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Troops fired on Kent State students in 1970. Survivors see echoes in today’s campus protests

Troops fired on Kent State students in 1970. Survivors see echoes in today’s campus protests

Dean Kahler flung himself to the ground and covered his head when the bullets started flying. The Ohio National Guard had opened fire on unarmed war protesters at Kent State University, and Kahler, a freshman, was among them.

M1 rifle rounds hit the ground all around him. “And then I got hit,” Kahler recalled, more than 50 years later. “It felt like a bee sting.” But it was far worse than that — a bullet had gone through his lung, shattered three vertebrae and damaged his spinal cord. He was paralyzed.

Four Kent State students were killed and Kahler and eight others were injured when National Guard members fired into a crowd on May 4, 1970, following a tense exchange in which troops used tear gas to break up an anti-war demonstration and protesters hurled rocks at the guardsmen. It was a watershed moment in U.S. history — a violent bookend to the turbulent 1960s — that galvanized campus protests nationwide and forced the temporary shutdown of hundreds of colleges and universities.

Now the shootings at Kent State and their aftermath have taken on fresh relevance, with students demonstrating against another far-off war, college administrators seeking to balance free-speech rights against their imperative to maintain order, and a divided public seeing disturbing images of chaotic confrontations.

Kent State is planning a solemn commemoration Saturday, as it does every May 4, with a gathering at noon on the commons, near where troops killed students Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Scheuer and William Schroeder in a 13-second volley of rifle and pistol fire.

Kahler, meanwhile, is keenly watching this new generation of college students demand an end to military action, and wondering if colleges are making some of the same mistakes.

“I question whether college administrators and trustees of colleges have learned any lessons from the ’70s,” Kahler said in an interview at his home outside Canton, Ohio. “I think they’re being a little heavy handed, a little over the top.”

More than 2,400 people at dozens of U.S. colleges and universities have been arrested in recent weeks as police break up demonstrations against the Israel-Hamas war, according to an Associated Press tally. Police in riot gear have dismantled tent encampments, cleared protesters from occupied buildings and made arrests, mostly for refusing orders to disperse, although some have been charged with vandalism, resisting arrest or other offenses.

Things have been much quieter at Kent State, a large public school in northeastern Ohio where officials say they have long strived to promote civil dialogue.

“Largely driven by our history, we’re always and consistently about a couple of things. One is, we embrace freedom of speech,” said Todd Diacon, the university’s president. “And another thing is, we understand what happens when conversations, attitudes become so polarized that someone that doesn’t agree with you becomes demonized — that that can lead to violence.”

Kent State has leaned into debates about the war in Gaza, inviting students from opposing sides to share perspectives, said Neil Cooper, who directs Kent State’s School of Peace and Conflict Studies.

“There can be a temptation to try and not to talk about these issues because they’re too difficult, too challenging, and, you know, there’s a concern that talking about them will make them worse,” Cooper said. “Our approach has been very different.”

The demonstrations at Kent State have been peaceful, but there’s still an undercurrent of tension, and there are both Jewish and Palestinian students who don’t feel safe, said Adriana Gasiewski, a junior who has covered them for the school newspaper.

Gasiewski worries about the powder-keg atmosphere at schools like Columbia University, where the current wave of protests originated last month and New York City police have repeatedly clashed with demonstrators. U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson, a Republican, has called on the National Guard to be deployed to Columbia, although New York officials have said police can handle the protests. President Joe Biden said Thursday he does not want troops to be deployed to campuses.

“My biggest fear is … they bring the National Guard to Columbia and that it’s like history repeating itself with May 4,” Gasiewski said.

Temple University historian Ralph Young is seeing clear echoes of the Vietnam war protest movement.

“I think they do compare in scale and impact,” said Young, whose books include “American Patriots: A Short History of Dissent.” Just as in the 1960s and ’70s, he said, the current crackdowns “only get more and more people angry and I think it’ll just magnify the protests, and spread them further into other campuses.”

The parallels don’t end there.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams has said “outside agitators” are fomenting antisemitic protests. In 1970, Ohio Gov. James Rhodes, who made the decision to send National Guard troops to Kent State, accused external groups of spreading terror, calling them “the worst type of people that we harbor in America.”

Students then were furious that President Richard Nixon was bombing Cambodia instead of winding down the war as he had promised. Days before the shootings, demonstrators had clashed violently with police in downtown Kent, and the university’s ROTC building was set ablaze.

Then, on May 4, Chic Canfora joined several hundred fellow students on the commons, protesting not only the war but the presence of troops on campus.

Canfora escaped injury. Her brother, Alan Canfora, was shot and wounded. Now a journalism teacher at Kent State, she worries that campus administrators elsewhere are using the “militant actions of a few” to paint all protesters “as violent and worthy of the kind of heat that they want to send in to these situations.”

“I think that all university campuses should get together and figure out how to allow students to be what students have historically been, the conscience of America,” Canfora said.

Gregory Payne, an Emerson College scholar and expert on the Kent State shootings, said Vietnam-era protesters certainly worried about getting drafted, but they also took a moral stand, as are today’s protesters who see the U.S. as complicit in the disproportionate death toll of Palestinians resulting from Israel’s response to the Oct. 7 Hamas attack.

“They’re protesting, you know, a war that is atrocious for all sides involved. And I think that they’re attempting to bring attention to it. People can question some of the strategies and tactics. But I think there will be a legacy and there will be a defining characteristic about this era, too,” Payne said. “My hope is that there is not death and bloodshed like we saw in Kent State.”

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