By Katherine Lloyd
For those who attended college during the Vietnam War, when the words “Kent State” are spoken, one may feel an ominous chill, followed by despair. The unfortunate chaos and macabre scene which took place on May 4, 1970, at Kent State University in Ohio, was the result of a protest (following the April 30 announcement of US troops entering Cambodia), turned ugly dispute, finishing with the death of four young students.
Forty years after the horrific tragedy, SCCC students, faculty, and alumni sat in grief watching the film Kent State: The Day the War Came Home on May 4 in the Montauk Point room of the Babylon Student Center. The film depicted images of students alongside the National Guard bickering back and forth with each other, until the unthinkable happened; shots were fired. The commentary featured in the film was provided by students involved with the protest, as well as the soldiers who pulled their triggers.
The phrase “time heals all wounds” was irrelevant, as Kevin McCoy, Ammerman campus librarian and member of New York Civil Liberties, hosted a panel discussion immediately following the film. Those who were on campus during this time expressed feelings of anguish and confusion as if the massacre had occurred yesterday.
The discussion featured commentary from Maureen Clinton, former student and now faculty member of the college, Charles Funk, former adjunct professor and current owner of an insurance company, Norm West, a current faculty member, working at the college in 1970, and John Gallagher, former assistant to president of the college, and also former dean at the Grant campus. Each member of the panel had their own unique insight, and different recollection of the events which occurred on May 4, 1970.
With the graphic visuals displayed in the film, it was easy to empathize with students attending college at Kent State, but what of those who attended SCCC? “This was not like any other war”, said Clinton, who added that baby boomers were “the bridge group”, in reference to the difference of opinion in worldly views from their preceding age group.
“My father’s generation would never understand,” Clinton said, as she recalled the protests which took place on campus during the Vietnam war. “My cousin’s body came home on Christmas day” she added, furthermore contributing to her activism during the war. Clinton recalled a “park in” which took place on campus, and how her generation now has a better understanding of “we’re not against the soldiers, we’re against the war”.
While the soldiers who fought in Vietnam did not have a choice in the matter this concept of blaming the war itself, rather than the soldier seemed extremely distant; the violence in Vietnam that was streaming through their televisions blinded the eyes of many, only leaving them to blame the soldiers, forgetting their government demanded their service.
Charles Funk, who was featured in the acclaimed documentary Farmingville, expressed how he was “so sickened” and “so hurt” by what happened at Kent State.
“We saw women and children burning to death from napalm,” Funk added, responding to the reason for the radical reaction many protesters conveyed during this period. Each speaker during the discussion had a difference in opinion on many topics but they all agreed on one thing: the media’s influence on the war.
This war was not “sanitized” as John Gallagher explained it, elaborating that journalists and photographers had free reign to report any image or news from Vietnam back to the states. The terrifying images from the war were burned into the minds of many Americans, which caused a distorted view of the soldiers who were fighting there.
Because of the lack of compassion some had for the veterans returning home from war, Gallagher stated that there were protests on campus, and although mild “Dr. Ammerman had trouble handling this…he was a WWII vet.” Gallagher added that while most of the country was bewildered about the reasons behind the war, the veterans coming home were just as clueless. He explained that “They were yelled at and spit on, they were confused themselves.”
In addition to the broadcasts from Vietnam, the news reported in the US did not display protesters as the peaceful flower children that later generations have been told about.
Funk noted a march he attended in Washington DC in which the speakers were “so eloquent, they were talking about war, not soldiers, but war. It was so peaceful”, then added that “ none of it was on the news,” implying that those not involved in the protests had been under the misconception that the activists against the war were hateful, and abusive toward soldiers. The reality of the situation was that soldiers along with protesters were all searching for a resolution for what seemed to be an endless battle.
With all the conflicting views on Vietnam and Kent State, West, a history professor at the Ammerman campus recalls that “ there were no personal difficulties among the staff” while explaining the divide in opinions among the faculty at SCCC during this time.
The discussion was concluded with final thoughts on the film, and also a comparison to the war going on today. West explained that he also held strong to his views that “the war was unjust,” and continued on, that the war today has “a different cause, but is also down the wrong path.” He added that “they should have never declared it a war to begin with.” Each speaker agreed that another factor contributing to the reaction from students during the Vietnam War was the draft, and later the lottery, whereas today the military is voluntary.
“Discipline,” was the general response from each of the panel speakers when asked about what could have changed this day in history. “Bayonets! What were they thinking?” Funk exclaimed.
In reference to Funk’s statement West added “ The authorities have to use maximum restraint, NO AMO!”
The Four days leading up to the Kent State shootings were tumultuous and fearful. Ultimately, the lesson learned is when armed forces are called upon to handle a situation (in this case a war protest), the military is to control the crowd, and not become part of the chaos.
The debate on who is at fault pertaining to Kent State may go on; however, this lack of restraint, and use of weapons ended the lives of Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Scheuer , and William Schroeder in the name of a college protest.