Today marks the 41st anniversary of the Kent State massacre, when the Ohio National Guard fired upon peacefully assembled, unarmed students on the university campus protesting the U.S. invasion of Cambodia; all told, four were killed and nine others were wounded (one of whom was left permanently paralyzed from the chest down). If the point of history, collective or personal, is to learn from the past, we would do well here in Wisconsin and elsewhere, of course, to heed this date.
To this day no one really knows what happened or how. Two days before, a Saturday, the ROTC building had been burned down — one of 30 across the nation that first week in May, 1970. That weekend a state of emergency was declared by the mayor of Kent, Ohio. Contrary to belief, the governor of Ohio had not yet declared martial law — but might as well have had. On the morning of Monday, the 4th, students gathered at a football field and adjacent parking lot, their numbers around 200. By noon they swelled to some 1500. However, looming above them on a hill was a retinue of the Ohio National Guard armed in riot gear, brandishing bayonets and tear gas canisters. Ordered by the Guard to disperse, the students refused. What followed was that seconds-long silence that strangely seems like an eternity, an atmosphere thick with fear and consternation, where no one knows what’s about to happen but that something is. What actually was the tipping point that escalated this tragedy, none can say, though rumors of course abound. What’s certain is this: in the fog of the war at home, the Guard fired 67 rounds in thirteen seconds — about as long as that last sentence takes to read. And in that synapse of power polluted, the lives of four young people were forever taken. The tear gas was unnecessary; four lifeless bodies and nine others bleeding amidst that feral hysteria was more enough to cause those there to cry.
What does this have to do with Wisconsin? Remember back in February during that first fateful week of protests — especially Gov. Walker’s assertion that he was being flooded by email urging him to stay strong? One of those messages came from that oh-so envied state of Indiana by a then deputy prosecutor of Johnson County, Carlos Lam (also a Republican activist) who suggested to Walker to manufacture a confrontational situation — called a “black” or “false” flag — which would then misrepresent the unions and protesters as being violent and thus cause public opinion to wane. (Remember the fake Koch phone call? Considering that Walker from the get go talked about calling in the state National Guard if there would have been any disruptions, it’s not an outlandish leap to imagine him contriving a violent Punch and Judy show in order to retaliate against the protesters.) Apparently there’s quite a trigger-happy climate amongst Indiana’s deputies in public office, as Lam’s email was preceded only days before by then deputy attorney general Jeffrey Cox who tweeted to use live ammunition on the protesters at the Capitol. Tweedledum and Tweedledee indeed. Both men were, aptly enough, fired.
Granted, none of this actually transpired — and thank God it didn’t. But it’s not inconceivable that it could have. That it was even contemplated is telling enough. To paraphrase Mark Twain, history doesn’t so much repeat itself as it does rhyme. Look at the photo below:
All that’s really changed are the outfits — and those mainly of the guard; for many of us still dress like the ’70s anyway. But to bring everything back to the present, I want to close with the image below…
This is a memorial marking the fallen bodies of those shot and killed at Kent State 41 years ago today, a silent epitaph on asphalt, parking lot stall paint eerily calling to mind crime scene chalk outline. Rest in peace.