Saturday 12 April 2014

Kent State Massacre

Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,
We're finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drumming,
Four dead in Ohio.

(Neil Young)

"Four dead in Ohio" screamed the headline on May 4, 1970.  It took only 13 seconds and 67 rounds of ammunition.  When the smoke cleared on the Kent State Campus, four students were dead, another 9 wounded.  John Filo snapped a photograph of Mary Ann Vecchio, screaming over one of the slain victims. One of the most famous anti-Vietnam pictures, it would win a Pulitzer Prize and rally a nation.

When Richard Nixon was elected in 1968, he had promised to end the Vietnam War.  But by 1969, the war was escalating.  Changes to the draft laws saw more and more college students and even teachers going off to Southeast Asia to fight.  The Mai Lai Massacre made more and more Americans weary of the war.  

Then, President Nixon did the unthinkable and bombed Cambodia as well.  Five hundred students protested at Kent State University on May 1, 1970, a direct response to the Cambodian campaign.  To show they meant business, some of the students buried the American Constitution.  A crowd of 120 committed acts of vandalism.  

The destruction escalated the following day when the ROTC building was burned; when firefighters attempted to extinguish the blaze, they were pelted with rocks by the protesters.  Late that night the National Guard arrived and some arrests were made.  They used tear gas was used to disperse the crowd.  

On May 3, Ohio Governor Rhodes commented on the disturbance:  "We've seen here at the city of Kent especially, probably the most vicious form of campus oriented violence yet perpetrated by dissident groups." Later he said:  "They're worse than the Brownshirts [Nazis]."  Kent residents were given an 11 pm curfew that evening.

On May 4, another rally was planned on the Kent State campus.  One protester rang the campus's iron Victory Bell, normally reserved for football games, to signal the rally's start.  After a few speeches, the scene turned ugly.  Protesters pelted rocks at the patrolmen who asked them to disperse.  The latter were forced to retreat.  However, at 12 noon, the guardsmen returned and asked the protesters again to disperse but they refused. The guardsmen threw gas canisters which were ineffective because the wind simply blew the gas away.  They advanced forcing the protesters to retreat over Blanket Hill. While the protesters stayed on the verandah of Taylor Hall, the troops stood on the practice field.  It seemed like there was a lull in the fighting.

All of a sudden, the guardsmen marched in a column up the hill and turned to face the students.  Sergeant Pryor pulled his pistol and fired, followed by 29 of the 77 guardsmen.  Four people were hit, none of whom was closer than 71 feet from the guardsmen.  Two were protesters, two were simply walking to their next class.  Nine others lay wounded on the ground.  

Mary Ann Vecchio, a 14 year old runaway, screamed when she saw one of the victims, Jeffrey Miller, lying face down on the ground.  It was at that moment that Kent State photojournalism student John Filo snapped the now famous picture.  Kent State Professor Frank, knowing that there could easily be more bloodshed, pleaded with the students to return to class.  After 20 tense minutes, the remaining protesters dispersed.  

Reporters nationwide covered the story "Four Dead in Ohio".  Photographer Filo's photo ran in dozens of newspapers.  And Americans, who were already questioning the Vietnam War, became more polarized than ever before.  

Note:  For more information --

1.  Listen to Neil Young's song "Four Dead in Ohio".
2.  Read Garry Geddes poem, dedicated to one of the victims, called "Sandra Lee Scheuer".
3.  Watch Chris Triffo's documentary "Kent State:  The Day the War Came Home" (2000).

No comments:

Post a Comment