The Kent State Massacre at 51

by Gary Gordon

For many people my age (68) the Kent State Massacre on May 4, 1970 was a pivotal moment in American history. An eye-opener. A lesson on how far the government would go to quell opposition to the Vietnam War. For those of us (like me) who would be going to college that fall, it packed the additional wallop of being a warning to campus protesters.

But as time marched on and further knowledge of history is gained, one learns Kent State, while important, was not a singular moment. Anyone familiar with the history of the labor movement, the Civil Rights movement, the Black Panthers, the American Indian Movement (AIM) and more, knows or learns the truth of Frederick Douglass’s dictum: Power concedes nothing without demand. And demand has consequences.

As we continue to learn more about the history and ongoing nature of state violence against the Black population (Rosewood, Tulsa, etc.) and the seeming impunity allowed killer cops, as the police forces are increasingly militarized (SWAT killing the so-called SLA was only the beginning), as several states pass laws actually legalizing hit and run drivers attacking protesters with their cars, it is fair to question whether Martin Luther King was right about the arc of history.

U.S. foreign (war) policy wasn’t part of the recent presidential election as we continue to station troops overseas and drop bombs from drones, often with “collateral damage” — a situation that would’ve made most anti-war protesters and others incredulous in 1968 and 1970 and 1972 — What? An election without talking about U.S. war(s)? 

Attention has rightfully shifted in great part to racism, cops who kill, armed-to-the-teeth “militias,” anti-Maskers; to the vast inequities of wealth and resources in our upside-down, pro-corporate, pro-billionaire economy, and to piecemeal discussions of climate change. But that shift in attention, while necessary, should not completely disregard our wars on foreign soil.

Our Permanent War Economy, as Marvin Harris called it, is more entrenched than ever. Talk of peace conversion—converting the economy to peace time activities and away from war, barely exists, and when it does exist, it is based on “Green jobs” or connected with Climate Change—it rarely exists as a value in and of itself. The Forever War, as author Joe Haldeman calls it, continues.

The horror of Kent State, in part, has to do with White Privilege. No one—no one—thought the National Guard would shoot white college kids in a midwestern town on a university campus. And that is also the horror of White Privilege, which derives from White Supremacy. No one thought it could or would happen, then when it did, it was made unique, special, exceptional. The killing of Black Students at Jackson State didn’t receive nearly as much coverage, and when the American Indian Movement took over Wounded Knee the media reported it as if it was a Cowboys and Indians stunt. Meanwhile the term “reverse discrimination’ is born, another in the numerous offspring of White Supremacy and here we are in 2021 arguing again that voting rights need to be protected for all and it shouldn’t be illegal to give someone standing in a long line to vote a drink of water.

I thought watching the police dogs attack the marchers in Alabama was a major moment and I still do; I thought nothing would top the insanity and violence of the police riot at the Democratic Convention in Chicago in ‘68. Then there was the Kent State Massacre. I think I have always been fooled into thinking “this is the worst” and “we have turned a corner.” Because I’m an idealist I’ll probably be fooled again. But it has been and will be increasingly harder to do. As Dylan said, “It’s easy to see without lookin’ too far, not much is really sacred.”

I won’t call myself “Woke.” I dislike the term, but to apply it, I’ve been increasingly “woke” since McGovern lost in ‘72. I knew Carter was flawed and Clinton was no damn good and Obama wasn’t the FDR we needed, and I know as Biden does some necessary repairs and improvements, the drones still drop the bombs and our anti-Communist bullshit is still at play in Central and South America.

And it’s clear, more than ever, the Civil War continues. As the song goes: “Which Side Are You On?”

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