Sunday, May 4, 2014

A Grim Anniversary: I'm Out of Step Again

Dear John,
Once again, I'm out of step with the rest of the culture. There were lots of Facebook posts today that showed Yoda saying, "May the fourth be with you." It's chuckle-worthy. But May 4th means something entirely different to me. So I posted the iconic photo from May 4th, 1970. Then I realized that I had to tell people what the photo was about, because most of my Facebook friends are too young to remember the Kent State massacre.
Kent State, May 4, 1970
It was 44 years ago today. The four students who died would be in their sixties now. They'd have children and grandchildren, and would be thinking about retirement. Instead, they died that May morning, shot while assembling lawfully and peacefully. The world reeled, campuses convulsed, and the face of the anti-war movement changed forever.
What started the whole thing of course, was Nixon's invasion of Cambodia. The real problem, in our eyes, was that it was an undeclared war - Nixon called it a "police action" to avoid needing Congress' authorization to declare war. It was an end run around the constitution. VietNam was a war in every conceivable way except that Congress never declared it. It was Nixon's baby.

James Rhodes was the governor of Ohio then. I still don't know how a peaceful, lawful assembly came onto his radar. I do know that he sent National Guard troops in and escalated everything off the charts. Most of them were eighteen to twenty years old since almost everybody had been drafted for Nam. They were armed, and not trained for the kind of encounter they were facing. They also didn't know the campus - in an attempt to disperse the crowd, they chased them into a dead end and trapped them. And the rest is history.

University of Kentucky, May 4, 1970
Predictably, riots broke out on college campuses all over the country as soon as the news broke. At UK, the ROTC building was burned, which was no loss to anyone; the thing was a decrepit rat-trap. Louis Nunn was Kentucky's governor and he had good sense. He had to send in the National Guard, but he sent them in with bayonets and no live ammunition. No crowd is going to charge a line of bayonets, and no Guardsman can accidentally fire an unloaded weapon. They made sure the dorms adjacent to the ROTC building weren't damage and let everything burn itself out, literally and metaphorically, and everybody got home safely. And I love what UK did with the  spot where the ROTC building had been - they put up basketball courts. They're still there. I found this photo from the Lexington Herald-Leader - isn't that Patterson Hall in the background, behind the tear gas?
UK's ROTC building in flames
Well, you know all of this. And you've heard your sister's stories of how terrible that day was at Ohio Northern. Good did come of it. Until then, the anti-war movement was a thing of our generation. That day galvanized our parents, involved another generation, and that turned the tide. But today I weep for the dead, the survivors, and the traumatized. And that includes the Guardsmen who did the shooting. They should never have been put in that position. The only person I have no sympathy for is James Rhodes. I don't believe I'm alone in that.
And here you are, once again being victimized by my need for commemoration. There are dates that jump out of the calendar at me every year, and this is one of them. Today I need to stop, take a minute, remember, and mourn. You always bore up well under this burden. Thank you for your patience! If you ever run into any of the four dead in Ohio, give them my love and respect.
And give yourself all my heart, forever and ever.

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