On 4 May 1970, Ohio National Guard troops opened fire on unarmed students at Kent State University outside Cleveland:
The sky was cloudless, the spring air warm and still. As the morning wore on, the growing crowd of students, now numbering in the thousands, became feisty, and some taunted the soldiers. Just after noon, a group of guardsmen suddenly huddled together, retreated briefly, wheeled toward the right, turned in tandem and fired at the students for 13 seconds.
The students were not only unarmed; most didn’t realize that the guards’ rifles held live ammunition. Four students were killed: Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Scheuer and William Schroeder. Nine others were injured. After 50 years, we still don’t know why the guard turned and fired.
While Kent State was not the only instance of violence against student protesters, it immediately became a byword for state-sanctioned violence. Campuses nationwide erupted in protest. Krause, Miller, Scheuer and Schroeder became martyrs, their deaths memorialized by the band Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young in their song “Ohio.” The tremors were felt all the way to the White House; according to H.R. Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff, they precipitated the sense of political paranoia within the administration that set Watergate in motion.
The May 4 shootings were viewed very differently by conservatives and liberals; most conservatives endorsed the National Guard’s actions and at best wrote off the shooting as a tragic accident, at worst as the protesters’ just dessert — a position that liberals and the left found unimaginable. “Just as many consider shootings by the police to be ridding the streets of ‘thugs,’ the killings at Kent State were also celebrated by many. ‘National Guard 4, Students 0,’ or ‘They Should have Shot 400’ were commonly voiced views,” Professor Grace wrote, finding a vicious split that is echoed today over everything from climate change to the Kavanaugh hearings.
We also need to recognize the way that Kent State is viewed through race. The students shot on May 4, all white, became martyrs; most people have forgotten that less than two weeks later, Phillip Lafayette Gibbs and James Earl Green, two students in Mississippi, were killed by police officers in the wake of a false rumor about the death of a civil rights leader. And while Kent State stands out as an exception — National Guardsmen killing white college students — over the years, state authorities have killed far more African-American protesters than whites.
The Guardian says the shootings "marked the start of America's polarization."
We're finally on our own.