Closure at Kent State?

Closure at Kent State?

The newly unveiled May 4 Visitors Center attempts to reconcile the search for truth with the need for reconciliation and healing.


People cluster around a wounded student on Kent State University campus on May 4, 1970. (AP Photo.)

Earlier this month, Kent State commemorated the forty-third anniversary of the National Guard killing of four students and the wounding of nine others on May 4, 1970, by opening an official Visitors Center. It was a significant milestone for activists—some already dead, the rest gone gray—determined to uncover the truth and honor the memory of those who died in an antiwar protest on that fateful day.

The random character of those deaths, and those at Jackson State two weeks later, drove home the message to millions of students that spring that they too might become victims of an escalating war at home. The Crosby, Stills and Nash song, “Four Dead in Ohio,” became a universal dirge.

Questions still remain, and this year’s formal events raised more, thanks to filmmaker Oliver Stone, the keynote speaker.

Activists leading the long inquest demand that the Obama Justice Department take a new look at recently discovered cassettes from 1970 which, under modern forensic technology, may clarify at last whether orders to fire at the students were given to the guardsmen, or whether the shooters reacted spontaneously to provocation by students.

In an emotional speech to over 800 from the local community, Oliver Stone went further. Stone revived an old theory—long discredited by state and federal investigators—that an informant doubling as a sniper that day instigated the chain of events. Stone’s theory was quickly denounced as a “red herring” by Alan Canfora, who was shot in 1970 and who continues to be among the most respected researchers on the events. Stone’s theory, Canfora says, diverts attention from the explanation that researchers are closing in on—that orders to kill were given—and revives the “sniper” excuse given to justify the killing spree that day.

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The forty-three consecutive years of overnight vigils, demonstrations, conferences and memorials at Kent State are the longest such campaign in the history of the antiwar movement. Tom Grace, an activist shot that day and now a college professor in New York estimates that 65,000 people have trekked over the years to the off-the-highway location. The numbers are sure to increase with the opening of the Center.

While monuments proliferate for many social movements, and while President Obama memorably mentioned Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall in his second inaugural address, national recognition of what happened at Kent State has evolved only with painful gradualism. Obama spoke at Kent last September 26 before 6,600 cheering students and came away with 2,000 new voter registrations. He won Kent in November by over 80 percent. That mattered in Ohio’s tight election, won by Obama by less that two percentage points. Next to Ohio’s African-American voters, Obama’s strongest Democratic supporters are concentrated in the Kent area of northeastern Ohio. Among the leading longtime Democrats in the Kent area has been Alan Canfora and the activist network still seeking answers to what happened on May 4, 1970.

Obama said not a word about the Kent State legacy in his September 26 campaign speech. Was this an omission of forgetfulness, or a calculated avoidance of reviving controversies that still lurk among some Ohio voters with Guard connections? What might it take for Obama to include Kent State in a future litany of sites made historic by social movements?

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In the early Seventies, Kent State officials tried and failed to limit the annual commemorations to just every five years. Then came a 1979 confrontation and hundreds of arrests when the University actually tried to bulldoze the hallowed site to build a gym. It took until 1998 to stop cars from driving over the four spots on the campus parking lot where Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Scheuer and William Schroeder were killed by bullets.

Eventually, however, KSU began to co-exist and even cooperate with the mission of the May 4 activists. KSU faculty launched ongoing educational efforts to archive what happened. The university is the nation’s leader in promoting courses on nonviolence and democracy, peace studies and conflict resolution classes were established. All sixteen deans from every campus pitched in $667,000 of the one million dollar cost of the new Center. Determined lobbying resulted in the site being placed on the National Registry of Historical Sites in 2010. Then came $330,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities. After six years of debate and planning, the Visitors Center finally was opened. Much of the history is chronicled in a book edited by KSU professors Laura Davis and Carol Barbato, Democratic Narratives, History, and Memory, published last year by KSU Press.

The new Center is a spacious, sunlit, airy, two-room facility on the ground floor of Taylor Hall, overlooking the graceful green slopes of the old Commons; the slopes form a natural amphitheater in the heart of campus where the 1970 confrontation occurred. The design succeeds in turning what appears to be a pretty but standard college green into an outdoor museum with minimalist signage describing the events of May 4. The bowl’s rim is ringed by 58,220 yellow flowers representing the American deaths in Vietnam, the underlying cause of the May 4 protests. Just to the side of the green is the black parking lot with four marked spaces where the victims died. Flowers, candles and messages written in chalk create a tender aura over the stark pavement. The deliberate randomness of the shootings is brought home by the distances the bullets traveled—between 260 and 390 feet for the fatalities, as far away as 750 feet for a wounding. If this was a targeted killing the target was any student protestor. The day before the shootings, Governor James Rhodes called them “the worst type of people in America,” “brownshirts” who should be “eradicated.” Richard Nixon said they were “bums.”

Rhodes was trailing by eight percent in the final days of a Republican primary when he visited Kent State on May 3, ordered the Guard on campus and excoriated the student radicals. According to top Nixon aide H.R. Haldeman’s archival notes, the President instructed his hardline political consultant, Murray Chotiner, to make sure that “Rhodes esp. ride this.”

Nixon had invaded Cambodia four days earlier, on April 30, and his own world was about to blow up from blowback. (On May 1, at Yale, I read aloud a call for a national student strike drafted by activists from around the country.) Four million students protested or went on strike that month, and semesters came thudding to their end. In those same days, Nixon approved the “Huston Plan,” drawn up by his aide Tom Charles Huston, for a coordinated FBI-CIA crackdown on campus activism through extra-judicial methods (the plan was officially dropped, though implemented in its parts). As Haldeman would write in his memoir, The Ends of Power (1978), the Kent State shootings began “Nixon’s downhill slide toward Watergate” and the administration’s destruction. Congress immediately reacted by finally trying to cut funding for the war. Within weeks, Nixon signed a bill lowering the voting age to 18. By then he was already retreating from his “incursion” into Cambodia, though the war itself would only end in Watergate.

The events at Kent State would morph into a continuing battle over the control of narrative, always the final stage of social movements. In the beginning Nixon framed his Cambodia action as saving America from becoming a “pitiful helpless giant” surrounded by the mobs burning books and blowing up campuses at home (comparisons he literally used). California’s governor Ronald Reagan was taking the same warlike stance, declaring days before the Cambodian invasion that “if the students want a bloodbath, let’s get it over with. No more appeasement.”

That narrative was strengthened in James Michener’s quick bestseller on Kent, where he blamed the disastrous breakdown on an SDS “conspiracy.” The Nixon White House later congratulated Michener. Even one critic of the murders, Phillip Caputo, author of Thirteen Seconds (2005), blamed the Kent students for throwing a “collective, destructive tantrum” and therefore sharing blame for their own deaths. On the other hand, Nixon’s own commission, chaired by Pennsylvania Governor William Scranton, found the shootings to be “indiscriminate…unnecessary, unwarranted and inexcusable.”

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These polarized views, as well as the actual chain of events, have been debated ever since. Consequently, the Center’s very mandates are in potential conflict: to balance the need for a true accounting with its other stated purpose of reconciliation or healing. If the two clash, what happens to the truth?

Over the decades the core demand of the activists and families of the dead and wounded has been to get to the truth of why shots were fired and whether the commanders gave orders. State officials and the surviving guardsmen have denied all liability, at first casting blame on unnamed “snipers” (a claim Ohio and federal authorities withdrew), then on provocation by rock-throwing, epithet-shouting students, and then finally on a pure over-reaction by paranoid guardsmen, thus turning the 13-second shooting “spree” into another one of history’s “regrettable” tragedies. The evidence from eyewitnesses, photos and films and numerous investigations has shredded those official claims, but still fallen short of an irrefutable alternative—until recently. In 2007, an old cassette tape from May 4, 1970, was retrieved at a Yale University archive by the dogged Alan Canfora, who now is the director of the Akron Law Library. He turned the cassette over to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and its stunning revelations were printed both there and in The New York Times.

The cassette buttresses the long-held belief of many that there was an order to fire given the guardsmen that day. To many ears, the words “right here,” “get set,” “point” and “fire” are heard from a commanding officer. (Later, a top commander was quoted as saying that “an order came down,” without saying from where the order came.)

But the Visitors’ Center didn’t quite concur with Canfora, or wasn’t able to obtain a consensus from the various experts it consulted. In the end, the Center produced a powerful short documentary that includes the distinct command “Point!” and is followed immediately by 13 seconds in which 67 shots are heard being fired. The Center is unwilling to play for its audience the other sounds on the tape, which is where the matter stands, more conclusive than before but technically still inconclusive.

The Center’s leaders, including Carol Barbato and Laura Davis, told me they felt no pressure to dilute their presentation, which is now being seen by visitors multiple times per day. Canfora and Tom Grace, who has advised the Center, believe the institution is sincere but perhaps excessively cautious, leaving open the key question of whether there was command responsibility or just a spontaneous over-reaction. In the historic footage, a company of guardsmen march in formation a few yards up the hill safely away from a small contingent of jeering and milling students, then wheel, take aim and fire directly at the crowd who are approximately one hundred yards in front of them. Canfora is certain that the truth will out eventually, and the full order-to-fire acknowledged.

To that purpose, Canfora and his May 4 Center have retained a top audio expert with advanced equipment to verify whether the shouted commands can be heard beyond dispute.

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As noted earlier, there could be a new problem in the nagging battle over memory, this one introduced by Oliver Stone. A Vietnam veteran and a Republican until the 1980s and now the film-maker of Showtime’s The Untold History of the United States, Stone spoke emotionally to an intense Kent audience last Saturday, as if he was previewing a new chapter of his widely-circulating film and book (which now only mentions Kent in one sentence). Stone noted what several others have before, that there was an FBI informant named Terry Norman present on May 4, snapping photos of the scene on Blanket Hill. Activists like Canfora, Grace and many others knew Norman to be a campus police spy attempting to infiltrate local campus meetings, from which he was frequently tossed out. They learned from later discovery that Norman was concealing a revolver in a shoulder strap that day, and that he waived the weapon in the air as a group of angry students accosted him soon after the massacre. They knew as well that some believed Norman had even fired his weapon, though there were never any witnesses. The Terry Norman tale was dismissed by Canfora, as well as from the Center’s narrative of the events.

But Stone took up the claim that the old cassette also included the sound of four other gunshots fired approximately seventy seconds before the Guard began shooting. The allegation about those four gunshots had been dismissed by multiple authorities, including the Obama Justice Department in its review last year.

Stone asserted his new four-gunshot theory, claiming that there is “no reason to doubt” that secret agencies routinely employ informants and saboteurs to undermine protest movements, and therefore Terry Norman was one such “shady provocateur.” Norman, according to Stone, fired the four pistol shots in a “botched” attempt to simulate sniper fire, which would have provoked the Guard to shoot while blaming the radical activists.

Stone’s account is supported by a tiny handful of those involved, but they happen to include Laurel Krause, the younger sister of Allison Krause, and her mother, Doris, who are entitled to a certain moral authority in the inquest over history. Laurel, who lives in Mendocino, was not invited to speak at this year’s memorial events. She was there, however, wearing a black tee shirt in front of the stage. She told me that everything and everyone—the Visitors Center, the Kent May 4 Center, Alan Canfora—were part of a massive cover-up of the evidence of four gunshots before the Guard fired. In her view, later amplified in Stone’s speech, there indeed was sniper fire before the Guard began shooting, which, if true, erases the narrative that the Guard killings were an unprovoked attack on innocent young people. Everything that activists like Canfora and Grace, as well as the Visitors’ Center more careful account, would be turned upside down if Stone is correct.

But “it’s a red herring,” insists Canfora. “Oliver will regret his words” in the time ahead, he said, predicting that more evidence will unfold. Canfora said, “The claim that there were four earlier shots by Terry Norman revives the old claim that the Guard fired because they were coming under sniper fire.” Tom Grace adds that he and Canfora “were both in the same general vicinity in the minutes immediately preceding and neither of us, nor any other witnesses of whom I am aware, heard low-velocity shots before the National Guard salvo.” While Grace says he cannot claim with absolute certainty that there were no other shots fired, “I know of nobody there that day that recalls hearing any.”

In light of this dispute, Stone may want to review the evidence once again and decide whether to insert himself into the long debate over Kent State at this important moment with his theory of a botched sniper. It wouldn’t be the first time that sniper theories have influenced Stone’s—and America’s—reading of history, from the JFK assassination to the present. Whether his thesis can be proven or not, Stone has the resources, reach and chutzpah to cast doubt on the long struggle for closure of the Kent State investigation, projecting instead a legendary tale that might never be refuted.

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