In May 1970, 19 years before Chinese officials ordered troops to fire on its students and other citizens demonstrating in favor of democracy at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, US state and federal officials had authorized National Guardsmen to fire with live ammunition at unarmed students in Ohio.
The massacre occurred on May 4. 37 years later, Alan Canfora listened to the recording of the commander’s words. “Right here. Get set. Point. Fire.” The tape then recorded 13 seconds of uninterrupted gunfire.
Four students lay dead. Nine others, wounded, went to the hospital. Ironically, some of those shot were either observing or strolling nearby. Collateral damage?
Canfora, 21 years old, took a bullet in the wrist. Because the tape he acquired reveals a command structure in the shooting, he has demanded a new investigation.
“There has been a 37-year cover-up at Kent State. The commanding officers have long denied there was a verbal command to fire. They put the blame on the triggermen,” said Canfora. “They stopped, turned, raised the weapons, began to shoot and continued to shoot for 13 seconds,” he said. “It was like a firing squad.” (Guardian, May 2, 2007)
On the audio tape, the cold, hard words emerge. The shooters received direct orders to kill students and they carried out their orders, contrary to “the official cover story that they were responding in panic to a random shot fired at them, or that they were defending themselves from some kind of student attack.” (Bob Fitrakis & Harvey Wasserman, “The Lethal Media Silence on Kent State’s Smoking Guns,” May 7, 2007.)
Observers noted no armed students; no shots were fired at Guardsmen. The uniformed soldiers positioned themselves some 300 yards from the protesters, making the claim of “the threat of serious attack” by unarmed students totally preposterous.
The Guard claimed at the time that one reservist panicked. Others then lost their discipline and fired multiple rounds. The Guard denied that a commander had issued orders to fire. The tape shows the Guard lied.
Ohio subsequently indicted eight guardsmen; none were prosecuted. The families of the dead and wounded filed civil suits against Ohio, its governor and the National Guard — all settled out of court.
President Nixon’s illegal invasion of Cambodia had provoked a new round of demonstrations at Kent State and other campuses. The event has acquired “historical memory.” One famous photo shows a distressed young woman, near the corpse of a student. She is crying in rage and anguish — or for help. Neil Young wrote his song “Ohio” about the incident.
Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,
We’re finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drumming,
Four dead in Ohio.
But until the revelation of the “fire” order on the tape, few dared think of Kent State as a US dress rehearsal for the Chinese government to copy later on a larger scale. Ironically, even with the tape as evidence of government ordered killing, human rights groups that routinely denounce China and Cuba, for examples, have remained silent about official US complicity in the Kent State horrors.
Yale University archives acquired the tape as part of a collection of materials gleaned from the civil suit. That’s where Canfora rediscovered the recording made by Terry Strubbe, a Kent State student who placed his tape recorder on the window sill of his room, located near the fatal events. He had delivered a copy of the tape to the FBI.
Documents acquired through the Freedom of Information Act show that then Ohio Governor James A. Rhodes worked with the FBI to intimidate anti-war demonstrators. Such tactics were and are common for the Bureau, especially to use against “subversives.” In 1970 students played the lead role in opposing the Vietnam War and the FBI saw them as a criminal enemy when they exercised First Amendment rights.
University life in the 1960s and early 1970s went beyond going to class, smoking pot and dropping acid. Students and professors staged Vietnam War teach-ins, strikes and walkouts. For hundreds of thousands of students campus life also consisted of organizing the next rally, including ones that resulted in violence.
Students, however, did not initiate all the violence. FBI records stolen in 1971 from the FBI Field Office in Media, Pennsylvania showed that an FBI “informant,” acting as agent provocateur, had burned down a dormitory at the University of Alabama; another had placed explosives at a bridge in Seattle; a third tried to blow up a post office. (Taken from a censored segment of PBS’ “The Great American Dream Machine” 1971, produced by SAUL LANDAU and Paul Jacobs)
In line with such provocative acts, on May 2, 1970, just before the big demonstration, someone torched the ROTC building at Kent Sate. (A “biker” supposedly doused the building with gasoline).
Was this an FBI agent’s act, or was it, like the destruction of the math building at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and the burning of the Bank of America in Santa Barbara, the act of students irate about Nixon’s illegal war? In any case, the violence provided a pretext for Rhodes to call in the Guard.
His act coincided with Vice President Spiro Agnew labeling student protestors “Nazi brownshirts.” The self-righteous Agnew, who later resigned before getting indicted for stealing, advised university presidents and police to treat the students as if they were the equivalent of Hitlerian goons.
Governor James Rhodes re-phrased Agnew’s hyperbole and on May 3, 1970, one day before the Guardsmen fired the fatal shots, called anti-war students “the worst type of people that we harbor in Americaworse than the brownshirts and the communist element and also the nightriders and the vigilantes.” He added that “we’re up against the strongest, well-trained, militant, revolutionary group that has ever assembled in America.”
The staunch Republican Rhodes not only worked closely with the FBI. He appeared to be controlled by the Bureau. Shortly after Rhodes assumed office on January 14, 1963, a Cincinnati FBI agent wrote Director J. Edgar Hoover: “We will have no problem with him [Rhodes] whatsoever. He is completely controlled by an SAC [Special Agent in Charge] contact, and we have full assurances that anything we need will be made available promptly. Our experience proves this assertion.”
“FBI declassified material suggests that the Bureau’s extensive influence over Governor Rhodes, perhaps due to their knowledge of his ties to the numbers rackets, may have played a role in the Governor’s hard line law and order tactics that led to the deaths of four students at Kent State in 1970.” (Bob Fitrakis, The Free Press, May 4, 2007)
After the Guard entered Kent’s campus, some students had shouted insults at Guardsmen and even hurled a few rocks their way, hardly reasons to have the Guardsmen load their weapons with live ammunition.
The Kent State scenario switched to Jackson State University in Mississippi. On May 14, students protesting against the Vietnam War and sympathizing with the fallen at Kent State heard “rumors that Fayette, Mississippi mayor Charles Evers (brother of slain Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers) and his wife had been shot and killed. Upon hearing this rumor, a small group of students rioted.” They set fires “and overturned a dump truck that had been left on campus overnight.” (The African Registry)
After the fires were extinguished, “police and state troopers marched toward a campus women’s residence, weapons at the ready. At this point, the crowd numbered 75 to 100 people. Several students allegedly shouted ‘obscene catcalls’ while others chanted and tossed bricks at the officers.” The police opened fire on the crowd and the dormitory. Two died. Twelve others were wounded by gunfire. The FBI estimated that almost 500 rounds struck the building.
US Presidents invoke the word “democracy” as if it somehow both applied across the board to all of US society and simultaneously excused all “mistakes.” Kent State, like Jackson State, were examples of officials shooting citizens who disagreed with policies and exercised first amendment rights. US and state officials authorized the murder of unarmed students as if they and not Governor Rhodes and President Nixon were the “brown shirts.”
What words do Bush, Cheney and Rove use for anti-war activists? In the early 1970s, Nixon ordered his “plumbers (dirty tricks squad) to raid The Brookings Institution and Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office to get documents. Later, he perpetrated a cover-up of the 1972 Watergate break-in and had to resign.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez’s “firing” of US Attorneys, the lies perpetrated by Bush and Cheney to justify attacking Iraq, and even the latest “hookergate” scandal news in which the powerful and pious availed themselves of sinners needing money, show the criminal mind much alive in the White House. By starting a dubious process — phony pretext for war it’s a short step to ordering the Guard to shoot citizens. The Los Angeles police shot rubber bullets at the May Day immigrant rights demonstration! Wait till next time!
SAUL LANDAU’s new book, BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD, with a foreword by Gore Vidal, is now available from Counterpunch Press. His new film, WE DON’T PLAY GOLF HERE, is available on DVD from firstname.lastname@example.org