67 Shots: Kent State and the End of American Innocenceby Howard Means
Published on April 12th 2016
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At midday on May 4, 1970, after three days of protests, several thousand students and the Ohio National Guard faced off at opposite ends of the grassy campus Commons at Kent State University. At noon, the Guard moved out. Twenty-four minutes later, Guardsmen launched a 13-second, 67-shot barrage that left four students dead and nine wounded, one paralyzed for life. The story doesn't end there, though. A horror of far greater proportions was narrowly averted minutes later when the Guard and students reassembled on the Commons.
The Kent State shootings were both unavoidable and preventable: unavoidable in that all the discordant forces of a turbulent decade flowed together on May 4, 1970, on one Ohio campus; preventable in that every party to the tragedy made the wrong choices at the wrong time in the wrong place.
Using the university's recently available oral-history collection supplemented by extensive new interviewing, Means tells the story of this iconic American moment through the eyes and memories of those who were there, and skillfully situates it in the context of a tumultuous era.
When I moved here four years ago the words Kent State only brought to mind the historical event of the shooting in 1970.Â Suddenly I was working with several people who went to school there and didn’t cringe every time they said the words like they were invoking a horrific event.Â It was weird for me.Â Now instead of a scene of carnage it was just that place down the street.
I was interested in reading 67 Shots to find out more about what happened on that day when 4 students were killed by the National Guard.
This book made me furious – but not in the way that I expected
I’m a liberal politically.Â I’m fine with protesting.Â I’m anti-war.Â I’m generally anti-violence but reading this book made me want to slap people.Â I’m glad that right now I don’t have any Kent State students in the office or else I’d have to go symbolically slap them for their predecessors’ stupidity.
How stupid were they?Â These people (believe me I ran through a list of other words before deciding on the neutral “people”) were rioting for days in town and on campus.Â They torched a military building.Â They hacked at the firemen’s hoses when they tried to fight the fire.Â They repeatedly threatened and threw human waste at the military.Â They refused orders to disperse.Â Why?Â Because they thought that the National Guard didn’t have live ammunition.Â They thought they were untouchable.
I was thinking as I was reading that this couldn’t happen like this again because everyone knows now that the police or military will shoot you.Â Then I came across this paragraph and footnote that summed it up.
“Until the moment of the shooting, an implicit social contract had prevailed at Kent State.Â White, middle-class Americans could scream and shout at each other; they could give each other the finger and throw tear-gas canisters back and forth, and shout ‘Fuck!” as loud as they wanted to.Â They could even chase each other with bayonets and helicopters, throw bricks and cement and bags full of shit, but as bitter and divisive as the times were, they didn’t shoot each other, and especially didn’t shoot each other dead.Â The sixty-seven shots fired across thirteen seconds at 12:24 p.m. on May 4, 1970, changed that bargain, and Guardsmen seemed as surprised as students that whatever unspoken truce existed had fallen apart for good.*”
“*Black Americans had a different history.Â At Kent State, they avoided the weekend demonstrations like the plague.“
Yep.Â That’s it.Â That’s the problem.Â Spoiled little white brats thinking that they were invincible.Â Reading their interviews decades after the event, a lot of them still don’t seem to think that they did anything that could be considered out of line.Â You were throwing bags of urine and feces.Â Sure, you weren’t shooting at people but you have crossed far over the line of basic human decency.Â By the time you get out of kindergarten, let alone started college, you should have learned to keep your human waste to yourself.
I went to the site of the shooting at Kent State and visited the May 4 memorial and museum.Â Being there gave me a better perspective on where the shooting happened.Â Because there are hills and buildings that everyone was moving around, being there let me understand it better than just looking at it on a map.
The demonstration was in a large field around a Victory Bell monument (seen in the header photo). This is bowl shaped area with a building at the top. The National Guard marched up the hill and to the right of the building that you see in the background of the picture as they were trying to disperse the crowd. The shooting actually took place there. The people that were shot were in a parking lot behind the building.
The places where they were standing have memorials now.
You don’t seem to get a very complete picture in the museum. There is a gallery about the political climate of the 1960s. Then you watch a movie about the shooting. Then you move to a gallery about the political aftermath.
Things not mentioned in the museum:
- The rioting for days before the shooting
- Why the National Guard was on campus
Seriously? That’s a big omission.Â If I knew nothing about this I would wonder why the National Guard was there or maybe assume that they were stationed there or something.Â There was a line at the very beginning of the movie that says that the National Guard came in after the building burned.Â It is very quick.Â I might have missed it if I hadn’t specifically been listening for some explanation of the background events.
The museum gives the impression that students were peacefully gathering to sing Kumbaya and the evil National Guard swooped down out of nowhere and shot them for no reason.
What I Think Now
- Yes, the protest at that point on May 4th was peaceful
- Yes, shooting at the students was unwarranted
- Yes, they shot at students who had left the area of the protest and that is why people who weren’t involved at all were killed or injured.Â That is all bad.
- No, I don’t want to say that the students had it coming but I’m almost to that point.Â When the National Guard is called away from guarding people crossing the picket lines at a Teamsters’ Union strike and they say they felt safer there than on the Kent State campus, that’s saying something about the level of tension.
- This is a story of privilege run amok.Â I feel sorry for the bystanders caught up in it and for members of the Guard but I don’t feel sorry for anyone else.