innocent citizens in protests against their elected officials who were transforming our democracy into their new fascism. It forced many of us to realize that We were as much the enemy as were the Vietcong in the gun sites of National Guardsmen; so too in the mind sites of Nixon, Kissinger, and FBI tyrant J. Edgar Hoover. The Weather Underground continued their aggressive policy of “bringing the war home” to Americans by blowing up government buildings and evading capture. But it was hard to be a pacifist against the wars in South East Asia and condone violence at home.
Eventually, a new hero emerged, Dan Ellsberg, whose 1971 expose of the top secret Pentagon Papers, in newspapers across the nation, revealed the perpetual lies of our Presidents about winning in Vietnam when their generals told them repeatedly that the war was not winnable. Kissinger called Daniel Ellsberg “the most dangerous man in America” (the title of a new engaging documentary of him and those perilous times). His “traitorous” act of heroism helped force the end of the Vietnam War and the demise of the nefarious Nixon.
I was proud to have become a political activist and a psychologist who helped change peoples’ minds about these events. I thank my dear departed secretary, Anne Zeidberg, for lighting the dormant fire in my heart to oppose systemic evil then, and now in opposition to the pre-emptive war in Iraq–Bush’s evil legacy of putting our young men and women in harm’s way for old lies rearranged in new propaganda garments.
As I’m sitting here organizing the details for our local memorial/protest this Tuesday, May 4, most of my reflections are present-day in preparation for Tuesday.
Though I have attended commemorations at Kent State in past years, in January 2005 Toledoans were provided with our own personal site for reflection where “a 7 1/2-foot statue, placed atop a black granite foundation at the western edge of the plaza outside the towering Toledo Government Center features a trim Mr. Rhodes striding forward, a briefcase bearing the state seal clutched in his right hand,” a statue created by the local university. I was there with others at the unveiling of that statue: “Twelve people stood at the edge of the unveiling outside the building, quietly singing and holding signs protesting the existence of the statue because, their signs said, Mr. Rhodes was responsible for the deaths of four Kent State University students. The students were shot by national guardsmen on May 4, 1970, during a demonstration against the Vietnam War.”
On that day I was impressed by two actions. One member of our protest confronted the president of the university, his boss, who was there to receive accolades for creating the statue. “You shouldn’t be here Dr. Johnson.” The second was from another member of our group who I didn’t know well at the time, and have come to love and admire. We were promised our protest could stay (public property notwithstanding) as long as we remained quiet. At one point a strong baritone began the chorus, “Four dead in Ohio.” The power of that voice at that time was palatable. I’ve learned from the courage of my friends.
Since the statue was erected in 2005, our local peace group has had rallies at the base of that statue at One Government Center as a memorial to the four students who were killed by National Guardsmen called out by Mr. Rhodes. Activities this year, as in the past, will include poetry, a speech by University of Toledo professor Dr. Laurence Coleman, who was on the Kent State campus that day, music, and four mock tombstones with the pictures of William Schroeder, Sandra Scheuer, Jeffrey Miller, and Allison Krause.
As an addendum, these are Governor Rhodes’ words at a press conference on May 3, 1970, the day before the four students were murdered: “They’re worse than the brown shirts and the communist element and also the night riders and the vigilantes,” Rhodes said. “They’re the worst type of people 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.”
The worse of the worst. Sound familiar?
P.S. I’ve been told one of the sculptors of the statue put something special in that briefcase that Rhodes is carrying . . .
I was 17 and a college dropout in May 1970, the month of the Kent and Jackson State killings of protesting students. For me these events came at the end of two years of active engagement in and many years of passive support for the antiwar and other social movements of the time. I had attended innumerable demonstrations, been chased by police with batons at the ready, handed out leaflets, read nearly every radical publication I could get my hands on, and believed that radical social change was on the agenda.
In Vietnam, millions were being butchered by our country’s desperate attempt to hold onto every outpost of its empire, no matter what the imperial subjects wanted. At the end of April 1970, I watched with hundreds of others in an MIT lecture hall as President Nixon announced that he was further exporting U.S.-sponsored death and destruction as he radically expanded the U.S. attacks on Vietnam’s neighbor, Cambodia. Then, on May 4th the bullets flew at Kent State, killing four students.
The killings brought home to millions across the country that our country’s violence overseas would not spare the citizens at home. Across the country, students in their millions went on strike. These included students at traditional radical centers like Columbia, Berkeley, and the University of Wisconsin, Madison. But it also included those attending community colleges and thousands of high schools.
In Boston we planned for a citywide demonstration. One faction wanted to invade and occupy the Massachusetts State House, seeking to broaden the confrontation with the forces of authority. I was in the faction that resisted that action, a position I’ve wondered about ever since.
As we planned for the rally, it was not just students who expressed support. We met with delegations from many work places–I can no longer remember precisely which workplaces these were–where workers, who still had unions in those days, expressed opposition to the war and support of our protest. Some unknown thousands joined our protests, as did many professionals.
The demonstration came. There were 100,000 people out on a weekday, protesting the murder of U.S. citizens and the murder of Vietnamese and Cambodian citizens. Across the country there were similar demonstrations. It seemed that the Southeast Asian war could not survive this militant rejection by an aroused and active citizenry.
But then the next day came. Gradually students returned to their classrooms. After all, there were final exams to be prepared for. And the workers returned to work; there were paychecks needing to be brought home. When, 10 days after the Kent State shootings, two students were killed at Jackson State, there was little expression of outrage. For one thing, the dead were poor black (“African-American” didn’t exist yet) students in the south where murders of protesting blacks was no stranger, who did not arouse quite as much identification as did the white students of Kent State. But, alas, the movement had already died over that week and half. When school resumed in the fall, the movement was but a shadow of its former self, gradually fizzling out over the next several years.
We did not realize it yet, but the Kent State protests were the beginning of the end of the sixties’ protest movements. In the national student and worker strikes encompassing millions, we activists had exceeded many of our dreams. Yet, the empire didn’t stop. It didn’t even hiccup. The bombs continued raining death and destruction on Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos for another five long years. The protests declined. And there was no accountability for the deaths in Kent State, at Jackson State, or in Southeast Asia.
We didn’t know it yet, but the lesson learned by all too many of the post-Kent State protesters was that the opinions of people in our country hardly matter, that the forces of law and order will continue on regardless. Protest movements lost their force and power. Cynicism ultimately reigned supreme. Political and civic engagement became largely a spectator sport, as we watched the Watergate hearings on TV. We saw the culmination of this defanging of social movements when the newly-elected Ronald Reagan easily crushed the PATCO air traffic controllers strike with mass firings of thousands of strikers, dealing the labor movement in the U.S. a blow from which it has never recovered.
In the decades since, there have been important social movements, such as the nuclear freeze movement, the movement against U.S. intervention in support of murderous regimes in Latin America, or that against the reckless expansion of nuclear power. There have been some successes. But the basic disempowerment of ordinary people has continued apace, reinforced as it was so recently by a corporatist politician claiming that a vote for him was a vote for a vacuous “hope,” a hope that became synonymous with business as usual once the election was over.
In the decades since the Kent and Jackson State killings, the message that the rich and powerful can rule as they wish has become ever stronger as we have seen the most rapid expansion in inequality ever seen in this country, with the wealthy waging unceasing class warfare against the majority. Millions of poor, largely people of color, have been thrown into horrific prisons resembling those in the most infamous human rights offenders in the world, with systematic brutality, beatings, and rapes arousing hardly any outrage. The American empire continues to inflict death and destruction to those in poor countries around the world. And the impunity with which traditional taboos against openly-expressed support for torture have disappeared as its organizers and supporters flood the air waves with explicit defenses shows that there is no longer much of a pretense of civility to the ruling powers.
But the protests after Kent State also remind us that there are times when millions of people become fed up with the lies, the deceit, and the brutality of the powerful forces that rule. Difficult as it is to believe that these voices will overcome their lethargy and again become aroused and challenge the powerful, we cannot give in to the cynicism which those powerful rely upon. We may not know when, but we can be assured that moments of radical social protest will again sweep our country, perhaps sooner than we think as we enter a long period of massive unemployment that may eventually shake the sense that the status quo, however bad, is good enough. When that moment comes we must do what we can to help the movements challenge and transform the forces which are bringing misery to millions. As Joe Hill said before his death “Don’t mourn. Organize!”
After the Kent State/Jackson State incidents, Nixon in 1970 ratified the Huston plan, and took it to the directors of the NSA, the FBI, the CIA and the DIA (the Defense Intelligence Agency). The plan included over 40 pages of plans to target radicals. After the university strikes, students were high on the list.
The plan included prison camps for detaining anti-war protesters. Hoover of the FBI was the only director to have objected, even though he had originally assigned the author of the plan, Huston, as the FBI/White House liaison. Nixon eventually and reluctantly rescinded the plan, although much of it was almost immediately implemented by the FBI and other agencies. This included lowering the age of FBI informants for the surveillance of college students.
Is this part of the reason we see fewer student protests today? It is hard to tell.
In 2005, Director of the FBI Robert Mueller created an advisory board on universities made up of university presidents. Surveillance was not a stated objective, but from Mueller’s perspective, the explicit objectives ranged from the Board, “Offering [the FBI] advice about the traditions of openness, academic freedom and international collaboration” to the Board serving as “a recruitment tool for the FBI and other law enforcement agencies.”
One member of the Board was former CIA Director, now our Secretary of Defense, Robert M. Gates. Gates then, in 2005, was the President of the militaristic Texas A&M. When asked about the Board, Gates reflected on a recent conversation with his old time and future colleague, Dick Cheney. The discussion was about foreign students having trouble obtaining visas. Gates reportedly assured Cheney, “This isn’t the ’60s and ’70s. The universities want to be helpful. We understand the threats to the country and, unlike in the past, there is a real opportunity for cooperation that is beneficial to both sides.” Whether it is beneficial to the students and their rights and the rights of others is difficult to tell.
But ultimately Gates is right about some of it. This is definitely not the ‘60s and ‘70s. The U.S. Government has learned–it seems–how to never again allow another Kent State/Jackson State. The universities of today want to be helpful. They want to understand the threats to the country, internal and external. Unfortunately, the universities and students seemed to have lost something from the ‘60s and ‘70s that was extraordinarily powerful and precious. What is that? Did they lose their understanding of their legal rights to voice protest, to voice dissent against U.S. foreign wars? Will they ever regain their voices to stand collectively against such wars? Will they, as they did at Kent State and Jackson State and hundreds of other campuses, ever collectively contribute to such a turning point in U.S. History again?
Wikipedia: The Huston Plan: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Huston_Plan
Michigan Daily. FBI Forms Advisory Board On Universities. 11/20/2005