rioot Policing





Kent State Riot of May 4, 1970

Twenty-five years ago this month, students came out on the Kent State campus and scores of others to protest the bombing of Cambodia-- a decision of President Nixon\'s that appeared to expand the Vietnam War. Some rocks were thrown, some windows were broken, and an attempt was made to burn the ROTC building. Governor James Rhodes sent in the National Guard.
The units that responded were ill trained and came right from riot duty elsewhere; they hadn\'t had much sleep. The first day, there was some brutality; the Guard bayoneted two men, one a disabled veteran, who had cursed or yelled at them from cars. The following day, May 4th, the Guard, commanded with an amazing lack of military judgment, marched down a hill, to a field in the middle of angry demonstrators, then back up again. Seconds before they would have passed around the corner of a large building, and out of sight of the crowd, many of the Guardsmen wheeled and fired directly into the students, hitting thirteen, killing four of them, pulling the trigger over and over, for thirteen seconds. (Count out loud--one Mississippi, two Mississippi, to see how long this is.) Guardsmen--none of whom were later punished, civilly, administratively, or criminally--admitted firing at specific unarmed targets; one man shot a demonstrator who was giving him the finger. The closest student shot was fully sixty feet away; all but one were more than 100 feet away; all but two were more than 200 feet away. One of the dead was 255 feet away; the rest were 300 to 400 feet away. The most distant student shot was more than 700 feet from the Guardsmen.
Some rocks had been thrown, and some tear gas canisters fired by the Guard had been hurled back, but (though some of the Guardsmen certainly must know the truth) no-one has ever been able to establish why the Guard fired when they were seconds away from safety around the corner of the building. None had been injured worse than a minor bruise, no demonstrators were armed, there was simply nothing threatening them that justified an armed and murderous response. In addition to the demonstrators, none of whom was closer than sixty feet, the campus was full of onlookers and students on their way to class; two of the four dead fell in this category. Most Guardsmen later testified that they turned and fired because everyone else was. There was an attempt to blame a mysterious sniper, of whom no trace was ever found; there was no evidence, on the ground, on still photographs or a film, of a shot fired by anyone but the Guardsmen. One officer is seen in many of the photographs, out in front, pointing a pistol; one possibility is that he fired first, causing the others, ahead of him, to turn and fire. Or (as some witnesses testified) he or another officer may have given an order to fire. It is indisputable that the Guardsmen were not in any immediate physical danger when they fired; the crowd was not pursuing them; they were seconds away from being out of sight of the demonstration.
There was also an undercover FBI informant, Terry Norman, carrying a gun on the field that day. Though he later turned his gun into the police, who announced it had not been fired, later ballistic tests by the FBI showed that it had been fired since it was last cleaned-- but by then it was too late to determine whether it had been fired before or on May 4th.
It would be too charitable to say that the investigation was botched; there was no investigation. Even the New York City police, who are themselves prone to brutality and corruption, do a better job. Every time an officer discharges his weapon, it is taken from him, and there is an investigation. Here--to the fatal detriment of the federal criminal trial which followed--it was never conclusively established which Guardsmen had fired, or which of them had shot the wounded and the dead. Since all were wearing gas masks, it is impossible to identify them in pictures (many had also removed or covered their name tags, a classic ploy of law enforcement officers