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Forty Years Ago Today: May 4, 1970

Today is the 40th anniversary of the shootings at Kent State University in Ohio. On April 30, 1970, President Nixon had ordered the bombing of Cambodia. Across the country people were fed up. Nixon had promised to end the bloody war in Vietnam, and instead he was escalating it.

At Kent State, a small demonstration was held on May 1, and plans were made for a larger on on May 4. The night of May 1,

Trouble exploded in town around midnight when people left a bar and began throwing beer bottles at cars and breaking downtown store fronts. In the process they broke a bank window, setting off an alarm. The news spread quickly and it resulted in several bars closing early to avoid trouble. Before long, more people had joined the vandalism and looting.

The next day the Mayor of Kent asked the Governor to send in the National Guard to control the situation.

During a press conference, Governor Rhodes called the protesters un-American and referred to the protesters as revolutionaries set on destroying higher education in Ohio. “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.” Rhodes can be heard in the recording of his speech yelling and pounding his fists on the desk.

On the night of May 2, a group of about 2,000 marchers surrounded the old ROTC building on campus, which was scheduled to be demolished. At some point someone set the building on fire. The fire was put out, and then someone started another one.

Police surrounded the building and dispersed the students with tear gas. The firemen again got the fire under control.

The crowd then moved to the front of the campus. The students retreated to the Commons to find the ROTC building smoldering at both ends. Within minutes, the building was fully ablaze.

The crowd then assembled on the wooded hillside beside the commons and watched as the building burned. Many shouted anti- war slogans. In the first two weeks of May, thirty ROTC buildings would be burned nationwide.

Armed with tear gas and drawn bayonets, the guard pursued students, protesters and bystanders alike, into dormitories and other campus buildings. Some stones were thrown and at least one student was bayoneted. The question of who set the fire that destroyed ROTC building has never been satisfactorily answered by any investigative body.

The demonstration on May 4th was scheduled for noon. The University banned the protest, but people started showing up anyway. About 2,000 people eventually gathered on the university Commons. The National Guard troops tried twice to break up the protest, and then fired tear gas and moved toward the crowd of students. The students retreated and the guardsmen followed. Some students were throwing rocks at the troops and making obscene gestures.

At some point one guardsman, Sgt Taylor began firing at the students with a pistol, and 29 other guardsman fired into the crowd with their M1 rifles (with bayonets attached). More than 60 shots were fired in 13 seconds. Four students were killed; one, Dean Kahler, was paralyzed for life; and eight others were wounded. Killed were:

Allison Krause, a 19-year-old freshman honors student who took part in the demonstration

Jeffrey Miller, 19, who had recently transferred from the University of Michigan who was a friend of Allison Krause and also participated in the demonstration. He was 265 feet from the shooters.

Sandra Scheuer, 20, who was on her way to class and not involved in the demonstration. She was 400 feet away from the shooters.

William Schroeder, 19, an ROTC member, was also on his way to class and not a participant in the demonstration.

Back in 1970, the notion that National Guard troops would fire into a crowd of unarmed students was incredibly shocking. The nation was stunned. Today, I suppose these students would be called terrorists. So much has changed.

Today right wingers are arguing that the National Guard troops were justified in shooting at these college kids. James Rosen, a Fox News Washington correspondent wrote a piece that was published in the Washington Times this morning: New light shed on Kent State killings He reports on newly declassified information from FBI files, and claims there is evidence that someone shot at the troops and they returned fire in response.

The newly released information reveals a conversation that was reported by a young woman who claimed to have overheard it:

“We did it,” one man exulted, according to the inquiry. “We got the riot started.”

The second man expressed disappointment at being excluded from the riot’s planning. “Wait until tomorrow night,” the leader replied excitedly. “We just got the word. We’re going to burn the ROTC building.”

This was 20 hours before the ROTC headquarters on the Kent State campus, an old wooden frame building, was, in fact, burned to the ground.

“What about the flare?” the second man asked before the leader spotted the coed listening to them and abruptly ended the conversation. Dozens of witnesses later told the FBI they saw a flare used to ignite the blaze.

So who were these people? And how does this justify the shootings of unarmed students, some of whom weren’t even participants in any demonstrations?

Later in the article Rosen writes that there had been “rumors of snipers,” and that one witness claimed to have overheard a guardsman talk of “a confirmed report of a sniper.” And there’s this:

It also turned out that the FBI had its own informant and agent-provocateur roaming the crowd, a part-time Kent State student named Terry Norman, who had a camera. Mr. Norman also was armed with a snub-nosed revolver that FBI ballistics tests, first declassified in 1977, concluded had indeed been discharged on that day.

OK, this isn’t new information.

Terry Norman, the youth with the gun, was a 22-year-old occasional student at Kent State and a free-lance photographer whose primary interest seemed to be taking photos of campus demonstrations. Apparently, at various times, he worked for the campus police, the FBI, or both. Before the May 4 demonstration, Sergeant Mike Delaney, press liaison for the Guard, had initially refused to issue Norman a press pass because Norman lacked the proper credentials. A campus liaison offered to vouch for Norman but that didn’t sway Delaney. He finally relented only after the campus police intervened, saying that Norman was “under contract to the FBI to take pictures.”

Apparently James Rosen has never heard of COINTELPRO, J. Edgar Hoover’s counterintelligence program that spied on “political dissidents” in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. Basically, they infiltrated leftist and peace organizations and tried to incite young people to violence in order to neutralize the anti-war movement.

According to FBI records, 85% of COINTELPRO resources were expended on infiltrating, disrupting, marginalizing, and/or subverting groups suspected of being subversive,[4] such as communist and socialist organizations; the women’s rights movement; militant black nationalist groups, and the non-violent civil rights movement, including individuals such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and others associated with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Congress of Racial Equality, the American Indian Movement, and other civil rights groups; a broad range of organizations labeled “New Left”, including Students for a Democratic Society, the National Lawyers Guild, the Weathermen, almost all groups protesting the Vietnam War, and even individual student demonstrators with no group affiliation; and nationalist groups such as those “seeking independence for Puerto Rico.”

James Rosen and the Washington Times have no better idea of what happened on the Kent State Campus on May 4, 1970 than I do. I wasn’t there and neither were they. Even the people who were there that day don’t know what caused the guardsmen to fire and kill unarmed students. The fact is what happened was wrong, and there can be no justification for it. Those young guardsmen should not even have been ordered to carry loaded weapons on a college campus.

Allison Krause’s sister Laurel has organized The Kent State Truth Tribunal where witnesses can testify in search of what really happened. For more information, watch this Democracy Now report with an interview of Laurel by Amy Goodman. There are also scenes from a documentary with interviews of witnesses, including guardsmen who fired on students that day.

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37 Responses

  1. I love how right wingers say these things as if they make sense. A shot may have been fired, no one knows by who or where, so *of course* that justifies trained professionals working in a military or law enforcement capacity to begin wholesale indiscriminate firing. Who could possibly object to that self-evident position? Jeebus. Excellent post, bb.

    • Thanks!

    • Their attempts to defend the indefensible reminds me of the Gandhi quote, “Permanent good can never be the outcome of untruth and violence.”

    • Trained professionals?

      These are guard members.

      This is where the lucky, or the ones with connections went to avoid Vietnam.

      Think Bush and Quayle.

  2. What happened to Terry Norman? Where is he?

  3. Here’s something about Terry Norman.

    At the time of the shootings, Norman was working as an undercover spy on the Kent campus for the FBI, taking photos of student dissenters, specifically members of the SDS. He was standing among the protestors as the shootings occurred, with a loaded handgun. Immediately following the shootings, he was seen holding the handgun in the air. A policeman on the scene believed Norman had fired the gun. In later police reports, Norman’s gun was analyzed and discovered to contain five bullets of one type and a single bullet of another type, as if a bullet had been loaded to replace the one fired that day. Norman disappears from Kent shortly after the shootings only to reappear in D.C. months later, working for law enforcement out there.

    Given that many members of the National Guard claim they only opened fire after they heard a single gunshot from the direction of the student protestors, the question remains: was Norman an FBI agent provocateur? Or just some chum trying to play FBI?

    I’ve attempted to push the Ohio AG’s office to look into Norman’s role in the shootings. He lives on the top of a secluded mountain, now, in North Carolina. I’m one of the few people to have actually spoken to him about the events of that day. It’s time he came back to answer some more questions.

  4. That was a scary time. The good thing was that and related events started the downward spiral of the war and the Nixon white house.

    Sadly for us all, a number of WH staffers, Cheney, Rumy, and others carried a deep hatred of Americans having a will and deciding policy with their numbers.

    Unfortunately politics changed after that war and watergate that followed, not to be better and have better policies, but instead to never let the American public get the upper hand ever again.

    • Too bad then newly elected President Bill Clinton disregarded the advice of some of his staff about re-opening the Iran-contra hearings that might have saved us some of the pain the last administration inflicted.

  5. Thanks for this post BB. Kent State stands as one of the reminders of how we are not as free as we believe. Any movement that threatens the agenda of the state will be put down by whatever means possible. That conceptual control is evidenced all throughout our history, even into today.

    Those Kent protesters are a historical example of the Baby Boom’s generation of activism. Will the younger generations pick up the banner or will they lay down and accept whatever fate is handed to them?

    It’s why I feel incredible cognitive dissonance when listening to mainstream media or reading talking points. It’s part of our system.

    • To answer your question:

      “Will the younger generations pick up the banner or will they lay down and accept whatever fate is handed to them?”

      The draft would do it. Although I don’t recommend it.

  6. Great post, BB – I remember that incident well. I had the biggest argument with my father about that – him thinking it was justified and me being completely horrified that unarmed students were killed. I lost so much respect for him and our relationship was never the same afterwards.

  7. I think that photo won a pulitzer. Am I correct?

    Also, there was a story on that female student kneeling and crying over the wounded/dead person a few years ago. I forgot what the story was – she got into drugs or died of overdose or something.

    • yes, it did and the photog says he has a much better photo but evidently it was more vivid so it didn’t get printed

    • The story was that the girl was a 14 year old runaway. That’s all I remember. She looks older than 14 to me.

    • She wasn’t even a student from what I saw on Democracy now. She was a 14-year-old runaway.

  8. OT, for Dak and New Orleans:

    MSNBC website reporting that BP’s Deepwater Horizon lease was EXEMPTED from the Interior Department’s detailed environmental impact analysis last year. They were given a “categorical exclusion” (exemption) by Obama’s Interior Department April 6, 2009.

    BTW, did you know that Obama was the largest recipient of campaign contributions from BP?

    • Just speculation, but my experience observing Obama tells me that there is a good chance he has made a back room deal with BP. He goes out and calls them responsible and says they will pay for the leak, while behind the scenes he promises them that there will be no real punishment, nothing that hurts at least.

      • By federal law, passed by Congress after the Exxon spill years ago, the company involved is only held responsible for $75 million of the total damages.

        Anything over that, the government picks up.

        Meaning , of course—–you and me, in taxes.

        But I’m with you: there’s a back room deal with the oil companies, especially in the Obama Energy Bill. He already “negotiated” with them, through John Kerry, before the bill was completed (much like Healthcare was “negotiated” with pharma and insurance).

        • Oh, pleeeeze, is there some citation for this?

          I couldn’t figure out why Kerry came out as he did early on about the energy bill. Seemed at odds with his past record nd statements.

          I recall thinking that no one who went into the Bush/Cheney administration came out with their reputation intact. Is the same thing happening w/ the Obama administration? Even spreading to any Dems in DC?

          Susie Madrak has a post up about the EPA’s new “report,” actually a rather squishy on the one hand and on the other set of proposals for managing coal waste. Lisa Jackson had been a pretty strong environmental advocate when she worked for Jon Corzine; now…? Not totally sure, but there sure seem to loopholes for Big Bidness in her proposals/report.

          Susie sees them as punting on the coal waste issue. How anyone can do that is beyond me — unless there’s a strong corporatist influence at work.

    • why doesn’t that surprise me?

    • Can you pinpoint when you heard this, or, better yet, do you have a link? I’ve googled around and the closest I came up with was this comment by a poster at AIM (as with FOX, also needs double checking).

      FNC is reporting that this BP blow out and oboma’s late response (11 days before he addressed the BP situation), could be HIS Katrina, the floods in the Midwest only serves to make a bad situation worse. People will remember Obama in his televised speech to allow for off shore drilling, and we are not going to let him get off easy. As I posted earlier this morning in another AIM article:

      “Obama is laying “all the blame” on BP for the oil well blow out, even though BP set down with the Administration in early 2009, and allowed them to drill with static preventers, instead of using a B-Section BOP (blow out preventer), they have what are called ‘Blind-Rams’ inside the BOP that in the case of a potential gas kick or blowout, these rams will shear off the pipe in the hold, which prevents anything like this from happening. BP does own much responsibility, but they are not alone, the US sets standards in out territorial waters. Drilling in deep water, should be the same as land rigs, even more so for off shore drilling. However they are also looking into the possibility of a planted explosive device.”

      I couldn’t find anything at FOX, but maybe my search terms weren’t good enough.

      So, would greatly appreciate a link! Thnx!

  9. As a college student in California at that time, I know that many administrators and faculty members themselves helped create the situation that gave rise
    to Kent, and to other campuses across this country. In response to us as students, the college
    reponded by calling the mayor, and in turn they called
    the National Guard.

    When all the hell broke loose at Kent, all of a sudden
    we had experiences that no others had before on campus, and our roles were political. It wasn’t just the politics of the campus, but the community, the local police the state, the national guards and the federal government.

    Back then we were UPTIGHT. I just wonder when looking back over Kent state, why we don’t hear
    from the counselors/advisors, they were the ones who talked one to one with students. They were the ones who cared, who addressed our tensions and our problems.

    Like the student confrontation era, today we still ask
    why can’t we sit down like logical people and talk things over.

  10. I was in 7th grade when that happened. I was also a huge fan of CSN&Y… funny though, for me their music did not hold up as well as some music that was more popular that I only heard on the radio.
    Of course my extreme idealism did not hold up either. I can now look at both sides and feel sorry for both groups of young people, those protesting and those who were in the National Guard. Of course the shooting was not justified, but the Guardsmen were not monsters either.

    It was a sad sad day and I remember that we staged a walk out, later in the week, at my middle school and gathered at the flag to read poetry. We did NOT get in trouble and it was me and a friend Cindy who instigated the whole thing along with a few other friends, all of us with older siblings who were doing the same at the HS.

    Anyway, do not remember this with too much of a blind eye to the fact that many of the leaders in the anti-war movement were not worth admiring, one killed his girl friend and stuffed her in a trunk, a few blew up buildings and got their rich daddies to keep them out of prison. No group of people, no movement is all right, filled with Saints and the opposition all wrong.

    • You should watch the clips from the documentary at Democracy Now. There’s a link in the post. Some of the guardsman who were there were interviewed. It was very interesting. They were very confused at the time and probably the same ages as the students.

  11. I would like to know where slimeball Bill Ayers was that day.

  12. News post up.

  13. I was in my office in NYC when I heard the news, and remember that first I cried, then got furiously angry. Wound up at the huge counter-demonstration in DC the following weekend.

    Tricky was itching for a fight–there were troops and tanks everywhere and the Weathermen/provocateurs were trying their damndest to start one, but people stayed cool and it turned into one very big party.

    Standing by the side of the road afterwards, trying to hitch a ride back to New York, we were ignored by most of the civilians, their windows rolled all the way up and their noses in the air.

    Then the troops started pulling out for wherever, and the vibe changed completely. They hooted, they cheered, they flashed the peace sign, and they threw us joints–lots of joints.

    Of course they were regular Army, not National Guard, and probably at least 50% of them were draftees. I doubt they’d have hesitated, earlier, to mow us down if they’d been ordered to.

    But they were still us, and we all knew it.

    • I was in a riot in Harvard Square after the bombing of Cambodia was announced. It was happening all over the country. People were fed up with the war. Seeing the busloads of cops being brought into Harvard Square was very scary.

  14. At my university, almost all the poli sci, sociology, and faculty of that type were on the side of the student takeover of the university.

    I, alas, was an English major, and one of my professors actually called my mother! Bcz I’d been on strike and not in class. She told my mother I could contact her and redo the class, on my own, with extra papers and exams over the summer.

    The professor later told me that she’d had relatives who lost their jobs bcz of the McCarthy attacks on people’s political leanings. She had decided to never let her politcs interfere with her job (not that difficult given her area of English lit specialization), and, while she though I was wrong to go on strike, she didn’t want to give me a lower grade or fail me due to my absence. I actually ended up loving doing the course work over on my own time, at my own rate, and without other coursework to eat up my time.

    But I did envy those poli sci and soc students who got automatic A’s….

  15. 1968-1969-1970. Three years that will live in infamy.

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