Kent State and the Route to Violence on Campus

There are some striking parallels between the events at Kent State on May 4, 1970, and the current protests on college campuses in the U.S.

Student Alan Canfora waves a black flag before the Ohio National Guard shortly before they opened fire on the Kent State University campus on May 4, 1970 (Wikimedia Commons)

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In March of 1970, The Student Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam had two requests to make of the administration at Kent State University. The first was that the university take a vocal stance against the war, in line with what the Committee claimed was the majority view of students and faculty. The second was that the university provide facilities necessary to support anti-war activism, including transport to Cleveland for the mass march against the war taking place there the following month, on April 15th, 1970.

University president Robert White responded shortly after in a comment piece for the university newspaper, The Daily Kent Stater. He countered that the university’s obligation was to provide all members of its community with an atmosphere in which they could freely express their opinions on such weighty matters, while refraining from taking a stance itself.

“Once the university takes a stand on these issues it forecloses an essential ingredient of academic freedom. It ceases to act as a center for critical and thoughtful consideration of the options to these issues,” White argued. “Requests which would have the university as an institution deviate from this position by word or deed, regardless of how sincere or honorable the intention, must be rejected.”

Such claims of institutional neutrality cut little ice with the Student Mobilization Committee, especially given the presence of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps on campus, with students who joined the Corps receiving credits towards their degrees. In any case, even though they weren’t provided with chartered transport to Cleveland, students instead took part in a march through Kent itself on April 14th.

This demonstration showed the intensity of emotions about the conflict, but it also dredged up tensions over how and why to go about opposing war, evident in the pages of The Daily Kent Stater itself. The newspaper’s six-person editorial board voted five-to-one in favor of supporting this latest wave of local and national protest. It marked the day by publishing two pieces of editorial comment. The first urged readers to support the march through Kent, accusing U.S. President Nixon of having reneged on his promises to withdraw the U.S. from Vietnam and end the Army draft. This was about democracy and saving American as well as Vietnamese lives.

The second editorial, written and signed by dissenting news editor George Sillia, accused the protestors of acting like “spoiled children.” The government was committed to pulling the troops out; rather than taking to the streets to complain this was not happening fast enough, why not re-channel those energies into more useful activities like combating “Poverty, crime, pollution, loneliness, and disease”?

Letters published in the paper that month expressed similar competing claims to the moral high ground. One likened the spirit animating the protests to the patriotic, service-minded ideas that had prompted the late John F. Kennedy to found the Peace Corps. A second said he wanted “our men” out of Vietnam and might have joined the march, but for the presence of the flags of the Viet Cong enemy who were killing them, instead of rallying behind the American flag. A third sarcastically thanked young men who did not want to be drafted and yet chose to stay in “their secure establishment tenement homes” rather than participate in the demonstrations.

When Nixon extended the war from Vietnam into Cambodia at the very end of April, another wave of protest spread across Kent’s campus and its city streets. After a downtown clash between crowds and police on May 1st, and the burning down of the Kent State ROTC building on May 2nd, Kent’s Democratic Mayor LeRoy Satrom requested that Ohio’s Republican Governor Jim Rhodes deploy the National Guard.

On May 4th, during a prescheduled demonstration, some 2,000 protestors gathered on the university’s commons. Members of the National Guard sought unsuccessfully to disperse the massed students, first with warnings, then with tear gas, and then with trained bayonets. The Guardsmen retreated, then some halted and opened fire. Four students were killed: Jeffrey Miller, Allison Krause, William Schroeder, and Sandra Scheuer — the last two of whom had not been taking part in the protest. Another nine were wounded.

In the aftermath of the shootings, President White – who insisted he had not been involved in the decision to call in the National Guard – sought to rebuild relations with the students through informal discussions. The university also toned down the ROTC presence on campus, while also beefing up security. Yet while there was a desire for rapprochement between students and administrators, and between university and town, speakers at a memorial service held in September continued to criticize what they saw as Kent State’s hypocrisy.

There are some striking parallels between the story recounted here and the current protests on college campuses in the U.S. and elsewhere, over the war in Gaza. Protest movements are frequently diverse in their participants and purposes, expressing contrasting and conflicting views over the cause they ostensibly hold in common. Anti-war sentiment at Kent State in 1970 comprised a mixture of a desire to bring the troops home, a general pacifism, and a fiercer opposition to American imperialism that was sympathetic to the Viet Cong as an anticolonial force. The opposition now to the war in Gaza likewise ranges from a desire for a peaceful conclusion to this round of conflict and a distaste for both Hamas and the current Israeli government, to a more radical critique of the ideological foundations of the Israeli state and an endorsement of the Palestinian right to robust resistance.

When the stakes are so high, appeals to academic freedom sit in necessary tension with the quest for ideological control; the need for healthy debate, versus the imperative of winning the argument. President White’s claims of administrative neutrality in 1970, though ostensibly a principled stance, was simply unacceptable to many in the anti-war movement because it also meant providing space for military training and faculty participating in weapons development, fuelling the very war machine they were so desperate to halt. Today, protestors’ demands that universities divest from companies facilitating Israel’s armed campaign in Gaza or boycott organizations supportive of Israel, are disparaged in some quarters as overreach, or even antisemitic. Again though, with a death toll in Gaza of tens of thousands, the protestors see the matter as too consequential to simply agree to disagree in a spirit of pluralism.

Now as then, university administrators would prefer to maintain a firmer grip on the institutions they oversee, for students to recognize their authority to act in the collective wellbeing of everyone on campus. Yet universities as communities are not uniform in their interests and objectives, and the common good often needs to be messily and democratically worked out. They cannot be easily separated out from the wider local, national, and international communities they also belong to. University administrators can claim their institutions’ neutrality, but their own priorities and decision-making processes are inherently political as well. That includes their entanglement with violence on the other side of the world, and much closer to home.

The consequences of authorities inflaming and escalating that violence, as Kent State showed, can be irreversible, cutting young lives short, and traumatizing a generation.

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  1. Rubber Bullets…Remember them? Bring them back and use them on these campus protesters. Speaking of which, just how many of the deadbeat protesters are enrolled as students at the colleges or universities where they are protesting? I’d like to see a number. If they’re not enrolled as students then they have no business being there, stirring up the protests. Campus police should immediately arrest them. If they are bona-fide students participating in these protests, dock their grades or immediately suspend them. Send them home packing. My guess is their parents are not paying for them to be a full time protester, but rather receive a good education so they may embark on productive lives and be useful parts of society.

  2. Russell Laurens I agree with you whole-heartedly. Well stated my friend.

  3. What horse manure! There is NO comparison. No US soldiers are deployed in Gaza and none are dying there. And Israel is fighting a defensive war, not expanding to other countries as Nixon was doing in 1970. If there were any comparison it would be in the case of ISRAELI students protesting their own government’s actions. That is obviously not happening. This claim is utter propaganda and nonsense.


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