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[Just as the police attacks on Occupy! in Zuccotti Park, San Francisco and elsewhere last Fall only fanned the flames of struggle, the Kent State massacre on May 4, 1970 only escalated the already burgeoning national student strike being recalled in this diary series.]

May 5th, 1970. As Tuesday dawned, the whole country, the whole world, knew about the Kent State massacre. The famous photo of Mary Ann Vecchio on one knee, keening over the body of Jeffrey Miller, snapped by a Kent undergrad seconds after the National Guard ceased firing on Monday, went on the Associated Press newswire that afternoon and was seared into the nation’s consciousness the next morning.

Chip Young, one of several friends who volunteered memories when I started this project, recalls:

I would have been 11. I remember my older brother informing my mom about the killings. Her response: "Oh no, not in America." Perfect moment of shattered idealism.
Nan Faessler blipped me a single sentence:
Because of the killings at Kent State, I made a decision to drop out of graduate school and devote my time to working with the anti-war movement full time.

John Kaye’s response:

I never went to college, but at the time was living near Marquette U in Milwaukee, working in a Movement bookstore. What the right wing at the time used to call an "outside agitator." Even before the invasion of Cambodia, at that point in my life activism was everything.

When the news hit, especially about Kent State, and shortly after, about Jackson State, things sort of...exploded. I didn't sleep for 3 days, up all night at meetings, silk-screening clenched fists on t-shirts, etc. Demonstrations and whatever else we could think of all day and evening. The only time in my life I ever gave an impromptu speech, to a smallish group of students gathered just south of the campus, about the Panthers, I think.

In these three brief recollections, we see events as they actually unfolded--shock, individual commitment to resist, escalation of the struggle.

In retrospect, because what happened happened, it seems inevitable. But things could conceivably have gone another way. Some students fled the campuses and more were pulled out by terrified parents. Ohio wasn’t the only state where the National Guard had been called up--before the end of May, something like 16 governors had mobilized a total of over 35,000 troops. Police forces coast to coast were on high alert.

In a comment when I reposted yesterday’s May ‘70 article at the left-liberal Daily Kos website, a blogger who goes by Empower Ink wrote:

For me, and many other college students, Kent State had a chilling effect in our participation in protests, following so closely to King's and Bobby's assassinations and Chicago '68.

While I remained very actively politically after Kent State, through Nixon's impeachment and Raygun's administration, I did not go to a massive anti-war protest until the day after the 1st Gulf War started.

While Empower Ink continued her activism, many didn’t or never started because of Kent State. The Beach Boys, a group whose greatness I normally defend to the bitter end, echoed this approach in 1971's disgraceful "Student Demonstration Time" (lyrics by Mike Love, natch) which proclaimed:
I know we're all fed up with useless wars and racial strife
But next time there's a riot, well, you'd best stay out of sight.
We had just seen the iron fist behind the mask of American democracy and we had learned that it didn’t smite only Black people in ghettos and the differently pigmented inhabitants of small countries half a world away. Challenge the system hard enough, and even college campuses could become free-fire zones. If it had happened at half a dozen other campuses, might the movement have been stopped in its tracks?

Maybe not, because millions of us were not intimidated but outraged--and driven to act.

In the event, what did happen was that we escalated--and the other side blinked! California Governor Ronald Reagan, who had only a month earlier blustered about having “a bloodbath” on campuses, ordered all of the schools in California’s vast higher education system closed until May 11. College administrators around the country suspended classes, convened campus meetings, issued public statements condemning the invasion of Cambodia and the shootings at Kent State.

Meanwhile, strikes and protests broke out from Portland East to Portland West--and Alaska and Hawai’i too. At least 100 more schools went on strike on the 5th, with hundreds and hundreds more to follow in the coming days. And enraged protesters took the struggle off the campus, like the thousands at the University of Washington who surged onto Interstate 5 and took it over, marching into Seattle.

At NYU, where I was based, the already shutdown campus saw a dramatic escalation when a couple of hundred of us burst into Warren Weaver hall on the Washington Square campus and occupied it. The whole second floor of this unattractive and (it turned out) uncomfortable building was the Courant Institute, which housed a heavily refrigerated, multi-million dollar, state of the art CDC 6600 computer. This monster (whose functions could be performed today by a decent pocket calculator) was funded by the Atomic Energy Commission and crunched numbers to build up the US nuclear arsenal.

The next day, the NYU administration got a telegram reading, in full:

We, as members of the N.Y.U. community occupying the Courant Institute, are holding as ransom the Atomic Energy Commission's CDC 6600 computer. At a general meeting in Loeb Student Center, the people put forth the following demands: the University must pay 100 Thousand Dollars to the Black Panther Defense Committee for bail for one Panther presently held as political prisoner in New York City. Failure to meet this demand by 11 a.m. Thursday, May 7, will force the people to take appropriate action. In addition, if the University Administration should call in police or other authorities, the above action will be taken immediately. In the meantime, no private property will be destroyed.
(Signed) N.Y.U. Community on Strike
No, we were definitely not blinking.

[To track the whole series from the start, click here, then scroll down.]

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Comment Preferences

  •  Portland West, the aftermath (4+ / 0-)

    From the eulogy I wrote for an old friend of mine, Sean Slattery.

    When I returned home in 1970, the protests were hot and heavy. On May 4th Kent State happened. A week later at the South Park block by Portland State there was a demonstration against this outrage and the continuing Cambodian invasion. Like so many other protests, this one was broken up by billy clubs and gas wielded by the Portland Police lead by the Police Commissioner at the time Frank Ivancie. I was there but split before my head was. Sean was there too, although I didn't know it at the time. The next Monday Portlanders took to the streets to protest this attack on a peaceful encampment. I wasn't there and was more than likely off fishing or trying to score, but Sean was there. In fact the morning edition of the local fish warp, The Oregonian, had a front page article with a picture about the march up Broadway. A friend of Sean's gave me a copy of that front page just the other day and lo and behold, the picture showed the front line of the march and there was Sean with his guitar leading the way.

    "White-collar conservatives flashing down the street. Pointing their plastic finger at me."

    by BOHICA on Sat May 05, 2012 at 06:54:56 AM PDT

  •  Thanks for this series (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    lao hong han, Spirit of Life

    May 4th is my birthday so it has a special resonance with me, a yearly reminder as it were.

    "White-collar conservatives flashing down the street. Pointing their plastic finger at me."

    by BOHICA on Sat May 05, 2012 at 08:02:05 AM PDT

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