50 Years Later – Kent State

I want to honor the message of what happened fifty years ago at my alma mater. The best way I know to do that is to share with you this abridged excerpt from my book, “The Ruins of Our Past.”

 

“I told you I wasn’t going to be a traditional tour guide, I’d tell you things you wouldn’t hear anywhere else.” I stand on the hill beside Taylor Hall and move to the “Solar Totem” statue, showing them a gap in one of the steel panels. “Here’s physical evidence of what happened.” The group moves in for a closer look. If the bullet hole hadn’t been pointed out, they probably never would have noticed it.

Jen, stands on the toes of her Converse high tops and touches history. Seeing my sister’s piqued interest, I add, “During the annual memorial, someone always uses chalk to draw a peace symbol around the bullet hole. Sometimes, they’ll put flowers through it.”

“In 1970, this campus was the place to go if you wanted to hear music. Joe Walsh was here before The Eagles, when he was in The James Gang. Chris Butler from The Numbers Band, The Waitresses, Tin Huey. A bunch of world class musicians on the rise.”

Jen holds up two fingers. “Groovy.”

“Kent was the place to be on a Friday night. The first of May was a Friday, and there was also a peaceful protest that day over the Cambodian Campaign in Vietnam. The demonstrators left the gathering with a plan to stage another walk-out that Monday, but some of them didn’t want to wait. Deciding to ‘bring the war home,’ they left the shows to break shop windows downtown. Police responded with tear gas. They closed the bars early, and a crowd of drunken students started stumbling back to their dorms and Greek houses. Who were the agitators and who were regular students?” I make a comical face, giving an exaggerated shrug. “How can anyone tell the difference?”

Jen laughs.

I lead the group up the hill toward Taylor Hall. “The mayor declared a state of emergency, and Governor Rhodes called in the National Guard. By the time they arrived on Saturday, someone’s already set fire to the ROTC building. As firefighters tried to put out the blaze, demonstrators slashed their hoses and threw rocks. When the governor gave his speech on Sunday, he called them the most violent student-protestors ever. He vowed to do whatever it took to drive them out. All attempts of reconciliation were met with tear gas and bayonets.” Stopping and making a dramatic turn, I say, “And that brings us to Monday, May 4th.”

I point northeast, toward the parade field. “The campus administration tried to cancel the protest, but two thousand people showed up anyway. Some of them threw rocks at the National Guard, trying to turn them away. Tear gas was deployed again, but the wind made it ineffective. The students began to disperse, marching up Blanket Hill, where we are now.”

I pivot west. “A group of guardsmen advanced on the unarmed protestors. They marched up here, turning toward the parking lot. They went down to one knee and opened fire on the crowd.”

Jen glances back at the sculpture, now several yards away.

“Their sergeant later said they were shot at by a sniper, but there’s no evidence. He aimed his pistol and fired, and at least twenty-nine soldiers took sixty-seven shots. It lasts thirteen endless seconds.” He stops, pausing as he counts to thirteen in his head. “When they stopped shooting, four students were dead, nine others were wounded, including one young man that would be paralyzed the rest of his life.”

I lead the group into the parking lot and stop near the curb. “This is where Jeffrey Miller fell. He was shot through his open mouth and probably died instantly. A fourteen-year-old hitchhiker who’d come to town to check out the music scene ran over, crouching down beside his body and shouting for someone to help. That image was the front page of newspapers and magazines around the world.” I march through the lot, stopping now and then to speak. “Allison Kraus fell here. The bullet went through her left arm and pierced her chest. Her words live on, ‘Flowers are better than bullets.’ Sandra Lee Scheuer bled out from the neck here. She was heading to class when her life was cut short. And William Schroeder, who was also simply passing through the area, was struck in the chest. He was a member of the ROTC and died as a radical symbol right here.”

“People just park where they died?” Jen asks. “I thought they’d have a plaque or something.”

“There’s a memorial over there,” says my brother Chris, pointing to a grove of trees on the other side of the lot.

“The guy from Born on the Fourth of July – what was his name?” I wave his hand in the air, as if trying to waft the answer from the ether. “You know. The movie. Born on the Fourth of July.”

“Tom Cruise?”

“No. . . the guy Tom Cruise played. Uh, he’s a Vietnam vet. He was paralyzed in the war. Ron Kovic! Ron Kovic came and spoke at the anniversary ceremony last year, and he led a march. We staged a sit-in outside the library until the administration agreed to close off the spots. They’re planning on putting memorials where each of the students fell.”

“You marched with him?” Jen asks. “That’s so cool.”

“Which brings me to The Pretenders and Devo.”

“The bands?” asks Chris. “What does any of this have to do with them?”

“That’s what I wanted to tell you about.” I say, “Before they were famous musicians, they were here running from bullets that day. Chrissie Hynde said The Pretenders’ song ‘Revolution’ was inspired by her experience here, and as for Devo, Jerry Casale, Bob Lewis, and Mark Mothersbaugh were all actively involved in the protests. For example, while no one got arrested for burning the ROTC building down, the FBI did show up at Mothersbaugh’s house. They flashed his mother a photograph of her son holding the burning flag that was used to ignite the flame. Their band name comes from the concept of de-evolution, which they said was the best way to explain what they were witnessing here and in the country.”

 

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