Monday, 5 May 2014

Kent State Saga

I'm a history buff....going through changes, reactions, revolutions, disasters, and mayhem of society.  What few people ever appreciate about history is that it teaches various lessons....if you pay attention.

Forty-four years ago yesterday....the Kent State episode unfolded.  Over the years.....I sat and kinda wondered why no one ever made an actual movie over the events of the week leading up to the National Guard shooting and the deaths of four students and the wounding of nine others.  The chain leading up to the event, and the chain leading after the event....is kind of interesting.

Richard Nixon was voted into the Presidency with the key promise of ending the war.  Journalists and radicals will say that it was an absolutely bound promise and when the war showed some tendency to widen in the spring of 1970.....it was the beginning of the next and final level of student unrest in the US.

By April.....there were dozens of student cells operating on various campuses in the US.....running protests and rallies.  In those days....parents and students weren't paying $30,000 a year for tuition and board, so the idea of disruption on a campus being a bad thing was zero.

In the week leading up to the 4th of May 1970....the downtown area around Kent State....where the bars and pubs were.....was in a active violent state.  Windows smashed.  People shoved around.  The locals had never seen anything like this, and the merchants were in a fit over this activity and where it would lead.

The town council and mayor?  They reached a point where every single cop on the police force was called in and working around the clock.  Requests went to other neighboring towns, and even to the governor.  The only active plan that you get from history was a two-prong strategy....shut down the bars entirely and use tear-gas.  Beyond that.....there's nothing else on the board of strategy.  Without the booze.....students went kinda nuts, and the tear-gas simply made the whole downtown area into miniature war zone.  You can imagine yourself a local....fifty years old....standing there in the chaos and watching your town dissolving and tear-gas in the air.

On the 2nd of May....the Mayor, the city council and a National Guard chief from the state....sat down.  What they perceived from the rumor mill was that some special radicals were coming or soon to arrive....who would basically burn down the university and the downtown area.  You can sit there today and laugh over such a belief.....but that's the way that rumors worked in 1970.  Added to the belief in the rumor....people only had to stand in the street the day or two before and observe the tear-gas being used.  No resident of the community would have ever expected this type of behavior, or the reaction of the police.

You can imagine this scene.....community leaders worried about a downtown business district burning away.....limited or marginal fire department resources.....students and customers possibly dying in the blaze-to-come.....and absolute chaos.

So, you'd make this decision.....allow the National Guard in and counter the consequences.

In 2014, you could run another scenario in your mind......a weak mayor.....a worried city council....all worried about political fallout, and making almost no decisions.  The cops of the city seeing this.....back off......the chaos cells around the students sensing this.....and various buildings set ablaze.  Over the next twenty-four hours.....the local fire department and another five or six neighboring departments react....trying to hold the blaze to two city blocks.  Two days later....only charred remains of forty-odd buildings and maybe twenty people dead, with twenty more missing. That is the alternate history that could have come.

Instead?  By the evening of the 2nd of May.....the National Guard guys have arrived on campus.....to find the campus National Guard building (a older wood building) ablaze (somewhere between 10PM and 11PM.  There's a crowd that is generally estimated at a thousand....standing around and watching it burn.

The fire department?  Well....this is the strange part of the story.....the city fire department reacted and actually showed up.  Over the next hour....various audience members tried to interfere with the effort to put out the fire.  No law enforcement entity attempted to arrest these guys, and it probably just provoked them even more.

By early Sunday, the 3rd of May....there were now a thousand National Guardsmen on Kent State.  They were there...prepared for trouble, and expecting just about anything.  The reactionaries?  This had been a chess game of sorts for days and weeks.  Beyond breaking windows, breaking into campus buildings, inciting crowds of students, and burning down the ROTC building.....they hadn't crossed that mythical line of death.  Maybe they were that bright....maybe it was just the next step in this whole process.....you simply don't know.

Somewhere on the 3rd of May....while all this chaos was underway at Kent State....the Governor was working on some legal paperwork.  He announced somewhere in the midst of the day that he would have stamped and approved paperwork to say that the National Guard was now the controlling authority of Kent State.  They would enforce law, dispense justice via legal means, and return stability to the city.

You can ask yourself this question....where in the Ohio state constitution was the line or two where the Governor could dispatch and put state guardsmen as a controlling authority.  To this day.....no one can really show the legality of this action.  What happened in the hours after he said that he would pursue this action....is nothing.  No court approved document.  I suspect that most of the state judges all questioned the legal nature of this and where things were going....namely.....martial law, enforced by the Governor and the Guard.

While all of this was going on....there was a massive rally planned for 4 May (the next day, Monday)....at noon....in the center of the campus.

The university desperately tried to curtail this...publishing a flyer (at least ten thousand copies) and insisting that as long as the Guard was on campus....no rally could be observed, period.

Noon approached on the 4th....the rally participants started to mingle, and the Guard took their planned steps....to counter and disperse the crowd.  At some point.....tear-gas was used, and things turned into a more chaotic state at this point.  I doubt if the reactionary leaders on campus really had a full-up plan.....that the rally was simply to stir up negative Guard feelings among the students.

At some point, some students end up luring Guardsmen (one small group) to follow them, and they end up in a football practice field.....up against a fence, and the protesters.  You can imagine yourself.....a young Army guy....feeling threatened and that your life was now in jeopardy.  I doubt if the protesters grasped that or understood what their handlers had done.

The Guardsmen finally reached a point of breaking out of this 'trap', and were in some form of retreat, but with the crowd following them.  A fair number of the seventy-odd Guardsmen turn, pulling weapons, and firing.  Some fired in the air....as warning shots....and some fired lower.  Comments suggest around sixty shots were fired total.  The deaths and wounds.....come from this episode.

Four years would pass by before the court had sorted through the entire mess.  The Guardsmen stuck with the story of feeling threatened.  While a Grand Jury did agree that there were circumstances to try the men in court.....the case was bound in weakness for the prosecution. One case against eight of the Guardsmen basically fell apart because the judge didn't see how any case could be mounted under all the circumstances he saw.

The federal case from 1975....considered the bigger of all the court episodes.....fell apart because a majority of the jury just didn't believe the Guardsmen were at fault.  An appeals court disagreed with this outcome....noting at least one member of the jury had been threatened, and ordered a whole new case.

In January of 1979....the punishment phase of the episode came to a conclusion.  The state of Ohio, rather than the Guardsmen, the state National Guard, or the Kent State University.....would pay roughly $650,000 (total) to the wounded, and the parents of the dead students.

What happened after Kent State?  University officials from across the nation sat down, and wrote quiet policy changes which basically said....if you were a trouble-maker....you were brought in and officially kicked out of the school....in such a manner where records would exist and if you tried to enter another school, they'd likely look at the way you were removed and ask you to leave the new university.

After Kent State....parents started to ask stupid questions.  Why send a kid a thousand miles off to some respectful school....where they might die under some act of violence related to a anti-war rally.

As you look around American universities today....you don't see this type of behavior.  They might have a weekend each year where they drink excessively and local cops come out to establish authority.  Most campus operations now have active police on the patrol campus operations, and you could be detained and tossed out of school for bad behavior.

Some people tend to write the Kent State episode as a terrible part of police brutality and the unnecessary death of innocent students.  They fail to ever discuss the riots downtown, or why the Guardsmen were ever called to the city itself.  As naive as these people pretend to be.....they are more of a reality problem now.....pretending there are no lessons from the episode.