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Friday, May 1st, 1970 marked a significant day at Kent State University in Ohio. President Nixon’s announcement that troops would be sent into Cambodia trigger a slew of protests on campus at Kent State. As of noon, over five hundred students rallied and watched as a graduate student buried a copy of the constitution. This symbolized the murder of the constitution by president Nixon because congress had not declared war. The same evening, the Kent State University President, deciding that the situation is under control, leaves Ohio on a planned trip to Iowa. However, the situation gets slightly out of control. As dusk falls, a crowd a students and citizens gathers near the Kent bar area and block off the street, vandalize and ignite bonfires. Although there had been no previous effort made by the Kent Police Department to control the situation, Kent City Mayor Stratom calls a state of emergency, closes down the bars, and finally sends in police personnel. The closing of the bars enrages the people inside them, which lead to an even larger group of people to control and disperse. Because the Kent Police forces were so reluctant to control the crowd, it becomes very difficult to disperse the crowd. Rioters finally decided to call it a night when someone accidentally ended up hanging from a traffic light.
On the evening of May 2nd, after various rumours and threats abound, Mayor Stratom orders city and campus curfews. Mayor Stratom then decides, without informing Kent State Officials, to call in the National Guard of Ohio. In protest, a group of 600 students gather with the intention of setting the ROTC building on fire. When the Kent City Fire Department is informed of the fire they rush to rescue only to have themselves stoned and their hoses slashed. Since the Kent State Campus Police offer no aid, they are forced to retreat.
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Senator James Rhodes arrived into Kent state to attend a news conference and deliver a speech. This speech, however, is misinterpreted by university officials and guard officials, and instructions are then issued to forbid rallies or gatherings of any sort. Although an attempt is made to inform the students of the new regulation and curfew, many students do not receive the leaflet that had been produced until after the shootings on May 4th. When students we seen to not be obeying the curfew, the Guard decided to take action and proceeded by firing tear gas at crowds on the Commons (flat land area for student leisure). However, fifteen minutes later, the crowd peacefully reunited and walked to the gates of the University to show that a curfew was not necessary. The crowd requested to speak with the Mayor and the University President on the subject of the Guard’s presence on campus. Forty-five minutes after informing the students that Mayor Stratom and President White would speak with them, the National Guard announces that the curfew would go into effect immediately and proceeded to descend upon the crowd with tear gas, successfully dispersing the once peaceful crowd. This made the students loathe the presence of the National Guard to an excessive extent.
The morning of May 4th began with a meeting of local and state officials. The officials present conclude that the rally scheduled protesting the presence of the National Guard is illegal and should therefore not be allowed to take place. However, the National Guard was not informed that the students had a class break at noon. Therefore, when about two hundred students we seen gathering on the Common ground to go eat their lunches or wait for their next classes, the guard started getting suspicious. When the other students started heading towards the Common ground for their break, the National Guard believed that the students were gathering for the illegal rally. The Guard announces, on a bullhorn, instructions for the crowd to disband immediately, however, those who hear the announcement become enraged, and the crowd starts to stir. When the members of the crowd start to curse and throw rocks, other students who want the National Guard off campus follow their example by ringing the victory bell (normally used for sporting events). The National Guard responded by throwing tear gas into the crowds, but this time, the crowds fought back using gas masks and gloves from the science department and throwing the gas bombs back at the Guard. The Guards, now feeling seriously threatened by tear gas and rocks, herd the students onto the football field firing into the air and staying in that same position for approximately ten minutes, thinking that their supply of tear gas was already wasted and not know what to do. Most of the students are next to Taylor Hall to the left of the Guard, and still throwing objects and yelling obscenities. Many of the students had already started heading for the parking lot thinking that the action was over when the Guard rotated their position One hundred and eighty degrees taking a few steps back and then firing into the crowd. It is assumed that it was either for the Guards own protection for the unarmed kids or because one shot triggered all 60 others. Because of the intense situation where guards were ready to fire on the crowd if deemed necessary, students were willing to risk their own lives to avenge the other deaths and injuries. Kent State Professors then plead with the Guard to let them address the students to prevent any further bloodshed.
President Nixon seemed some what affected by the events of May 4th but did not waver in his decision to send troops to Cambodia. Senator James Rhodes once again appeared on the scene to give a speech explaining the course of events from the Guards point of view and guarantee that history would not repeat itself.
Irresponsible actions made by uninformed parties were largely to blame. Lack of responsibility on the part of the Campus guard can be partially found at fault. The campus guard were reluctant to aid the police or the fire department to bring the riots under control. If they had extended a helping hand earlier, the National Guard might never have been called in. However, the National Guard should have assessed the situation in a more diplomatic fashion. They should have been trained to prevent unarmed crowds from getting rowdy, not bait their rowdiness.
Department of Special Collections & Archives. “May 4th Exhibit: Kent State University”
Lewis, Jerry and Hensley, Thomas. “The May 4th Shootings at Kent State University: The Search for Historical Accuracy”
F.B.I. Reports. “U.S. Justice Department’s Summary of FBI Reports: May 4, 1970”
Payne, J. Gregory Ph D. “MAYDAY: Kent State”
Eszterhas, Joe and Michael D. Roberts. Thirteen Seconds: Confrontation at Kent.
New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1970.
"Four Random, Pointless Deaths."
Newsweek. (May 18, 1970) 34.