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Shootings at Kent State University
What happened at Kent State University? This is a question that many Americans were asking following the crisis on the Kent campus. In the days preceding May 4, 1970, protests, disruption, and violence erupted on the university grounds. These acts were the students’ reaction to President Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia. The events surround the deaths of four students in Kent, Ohio are disorderly and violent. In the government’s investigation after the shootings, the officials made several recommendations to students of the future. As the massacre is looked back upon, there are several key events that set the tragic day into motion.
On April 30, 1970, when Nixon gave a speech announcing his invasion of Cambodia, anti-war factions rose up across the United States. In the speech he stated that, “If, when the chips are down…the world’s most powerful nation, the United States of America, acts like a pitiful, helpless giant, the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy will threaten free nations and institutions around the world. I would rather be a one term president and do what I believe is right than to be a two term president at the cost of seeing America become a second rate power.” Students did not agree with Nixon and protests cropped up on university campuses in the days that followed his speech. Amongst these protesters were students of Kent State University, “The Cambodian invasion defined a watershed in the attitude of Kent students toward American policy in the Indochina War.” At this point, the first two days of May, the students were protesting Nixon’s actions. While the country was under the impression that the troops were being withdrawn from Vietnam, an invasion of Cambodia was only an escalation in conflict. “Nixon and Kissinger widened the war geographically as well by attacking neutral Cambodia, where North Vietnamese troops maintained sanctuaries. This further escalation of the war, for which he never sought congressional support, began in March 1969 with a highly secret campaign of bombing raids.” As United States citizens, particularly college students, learned of the actions of the Executive branch against a neutral country, they became more enraged with the administration. Coming out of a decade of peace and acceptance, the students viewed this invasion as the last straw.
On May 2, 1970, several unknown students burnt down the ROTC building. This was significant because ROTC (Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, a program on college campuses that teaches students to become military officers) was a direct correlation to the military actions they were so vehemently protesting. The students were attempting to send a message to all that they disagreed with all of the institutions associated with the military, President Nixon, and the invasion of Cambodia. More than a thousand protesters gathered around the building and cheered it’s burning. While attempting to extinguish the fire, several Kent firemen and police officers were hit with rocks and other objects by those standing near the fire. Several fire engines had to be called in because protesters carried the fire hose into the common area ground and slashed it. These acts caused Governor James Rhodes to send the Ohio National Guard troops to the campus to attempt to defuse the situation, “The National Guardsmen on the Kent State campus were armed with loaded M-1 rifles, high velocity weapons with a horizontal range of two miles.” In the time following the shootings, many people wondered why the Guardsmen were carrying such weapons around an unarmed crowd. Several arrests were made that evening and the National Guard threw tear gas into the crowd. The next day, a few students attempted to clean up the mess made downtown, but many of the business owners were wary of them. The governor imposed a curfew and again that night, the National Guard forced the students into their dorms.
May 4, 1970 was the day of tragedy on the Kent campus. At about 11:00 A.M. students gathered on the Commons. A protest rally had been scheduled for noon that day, although, the state officials had printed about 12,000 flyers saying that the rally was cancelled. Even with the flyers, the size of the crowd grew to around 1,000 by noon. The National Guard troop immediately attempted to disperse the students. One matter that the troops did not realize was that at 12:00 P.M. students were moving across the grounds from one class to another. A reporter from The New York Times was on the campus the day of the shootings and reported, “The students in the parking lot area, numbering about 500, began to move toward the rear of the troops, cheering. Again, a few in front picked up stones from the edge of the parking lot and threw them at the guardsmen. Another group of several hundred students had gathered around the sides of Taylor Hall watching. As the guardsmen, moving up the hill in single file, reached the crest, they suddenly turned, forming a skirmish line and opening fire. The crackle of the rifle volley cut the suddenly still air. It appeared to go on, as a solid volley, for perhaps a full minute or a little longer. Some of the students dived to the ground, crawling on the grass in terror. Others stood shocked or half crouched, apparently believing the troops were firing into the air. Some of the rifle barrels were pointed upward.”
Once the firing stopped and the smoke cleared, four students were killed. Two were a part of the protest, and the other two were on their way to class.
350 feet away
shot through the arm and chest
400 feet away
shot through the throat
275 feet away
shot through the head
400 feet away
shot in the back6
400 feet away
shot in the back
An additional nine students were injured: Joseph Lewis, John Cleary, Thomas Grace, Robbie Stamps, Donald MacKenzie, Alan Canfora, Douglas Wrentmore, James Russell, and Dean Kahler. All were full times students at Kent State University. Kahler is permanently paralyzed from the shooting. These shootings caused many students to want to attack the members of the National Guard. Seeing this, members of the Kent State faculty pleaded with the students to disperse to prevent further bloodshed.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, the state attempted to take legal action against eight member of the National Guard. All of the cases were dismissed due to lack of evidence. “The years following the shootings (1970 to 1979) were filled with lawsuits filed by families of the victims against the State of Ohio, in hopes of placing blame on Governor Rhodes and the Ohio National Guard. Trials were held on both the federal and state level but all ended in acquittals or were dismissed. There was one civil trial for wrongful death and injury brought by the victims and their families against Governor Rhodes and the National Guardsmen that was originally dismissed but eventually the dismissal was overturned due to the judge excluding evidence. The students' families were awarded approximately $63,000 per victim and the defendants agreed to state for the record that they regretted their actions.” This award winning photograph captured Mary Ann Veccicho, a 14 year old runaway, in front of the body of Jeffery Miller. Due to its widespread publication, Veccicho was found by her parents and went home. By May 10, 1970, 448 colleges and universities had shut down in response to the events at Kent State.
In conclusion, the Kent State shooting was a tragedy that has never really had anyone held responsible. Thirty-eight years later, “Official investigations as to exactly what happened at Kent State were inconclusive.” The days preceding the shootings, the students burned down the ROTC building, protested on the commons, and threw rubbish at police officers. The violent actions of the students put the law enforcement officials and National Guardsmen around them on edge. On the other side, the Guardsmen arrived in full combat gear to put down unarmed college students. There was no reason for the soldiers to fire at the students that were hundreds of feet away from them. Whether one of the soldiers fired in a moment of panic or if they were order to commence shooting may never be known.
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"Shootings at Kent State University." 123HelpMe.com. 27 Feb 2015