Kent State University
It was over in just thirteen seconds. An unlucky number that would leave four students dead and nine others wounded at Kent State University. I am standing on the crest of a small hill, overlooking the parking lot where the Ohio National Guard herded protesting students. Over 2000 students had gathered to protest President Nixon’s decision to invade Cambodia and a few agitators began to throw rocks at the soldiers. The National Guard responded by firing tear gas canisters at the students, but a brisk wind blew the gas away from the crowd. A few students probably believed the wind favored their side; none of the students understood that a warm spring day could kill.
I walk down a grassy slope and now stand in the parking lot. I look back at the spot where the National Guard stood in line. The militia held the high ground but had their retreat blocked by a large building. The students had no desire to retreat because student protests had become a national pastime for the young and this particular protest was quickly becoming the best show in town.
The defining moment when a crowd becomes a mob is not easy to calculate, and therein lies the tragedy of much human misery. Eyewitnesses interpret the events of May 4, 1970 through human eyes, a lens often tainted by time or trauma, but one incontrovertible fact remains clear: shortly after noon the Ohio National Guard aimed their rifles at the college students and fired between 61 and 67 bullets in thirteen seconds toward the parking lot. American soldiers had killed American citizens. The words Kent State forever entered the lexicon of the turbulent counterculture of the 1960s and early 1970s and shocked a nation’s conscious.
I now stand at a place midway between where the guard and students clashed almost forty years ago. I glance at the crest of the small hill and at the parking lot. I see the faces of guardsmen and the faces of college students. Both groups are restless and frightened. But the most striking similarity is age. The guardsmen and college students are the same ages, mostly 18-and 19-year-old teenagers. Where are the adults? Why weren’t adults standing where I am standing now? This “no man’s land” of real estate could have been the perfect place for responsible adults to yell, “STOP!”
Sadly, no such interdiction occurred. A generation of young people was left to settle a nation’s conflicted soul on the soil of a Midwest college campus. The village elders and faculty arrived after the killings, and did a good job preventing more bloodshed. But they arrived too late.
In the aftermath of the Kent State shootings sides quickly formed; the younger generation mostly blamed the National Guard and the older generation mostly blamed the protesters. Guardsmen were labeled “murderers” and students labeled “anarchists.” The dead and wounded became martyrs to a generation that believed revolution could transform society’s ills and make the world a peaceable kingdom.
If only adults had acted as the peacemakers.
The opinions expressed in Road Diaries: 2009 Teacher of the Year are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.