Documentary on Kent State shootings resonates today
As a ’79 graduate of Kent State University, I was eager to watch PBS’ new documentary on the 1970 campus shootings, which killed four students and wounded nine others.
By the time the program was scrolling final credits, I was reeling from a sense of the all-too-familiar.
“The Day the ’60s Died” debuted Monday night and is now available online at www.pbs.org/program/day-60s-died. I recommend it, not just for its clarity of perspective on a devastating time in our country but also for its cautionary message for the here and now.
Change the focus (to recent police brutality) and the cause (to racial justice) and we are forced to consider yet again what happens when our government fails to heed the warning signs of growing unrest.
From the documentary, cast in white letters against a black background:
“By 1970, a majority of Americans believe sending troops to Vietnam was a mistake.
“But many are also critical of the student anti-war movement.”
In 2015, a growing number of Americans believe that too many police officers use excessive force, particularly against citizens of color.
But many are also critical of those who protest, even when they are peaceful.
Lately, I worry that too many of us abhor injustice as long as we’re not inconvenienced by efforts to change it. I was disheartened, for example, by the flood of complaints on social media after peaceful protesters in Cleveland blocked a major artery at rush hour on a single day in November. They were there because police had shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was playing in a city park with an air gun. You would have thought by the grousing that everyone was delayed from rushing dying passengers to the hospital.
“How does holding up my commute bring justice?” they demanded. Or, as President Richard Nixon put it after he’d already deceived the country about his plans to escalate the Vietnam War by invading Cambodia, “There is nothing new we can learn from the demonstrations.”
Awareness can be so annoying.
Some of the student protesters at Kent State had turned violent on the weekend before the May 4 shootings. No elected officials expressed a desire to get to the heart of why. Instead, Ohio Gov. Jim Rhodes attempted to dehumanize them, casting them as “worse than the brownshirts and the communist element and also the nightriders and the vigilantes. They’re the worst type of people that we harbor in America.”
These days, we’d call them animals and thugs, I guess. I do not condone violence, but the name-calling always telegraphs such an unwillingness to consider the long-fermenting reasons behind the growing unrest. That is as true today as it was in 1970.
The PBS documentary offers a vivid contrast between two worlds of Americans, repeatedly shifting from scenes of protest in the U.S. to combat in the fields of Vietnam and Cambodia. Through interviews, we learn that our young men fighting in Cambodia knew that the Ohio National Guard had shot and killed students at Kent State.
Army veteran Ron Orem was one of them. “I remember feeling real anger that a bunch of National Guard guys would shoot down college students,” he says. “If some kid’s throwing a brick at me and I’ve got a loaded rifle, I don’t feel intimidated.”
Veteran Terry Braun was another, and he speaks directly to why he appreciated the student protests: “As we got deeper into Cambodia, we made contact every single day. … I knew that there was a peace movement going on, and I was kind of glad there was. I believe if people weren’t demonstrating, we would still be there.”
Eleven days after the Kent State shootings, police opened fire at protesters on the campus of Jackson State, killing two students and injuring 12 others. A snippet of footage in the aftermath shows a young black man holding a sign that reads, “Shoot me, my back is turned.”
A haunting moment in the documentary shows Arthur Krause reading a statement about his 19-year-old daughter, Allison, who was killed at Kent State:
“She resented being called a bum” – he pauses – “because she disagreed with someone else’s opinion. She felt the war in Cambodia was wrong. Is this dissent a crime? Is this a reason for killing her? Have we come to such a state in this country that a young girl has to be shot because she disagrees deeply with the actions of her government?”
That was then, and this is now, in the words of Tamir Rice’s mother, Samaria:
“I have … not received an apology from the police department or the city of Cleveland in regards to the killing of my son.” She pauses. “And it hurts.”
Editor’s note: Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and an essayist for Parade magazine.