May 4th has come to be referenced in popular culture as Star Wars Day. (“May the Fourth be with you.”) The day holds a deeper, darker, and more important significance, though.
On May 4th, 1970, twenty-nine members of the Ohio National Guard shot sixty-seven rounds in thirteen seconds into a crowd of unarmed protesters and bystanders, killing four and wounding nine.
Yes, there had been unrest. There was vandalism. There were reasons the Ohio National Guard was called out. There had been arson the night before, although it was determined that the arsonists were not part of the protest. (Much like some protests, bad actors will use legitimate expression of the right to assemble as a cover for property destruction and violence. See: Berkeley, Milo Yiannopolous.) Yet, still, when it came to protesters, why was it okay to shoot to kill?
The students who were wounded and killed were unarmed. The closest of those wounded was 71 feet from the Guardsmen; and the closest of those killed was 225 feet away. They didn’t pose a threat to the Guardsmen. In a sick irony, one of the students who was killed was a member of the campus ROTC. He and another student were not involved in the protests — they were simply walking to their next class.
The students who died were nineteen and twenty years old.
The tragedy struck a chord in a divided America. It helped solidify the opposition to the war in Vietnam. (The protests had been about the expansion of the war into Cambodia.) Still, fifty eight per cent of Americans thought the students were to blame.
Kent State still matters because there are those who think shooting unarmed protesters is acceptable. A county GOP secretary in Michigan stated on his Facebook, in response to the Berkeley protests that prevented Yiannopolous from speaking, “Violent protesters who shut down free speech? Time for another Kent State perhaps. One bullet stops a lot of thuggery.” and “I’m thinking that another Kent State might be the only solution…They do it because they know there are no consequences yet.”
When he stepped down after his comments became public, he uttered no real apology: “Whenever you’re involved in an organization, you want to be an asset,” he said. “At the moment I’ve become a distraction, and that’s not helping anybody. I stepped aside so hopefully the people that are so angry will feel that they’ve accomplished what they set out to do, and maybe we can all get on with our lives.” He also said that he had simply “horribly worded” his posts, that he was really speaking out against the violence but not really advocating the police shoot protesters.
His original words belie his later statements. There is no way that they can be read on their face as anything other than a call for law enforcement to violently clamp down on protest. He’s not alone, I’m sure.
There are those who see any protest as intrinsically violent, no matter how peaceful it seems. These are the people who state that peaceful protest over the deaths of unarmed black men pose a threat to police. Who pass laws to restrict the Constitutional right of the people to assemble, or to petition their government for redress of grievances.
There will be another Kent State (or Jackson State, or University of Mexico) tragedy at some point. It’s just a matter of time.
In the meantime, let us honor the memories of those cut down too young:
Jeffrey Glenn Miller
Allison B. Krause
William Knox Schroeder
Sandra Lee Scheuer
May their souls rest in peace.