‘Four dead in Ohio.’
On the fiftieth anniversary of the Kent State shootings, Neil Young’s protest song prompts some obvious questions. Why Ohio – and why those four?
Just ten days after the National Guard opened fire on anti-war students at Kent State University, authorities killed two young men at the historically black campus of Jackson State. And, in between those two incidents, police had shot six black men dead in Georgia during riots responding to the death of a teenager in official custody.
So, half a century on, it might be contended that the commemoration of the Ohio killings replicates the hierarchy in which some deaths – specifically, those of white, well-educated Americans – matter significantly more than others.
The protests at Kent State followed Richard Nixon’s announcement about US troops were moving into Cambodia, a violent escalation of Washington’s presence in the region. No-one really knows how many Vietnamese people the White House had already killed by that stage. The crowd rallying at Kent State included both Chrissie Hynde, who’d go on to sing with The Pretenders, and Gerald Casale, the future singer of Devo; one of the first reporters on the scene was Joe Eszterhas, who later penned the screenplays for Flashdance and Basic Instinct.
There are no similar celebrity connections to the Jackson State killings. However, the relative privilege of the mostly white students protesting in Ohio means the massacre is crucial for understanding its role in the culture wars that still rage to this day.
When Governor Jim Rhodes called in the National Guard, he told the press that the campus activists mobilising at Kent State represented ‘the worst type of people that we harbour in America’. Around the same time, President Nixon labelled anti-war protesters ‘bums’.
The massacre did not – at least at first – discredit such descriptions. On the contrary, a Gallup Poll found that 58 per cent of those surveyed blamed the students for the bloodshed, while only 11 per cent blamed the National Guard. Four days after the Kent State shootings, a thousand anti-war protesters marching on Wall Street were attacked by construction workers who shouted, ‘Kill those long-haired bastards!’
That confrontation spurred White House aide Patrick Buchanan to pen a memo to Nixon, in which he described as ‘insane’ the suggestion ‘we should somehow go prosecute the hardhats to win favour with the kiddies’. On the contrary, Buchanan said, Nixon should continue to demonise the protesters even as he cultivated the construction workers who had beaten them up. ‘These,’ he said, ‘… are our people now.’
Twelve years later, Buchanan, after running his own quixotic campaign for the presidency, got up at the Republican National Convention and used the term ‘culture war’ as he urged his supporters to back the incumbent George Bush.
‘In the struggle for the soul of America,’ Buchanan said, ‘[Bill] Clinton and [Hillary] Clinton are on the other side and George Bush is on our side.’
That schema – in which Buchanan juxtaposed same-sex marriage, environmentalism and pornography against ‘families, workers and jobs’ – derived from his assessment of what had become known as the ‘hard hat’ riot of 1970. This episode convinced him that an appeal to national ‘values’ could separate blue-collar workers from what he deemed the effete and degenerate cosmopolitanism of the New Left.
That’s been the basic program of right-wing populism ever since. Hence Jill Lepore’s argument in the New Yorker: ‘[the hard hats] were Nixon’s, and they were Reagan’s and they are Trump’s.’
In one sense, that’s quite true. Kent State matters now more than it did a decade ago simply because today it’s easier to imagine a Trump – or a Trump wannabe – whipping up the kind of murderous atmosphere that preceded the shootings in Ohio.
‘If it takes a bloodbath,’ declared Ronald Reagan as he pledged to defeat radical students in California, ‘let’s get it over with.’
Trump might say something very similar, probably on Twitter.
At the same time, it’s crucial to recognise that Buchanan’s ‘culture war’ championing of unionised construction workers against elitist anti-war marchers was based on a fundamental sleight of hand. His rampaging ‘hard hats’ were not simply ordinary workers inspired by intuitive patriotism to attack dirty hippies. Rather, they were organised to smash up the march by the pro-war, right-wing leadership of a corrupt union. Secret tapes subsequently revealed that Nixon himself approved of the plan to, as he put it, ‘go in and knock their heads off.’
The symbolism of blue-collar workers punching students mattered to the White House precisely because, as Barbara Ehrenreich says, unionists played a significant role in the rebellion of the time:
The late sixties saw the most severe strike wave since shortly after World War II, and by the early seventies the new militancy had swept up autoworkers, rubber workers, steel workers, teamsters, city workers, hospital workers, farmworkers, tugboat crewmen, grave diggers and postal employees.
That militancy broke down conventional racial attitudes, with ‘black and white workers … marching, picketing and organizing together in a spirit of class solidarity that had not been seen since the thirties.’ It also challenged the values that Buchanan held dear, as working-class kids embraced sexual freedom, rock music and recreational drugs.
Ehrenreich writes of radicals she knew at the time who decided to ‘join the working class’ by wearing conventional clothing, only to discover that the long-haired employees at the factory suspected them of being narks.
As for Vietnam, surveys showing that US workers were, on average, more opposed to the conflict than were members of the middle class. Some of the most intense hostility came from within the armed forces themselves, with one survey in 1970 finding that a quarter of soldiers on military bases in America engaging in acts of dissent – a figure comparable to the level of radicalism found on campus.
Today, some leftists might see the relative privilege of the students in Kent State as diminishing the relevance of their repression to those from more obviously oppressed backgrounds. At the time, however, activists drew the opposite conclusion. They argued that the killings showed the authorities’ willingness to deploy deadly force against absolutely anyone perceived as a threat, something that provided a basis for solidarity across ethnic and national divisions. The brutality unleashed upon Vietnam was not, then, an anomaly but a revelation, a manifestation of the violence by which the powerful protected their interests. To put it another way, the war wasn’t a distant atrocity that Americans could simply avoid but the expression of an internal rottenness they needed to confront.
Hence the line in the Neil Young song: ‘How can you run when you know?’
In 1970, the killings posed that question – and it still matters today.