May 4, 2012, marks the 42nd anniversary of the shootings of 4 students at Kent State University by the Ohio National Guard.
For me, it is also my 47th birthday and I’ve always had a certain fascination with this event and a strange memory of moms picking up their kids from my 5th birthday party, a few with tears in their eyes, and me thinking it was because I couldn’t pin the tail on the donkey (The game where blindfolded kids are turned around and around and then tasked with, well, pinning a tail on a paper donkey on the wall. Yup, that’s what people did before the iPad.). Whether this constitutes my first political memory or the earliest sign that I have no sense of direction I can’t say.
The mass movements of the 1960s had exploded internationally two years before, in 1968 — culminating in the revolt and general strike in France in May-June 1968, and the protests at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August. But the image of four students gunned down at Kent State survives to this day as the final turning point in U.S. public opposition to the Vietnam War.
Kent State happened amid a wave of struggle sparked by Richard Nixon’s April 30, 1970, announcement of the invasion of Cambodia — a dramatic escalation of the Vietnam War, long after the Washington establishment knew that it was lost. Following the massacre, plans for a national student strike spread to almost every college campus in the country, involving an estimated 5 million students.
MIKE ALEWITZ was one of the leaders of the student antiwar movement at Kent State and a member of the Young Socialist Alliance (YSA)–the youth organization of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). Following the shootings, he became the national chair of the Committee of Kent State Eyewitnesses.
Mike has been a revolutionary ever since, contributing his skill as a muralist to many antiwar, labor and other struggles, in the U.S. and around the world. His murals are the subject of a book, Insurgent Images, that he coauthored with Paul Buhle.
On the 35th anniversary of the shootings, Mike talked to me about the antiwar struggle, the killings at Kent State and their meaning all these years later. This interview was originally published in 2005 in Socialist Worker.
HOW DID you become radicalized and get involved in the antiwar movement?
I BECAME radical because of the war in Vietnam. The war was something that figured prominently in terms of what you were doing with your life. Are you going away? Are you staying? Are you going to school? I wound up in college because you could get a student deferment from the draft.
I started going to Kent in 1968. I was becoming political and got involved in the fight for a Black studies program and in the antiwar movement. I was around Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), but very briefly, because I didn’t care for their kind of juvenile politics.
I ran into some members of the Socialist Labor Party, founded by Daniel DeLeon in the late 1800s. The SLP still had a section in Akron, Ohio, which had been one of their strongholds. They had a couple of people who were in their late thirties, which was extraordinarily young for an SLPer. They had a Marxist home study guide, and I really started to learn Marxism by following the outline and reading the classic works of Marx and Engels.
There was a chapter of the Young Socialist Alliance on campus, and I was recruited to the YSA.
I started mobilizing through the Kent Committee Against the War, which later became the Student Mobilization Committee. Basically, I just got more and more active, while learning Marxism and reading everything I could find.
It was a time when a lot of left-wing literature was being published for the first time. Pathfinder Press and its predecessors were very important in terms of printing Malcolm X, Che Guevara and a lot of the classic books by Leon Trotsky that today we take for granted. I literally would wait every week for some new publication to arrive and read it. That’s how I learned Marxism and deepened my involvement in the antiwar movement.
MANY PEOPLE who have read about the 1960s know about SDS, but not about the Student Mobilization Committee (SMC). Could you explain where that group came from, and how it differed from the SDS?
NATIONALLY, SDS called the first march on Washington, but then basically turned its back on the antiwar movement. At Kent, SDS was quite sizeable and really dominated campus politics. Then there was the SMC–the largest national student group with the clear demand for immediate withdrawal. At Kent, the SMC sponsored the largest antiwar demonstrations, and many of the SDSers played an important role in building those actions.
The SMC had a very small leadership layer. I had a column in the paper, would be on the radio a lot, and was very visible on campus. But SDS, because of the nature of the group and its kind of activities, tended to dominate campus culture. It would carry out dramatic building takeovers and get victimized. We would organize their defense, and they would attack us for being liberals.
After the shootings, I left campus and was involved in the national student strike. Some of the other SMCers were traveling around speaking at other campuses and didn’t become part of the whole Kent memorial culture that grew up following the shooting, so we were kind of written out of the history.
I would get baited by SDSers for being the “old left.” May-June 1968, when a massive working-class strike wave brought France to the verge of revolution, hadn’t quite sunk in for them. For me, it definitively answered the question about Herbert Marcuse, who was the dominant left-wing theoretical figure. Marcuse argued that the working class was incapable of leading a revolution, and instead it was to be a vanguard of liberals, African Americans and student radicals who would make change.
May-June 1968 put that debate to rest as far as I was concerned. But for a lot of the SDS, it didn’t really resolve anything, because they weren’t particularly influenced by real-world events. I wasn’t baited for being a communist from the right so much as from the left.
WHAT WERE the events that led up to the killings of four students at Kent State on May 4?
A LOT of people think that the shootings at Kent State was the event that, in and of itself, transformed antiwar sentiment in this country. In fact, some radicals incorrectly drew the conclusion that repressive acts are good because they spark mass upsurge.
In reality, it was the invasion of Cambodia. What sparked the national student strike and the mass upsurge was hatred of the war — that people had been lied to for so many years. The shooting was just the spark that set it off. If it hadn’t been Kent, it would have been something else.
There were mobilizations already in progress prior to the shootings, and after the massacre, things really exploded. The student strike remains, I believe, the largest political demonstration in U.S. history — certainly of the student movement.
There were a series of small events that led up to the shootings — the graduate students symbolically buried the Constitution, Black students held a rally, there were spontaneous street demonstrations in downtown Kent. Then there was the burning of the ROTC building, which was the pretext for calling the Ohio National Guard onto campus.
COULD YOU talk about the day itself?
AFTER THE Guard was called in, the struggle became both against the war and for democratic rights, since basically martial law had been declared.
The political basis for the shootings had been prepared by Richard Nixon, who had called the student protesters “bums.” That sentiment was echoed by then-Ohio Governor James Rhodes, who said the students were “worse than brown-shirts.” There was an attempt to whip up a right-wing atmosphere against the students, and we know there was a series of phone calls between Ohio and the White House. Whether or not the whole thing was set up is one question, but unfortunately, we’ve never been able to find out from how high up the chain of command the order for the shootings came.
But politically, the whole framework was established nationally, and they were looking for a pretext to initiate some repression against students. The events paralleled what happened not too much earlier, when New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller sent cops in against the Attica prison rebellion.
May 4 itself was a pleasant spring day, and there was a spontaneous demonstration. It was held on the Commons–traditionally a free speech area where no permit to demonstrate was required. The Guard formed up and ordered the students to disperse.
When the students were ordered to leave, there was catcalling and gesturing and a few little rocks thrown — nothing threatening to the Guardsmen, but this was used as a pretext to bust up the demonstration. The Guard launched a barrage of tear gas. If you’ve seen images of the event, you could tell that at that point, any semblance of an organized demonstration was over. People were just running away, and that was the end of it.
The Guardsmen formed a line, marched across the Commons, over Blanket Hill and on to a playing field. They crouched and aimed their guns at a crowd that was not there any longer — the nearest people were dozens of yards away. They began marching back toward the site of the burned-out ROTC building, and turned and fired at people indiscriminately.
They were given an order to fire. They were clearly not in danger; it was a premeditated action. Most of the Guardsmen fired into the air or deliberately missed — otherwise, many more students would have been killed. But clearly, it was on the agenda for their activities that day.
WHAT HAPPENED after the shootings?
THERE WAS a lot of shock and anger and grief. Unfortunately, it was not an organized demonstration. I had actually tried to call a meeting earlier to organize the demonstration, but it was voted down by the SDSers, who came to pack the meeting. So there was no organization at the demonstration itself. People did the best they could–tried to take care of people and take them out of harm’s way.
Immediately after that, there were police curfews put into place. It became very difficult to move. I was arrested trying to get out of town that day. But they didn’t hold me for long.
The SMC initiated a group called the Committee of Kent State Massacre Eyewitnesses. The student strike that was being organized against the invasion of Cambodia became an overnight national action, involving almost every campus in the country. Those of us who witnessed the massacre began to travel around and participate in the rallies and tell people what had happened.
I was the national chair of the committee and part of the broad leadership of the national strike, though not one of the central leaders. I was mostly out speaking and agitating.
WHAT POLITICAL conclusions were people drawing from the killings about the government and our society?
FOR MOST students, this was the beginning of their political activity. Many students had participated in demonstrations of one sort or another, but there was never something comparable in scope to what occurred during the national student strike. You could go to a college campus, in Chicago or Texas or California, and there’d be 10,000 students sitting and having a meeting–discussing and debating and proposing things.
These giant mass meetings led students to begin to exercise genuine democracy. Art students took over the facilities of the universities, and began making art against the war, making fliers and posters. The facilities of the campuses began to be used to reach out to workers.
For those of us who had been influenced by May-June 1968 events in France, that was our goal. We were trying to recreate what the French called the “red university.” We called it the “antiwar university,” but we were trying to do essentially the same thing–to take over the university and use it as a way to reach out to the working class.
I was running for student body president at Kent at the time of the shootings, and that was my campaign–it was the “red university.” I was removed from the ballot by the administration. The campus was shut down anyway, but they weren’t about to let a socialist be the next student-body president at Kent State.
YOU’VE BEEN largely written out of the history of what happened at Kent State, along with the role of socialists generally. What are your thoughts about that?
HISTORY IS written by those in power. There has been an effort to rewrite the real history of what happened at Kent–and what happened with the antiwar movement in general.
That’s done in a number of ways. It can be from the right-wing perspective – the myth of the GIs being spat on by students is passed on as the truth about the antiwar movement. In fact, it was the antiwar movement that embraced and welcomed soldiers, and attempted to involve them in a growing movement in the Army.
But from the left–and especially at Kent–there was a romanticization of SDS and the gallant radicals, all this kind of nonsense.
Both approaches disengage the critical role of the people–of mass action, the great majority of students and the beginning of the working class entering into the antiwar movement around Kent. Thousands and thousands of students participated in antiwar activities.
This romanticization of a small group of radicals is the myth they needed at the time. I guess they still do. The real problem with removing the mass-action history of the antiwar movement is that you remove the real source of power to end the war, and the real source of power to change society.
TEN DAYS after the Kent State killings, two Black students at Jackson State, James Earl Green and Phillip Lafayette Gibbs, were killed and 12 others were wounded by police armed with machine guns. Yet the massacre at Jackson State is largely missing from the history of the period.
AND THERE was Augusta, too–where severe repression was directed against the African American community. These events all took place at the tail end of the urban rebellions of the 1960s. In fact, the Guard that was sent to Kent had been on duty against the uprising in Akron, and against a Teamster strike in Ohio.
But Jackson is always an addendum to Kent. It was a horrendous event in which the cops just opened fire and blasted a student dormitory. The whole treatment of the students at Jackson shows the difference in what happens when you’re an African American in this country, and when you’re not.
Kent is a working-class school, and these were working-class kids who were affected, but the reaction was different than Jackson. The corporate media talks about Kent State, and not Kent/Jackson. In the media, it was portrayed as, “These are our kids at Kent.” Somehow, they weren’t our kids at Jackson State.
WHAT DO you think should be remembered most about Kent State and the period that followed?
TO GO through the experience of Kent and the strike that followed, when you have tens of thousands of people mobilizing, and you see the beginnings of genuine working-class democracy–that gave me enormous confidence in what people can accomplish.
I think that radical-minded people reacted in one of two ways to the national student strike. Some feared it, because things were out of control–who’s in charge here? But for revolutionary-minded activists, we were thrilled and inspired–to see that it’s the mass itself that inspires and pushes the movement, that it unleashes this enormous creative power.
The culture and politics that came out of the radicalization had a profound influence on things to come, like the women’s movement, the ecology movement and the gay movement–all of the social movements of the 1970s.
That gives us a little taste of what happens when the working class becomes radicalized. The antiwar movement did remain largely on the campus. But Kent profoundly affected the thinking of the working class–especially in the Army. It was clearly the point at which the majority of the working class became antiwar in its consciousness.
The movement never manifested itself the way things did in France in May-June 1968. The rulers of this country understood what the student strike represented, and what was going on in the Army, and it was at this point that they made the decision to extricate themselves from Vietnam. They knew they had to withdraw or, one day, we’d be marching to the factories, and the factories would empty out against the war.
When you look at what the antiwar movement accomplished and the deep effect on the consciousness of human beings, it does give you some indication of what will be a far greater potential when the working class enters the political arena in that way.
We still feel the effects of that profound antiwar consciousness. I don’t think they’ve ever been able to reverse that. I think the American people are, by and large, very much antiwar, anti-imperialist and antiracist because of the struggles that we went through during that time.
The ruling class has struggled valiantly to turn that around, but they have failed. That was most convincingly shown in the last election, where they ran two pro-war candidates. Their goal in the election was to drag people back into supporting American imperialist adventures abroad, and it was an abysmal failure. They threw all their money at it, and the only effect was to temporarily demobilize mass actions. But in terms of consciousness, I see no evidence that they’ve convinced most people to be pro-war. That’s the legacy of Kent and Jackson.