Kent State Thirty Years Later

Article excerpt

What We're Still Fightin' For

MAY 4, 2000 It was just after noon and the Victory Bell began to ring across the Kent State University Commons. The bell rang fifteen times. Thirty years earlier, Ohio National Guard members had opened fire on a campus Vietnam War protest. Four students were killed, nine were wounded. Two weeks after the Kent State shootings, Mississippi police killed two protesting students at Jackson State University.

The shootings have been commemorated each year since at Kent State, bringing in speakers and performers whose names have become synonymous with activism: Helen Caldicott, Jane Fonda, and William Kuntzler; Peter, Paul, and Mary; Joan Baez; and Crosby, Stills, and Nash. This year was no different, spotlighting some of the most prominent U.S. leaders of social and political change: death-row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal, Philadelphia MOVE member Ramona Africa, Global Exchange's Julliette Beck, the American Indian Movement's Vernon Bellecourt, environmental and social justice advocate Julia Butterfly Hill, and political theorist Noam Chomsky.

Kent State graduate student Kabir Syed, a ten-year member of the May Fourth Task Force--which has been organizing commemorations for the past twenty-five years--said this year's ceremonies reflected the solidarity and interconnectedness of current national movements:

The wide variety of issues speaks to the growth of the social-political movement which exists in the U.S. We see a range and, yet, an integration of ideology here today. Though there are differences between us, we are growing aware that these differences need not separate us from accomplishing our tasks.

Notably, this year also was the first time all of the nine wounded had gathered together on campus since 1970. Alan Canfora, who was struck in the right wrist, came with his sister Chic, who also was present at the Kent State shootings. "May 4 is not just about tragedy," Chic Canfora explained to the audience. "We assemble here each year not only to remember our fallen friends but to resurrect the issues and ideals for which they died. The most important of which, for all of us, for every American citizen, is freedom of speech."

They were two of some 3,000 students, Vietnam War veterans, activists, and others who travelled from as far away as Seattle, Washington, and Quebec, Canada, not only to remember what had happened in 1970 but to celebrate the long tradition of protest and resistance that stemmed from it.

What Really Happened?

On April 30, 1970, U.S. President Richard Nixon announced to the nation that he was expanding the Vietnam War into neighboring Cambodia. College campuses across the United States immediately rose in protest. At Ohio's mid-sized public university, Kent State, Nixon's announcement began four days of protest that culminated in four deaths and nine woundings.

To this day, heated controversy and questions surround the events at Kent State between April 30 and May 4, 1970. Perhaps most debated is the burning of the university's Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) building the evening of May 2, 1970.

In response to the two previous days of demonstrations, Kent, Ohio, Mayor Leroy Satrom had declared the city in a state of civil emergency. The sale of alcohol, firearms, ammunition, and gasoline was prohibited and a citywide curfew of 8:00 PM was put into effect. Kent State's curfew, however, had been 1:00 AM, SO at 8:00 PM on May 2 some 1,500 students gathered at the ROTC building to protest what they saw as the actualization of marshal law. Alan Canfora participated in the demonstration and in one of several recent interviews told me what he recalls about that night:

Some of the students there did try to light the building on fire. It was like the Three Stooges trying to burn the ROTC building; throwing matches through the windows. Then the fire trucks showed up with the sheriffs, state troopers, campus police, and Kent police and thoroughly doused out the few curtains that did catch fire. …