May 4, 1970: Fifty Years Since the Kent State Shootings.
I remember the day well. I was at work as a long distance telephone operator in Seattle. Suddenly the switchboard lit up with people wanting to call Ohio (this was long before cell phones and direct dial). The circuits were so clogged up most of the calls didn’t go through. This is how many of us first heard of the shootings. Most of us operators were young, of the same age group as the students at Kent State. Many of us had already attended protests at the University of Washington. We already pictured what it might have looked like and empathetically felt the fear and terror those kids faced.
Then, as now, it was older white people who wanted to sacrifice young able bodied people to fulfil their own desires. Then it was to prove to the world that America was the biggest, the best and the strongest and nobody messes with the USA! Now it’s to force young hairstylists and nail artists to open up their salons in the middle of a pandemic so that older white people can get their hair cut and their nails done. In both cases in both time frames, it didn’t seem to matter how many people died to achieve their purpose.
But please don’t paint all us older white people with the same brush. Many of us are still liberal activists who didn’t vote for Donald Trump, who support the ideas, works and actions of younger people, and will still fight for the rights of all.
After work I rushed home to turn on the TV. While we didn’t have CNN, MSNBC or 24 hour news coverage, we were able to see quite a bit. Newspapers were full of the stories and it was talked about on the radio. I imagine if this happened now with all of that plus social media, so much more would have been known.
The next day at work another protest happened, this time right here in Seattle.
People didn’t have cell phones then, but they witnessed the event and ran home to make phone calls or crammed into phone booths to call.
Protesters had surged onto the I5 freeway by the University of Washington and blocked the traffic and a standoff with Seattle Police. A few days later, the mayor would close the express lanes of the freeway to allow protesters to march from the university to the federal courthouse downtown. That one I watched from 3rd Avenue but didn’t take part, mostly due to the difficulty of getting from downtown the U District in time.
A few days after the Kent State shooting, the musical group, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young released a song called Ohio, written by Neil Young… it was a very fast release by any standards. I first heard it sitting in my boyfriend’s car at Golden Gardens Beach and was stunned. After all of the events of the past few days, the reality of it all hit and I was in tears.
This all had been building up for a while. Most kids who were eligible to be drafted to fight a war they didn’t want, were forced to go anyway. Many didn’t come back. Some that did come back were messed up for life. Others came back but “were still in Saigon”. If I had been male, I would have been one that was sent… my number based on my birth date was 10. Yet, many young women volunteered to go anyway, mostly as nurses.
In the verse, Nixon’s coming, refers to the announcement on April 30th that American troops were expanding to Cambodia, who was neutral and didn’t want to be involved in this war, after he had made a campaign promise to bring home the troops.
Fifty years later, nothing has changed. Politicians are still making the same lame empty promises to get elected. We are still hurting people for no reason. And no one “wins” a fucking war.
If you want to learn more about this event and those that led up to it, I recommend these books.
Kent State by James A Michener
This We Know by Carole Barbato, Laura Davis and Mark Seeman
67 Shots: Kent State and the End of American Innocence by Howard Means
Kent State Massacre by Charles River Editors
Surviving: A Kent State Memoir by Paula Tucker
Kent State: The Day the War Came Home by W.F. Reed… this last one is an interesting spin on the story. It’s a novel seen through the eyes of a time traveler.