Most of the second leg of the rust belt stops city stops had been put together by either NEFAC members or anarchists who I knew already. The one exception was Kent, Ohio. Now I'd have known nothing about Ohio at all before the tour but when I got an email from the Kent Anti-Racist Action chapter offering to host a talk I recognised 'Kent State University' as the site of the massacre on May 4th 1970 when four people were killed when the National Guard fired into an anti-war demonstration.
I'd no idea where Kent State actually was in the US but while on the road in Florida I looked it up on gogole maps and saw it was mid-dway between Pittsburgh and Cleveland, both cities I was speaking in. So Kent looked straightforward enough. Things turned out to be slightly more complex as the Greyhound didn't actually go there so I had to arrange to be picked up from nearest town and then afterwards driven into Cleveland. Getting out of Pittsburgh was a bit of a pain as I got to the Greyhound station late and a huge que was already in place, far more than could fit on a bus. But the usual Greyhound SNAFU played out in my favour when they switched the departure doors at the last minute and I moved fast and got up the top of the que at the new gate. Just as well, that bus was full and I think a good few people were left behind. It was also the only bus that day.
I met my hosts at the station and we took a diversion to some huge hardware warehouse to pick up some wood for an art project one of them was doing. The University really dominates Kent, in fact it pretty much looked like it was Kent. We dropped off the wood and headed back to the flat of my host where we talked about some of the recent anti-racist activity in the region, in particular the Toledo anti-fascist riot which had taken place a couple of years previously. I had mentioned to some of the other organisers in the cities I was speaking in at the region that ARA were hosting the Kent meeting and they were somewhat dubious. From what I could gather this came out of a major row that had taken place some years previous, the students involved in Kent ARA seemed oblivious to that particular dispute. Toledo though had been quite a wake up call, in particular because of the negative experience they had with leninist groups like the ISO whom they felt had not acted responsibly in the aftermath and who had failed to support those who had been arrested.
The meeting itself took place in the main tower of the university, preceeded by snacks. We got a fairly good crowd of 26 or so including someone from ths student paper who subsequently published an article and photo on the talk. The article's inaccuracies reflect the reporters hastiness to be elsewhere, I particular like the line in relation to Rossport that "Shell was trying to build one within 70 miles of people's homes."
Afterwards we went to visit the site of the May 4th massacre. On April 30 1970 Nixon had admitted that US forces had invaded Cambodia. The following day saw the first demonstation at Kent of around 500 people with some rioting later that night. The mayor declared a state of emergancy in order to deploy the National Guard who arrived on the 2nd to find the Reserve Officer Training Corp builsing on the campus on fire aurrounded by 1000 cheering students. The Guard attacked the students with tear gas and bayonets. On the following day the Ohio Governor gave an inflammatary speech in which he declared that the protesters were "worse than the brown shirts and the communist element and also the night riders and the vigilantes .. the worst type of people that we harbor in America. I think that we're up against the strongest, well-trained, militant, revolutionary group that has ever assembled in America." That evening the National Guard declared a curfew and again attacked a student demonstration with bayonets.
On the 4th some 2000 protesters gathered and were attacked by three units of the National Guard. Again bayonets and tear gas were used. The students retreated but then, quite suddenly and for no obvious reason, the Guard opened fire, some 67 rounds were fired killing four students and wounding nine. The nearest of those killed was 81m away and two of the four had not even been at the protest. In fact one, William Schroeder, was actually a member of the Reserve Officer Training Corp on campus and was walking between classes at the time he was shot dead.
This sparked off a huge protest movement that within days saw a national student strike involving 4 million on over 900 campuses and within five days a protest of 100,000 in Washington DC which saw significant rioting forcing Nixon to flee the city to Camp David. Nixon's speechwriter later said that "The mobs were smashing windows, slashing tires, dragging parked cars into intersections, even throwing bedsprings off overpasses into the traffic down below. This was the quote, student protest. That's not student protest, that’s civil war." On the 14th May two more students were killed and 12 wounded this time by police at Jackson State University. Back in Kent the state prosecuted 24 students and one member of staff although charges were eventually dropped.
The site of the massacre is still a car park but with four almost car sized spaces marked off, the locations where the four who died were shot. The University is yet to complete the offical memorial to the four, despite the availability of funding to do so and the cark park markings were only installed in 1999 following pressure from the relatives of those killed. There is a historic commerorative plague and a half finished memorial that doesn't look like much more than a polished stone wall. Given how well known the massacre is all over the world this seemed quite remarkable and presumably a reflection of how the university and the state has yet to recognise what happened that day in 1970. Wandering from site to site in the dark carpark was quite a sobering experience, I skipped the post meeting party and went back to sleep before heading on to Cleveland the next morning.
WORDS: Andrew Flood (Follow Andrew on Twitter )
This youtube of Neill Young's Ohio contains lots of photographs from the Kent state massacre of May 4th 1970
Read the other blog enteries from the 44 stops of my 2007/8 speaking tour