Sunday, May 03, 2015
As many years have passed since I stood vigil at 3:00 a.m. May 4, 1980, on the spot where Jeffrey Miller was murdered by National Guardsmen 10 years previous, as had passed in 1980 since the end of World War II. For my 20-year-old self, Hiroshima, Auschwitz, D-Day were ancient history, but for my 55-year-old self the days at Kent State were just before yesterday.
It makes sense, of course. We remember the history that we live with far more clarity and urgency than the history our parents lived, and anything older than that is lost to dusty textbooks and web sites we’ll never visit. Vietnam, Martin Luther King, Jr., Watergate – the history that shaped my childhood and formed the lens through which I view the world mean no more to my young adult children than D-Day did to me.
Of course, what I experienced at Kent firsthand was the memorialization of the history of an event that had taken place a decade earlier – May 4, 1970. Thus, what I learned was not so much the history, but the history of history. That is to say, what I experienced at Kent during my time there, was the struggle over how we choose to remember.
The first time I set foot on the campus, in the late winter of 1978, much of the site of the 1970 shootings was behind chain-link fencing. The school had decided in the mid-1970s, against significant opposition and active protest, to build a gym and student-activities center that would cover much of an expanse of grass that had been the site of protesters encountering the National Guard in the moments before the guardsmen opened fire, killing four students and wounding 13 others.
I had a lot of fun playing basketball on the courts and swimming in the pool during my student days, yet I never walked past the building without thinking about what had happened there to kids who had been my own age. I don’t think I was particularly unusual among the student body around 1980, and given that many of our professors had been on the faculty in 1970, the shootings were a living memory for the campus community.
It is literally impossible today to see how the confrontation unfolded because there’s a sprawling gym complex there, and given that it’s ancient history to the 20-year-olds who pass it on their way to class, I’d be willing to bet that few of them ever give much thought to what happened there way before their time.
On the other hand, the university seems to do a much better job of sharing its own story now than it did when I was a student. Throughout my time on campus, the prevailing attitude from the university administration was best summed up as, “we’re trying to move on,” which always sounded like, “we’d just as soon forget the whole thing, and we’d certainly prefer that everyone else forget it, too.”
Yet beginning almost immediately after the shootings, KSU students led the struggle to remember the shootings. The May 4 Task Force, a student group founded in 1975 by shooting survivors, has spent four decades engaging succeeding generations of students and working to ensure that the truth about the shootings is uncovered as fully as possible and remembered as accurately as possible.
If you click on the KSU web site today, you’ll find a home page photograph of an official state historical marker that stands adjacent to the parking lot where the slain students were standing – or crouching behind parked cars or walking past on the way to class – when the machine guns opened fire on them. The marker is part of a far more significant public memorial effort than most of us imagined possible in the late 70s and early 80s.
After all, President Nixon had reduced the need for remembering when he declared, on the day of the shootings, that “when dissent turns to violence it invites tragedy.” In other words, “move along folks there’s nothing to see here because these kids brought this on themselves.”
For me, the lesson of Kent was always strikingly simple and obvious: if you strike at the empire hard enough the empire strikes back, and their guns are always loaded.
I acknowledge freely that my takeaway is a minority view, and there are probably other lessons to learn from the history about the mistakes governments can make and the activist role that students can take in pushing to correct those errors.
The lesson that lies behind all of that, though, is sure this: the history of history is itself a struggle worth engaging. So as May 4 rolls around once more, I am thinking tonight of the young man or woman who will be standing alone at 3:00 a.m. with a lantern in a space marked off on the asphalt where 45 years ago a college student was murdered by a government run amuck.
Whatever the so-called lessons of May 4 may be, the lives of Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Scheuer, and William Schroeder should be remembered, and what was done to them on a spring day in Ohio should never be forgotten.