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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.