Wait, they’re shooting white kids now?
It might not have been phrased exactly that way, but that was the subliminal message that rippled across the country 50 years ago today.
People had been getting shot, a lot, for a long time. Political leaders, black radicals, rioters, cops, firemen, even bystanders in Detroit, Newark, Watts, Harlem, and over a hundred other American cities: by 1970, that level of mayhem was barely more than background noise.
But when those nice young college students got mowed down on the campus of Kent State University on May 4, 1970, the wave of shock and horror seemed to dwarf the awfulness of the previous decade. “Things like that aren’t supposed to happen to people like us,” cried anguished middle-class parents, “and especially not to our kids, even if they do dress and act a little funny.”
A week and a half later state and local police opened fire on a dormitory at the mostly black Jackson State College in Mississippi. Two students were killed and twelve wounded. If you weren’t around at the time and/or an avid student of history, you might not know it ever happened.
There were no hit songs about Jackson State, no weeping and wailing about “What’s wrong with our country?” It became a minor footnote to the Kent State tragedy, and it might not have got as much attention as it did had it not come on the heels of those white kids getting shot.
That was the state of play in America, 1970, and you could argue that things haven’t changed all that much since, or at least not nearly as much as they need to.
I was living on a quiet side street in a mostly black section of West Berkeley when I got the news about Ohio. Prior to that day, most people had never heard of Kent, but I had. In fact, I’d lived there briefly a couple years earlier, one of the handful of hippies and radicals who made up the town’s countercultural population, and could easily fit into the small two-story house just off campus where most of us lived or congregated.
What shocked me the most about the shootings was not that they’d happened – I’d seen people shot before, and had witnessed violence on a far greater scale during the Detroit riots of 1967 – but that what I remembered as a complacent, sleepy little backwater had been able to turn out enough protesters to trouble the local police, let alone the National Guard. If someone had called for a demonstration in the spring of 1968, I suspect the attendance would have been limited to the people who could be found hanging around our kitchen, plus maybe two or three other visitors from Akron down the road.
“God takes care of drunkards, fools, and little children,” my mother was fond of saying, “and sometimes I think you’re all three.”
She had a point. Considering the trouble I managed to get myself into in those days, I may well have been triply looked after. I was at ground zero not just for the Kent State shootings, but also for the People’s Park riots in Berkeley, but in both cases I conveniently (or fortuitously) left town before the shooting started.
In 1969, I was in Rochester, New York, glued to the telephone as we listened to a blow-by-blow description of the action from friends who were simultaneously removing buckshot from the rear end of a neighborhood kid we knew. Though I wasn’t keen on getting shot myself, I was furiously disappointed that I wasn’t there for the excitement. The following year, as Kent State was unfolding, found me in a different frame of mind.
I was still opposed to the Vietnam War, still angry with the president and the government, but the revolution had taken a back seat for me. I might even have told people (or at least myself) that I’d retired from it.
My reasons were manifold, but mainly boiled down to a couple of things. Though I was still in my early 20s, I felt world-weary, almost burned out. Maybe more to the point, a woman I’d had a crush on the year before had recently blown herself up, along with two companions, while making bombs in a New York townhouse.
There had been a time, not so long before, when my comrades and I had speculated and fantasized (usually in late night marijuana sessions) about guns and bombs and overthrowing the government, but those dreams lost much of their allure when the bodies started getting hauled off.
I realize that would look bad on my résumé were I applying for a position as a revolutionary today, but facts are facts. I had neither the stomach nor the dogged perseverance to be a successful street fighting man. Short of a situation where self-defense made it absolutely necessary, I couldn’t foresee a time when I would ever acquire those qualities.
In addition, it had dawned on me that those actively working toward full-fledged revolution in the USA were a tiny, tiny minority clustered in a handful of big cities and college towns, who would be instantly annihilated if they ever openly took up arms against the government. That was brought home to me with shocking clarity in the autumn of 1968, when I hitchhiked from Berkeley to Ann Arbor.
Both towns had a large radical presence, both had experienced demonstrations and rioting, both had liberal populations who, even if they weren’t out fighting in the streets, had considerable sympathy for the protesters and not so much for the police. But between them lay 2,400 miles of a country that had not changed all that much since the 1950s.
When I left Berkeley, it was in the wake of the riots at the Democratic convention in Chicago and a series of clashes on Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue. I remember squinting to protect my eyes against the cloud of tear gas that engulfed us, and through the haze spying an American flag flying above the smashed-out windows of the bank.
“What’s that doing here?” I wondered. I had genuinely forgotten I was in the United States of America. Right-wing commentators routinely sneered about the “People’s Republic of Berkeley,” but though we didn’t use the term ourselves, my fellow left-wingers and I implicitly believed we had successfully seceded from state control.
I hadn’t made it more than 50 or 75 miles east of the Berkeley hills before it became obvious that reality was quite different from what I had imagined. Out there, America was still America, young men were still marching off to war and coming back in body bags, and Richard Nixon was about to be elected president. A few days later, as we huddled in the snack bar of a bus station in Nebraska to watch the Beatles premiere their new single, “Hey Jude,” it was they – and us – who looked foreign and out of place.
In 1970 bombings and shootings and riots were still commonplace, but they were what you might call lagging indicators. Those who cherished hopes that the revolution would be arriving soon were driven to ever more desperate measures, and most of them – except for the well-connected trust fund radicals who with daddy’s help were able to re-enter and even prosper in society – would soon be, if not in prison, literally or figuratively underground.
I’m reminded of this because as fractured and frightening as America could appear in 1970, it was a bulwark of stability compared to today. True, there’s very little actual fighting in the streets – yet. The right-wing paramilitaries that our president and his cohorts are cultivating have so far limited themselves to marching around or laying siege to statehouses while brandishing their automatic weapons, but for the most part aren’t firing them – yet.
I don’t have, and would prefer not to have, any knowledge of armed left-wing radicals similarly gearing up for battle, but I’d be surprised if they weren’t out there. I hear people ranting about revolution on Facebook, and they sound just as passionate – and just as crazy – as we must have 50 years ago. The difference is that today we’d probably be looking not at revolution, but at civil war.
Should that happen, I wouldn’t bet on the good guys winning. It would more likely be a contest between the bad guys and the Very Bad Guys. A center-right police state might be the best we could hope for, and if that sounds bad, believe me, it could get far, far worse.
I hope I’m wrong. I profoundly hope I’m wrong. I don’t think most of us in the late 1960s or early 1970s could have come close to predicting what 2020 America would look like. It’s possible that today’s worst fears could fade into yesterday’s nightmares, scary to recall, but with all the harm taken out of them. Both as humans and as Americans, we have repeatedly shown the ability to re-invent and transcend our past, and to move toward a better future.
But I wouldn’t count on it.
Yes, things look grim today, far grimmer than on that afternoon half a century ago when the government made it clear they weren’t playing around, that they would shoot not just minorities and troublemakers, but anyone who got in their way. As a measure of how badly things have deteriorated since then, I think most of us would be relieved if we felt we could trust the government to protect us against far worse people.
“Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,” went the Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young song about Kent State. “We’re finally on our own.” We’ve always been on our own. We just didn’t know it. Now we do.