Kent State

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May 4th's brings nearly annualized Ignorance: repeating one sides delusions, and inciting regular riots in the name of their anti-Government delusions. I lived within 5 miles of Kent State University, worked less than a mile away at the Kent-Ravenna Record-Courier, and read both the school and Newspaper archives. And I watched the nearly yearly riots commemorating the riot that got 4 students killed over 30 years ago. If that makes no sense, welcome to this world and the teenage mind (sometimes in much older bodies).

These riots are fomented by faculty and people with causes, who want to prove they've learned nothing in 30 years, and still accept no responsibility for what happened, because everything they see, interpret and teach, goes through their biased filter -- making a one time tragedy into a cult, worshiping an event that barely resembles what really happened. This tries to explain some of the truths to those who haven't put in the research time on their own. Or only listened to the popular narrative.

What happened

Really to understand events we should answer the 6 or so most important questions that the Kent State Sociology Department asks (though I've broadened a few of them). These are seldom answered the way I do. Each of mine is as historically accurate as the popular narrative, yet it would not get a passing grade from those who want to believe in an alternate reality:

(1) What lead up to May 4th?

What happened, and who was responsible?

People remember that some poor kids got shot, but that's about it. And remembering that event without remembering the time, location and conditions leading up to it is completely out of context; you can't understand one without the other.

The National Guard didn't come in and snipe at kids because it was fun; and the U.S. Government (or Ohio State Government) didn't come into a peaceful protest and just open fire. The issue, like most history is far more complex.

The first thing to remember is what was going on in the world, nation and state:

Why we fought the Vietnam War

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The point isn't that I'm pro war, or even pro Vietnam war. It's that if we want to learn and grow we have to accept both the good and the bad of positions we agree/disagree with. This article tries to cover some of those tradeoffs for the Vietnam War. At least what lead up to Kent State, which is where the view of the war turned for American, internally/politically.

The second is to realize the context of the Kent State riots: Communist sympathizers (or sock-puppets), Anarchists, paid protesters and rabble rousers were mixing with deluded hoards and a few sincere peaceniks, going from school to school supporting violence in protests at the Universities and surrounding communities, because it played well for their cause on the nightly news. They brillitantly used teenage angst, resentment at authority, frustration and desire for immediate and impatient change to create riots and anarchy as cover for their violence and vandalism. Then parlayed this vocal minority into major ones.

Around Ohio there were more and more violent demonstrations and outright riots. The youth was being fed a steady stream of dogma that if they rebelled, they could make a difference; and really they were doing vandalism to the schools and communities that the nation was often paying for them to go to. This was magnified by paid agitators and rabble-rousers going school to school trying to magnify the carnage (as evidenced by the fact that all the violence happened sequential, and not simultaneously/spontaneously. A few days earlier in Columbus, there had been shootings with buckshot.

Then the pattern of escalating violence culminated at Kent State with burning down of an on-campus ROTC building, and a glass breaking fiesta in downtown Kent. (The Kristallnacht of the peace movement). So the Governor called in the National Guard, in response to this escalating destruction, and said pretty harsh and threatening things to the irresponsible: basically stop or they would be locked up.

There was another protest scheduled on the 4th of May, but that protest was cancelled (outlawed) by the city, state and school. After you've had a few protests in a row turn violent, you have no immediate "right" to peaceable protest when your intent is proven by the pattern of behavior.

A collision course was set, it wasn't "if" it was going to get bloody; the protesters actions were guaranteeing it. The Government played to their ultimate objective. The protestors wanted to keep escalating things because it was in their interest to do so; and the bigger and more violent it got, the more attention they got. So the protestors were incentivized to get people killed, and they finally got their wish; dead kids and national media attention.

(2) Should the Guard have been called to Kent?

There are derivative questions like:

  • Could local law enforcement personnel have handled any situations?
  • Were the Guard properly trained for this type of assignment?

But those are all probably distractions to the primary questions: in the face of the obvious pattern of escalating violence, did the Governor have a right to defend the public safety and property with the National guard? And the subset question, was he right to do so?

I'm not much for second-guessing. We can speculate all kinds of things. The facts are that the Governor felt there was a real threat to life, liberty and property; and the other Universities and local authorities had done little to stop it. Says yes. If that was your University that was getting burned down, or your community that was getting trashed (and your taxes were going to have to pay to rebuild), wouldn't you want someone there to protect it?

This is the heart of the question that is usually unanswered by one side. Should Governors stop violence, vandalism and crimes?

  • If you answer yes, then the Governor was justified.
  • If you answer no, then you have no right to complain when violence, vandalism and crime happens to you or your family.

Whether that is the Police from many areas squashing the Watts Riots, or the National Guard getting called in to enforce the rule of law (even martial law) is beside the point; it will happen. It should happen. You have a right to have peaceful protest, but if you're hanging out with violent rioters, I really don't care if the firehoses, dogs, or rubber bullets come out. If you're not prepared to die for your cause, then you should start endangering others.

Why not the cops instead of the guard?

It's hard to say who was trained to handle these situations: the National Guard or the Police. After the cops had failed in a few prior riots, it seems the National Guard was the next escalation. This was going to happen because the protesters actions demanded it, and the prior efforts with the cops hadn't worked.

(3) Did the Kent State University administration respond appropriately?
(4) Would the shootings have been avoided if the rally had not been banned??

Or you get the variant: "Did the banning of the rally violate First Amendment rights?"

They're all irrelevant.

I will answer these in reverse order.

The First Amendment has limits. Kids (at any age) are not good at understanding grays and balances; often seeing the world as black and white. But you are criminally responsible if you incite riots and violence/vandalism, and if your demonstrations repeatedly turn violent then there's going to be a ban (pause) on demonstrations. That's what happened. The antiwar rhetoric and protests had demonstrated that they were a threat to civil harmony and had repeatedly earned the status of being banned. Suppressing riots isn't suppressing free speech, in the same way that prosecuting rape isn't outlawing dating.

Now whether the shootings would have happened or not, is not a significant point.

Sure, you could have let the hooligans run roughshod over the town and University, doing more and more damage, and there probably would have been no shooting (that day). But that would have just meant that the next riot on the list would have gotten worse, and the pattern would have continued, until it happened anyways. The collision course was set up by the repeated rioters, and there was no evidence that it was going to magically cool down as long as there was no consequences. So it wasn't a matter of if it was going to happen; but more a matter of when the wrong combination of events was going to happen and we were going to get some variant of this result.

With that in mind, did the authorities respond appropriately?

If they hadn't of stopped the riot, they would have been blamed. And if you keep shutting down riots, eventually something's going to go bad and people are going to get hurt. But tolerating lawlessness isn't the better choice. So by the very nature of them trying to do their jobs, they responded appropriately. Could they have done things differently, knowing what we know after the fact? Sure. But that doesn't change what they knew at the time. The real question is not whether the authorities made mistakes: of course they did. It was about whether their job was to try to suppress the riot, or ignore the harm/risk to the community.

The other side of the question is did the protestors and students make mistakes? And the answer is far more than the other side. And they didn't have to be there, it wasn't their jobs, and they were the ones that should have backed down; but kept escalating things until someone got hurt. Thus it was far more their fault, than the other sides. No matter who got more hurt.

(5) Did the Guardsmen conspire to shoot students?

There are of course differing views. But in order to answer this, you need to put yourself in the heads of the guardsman.

Now if you're an antiwar and anti-government fanatic, and you put yourself in place in the guardsman, you are naturally going to think they conspired to kill innocents with no provocation. They were the hateful "man" (puppets of the authority that they resented) that wouldn't listen to reason, and hated hippies and the counter-culture, and so on. They were murdering innocents in the name of imperialism in Vietnam (even if none of them had ever been there), and they had no morals or values (in the eyes of the antiwar protestors). So they see it as completely plausible; but their bias in seeing that, discredits them.

From the other side and the majority of the nations view, and after multiple trials (appeals), the guardsman were declared not guilty of conspiracy. Which is just common sense and completely reasonable.

One of the hardest things to do is get a Nations military to fire on its own civilians. Even in the Soviet Union; a totalitarian regime, they had problems with this, and they usually had to send squads from one region to another (after fomenting or playing to regional hatreds) in order to violently squash uprisings because locals were so reticent to fire on their own. And our National Guard was made up of Americans, who were far less likely to consider firing on their own; especially those from their own state and area of the state. The Guardsman were around campus for days, being civil and chatting with students. The gross majority of people in our military or civil service are not violent people looking for the chance to kill Americans.

What appears to have happened is fairly predictable. The guardsman were there trying to restore order. They were polite and doing their job, and probably empathized or liked many of the students. They didn't want to kill them; they wanted to do their job and restore order and go home to their families - and they were probably glad they weren't in Vietnam as well. Over the course of days, many were accosted verbally by a few misguided fanatics calling them baby-killers or puppets of the man and so on. These occasional taunts and threats/accusations of violence were meant to instill fear and anger, and probably succeeded.

When the protest started (against the law and mandates), the guard had a job to do; disperse and stop a banned protest. While trying to do that, the crowd would not disperse and was large and quite intimidating. The kids were not rational, and were projecting all their emotions and frustrations on their representation of "the Man" and all authority, symbols of the entire war were standing in front of them wearing soldiers uniforms and got the full brunt of their hate and resentment. The Guardsman understood that things were ugly, scary and they were not seen as people as anymore, but as vilified symbols of government. They knew things could get ugly, and were probably quite scared.

While trying to disperse groups that wouldn't disperse, a few of them got trapped in a practice field (cornered by fences) for many minutes, where they were taunted and tormented more by protesters that far outnumbered them. Some claim bottles or rocks were thrown. Either way, these guys trepidations were rising and they had legitimate reason to fear the lawbreakers and protestors. They left in formation, as trained, and they were being tormented as they were trying to get out.

What happened next is supported by circumstantial evidence and reason. They were tormented, cornered into a fenced off area, and someone reacted. Whether it was to a bottle that sounded like a gunshot, an actual gunshot (as some claimed), or it was intended to be a fire into the air but got others to fire into the crowd. The shooting started. Many shot into the air or dirt, but at least a few did not. Why? Probably because they feared for their lives, heard the shooting of their comrades and thought they were being shot at, and started shooting back in kind, or thought someone was hurt, or just were scared and angry and caught up in the moment. The exact reasonings are not really that important. It was a bad situation and people reacted poorly.

A very brief volley was exchanged; 13 seconds, and a few were killed and a few more wounded. If the goal was to massacre protestors, it's inane to claim that the most damage 28 trained soldiers could do, is kill 4 people. They didn't chase the retreating enemy. They didn't do anything that was about aggression -- it was an overreaction, but it was obviously defensive reaction. But this is what happens when you force soldiers or police into life and death decisions. If it happens enough, eventually mistakes will be made. And while the cop/soldier bears some responsibility, so does the asshat forcing that decision. The wise thing to do is to not corner animals and torment them.

(6) Who was ultimately responsible for the events of May 4, l970?

I think that's pretty obvious. When there's a fight, of course both participants are partly to blame. There's always a condition or one more thing you both could have done to avoid the fight or the situation. But we usually realize too late that things are about to turn violent. But it is rarely completely one-sided.

Still, in most confrontations there is one side that is more responsible than the other.

In self-defense it isn't just the guy that threw the first punch or the one that wins who is wrong. Preemptive defense exists, as does provoked defense and many other things like that. The one most culpable is the one insisting on inciting things to go further, the one that is not trying to get away, the agitator, the one that doesn't have to be there to stop the disorder or conflict (and is doing his job).

Think of the basics:

  • Cops and the Military don't want to be there, but can not leave. Their duty to comrades, county and job require them to be in that situation, and won't allow them to leave.
  • Protestors have alternatives. They are choosing to be there, and often choosing to escalate things. They are ignoring laws and many opportunities to back down. They will be rewarded by violence, and know it - while the Police and Military will be punished, and they know it too. The protestors words (taunts, jeers, shouts, etc.) are a pattern of escalating emotion. The antiwar fanatics at Kent State were not just peaceable demonstrating as they claim, they were repeatedly violent and harassing.

Imagine this; you don't get to verbally scream at someone, get in their face on their property, ignore their pleas for you to leave, bar them escaping the harassment, then acting surprised that they kicked your ass when cornered. That's about the same as what happened at Kent State. Protestors started it, escalated it, and kept it going until someone got hurt; thus they are more responsible. They were young, impetuous and thought they knew more than everyone else, and they cornered an animal, poked at it, scared it, and then acted surprised when it lashed out and bit them. Then the retarded blame the Animal for what happened? Their views are completely discredited by their own irrational emotive bias, and their unwillingness to accept culpability on their side.

It is a sad tragedy that a few people got shot for their own stupidity but the lesson to be learned is not that the Government is evil, or the military (or paramilitary militia) likes shooting people. The lesson is to teach people the costs of escalating violence. Following the mob turned out to be a bad choice (on both sides), as was not really thinking through their actions and consequences.

Conclusion

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The question that sociology department doesn't ask but should is probably the most important of all:

  • (7) Did the protest, or shooting really make a difference? What did we learn?

The protestors seem to credit themselves with changing something; with being part of something bigger then themselves. Not because they really were, but because they really want that to be the case.

Someone once told me in vulgar terms; "Wish in one hand and crap into the other and see which fills up first?" The point being that wishes aren't worth shit; actions are what matters. While the visualization is crass, the point is still exceedingly valid.

The national foreign policy was changing on its own, without the violence and protests. The President was elected in 1968 on a "get us out of Indochina" campaign. The tide was turning long before Kent State and May 4, 1970. The troops were coming down in numbers, and the President and Kissinger were trying to negotiate for peace, but the other side was resisting that. (The peaceniks often ignore that truth). But you can't stop a fight by suddenly just dropping your guard; that will just get you socked in the face. You need to convince the other guy that he wants to stop fighting as bad as you do. Sometimes that means making it expensive for him to keep fighting. Turning to run away usually just gets you a beer bottle in the back of the head. Sadly, since the North Vietnamese Communists didn't value life, property or anything other than power and control, it was hard to convince them to end the fight. But that was what we were trying to do, and the actions of going into Cambodia that incited this whole thing was evidence of our motivation to stop the fighting; it is just that the peaceniks were too myopic and ignorant to understand that.

What we know:

  • The fact that we didn't get out until 1974, and didn't surrender the country to the murderous communists until 1975, shows that if anything the violence and protests in the U.S. may have slowed down the rate of withdrawal.
  • Trying to fight a war with rules and be too compassionate probably got more of our guys (and theirs) killed than if we had really gone in and fought to end the war as quickly as possible.
  • War is bloody, violent and ugly; which is why it should be avoided. But the sad part is walking away in the middle just encourages more people to go to war with you in the future; since they think they can win. Walking away from Vietnam may have cost more lives in the long run, than if we'd been able to end it at the time. (Now they fight more readily and with more gusto, under the hopes that they can have a repeat of Vietnam).
  • If there had been support of the war (and less resistance to it), then the North Vietnamese likely would have been far more willing to negotiate; because the costs of the fight were too expensive. (But they had more hope and encouragement from our peace movement). The "peace" protests in the U.S. kept bolstering the enemies self-esteem which made them bold and confident, and made the war drag on for far longer than it probably would have otherwise. It certainly encouraged others to take us on, or fear us less in the future.

The seeds of Iraq wars may have been sowed in Vietnam, or at least fertilized by it.

Sadly, the North Vietnamese and war protestors got what they wanted (or at least asked for):

  • They enslaved millions of people, slaughtered innocents by the boatload.
  • We had a huge refugee problem and millions of people displaced.
  • As the CIA had predicted, the communists overthrew neighboring nations and most of Indochina fell.

The killing fields of Cambodia, and by far the biggest genocide of my generation was sponsored and supported by the actions of the peaceniks, and their wisdom in foreign policy. Our nation looked the other way, because the peaceniks convinced them that a million foreign lives weren't worth one American life. The nation was tired of fighting with our own young and stupid, so looked the other way; and since we were one of the only nations in the world willing to stand behind our beliefs, when we didn't, the rest of the world had rationalizations not to act as well. What a great win for humanity that was. Of course the peace movement accepts no responsibility for their actions, and still fails to understand cause and effect.

The saddest part is not that the protestors were immature and irresponsible 30 years ago, but that they keep refusing to mature and grow as human beings today.

Many still rant against the system, still ignore any culpability and fail to understand basic cause and effect, common sense and reason. Proving they have learned nothing in 30 more years since, and are still locked into their era of teenage angst.

The peace movement celebrating getting a bunch of their friends killed for their cause, could have been a really enlightening thing, if they had been wise enough to learn anything from it.

Riots and violence are not good, they don't achieve a positive end, they just end with people getting hurt that wouldn't have to if you were little more humble and wise. I don't think all protests are bad, but I don't think they have done one one-hundredth of what most of the participants think. What society should have learned is that there's a time and place for protest, and there are legitimate and illegitimate ways to protest. If you are young and dumb, and you keep pushing things too far, there are consequences. And those that refuse to take responsibility are probably the most guilty.

References

Written: 2004.05.03