Kent State May 4th 1970 students: The Best of America

 by Brad Cotton M.D.

I can't make it to Kent this year for the commemoration of the shooting deaths of four students and the wounding of nine others at the hands of the Ohio National Guard 4 May 1970. I've been back every year since 2007. That year I had to reconnect with Kent as it felt so much like 1970. Then, as in 2007, we doubled down on a horridly immoral war as both Vietnam and Iraq were based on lies from the Oval Office. 1970, as during the Iraq War, many of us did our best to stop them.


I was in high school 4 May 1970. I recall the initial news reports that two students and two Guard were dead. These reports were followed rapidly by fabrications that the Guard was trapped and in danger of their lives. These fabrications are admitted of as such, as deliberate lies promulgated by the Guard, by Governor Rhodes, by then President Nixon in the subsequent FBI report, the Scranton Commission report and the civil trials. We now know the students were a hundred yards or more away, downhill from the Guard who, militarily speaking, were in an unthreatened command position on top of Blanket Hill. We now have technology to filter out the extraneous noises on the Strubbe tape, the murderous commands to “Fire!” are clear and chilling.


Ghosts haunted Kent in 1973. Vietnam veterans in wheelchairs filled the campus, one of the first to  become handicapped accessible. Watergate was finally exposing Nixon as the liar that he was in his twisted soul. It is sad that  Bush/ Cheney/Rumsfeld//Rice have not been similarly brought to trial. I put my finger on the bullet hole through the thick metal of the “Solar Totem#1” sculpture 15 yards from where the Guard fired on unarmed students. I tried to imagine being hit by these high-velocity M-1 rounds. I stood where Mary Ann Vecchio screamed over the body of 19 year old Jeffrey Miller, her anguish on the front page of every newspaper in the land.


“Jesus Freaks,"  as they called themselves, yelled through bullhorns on one end the Student Center plaza. The descendant organizations of the by-now dead 1960’s Students for a Democratic Society called from the other end . I hung out with both. I poured iron with hardworking displaced Appalachians at the A.C. Williams Foundry. Later years I mopped every inch of the six acres of the Student Center floor space all night, or flipped pancakes at Perkins till dawn, or worked on developing caffeine toxicity with would-be artists, writers and philosophers ( as well as many an inebriate) at Jerry's Diner. Days I learned Hemingway, Dostoevsky, Marx as well as Adam Smith,  Sartre and  of Nietzsche’s “Madman” ,  who ran through the streets, anguished that God is dead, that we had killed him, and that now we shall have to find the answers for ourselves. April 1975, CBS evening news (the one Nixon hated the most) showed gutted , uselessly gyrating US helicopters being tossed into the sea, of no more use in Vietnam.


I admired Thoreau for going to jail rather than support the Mexican War. July 12, 1977 I was sure to finish the night at Perkins in time to get to Blanket Hill to be arrested. 194 of us, including students who had been shot 4 May 1970, their parents, including the resolute parents of those killed, local clergy, Vietnam veterans, “Yippies” were arrested “Occupying” the site of the shootings seven years previous. We lost. Kent State built a gym that seriously alters the site where the Guard marched, and covers the ground where one student was shot. My friend Mark (later to become an ACLU attorney) was arrested beside me—we were reading the First Amendment out loud after the university banned further gym protests.


Now, due  to the decades long admirable efforts of many , most notably 4 May 1970 “veterans” Alan Canfora, “Robbie” Stamps and others, the spots where Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Scheuer, William Schroeder died in the Prentice Hall parking lot are marked off. There is now a Kent State May 4th Visitor’s Center and an interpretive walking trail. After the candlelight commemorative walk 2009 I was honored to talk with Mary Ann Vecchio , yards from where she had mourned the death of Jeffrey 39 years earlier. Mary Ann is now a respiratory therapist, proud to be a bringer of life to her patients. I am honored to have met her, and so many of the students of 4 May 1970 who have lived remarkable lives, many of them life-giving teachers, social workers, political activists. They, and their modern-day counterparts in the “Occupy” movement, peace activists, Pvt. Bradley Manning who “leaked” the truth about Iraq/Afghanistan and is now being tried in secret, Veterans for Peace, the nascent labor leaders for Wal-Mart workers, all who bravely stand for justice, like Thoreau and Jesus so long ago, they are the best of America then, now and forever.