‘WHAT IF YOU KNEW HER?’: The Protest 7 Years after Kent State

“I heard an order, I believe, from Major Jones, stating ‘turn and face the crowd.’ The shooting started shortly after.” ~ Ohio National Guard Sgt. Richard K. Love, statement to Ohio Highway Patrol, 1970. | From this site.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Fifty years ago on this date, on May 4th, 1970, Ohio National Guard troops opened fire on Kent State University students. They were protesting the invasion of Cambodia, the escalation of the Vietnam War, and the presence of the guard on campus.  Four students were killed—Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Scheuer, and William Schroeder—and nine were wounded. The shooting—and the photograph of a shocked student kneeling over a dead classmate—became an iconic event, locked in place culturally by the equally iconic song “Ohio” by Neil Young.

Seven years later, there were big protests over plans to build a gymnasium on the Kent campus,  on part of the parking lot where students were wounded and killed. I was a student journalist at the time a few hours southwest, at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Along with an English professor friend, several of us traveled to the biggest protest, which I covered for The Miami Student, the student newspaper for which I worked. The only official response I got after we published the article below came from—I believe—a university professor. I opened up a manila envelope in the Student office addressed to me. Inside, was a copy of the article, with the words “Was this really necessary?” inked above the article. I never had a chance to answer that person. So, I answer them now. Why, yes. Yes, it was.

This portrait of that protest recalls a time when student protest and militancy was still a fresh, although fading, force on American campuses. You can see in my portrait the firebrands at this 1977 rally, trying to kindle a violent confrontation with police, fueled by the still active campus presence of revolutionary or militant student groups such as the Spartacus Youth League and the Revolutionary Student Brigade. I wonder what Cliff of the RSB is doing now. As well as what happened to the lone protester, standing so bravely—or futilely?—on that rock at the end.

At this remove, Cliff’s fervid hopes of bloodying the police state’s nose seems a little comic. Another part of me—seeing the confounding and raw staying power of Trumpublicanism and Moscow Mitch McConnell—quite gets his rage against the machine. But my money—at least, my two cents—perhaps lies more with the braveheart lone protester seen at the end of the piece. Yet, I also cannot help but empathize with the security guy—he recalls an Italian uncle of mine—with the tie clasp of two golden handcuffs, who’d rather be home watching the Ohio State game rather than repeating the mistakes of 1970.

This profile, in its tiny way, also reflects the first saplings of the surveillance society that has come to own our every mood and move, plus the dominating power of the state when its wishes are critiqued. I will grant a nod of thanks to the powers-that-be on that day in 1977, for their restraint. Yet it was lack of restraint in 1970—and the willingness to crush dissent against war-making and state militancy—that led to such a protest in the first place.

NOTE: The following article was first published in 1977 in The Miami Student newspaper (I am still searching for the exact date it appeared), on the campus of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

I’ve lightly treated the this and other iconic photographs in this piece in order to see them afresh. This one is by John Filo, as a 14-year-old runaway kneels over the dead body of Jeffrey Miller.

By Douglas Imbrogno | The Miami Student | 1977

The green Corolla moves quickly down the road. It is early morning. Inside the automobile, a cassette tape of Bob Dylan almost drowns out the conversation.

“I can’t see them blocking off a road,” says Rich Erlich, Miami University English prof. “That’s so blatantly unconstitutional.”

The talk is of Kent State and what we might encounter there on the day of a national rally opposing construction of a gym, near where four students fell to National Guard bullets seven years ago.

There have been many rumors about the rally and how the police intend to deal with it: riot squads, police dogs, tear gas—and blockades of roads leading into Kent.

“They could put big, phony accidents on the road,” suggests Robbie Miller, as the acrid fumes from the rubber plants of Akron fill the car.

Rich hurries the car toward Kent and the noon rally and the conversation turns to other things.

We pull into Kent after the long, five-hour drive from Miami. No blockades. In fact, everything looks quite normal. One student is out washing his car. Another heads for the stadium. It’s a football Saturday.

We park the car and follow the line of people headed for the rally.

Heads turn right and left as each of us wonders where the construction site might be that has caused so much struggle and strife.

Rounding the corner of a building, the site is visible for the first time. The bulldozers have done their work well. A huge area has been scooped out of the hillside and leveled. The brown bowl in the land is surrounded by a seven-foot chain-link fence that is attached to wooden poles spaced at about ten-foot intervals.

The site is barren save for an earthmover, a hauling truck, and mounds of rock and broken trees that have been shoved off to one side.

“So that’s it.”

We head for the rally.

There are about four hundred people gathered on a grassy field and the hillside leading down to it. People constantly filter into the area to add to the ranks of the protesters.

There are banners everywhere. ‘Long live the spirit of Kent and Jackson State,’ ‘KSU Alums say move the gym,’ ‘For worker-student control of the University.’

A thin, middle-aged man hands out information sheets on the National United Workers Organization. A student offers for the sale the latest newspaper from the Revolutionary Student Brigade.

Behind me, two men wearing army fatigues stand quietly, holding up an old banner: ‘Vietnam veterans against the war.’

A tall, bearded youth walks by clad in a chain mail suit. A tattered American flag flies from the flagpole in his hands.

The microphone at the stage in front of the protesters starts up.

“We’ll be getting it on in about five minutes,” someone says. “So, just set tight, get to know each other, and think about this afternoon—if you know what I mean.”

Rich goes in search of the 20 other people from Miami that were coming to the rally and I wander off into the crowd.

Up on the hill, there is a disturbance of some sort. I walk that way and discover it is a young evangelist, bible in hand, dressed in a white suit and tie, preaching of the sins of the protesters.

His preaching, though, is drowned out by the leader of the May 4th Coalition, who has taken to the microphone.

“Any violence today will be perpetrated by the administration, by the police, and not by this body,” Carter Dodge says.

“Our weapon is unity.”

A man moves through the crowd selling ‘Move the Gym’ bumper stickers for a quarter.

As the people move to free themselves from every-day oppression, Carter says, “there need be no separate struggles.”

Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Scheuer, and William Schroeder were killed by National Guardsmen that day in 1970.

On the hill, a group of about 20 members of the Spartacus Youth League moves into place as a unit, joining the rally.

A sprinkling of rain sends a few people walking.

“Our future lies in our people,” Carter says. “The people united will never be defeated!”

The crowd cheers. A large banner held by ten students makes its way down the hill. The banner reads: ‘KSU belongs to the students. We say BUILD OUR GYM! All outsiders get off our campus. We’ve read too many lies, too long.’

The banner makes a slow circuit around the rally. Protesters get up and block the banner with their bodies, arms upraised, concealing it from view.

Carter’s speech builds and builds.

Wild cheers.

“I’ll tell you one thing,” he says of the gym. “If they build it—some day, it will be torn down!”

The rally continues. New speakers are introduced. I wander up the hill and stand next to two well-dressed older men. One of the men wears a dark blue sports coat, light blue shirt, light blue pants, dark blue tie. His tie clasp is two small golden handcuffs.

“We hope not to overreact to the situation,” I hear him say to a man who asks how a militant demonstration would be handled.

To nobody in particular, he says, “I’d just as soon be home. I want to see the Ohio State game myself.”

Carter is back on stage, introducing another speaker and charging up the crowd.

“I hear rumors that it’s gonna be a good march,” he says of the afternoon’s activity, “and I hear rumors it’s gonna be a militant march—and I hear rumors that it’s gonna be a victorious march!”

A girl walks behind me wearing a yellow t-shirt with ‘Build the gym’ on it in rainbow sparkles.

Attorney William Kunstler is speaking now.

“Tomorrow, the papers will say, I’m sure, two to three hundred people at Kent,” Kuntsler says in a deep, gravelly bass. “You know that’s bullshit. Look around and count!”

I look. I cannot count because there are more than a thousand people crowded on the hill and in the field.

“We are here in a victory party,” Kuntsler says. “We held those fucking bulldozers and we held them back all summer.”

Neil Young’s “Ohio” is being played in a dormitory somewhere.

I ask another man in blue how large a security force is present today.

“We’ve got sufficient people,” he says. “And we’ve got sufficient number to handle this crowd.”

Force with force?

“That’s right,” he says. “That’s all you can do. We don’t don’t want to see a repeat of ’70.”

A pause. “They’re not going to overrun the campus either,” he says, quietly.

In front of me, a member of the Spartacus Youth League holds a protest sign high: ‘FBI, Cops, Secret Service, Off Our Campus.’

I miss most of Kuntsler’s speech. Walking back down the hill, I notice the many black flags flying, a red star in the center, a marijuana leaf over the star. It is the Yippies.

“That’s great,” says a student next to me. “Drugs, anarchy, and communism all on the same flag.”

Cliff, from the Revolutionary Student Brigade, is now at the microphone.

“Here at Kent State, the lines between right and wrong are goddamn clear! The line between justice and injustice is goddamn clear also!”

Cliff pauses to wipe his mouth.

“And furthermore, the line has been drawn between truth and falsehood, between those who want to bury the lessons of what happened here at Kent and those who want to defend it!”

The sky begins to cloud over.

“And everybody sitting here, standing here—is on the right side of that line!”

He raves on. A few people get up to leave. The crowd cheers as a large, new contingent of protesters, waving banners and marching in loose formation, come down the hill.

Cliff winds it up and a band is introduced.

“Hello! I want to welcome this beautiful tribe to Ohio,” says the leader of Mooncloud.

They do a poem set to music entitled “Song of Eagle Nation,” with bongoes, harmonicas, and odd bells and shakers.

A young man in a black beret sleeps a few feet away from me.

“We are finding energy among men in the fission of her primal glory …”

The crowd grows restless.

“There is a colossal storm through the isthmus …”

A girl laughs. “I feel like I’m in Haight-Ashbury ten years ago,” she says.

A chant begins.

“1-2-3-4, what the hell are we out here for? Move the gym! Move the gym! Move the gym!! NOW!!!”

Mooncloud leaves the stage. Carter says there are more speakers. “Who wants to march?”

A roar from the protesters.

Carter shrugs. “The situation is no longer in my hands …”

Suddenly, there is mass confusion as the march is organized. “Rows of eight! I want to see everyone on rows of eight!” The march is organized by school and area. “People from Purdue over here!” “Where’s Madison, Wisconsin?” “Madison in front of Miami.” “Stay in rows of eight!”

The chant goes up as the line begins to move. “LONG LIVE THE SPIRIT OF KENT AND JACKSON STATE!” Over and over, the cry is repeated. The line is raggedy and not cohesive, but it moves.

The protesters file slowly past a building. The evangelist walks along a balcony above the marchers, gesturing wildly, inaudible above the noise of the crowd.

Then, he is right over top. “They’re leading you to the slaughterhouse! Are you so blind?!”

The crowd laughs or ignores him and moves on.

The march is well planned. With constant reminders to stay in rows of eight, we march through the Kent campus. From the end of the line it is impossible to see it beginning. Chants go up constantly.

“The people united will never be defeated!” “Four students dead, Rhodes goes free. That’s what the rich call democracy!”

I wonder where the police are. Turning, I notice a lone police car sitting in a parking lot. An unmarked, white van moves slowly down a side street. Passing a building, a policeman is visible upon the roof.

We march through the Kent campus, stopping at four unnamed buildings and dedicating each to one of the four Kent students that died in 1970.

“Sandra Scheuer, your spirit lives. We’ll never forget, we’ll never forgive.”

“We come here today and we come here in the spirit of militance. But we also come here in the interest of reverence.”

The crowd grows silent, arms clenched in fists or peace symbols. The evangelist has caught up with the march. His face and suit are covered with pie.

“Hear me today, you fascists …!”

The march moves on with many of the people joined arm-to-arm. The sentiment of the crowd grows.

We arrive back at the original rally site. “Ohio” is playing over the public address system. Part of the crowd breaks and runs toward the construction site. The main body, though, is led around a building.

The original article from The Miami Student, 1977.

I go to the construction site. There is a tense quiet near the fence. Without any words spoken, the fence begins to go down. One man has jumped the fence and pushes at it, while another man, wearing black gloves, pulls it down. A third follows, stomping the fence flat to the ground.

Protesters mill around nervously. The crowd can be heard in the distance, rounding the building.

A protester with a bandana across his face drops into the site and plants a red flag on a dirt hill. Photographers swarm into the site, followed by some cautious protesters.

The fence goes down, methodically. By the time the main body of marchers reaches the site an entrance has been made.

The directions are shouted repeatedly. “Rows of eight! Get organized!”

At the far end of the site, a few security officers and policemen stand. As the crowd moves into the site, they exit.

The protesters fill the area. In unison, they chant: “Join us! Join us!” to the many people that surround the construction site.

Coalition member have climbed onto the earthmover inside the site and the crowd is silenced.

“We the students of the ’70s, have traveled here to stand on hallowed ground,” a Coalition speaker says. She, like most of the other Coalition members, wears a bandana across her face to conceal her identity from the constant surveillance of police cameras.

“We come to stand in this spot,” she continues, “where in 1970 they tried to stamp out the spark of resistance and rebellion—where they’re, today, trying to bury their crime!”

“We’re here today to declare that they’re doomed to failure!”

The protesters cheer.

Police and security forces look on from behind a fence at the end of the site.

The speeches continue. Accusations are leveled. Resolutions are made.

A demonstrator with a long winter coat on, a hat and a red bandana, is at the microphone.

“The gym is gonna be opposed right down to the bitter end!” It is Cliff of the RSB.

A few protesters spraypaint ‘LONG LIVE THE SPIRIT OF KENT AND JACKSON STATE’ on the side of a building that faces the construction site.

Suddenly, they rush toward the gate where the police are standing. Dirt clods are thrown. A surveying stick is hurtled at the fence.

“Back off!” somebody shouts. “Don’t throw anything!”

One of the demonstrators plants and heaves a rock through a construction truck window.

The police have left. The police cameremen continue to film.

A girl breaks out cans of spray paint. ‘MOVE THE GYM’ is painted in red on the side of the earthmover.

Riot police arrive in a blue van.

The demonstrators leave in an orderly fashion.

“We’re punkin’ out,” says one protester, dejectedly.

The riot police stand in a long row at the end of the site, brandishing their clubs.

“No, man, we did it! Didn’t you see, we did it!” another protester assures him.

It begins to rain.

Many of the protesters leave.

I finally reunite with Rich and others of my group and we make plans to head home.

Running back to the construction site to check things our for a final time, I see that the riot police are standing near the building at the end of the site.

On an overturned stone near the center of the site, a lone protester stands. One leg forward, he has a white shirt wrapped around his head and holds a red flag up in the breeze.

The rest of the site is empty and quiet.

The police move slowly, confidently.

Two security officers enter from the opposite end of the site.

The riot police scatter, while the protester swivels, climbs down off the rock, and up and our of the construction site.

We leave Kent in a rainstorm.

POSTSCRIPT: I have not been back to Kent State since I reported this story. According to this timeline from the Kent State library, after a rancorous and protracted series of protests and legal maneuvering, Kent State prevailed and the Memorial Gym annex was built and opened on July 23, 1979. A bid to make the campus historic landmark status was denied by the U.S. Department of Interior in January 1978. This April 28, 2019 post (excepted below) by a fellow who has a site described as History Mystery Man, does a good job of profiling how Kent State has attempted to memorialize what happened that day in 1970:

There is a beautiful granite memorial up on the hill next to Taylor Hall, near the epicenter of the horror. The memorial leads to a walking tour that helps further explain how everything unfolded. There is even a Kent State University May 4 Visitors Center and Museum that provides “an accurate and balanced account of the history that happened there.” The museum tells the “story of an academic community that was and remains deeply committed to teaching the lessons of May 4, 1970 and applying them to make a positive difference in the world.” Beverly Warren, President, Kent State University.

I had also wondered if there would be any markers where the four students fell. Indeed, there are. In fact, those hallowed spaces are clearly marked with personal memorials. Students, who still park in the same lot where Scheuer, Krause and Schroeder fell, maneuver in and out of the lot to this day, around the memorials of course. On the walking path where Miller fell, students navigate around his clearly marked memorial. Some stop to reflect.

I was impressed with Kent State’s commitment to never forgetting what happened there, and I’m certainly proud that my daughter is a full-time student. There are even courses available for students who want to learn more about what happened…an important history lesson woven into the fabric of the school’s culture.

No matter how well we ever understand what happened at Kent State University on May 4, 1970, those four students did not deserve to die; that much I know. So, here’s to those four beautiful students who never got to tell their stories. Who never got to grow up and become all they could be…this one’s for you Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Scheuer and William Schroeder.

Neil Young’s “Ohio,” about the Kent State shootings, was the first protest song that got me perturbed and angry. And moved. It still does. It is marching music for the heart-wounded rage against the machine. But at the heart of the heart of the song is that plaintive cry to the heavens, to the warmongers, to Richard Nixon and his enablers, to Henry Kissinger, to every parent and student in America: “What if you knew her and… / found her dead on the ground?”

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1 comment

Joel says:

I’m fighting the desire to cry. I know I should just let it go, but what I want instead is to not break down. I want to think about how badly we need to actively resist the tyranny and oppression of the current (Trump) Administration. I don’t believe much has changed in the intervening years. Our government, the same as the most belligerent, malicious governments in developing nations, seems to have little restraint against using force against its own citizens, particularly when they oppose its policies.

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