Kent State

Sunday, May 7, 1995

The other day was the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Kent State shooting. Hearing the brief mention in the news suddenly took me back to those days with a startling immediacy. Of course we all remember the pictures: the running, gaily-dressed crowd of students; the line of Guardsmen silhouetted on the green hill, rifles leveled; a dark stream of blood running down the neat campus sidewalk. The one I can never forget is of a girl kneeling beside her dead friend, eyes and mouth wide in shock, calling back over her shoulder - as if someone could help, could bring back the living girl-daughter-friend-lover-but-never-wife-or-mother who had been chanting beside her a moment before.

To most people, it was a tragic footnote to a decade full of greater tragedies. For me it was more personal - I felt that the shots had been fired at me. They certainly could have been. I had much in common with those dead students. I was in college at Antioch, another small liberal arts school in rural Ohio. I too had long hair and wore hippie clothes and marched in demonstrations. We were all part of The Movement, a great world-encircling wave of new thinking, a rejection of violence and an embracing of life. We tried to change the world by example, by love. For our efforts we were generally reviled, but we bore the disdain and hostility proudly, for we knew that the world was changing, that the age-old ways of war and greed were dying out. Mankind was evolving before our eyes, and by the time we were adults and in charge of the world, the evil would be gone.

It was a bright and simple dream, and young people by the millions embraced it joyously. We were young, idealistic, and optimistic. Why shouldn't we be? We had grown up in the fifties, in comfort and plenty. We were one of the few generations of the world that had never known war. We couldn't remember the Korean War and World War II was just something our parents talked about or in old movies. They had already slipped into that curious limbo of quaintness before becoming true history.

Then came Vietnam, a war that cried out for opposition. American involvement was ignorant and misguided at best, imperialistic and racial at worst. Millions of Americans who had never considered opposing their country's policies were having trouble justifying this war to prevent a fair election in a tiny country on the other side of the planet. Opposition to the war was growing in every segment of society. There was reason to hope that our efforts would finally result in American withdrawal.

But The Movement had taken some bitter blows. The leaders we admired - Kennedy and Kennedy and King, were shot down before our eyes. When we tried to make our voices heard in the governing of our land, we were locked out of the Chicago convention and beaten through the streets by the police. Authorities everywhere were cracking down hard on demonstrators and alternate lifestyles. The Weathermen and the Black Panthers were hunted fugitives; the SDS was discredited and disorganized. The great musicians, the spokesmen of our age, were dying: Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin and Brian Jones and Jim Morrison. The psychedelics that had opened our minds were destroying many of them. Disillusion and paranoia was creeping in on all sides. Still, there was the hope that the hard times would pass, only the brief labor pains of a new world view.

Then came the news of the shooting at Kent State. The initial reports were confused. No one knew exactly what had happened or what the casualties were. There was no word on what was happening there now. Had it just been a single event, or was there now a battle raging? It was being called a massacre. A few hours later the first refugees started arriving.

They were terrified. They told stories of soldiers firing repeatedly and purposefully into a close-packed crowd of kids, of scores, perhaps hundreds, of dead and wounded. Kent State had been closed and martial law declared. The Guard and police were rounding people up and taking them away. Many had fled to Antioch as the nearest place where they might find sympathizers among the conservative farm towns of Ohio. They were secreted away in the attics of dormitories and safe houses, waiting like Anne Frank for the gun butts to bash in the doors.

There were many anxious meetings and discussions that night, all over the little town of Yellow Springs. Had it been a few wild shots, or was it more sinister - the first battle in a long-feared violent crackdown? Hippies were almost universally despised by mainstream America, and especially by the famous military-industrial complex, those who would lose their power if our policies prevailed. There was debate in Congress advocating the curtailment of civil rights to stop the demonstrations. Perhaps the Bill of Rights itself would be repealed. The Underground might have to really go underground, The Movement become The Resistance. The more paranoid of us believed a pogrom was not outside the realm of possibility. The CIA and the FBI had infiltrated our organizations, spied on our leaders, perhaps engineered the murders of the Kennedys. They had destabilized Latin America and arranged assassinations of democratic leaders. It had happened in Germany and in Chile, why not in America?

So was the gunfire at Kent State the next shots heard round the world? Was this to be our Krystallnacht? Rumors were flying. Were the student leaders that had been arrested being questioned, or being executed? Was a column of tanks even now rumbling toward Yellow Springs from the National Guard Armory in Xenia? Some people left town, bound for Canada or to "the mountains," wherever that was. Others started plans for defending the town if the attack came. Most of us thought these were extreme reactions, but we all at least gave thought to what we would do, how we would react if we were attacked. How does a non-violent movement resist violence? We were in a conflict against conflict, how could we throw up barricades and take up arms? And if we did not resist, would we simply be marched into the woods and shot, like the Polish army that surrendered to the Russians to avoid bloodshed?

Eventually, of course, the facts came out. Frightened young soldiers, unclear orders, confusion, uncertainty, inexperienced officers. There were investigations, reprimands. The massacre became an incident, then stale news. Kent State reopened and the students returned. There was to be no pogrom. But the last vestiges of innocence, of hope that we would prevail against the establishment, faded and died. Disheartened, disillusioned, The Movement withered away, replaced by the discos and leisure suits of the Seventies.

And yet the four students are still dead, their lives forever unlived. They remain frozen in the memories of their parents and friends, and of old hippies. It is as if they are still there, back in the sixties, still eighteen years old and full of idealism. They've never heard of AIDS or terrorism or eco-collapse. They still don't know that The Movement was a failure, another minor twist in the thread of history. In a strange way, I can almost envy them.

What was it really like to be there that day? I have been to so many demonstrations I can feel again the press of the crowd around me, the warmth of our solidarity, the mixture of anger and defiance as we shout out our chants. There is a freedom, a pride, a mischievous sense in the air. But there is an element of carnival too. It is a social gathering where young hip aware kids may see and be seen. And there is much to see. People are dressed in every imaginable style from military surplus to Victorian lace, from beads and fringe and leather to diaphanous robes. And so many pretty girls, braless and careless in their enthusiasm for The Cause.

And if armed authorities appear, the demonstrators know what to do. There was a well-known poster that showed the technique. You walk up with a smile to the nearest soldier and stick a flower in the barrel of his gun. The symbolism cannot be missed by even the most dense. Who could shoot someone who had just given them a flower?

One thing I have always wondered about the Kent State shooting: when the first teenaged Guardsman aimed his rifle at the chest of a chanting girl and squeezed the trigger to blow a red hole through a tie-dyed shirt and through an ideal, did he sight the shot over the petals of a daisy?

copyright 1996 by Brian K. Crawford