Alan's Web Site
A Personal Account
Four Dead in Ohio
"If I was at school here in 1970, I would have been out there for sure," Kelly Gorbett tells me as we walk across the sprawling campus of Kent State University. She pauses before thoughtfully adding, "I would have been in that parking lot." Kelly is a Conservation major in her junior year at KSU, but she's got more than science classes on her mind. She is the co-chair of the KSU May 4 Task Force. When she's not studying, Kelly devotes her time to educating others about a few chaotic days in history that ended tragically on the Kent State campus.
Hi! We just happened to be in the neighborhood...
Today, I am Kelly's student as she points out places and details of the days that changed the student war protest movement forever. Kelly walks me through the events of May 4 that needlessly took 4 young lives in 13 seconds of gunfire, and I shake my head in disgust as the facts unfold.
We arrive at the parking lot in question, which seems to be a harmless enough place to leave your car while in chemistry class or English Lit. That is, until you realize that several of the spaces are blocked off from use by black columnar lamps, and each spot is marked with their name engraved in marble. Allison Krause. Jeffery Miller. Sandra Scheuer. William Schroeder. These few spots serve as memorials to the four students that were murdered by the United States National Guard in that parking lot 31 years ago.
The story that brings the students and National Guardsmen together on the KSU campus begins with the student protest movement against the Vietnam War. To learn about that history firsthand, I gratefully thanked Kelly for her tour and headed off to an interview with Alan Canfora. Alan had been there. A KSU student, a protestor, a hippie, an SDSer, he was politically active and concerned about the US involvement in Vietnam. Alan was also one of the students wounded in the shooting that killed his four classmates.
In 1970, six days before Nixon announced an American invasion of Cambodia, Alan Canfora had attended the funeral of a childhood friend. Alan's friend had been killed while serving in Vietnam, and his death finally brought the war home to Ohio for Alan. To see his friend in a closed coffin, draped patriotically with an American Flag, and then to hear that the war effort in southeast Asia was escalating, was too much for Alan. He and other students were sick of years of peaceful protest that had no effect on government policy, they felt it was time to act in a way that could no longer be ignored.
The students took their frustration out in different ways. Some met on campus to bury a copy of the US constitution, "which they claimed had been murdered when the US troops were sent into Cambodia without a declaration of war by Congress." Others met that night on "the Strip" where they drank at the bars and began a more violent protest of the situation. These students rioted, attacking what they saw as "political targets." They threw beer bottles at police cars, lit bonfires in the streets, and broke windows in banks and utility companies. The students were tear-gassed and pushed back towards campus by the police, and 14 of the students were arrested.
The next morning (May 2) some students set to cleaning up the downtown, and some began to talk about another rally that night. This time the target was the campus Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) building. ROTC represented direct university support of the War effort, and some students thought that burning it would send their anti-war message loud and clear to the university administration. 2,000 students gathered that evening in an attempt to set fire to the ROTC building, but what happened thereafter remains a question that may never be truly answered.
Alan contends that although they tried, the students were never able to light the ROTC building on fire. After several attempts and skirmishes with the firemen, the police arrived and tear-gassed the students away from the building. As the students moved away, they "were astonished to see units of the Ohio National Guard arriving on their campus." The students were in for another surprise when they turned back around to see the ROTC building. Within minutes, the ROTC building, that had been surrounded by firemen and police officers, was "fully ablaze." Alan tells me that the students did not burn the building. He and many others think the authorities burned it to the ground in order to justify calling in the National Guard. Frustrated students continued to clash with the Guard through the night. Stones were hurled one way, and tear gas the other, and at least one student was bayoneted.
On May 3, students watched their Campus become fully occupied by the National Guard, and then the students watched as their Governor made a public speech encouraging the use of force to silence them. Governor Rhodes called the students worse than Communists in their protests of the US government, and then frightened the public by telling them that the student demonstrators were "the worst type of people that we harbor in America." He used scare tactics to gain support for crushing the student protests by warning that the government was "up against the strongest, well trained militant revolutionary group that has ever assembled in America." With the public believing that the students were a dangerous threat to National Security, Governor Rhodes could reassure his audience that he was "going to eradicate the problem," rather than "treat the symptoms."
The "problem" of the student protests was "eradicated" the next day. Another student protest rally was planned for noon on May 4th. This time, the students were not only calling for a halt to the Cambodian invasion, but for the removal of National Guard troops from their college. Alan, in his anger and despair over the situation, had fashioned two black flags out of fabric from a local store that morning. As he approached campus with his flags in hand, Alan exchanged words with a national guardsman who told him that "today, we're going to make you eat those flags!" Alan brushed off the statement and continued to the growing crowd of student protestors.
The National Guard was attempted to disperse the yelling and chanting students, but the students would not give up their right to assemble. When ordering them away wouldn't work, the Guard was told to disperse them. So over 100 guardsmen, "equipped with loaded M-1 rifles and tear gas, formed a skirmish line toward the students." The crowd ran away from this formation, but threw rocks and teargas aimed at them back at the Guardsmen. The Guard continued to march forward, firing tear gas and scattering the students into a wider area. At one point, several members of Guard troop G went down on one knee to aim their rifles at students in the parking lot.
However, the crowd had been dispersed by then, so the Guard General issued orders for the Guard to march back to the campus commons. Alan continued to wave his flag and yell at the guard. What happened next is best described by documents from the Kent May 4 Center:
Some members of Troop G then huddled briefly. After reassembling on the field, the guardsmen seemed to begin to retreat as they marched back up the hill retracing their previous steps... The students assumed the confrontation was over. Many students began to walk to their next classes. [But] as the Guard reached the crest of Blanket Hill...about a dozen members of Troop G simultaneously turned about 180 degrees, aimed and fired their weapons into the crowd.
Alan Canfora was hit by a bullet in the first few seconds of shooting. Stunned by the enormous pain in his wrist he ducked behind a tree as bullets continued to whiz past him. The tree saved his life that day, but four other students were not as fortunate. Two protestors and two students walking to class were killed by the National Guard. In addition to Alan, 8 other students were injured, one of whom was paralyzed for life.
The images of the Government gunning down unarmed students horrified much of the nation, while others believed that the students got what they deserved. In the next few months, Alan notes that it was "open season on student radicals." Several more students were killed by Guardsmen on campuses around the country, and eventually many universities decided to shut down for the remainder of the year, rather than see the violence continue to escalate on their campus too.
Shutting down the campuses hadn't been the goal of the students; shutting down the war in Asia was. Unfortunately, the student movement was never able to accomplish that: the Vietnam war would not end for five more years.
"Eventually, in any democracy, there is going to be confrontation" Alan assures me. People who feel powerless to change the government decisions that they disagree with will find a way to make their voices heard. What we need to ask ourselves then, is "what is the proper response from law enforcement officials when this happens?" The Ohio National Guard did not respond properly to the student movement, they responded with "excessive force."
Yes, some students had yelled at the guard. They were angry and frustrated and felt powerless to end an unjust war that they did not believe in. They had cursed at the guard, and thrown sticks and stones at the guard. Some had participated in rioting in town a few days earlier. But none of these students had a single weapon. And yet the guards fired at the students with the intent to kill. Did they accomplish their goal and silence the student movement? Thirty-one years later, Kelly and the Task Force continue to speak. She would have been out there to take a stand. Would you?
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Links to Other Dispatches
Irene – The Vietnam War Part 1
Irene – The Vietnam War Part 2
Stephanie – A personal account: Cambodia’s civil war
Jennifer – When the going gets rough, the tough go underground
Nick – Bucking the draft
Teddy – DNC: Don’t Count on Civility
Jennifer – Students united can never be divided
Making A Difference – Bombs, oil, sanctions, and a decision we all have to make: The US and Iraq