“They Should Have Shot More Students:” From Kent State to Kenosha

These are the words spoken in a hospital corridor only hours after four students were killed and the Ohio National Guard wounded nine other students at Kent State University on May 4, 1970. Allison Krause, one of the murdered students, lay only feet away.

Joy or glee at the killing and wounding of those who differ with the opinions and actions of some within and outside of the governments and the apparatus of empire of the US goes way back in our history. Readers need only view the horrific photographs of the crowds enjoying the spectacle of lynchings in the US South during the first half of the 20th century and beyond to have that premise validated. Now, with the far right a clear and present danger in the US, both in government and at street level, there is a minority that plans and enjoys murder, to paraphrase the late Israeli scientist Israel Shahak. The minority of those who protest injustices is increasingly in grave danger. Jacob Blake was not the first Black person shot by officials of the government, in his case the police, and he was far from the first person of color in US history whose shooting was cheered by those with hate in their hearts and guns and ropes in their hands.

The words self-defense appeared from a relative on my Facebook feed within hours of the verdict freeing Kyle Rittenhouse in Wisconsin. Self-defense is the cause célèbre of police who kill unarmed civilians in many cases with impunity. Self-defense was on the lips of some of those in the Ohio National Guard in 1970, when they killed and wounded students. Self-defense was on the lips of Kyle Rittenhouse.  I know something about the military-style semi-automatic rifle Rittenhouse used to kill two protesters in Wisconsin, who were protesting the shooting of Jacob Blake (New York Times, October 26, 2021). The US government taught me how to become a sharpshooter with this kind of weapon and its lethality is so monstrous that the thought of taking a rifle like this to a demonstration and then claiming self-defense is more than obscene! It was the weapon (semi-automatic military assault rifles) of choice at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Columbine High School, at a concert in Nevada, and in countless other public places. Second Amendment/self-defense: Bullshit! A person with this kind of military-style semi-automatic rifle is pretty much invincible. And as if in some bizarre accident of time and place, the military also taught me how to use the M-! rifle, the weapon of choice on the battlefields of World War II and the weapon that the Ohio National Guard used against unarmed protesting students at Kent State.

The parallels here are many, as it was a Black student association at Kent State that began the protests against Richard Nixon’s expanded war from Vietnam and Laos into Cambodia that moved those students to action and the symbolic burying of a copy of the US Constitution on their campus. Who is the Constitution meant to protect these days: the manufacturers and users of military-style rifles and guns on the streets of the US?

About a week and a half after the Kent State massacre, at the historically Black college in Mississippi, Jackson State, two students were killed by police and eleven were wounded. Demonstrations had also taken place at Jackson State. Jackson State took a backseat to Kent State for many years, but “Remember the spirit of Kent State and Jackson State!” became the rallying cry of those who continued to protest the Vietnam War.

In the US, there has always been the backstory of antipathy toward protest. “They should have killed more students” was an accepted message by many who had tired of the Vietnam War, but hated protest and protesters. Many liked the antiwar message, but hated the messengers. We could say the same about the antipathy toward the Black Lives Matter protests and protest on the streets of Kenosha, Wisconsin after Jacob Blake was shot. The same could be said about the far right celebration of the deaths of Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber. Viola Liuzzo, Heather Heyer, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., Emmett Till, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner are heroes who also suffered the lethal hate of the far right. From Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, there’s Addie May Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair. In Mississippi, there was NAACP leader Medgar Evers. I marched in Manhattan to protest the police murder of Eric Garner amid a throng of police. The names go on and on. The names grow as the far right grows in the US.

Vigilantes, white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and other fascists of this ilk are more than ready and willing to take to the streets to do grotesque acts of violence and they are often armed like military units. Self-defense is not their game! Lethal action is! They operate with a wink and a nod from some among the ruling elite who have hollowed out the US and world economy with massive upward movement of trillions of dollars. The sound of gunfire is sometimes their cover.

At the time of this writing, five people were killed and many were injured (New York Times, November 22, 2021) in Wisconsin when an SUV drove through a parade on November 21, 2021.

Here are lines from Peter Townshend’s song “Won’t Get Fooled Again'” (1971):

We’ll be fighting in the streets
With our children at our feet
And the morals that they worshiped will be gone
And the men who spurred us on
Sit in judgement of all wrong
They decide and the shotgun sings the song…

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).