Kent State Shooting

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Kent State Shooting

On May 4, 1970, the Ohio National Guard was dispersing a protest rally on the commons of the Kent State University campus in Kent, Ohio , when soldiers suddenly opened fire on students, killing four and wounding nine others, some seriously.

Antiwar protest movement

In 1969, growing opposition to U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War (1959–75) had produced massive demonstrations nationwide. Public opinion on the war was divided in early 1970; many Americans were hostile toward the antiwar movement , which was strongest on college campuses.

On Thursday, April 30, 1970, President Richard M. Nixon (1913–1994; served 1969–74) announced that U.S. forces had invaded territory in Cambodia. The announcement triggered huge demonstrations on college campuses across the country. Kent State was one of these colleges. On the evening of Friday, May 1, the protest at Kent State

turned to rioting. The protests continued on Saturday, and student demonstrators burned down the university's Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) building. Authorities called in the Ohio National Guard to Kent.

The National Guard used tear gas against students to disperse a peaceful demonstration on Sunday, May 3. Guardsmen beat several students and bayoneted others, but there were no fatalities. That day, at a news conference, Ohio governor James A. Rhodes (1909–2001) called the protesters “the worst type of people that we harbor in America.” He went on to threaten, “We are going to eradicate the problem, we’re not going to treat the symptoms.”

The shooting

Outraged over the use of tear gas, the beatings, and the bayoneting, the students conducted another rally on Monday. Kent State students believed their rally was legal. The senior officer in charge of the National Guard disagreed and gave the order for the guardsmen to disperse the students. Forty minutes later, they opened fire on the crowd of students in a thirteen-second sustained volley in which at least sixty-seven rounds were fired. Four students were killed, and nine were wounded.

Officials claimed at the time that the retreating guardsmen had fired in self-defense while being attacked by hundreds of students who had charged to within 3 or 4 yards of the guardsmen's position. But the incident was photographed and filmed from several angles and recorded on audio tape, and all of these records showed clearly that the majority of the dead and wounded students were standing 100 or more yards away. At least one of the four fatally wounded students had not even participated in the demonstration; one was an ROTC student.

Criminal or not?

Prior to the killings, the guardsmen had been subjected to verbal abuse by students. Some rocks were thrown at them, and some of the tear gas canisters they had fired into the crowd were thrown back. Moreover, they had just come from riot duty in nearby Cleveland, Ohio, where they had been shot at while trying to contain violence during a truckers’ strike. They had not gotten much sleep during the several days preceding the incident.

Still, a Justice Department study and the President's Commission on Campus Unrest both concluded that the shootings were unnecessary and inexcusable and urged the filing of criminal charges against the guardsmen.

In court

In Ohio, the public was not sympathetic to the students. A special state grand jury cleared the guardsmen of any crime but charged twenty-five of the protesters with criminal offenses. Substantial evidence indicates that the Nixon administration attempted to obstruct the investigation of the case and prosecution of the guardsmen. In 1971, the case was officially closed. It was opened again in 1974, after Nixon resigned the presidency, but the charges against the National Guard were again dismissed.

Impact

The Kent State shootings were a rare event in U.S. history, in which American soldiers killed American civilians engaged in protest of government policy. The shootings touched off an enormous nationwide student strike that shut down more than two hundred colleges and universities and disrupted classes in hundreds more.

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