Monday, May 3, 2010

Kent State Four Decades Later

May 4, 1970 four Kent State University Students were shot in The Commons on campus by The Ohio National Guard sent by then Governor James A Rhodes to keep the peace.

An Essay of Remembrance

As I approached Satterfield Hall, the English Department building at the main campus of Kent State University on a late morning, Monday, 4 May 1970 to continue a graduate course in Comparative Literature, I was surprised not to see the usual number of students entering and exiting the building. It was just about time for the classes to change, but concerned more about finding a parking space, I did not dwell on the campus’s empty feeling. Still, something was not right.

I parked, grabbed my satchel and headed into the building, grateful once again that my principal at Palmyra elementary school where I taught a special education class 15 miles east of Kent in the Ravenna school system, had granted me permission to take the course so I could finish a Master’s Degree in English that summer.

But when I entered the building, my gratitude was replaced by a rush of anxiety because the building was empty of faculty, staff and students. I stopped and checked my watch, then a calendar on the wall, all the while feeling that I had entered the twilight zone; this could not be Monday, not with this absence of people. I checked to see if it was Sunday, but no sooner did I recalibrate that I was there on the right day than a former professor of mine, Dr. Marovitz came running down the hall from the opposite direction. He was about to pass me, but I grabbed him as he was about to run past and demanded: “Where is everyone!?” His response: “They have murdered our students!” I let him go and he continued running.

I ran out of the building and up to the Commons area. I knew that for the last few nights, destructive behavior was rampant in downtown Kent: buildings vandalized, stores looted, fights breaking out, all in response to our continued involvement and now escalation of force in Vietnam and Cambodia. The National Guard units from Akron had been ordered in to Kent to keep the peace. But shoot students? I could not grasp what that meant.

When I reached the lip of the Commons, I was met first by groups of very frightened and angry National Guardsmen, in small circles of four men each, facing out with bayonets on their rifles. Their eyes showed both fatigue and fear. Beyond them were some 3000 people all lining the rim of the Commons Field. Their silence was absolute. Below were lines of riot police in full gear. There were no dead or wounded by then; they had all been just recently transported to the Ravenna Hospital. What was present and palpable, however, was fear clashing with anger, force confronting disbelief.

Before I could adjust to the fearful scene before me, an order was shouted from within the ranks of police to charge the rim of the hill where we all stood in silence. At once the riot police paired up and began a slow run towards us; as if on command, 3000 people scattered, running for their lives. I did not know at this moment who or how many had been killed or injured, but I knew enough to run. People ran through parking lots, into classrooms, into dorms, in the opposite direction. Within minutes of this panicked stampede, a police cruiser drove across the grass and someone within announced, through a set of bull horns, that the campus had been taken from the control of the school’s president, Robert White, and by an act from then Governor James A. Rhodes, was declared closed. All students, faculty and staff were to vacate the campus within the next 12 hours. With that, the school began an accelerated shut down, the spring quarter classes all cancelled, and the future existence of the university in doubt and jeopardy.

Because my wife and I lived in Kent but taught out side the city, we were allowed back in each afternoon by showing our valid Ohio driver’s license. If one could not show that one lived in Kent, none were allowed to reenter under any circumstances. Marshall Law was all but declared for the city for an indefinite period of time. Small tanks and unmarked government cars passed our rent house every hour looking for anyone walking the streets. Memory tells me this lock-down lasted for two weeks.

I sensed but could not put words to the fact that a major cultural moment had just occurred, that history on an international scale had been shaped at my school. Shooting unarmed students on campus when the bylaws of the National Guard called for rubber bullets only, informed us all that law as we knew it was up for grabs. The war in Vietnam had spilled beyond the television set; it had entered the campus of one American university and might just appear in others nationally. The nation was numbed by Kent State: songs followed, manifestoes and of course, law suits. After 20 years in the Cleveland courts, all involved were exonerated. It also took 20 years and many successful court battles to allow the creation of a small black marble memorial to be set in place by where two students had been killed.

I took both my sons to that site when it opened twenty years ago. I also visited the campus and the Commons area last summer with my younger brother. I was astonished and unnerved and pleased by how much it looked as it did 40 years ago. I walked to the site where years ago I had sat cross-legged and chanted OUM with Allen Ginsberg, listened to Gary Snyder read his nature poetry. The Commons area is still there despite many efforts to build an ROTC building on the site. Citizens fought hard to keep the space open--a gap, a pocket of memory, so that what occurred that long ago still has a place to move, a place for the memories of that day to come back up, each spring, with the grass and the baseball and the soccer games and the football passes and the blankets that allowed students to lie in the sun—all these event that allow each new Spring to be welcomed and marked.

About The Author

Dennis Patrick Slattery, Ph.D. lives in New Braunfels and commutes each month to Santa Barbara where he teaches Mythology at Pacifica Graduate Institute.