March 15, 2016 | Washington Monthly
When does harsh political rhetoric lead to violence? We live in an age of dangerously hot-blooded talking points, especially on the far right. The Republican presidential hopeful Ted Cruz described President Obama as the world’s leading sponsor of Islamic terrorism. Donald Trump recently said, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters.” Ann Coulter mused about putting rat poison into the food of a Supreme Court justice she dislikes. A handful of Black Lives Matter protestors chanted, “Pigs in a blanket, fry ’em like bacon” at the police during a demonstration in Minnesota. All of these statements are protected by the First Amendment; they are legal. Nevertheless, they are foolish. In an era of mass shootings, such blood imagery is, at the very least, in poor taste.
A new book offers a famous case study on this problem. 67 Shots, by the journalist Howard Means, describes the nasty public commentary that accompanied the deaths of four young people at Kent State University on May 4, 1970. The shooting by Ohio National Guard troops followed a weekend of sometimes-violent protests against President Nixon’s expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia. Three days before the shooting, Nixon famously described antiwar protestors as “bums blowing up the campuses.” “No more appeasement,” said Ronald Reagan, then the governor of California. “If it takes a bloodbath, let’s get it over with.” Ohio Governor Jim Rhodes promised to “eradicate” the problem of campus protest.
The aftermath of the Kent State shooting included some truly shocking invective. Means reports on it in detail, and it is the most revealing and disturbing section of the book. “There’s nothing better than a dead, destructive, riot-making communist, and that’s what your son was. Be thankful he’s gone,” read a letter to the parents of William Schroeder, one of the shooting’s four victims. (Schroeder was active in ROTC and was not involved in the protest; he was walking between classes when a bullet struck him.) The sixteen-year-old sister of another student who was shot received a letter that said, “I hope your brother dies.” A common refrain that bewildered youngsters reported hearing in May 1970 was, “They should have killed more of you.”
After the shooting, at least one speaker may have had second thoughts about his tough rhetoric. Kent State badly rattled Richard Nixon. He spent a bizarre and sleepless night on May 9 making impromptu visits to the House of Representatives and the Lincoln Memorial, where he struck up conversations with sleepy hippies protesting on the Mall. “I hoped that their hatred of the war, which I could well understand, would not turn into a bitter hatred of our whole system, our country, and everything that it stood for,” Nixon recalled. He then made awkward chitchat about college football and other sports before the Secret Service convinced him to leave. It seems fitting that haunted, tortured Nixon, and not dumb, sunny Reagan, would be the one to worry that his words had created an atmosphere of violence at Kent State.
The basic facts of the shooting are well known, having been established by a presidential commission, the Department of Justice, civil and criminal litigation, and firsthand witness accounts. Yet Means invests the story with fresh new detail and presents it in clear, straightforward reporting. For those disinclined to read a blue-ribbon commission report, 67 Shots offers an excellent single-volume history of the Kent State encounter. The book is particularly good at exploring the political and cultural resonance of an event that changed the lives of all who were touched by it, even as it begins to fade into history.
The hippies were not angels. Means sympathizes with them but remains evenhanded. He portrays a rabble that was at times maddeningly unfocused (“bad clothes, loose tits, shocking language”) and at others downright intimidating. When the first weekend of spring weather arrived on the Ohio campus on Friday, May 1, students hit the bars en masse. Nixon’s Cambodia announcement fired them up. A crowd of roughly 500 took hold in the evening, burning barrels, smashing windows, and accosting passersby to debate the war. Some were outside agitators, but not the scores that conservatives later claimed. Many acquitted themselves badly. Means portrays an elderly couple trapped at a red light, surrounded by protesters who began to rock their car. The mayor declared a state of emergency and police arrived. Protesters spit in their faces and threw rocks and bags of excrement. The night ended with fifteen arrests.
The following day, Saturday, May 2, was even more ominous. Protesters defied a city-wide curfew and burned down the Army ROTC building on campus. As the fire raged, university administrators looked on with what many later described as a strange apathy. One witness who drove into Kent that night saw an orange glow above the city. “[M]y first thought was, my God, the whole town is burning.” There was more purpose to the arson than there had been in the previous night’s rioting; community members felt it was premeditated. The mayor summoned the National Guard, and Governor Rhodes gave his approval. That night helicopters circled the city and tear gas flew. A tense calm prevailed on campus the following day, Sunday, but signs of trouble were everywhere. Students made ridiculous demands (lower tuition! dismantle the ROTC!) and guardsmen took off their name tags, ready to start cracking skulls.
They got their chance at midday on Monday. A mass of students defied a non-assembly order and met on the commons to protest. By this point they were chanting less about Nixon and Cambodia and more about the National Guard’s occupation of their campus. National Guard General Robert Canterbury had orders to clear the commons, and tear gas didn’t work because it was a windy day. Protest leaders hurled abuse and rocks—but from far enough away that they posed little real danger. Canterbury and other guardsmen would later claim that a group of protesters surged toward them aggressively, although evidence suggests that they were never closer than twenty yards, and were not advancing. The troops turned in formation and fired a volley—perhaps two. Four young people were killed and nine seriously wounded; one would never walk again.
Some of the enduring factual disputes of Kent State call to mind recent debates about the importance of police dash-cam videos. One protester, Joe Lewis, was twenty yards from the skirmish line and holding up his middle finger when he was shot. But where was his other hand? The guardsman who shot him justifies himself by claiming that a brick could have been in it. There is no video or photographic evidence to corroborate or disprove this claim, but even if true, it hardly justifies lethal force. Mortal danger from a distant hippie’s brick? Although some rocks flew on May 1, no guardsman was seriously injured by one.
Similarly, the Guard initially claimed to have fired because of incoming sniper fire from a nearby roof. “Guardsmen facing almost certain injury and death were forced to open fire on the attackers,” said the adjutant general of the Ohio National Guard. But the Guard later abandoned this claim. A photographer who wielded a pistol in self-defense against a group of students elsewhere on campus may have fired it into the air, although evidence on this point is murky. Perhaps those shots—if they occurred—were confused for sniper fire and led to the shooting. But, as Means points out, if the guardsmen thought a sniper on a rooftop was shooting at them, why respond by firing into a crowd of students, rather than at the rooftop? Today’s reader, hardened to the constant upending of solemn law enforcement claims by video evidence, reads the Guard’s account with skepticism.
As often happens today, facts did not seem to matter in 1970—or, at least, they proved inadequate to forging a common understanding of the events at Kent State. The incident served as punctuation on the ’60s and helped usher in a general hardening of views. “After a decade of increasing permissiveness,” Means writes, “the shootings at Kent State delivered a different message: the grown-ups were back in charge, and they weren’t taking any crap.” The so-called Silent Majority were tired of the antics of the young and privileged; they began nodding along when Mr. Nixon spoke about law and order. The president cannily invited a group of union leaders to the White House after they roughed up Manhattan protesters a week after Kent State. Joe Six-Pack was officially a spark in Tricky Dick’s eye.
It would be too pat to conclude that ugly political speech caused the Kent State massacre. As Means shows, the chain of causation was complex, entailing not just a political context but also provocative protesters, lax university oversight, and undertrained guardsmen operating on too little sleep. Yet a guardsman itching to beat down a hippie wouldn’t be alone in thinking that a bloodbath was needed—Ronald Reagan himself had said as much. If troopers thought the protesters were bums, deserving nothing more than the consideration due a bum, they had an ally in the president of the United States. It is no stretch to imagine that these ugly sentiments, expressed by men of stature, helped ease the finger off the safety for at least some guardsmen. Our own politics have become such a festival of hatred that we should stop and take note—before someone else gets hurt.