Bryan Shaul

Kent State Massacre: The Day the War Came Home

Profilers: Adan Macias, Riley Mathies, Matthew Parvizyar, and Murphy Sharma

Before the shooting

What was your perspective of the war while you were attending Kent State University prior to the incident?

My personal perspective was, I was not anti-war but I did not want to participate in the war. So, just a little bit of discontinuity, but there were a number of people throughout the country who were anti-war and it was a growing movement. But Kent was a very conservative school for the most part and there was not a large amount of anti-war people who were at Kent State at the time, in May of 1970.

What was the national sentiment during this time?

Nationally, the protest movements were growing. You saw a protest movement growing in the early 60’s, primarily focused on Civil Rights and Free Speech. There was a Free Speech movement in the mid-60’s at Berkeley. Also in the mid-60’s, at about ’64-’65, they put ground troops into Vietnam so you had the beginnings of anti-war movement in Vietnam. You saw Students for Democratic Society (SDS), the Underground Weatherman, and a number of national protest organizations start to grow and they were taking root in a number of universities. University of Michigan, where the SDS was formed, was a bit of a hotbed for protest movements. Some of the larger universities like Berkeley, Stanford, University of Texas, and even Ohio State, but not Kent State. So you had a growing national movement but when an organization that had some 200 chapters, such as the SDS, tried to form at Kent State they weren’t successful. They had a couple demonstrations there and they ended up having more anti-SDS people at the demonstration than they did people supporting them.

What do you think lead up to the incident that occurred on May 4th?

 It really escalated, I think on Thursday night, which would have been the 30th of April when President Nixon announced that they had bombed Cambodia and while Nixon was talking about de-escalating the war and you had an anti-war movement to begin with. When he announced publicly that he was bombing Cambodia, everybody viewed that as an escalation of the war and people were seeing greater involvement of the country in a war that, I think everybody had a difficult time explaining why we were in it. A lot of the students were on campus to get their II-S Deferment so they wouldn’t get drafted and all of a sudden they feel like they’re escalating the war. That, I think, hit the mood of the country all the way across the board.

There was a group of people that were asking for rally on Monday at noon. Monday would have been May 4th, and the university was saying, “You can’t have a rally.” This is another event where students were like, “Oh yeah? I’m going to go there to see what’s going on. Why can’t I have a rally?” So we went to class, most of the kids went to class in the morning, and then around noon, as classes started to be let out for lunch and that kind of thing, people started to migrate to the commons to see what was going to happen. The university was saying, “you can’t have a rally,” and the kids were saying, “well, why not?”

With the events that took place in downtown on Friday night and the burning of the ROTC building on Saturday, on Sunday the governor showed up and made some real inflammatory statements, characterizing the students of Kent as “Brown Shirts,” which was a pick up from Vice President Agnew, which tells you the class of people you were dealing with. You had all these instances, the curfew, so people wanted to speak out. “We don’t like the war. We don’t like an expansion of the war when you’re telling us you’re going to de-escalate it. We don’t like the troops on campus. They were kind of indifferent to the ROTC but the ROTC building was an eyesore so we don’t like that either.” So we showed up to do that, and when I say “we” I was there too. I took my camera out. I stayed on the outskirts of it and just took pictures of the protest.

The shooting

Tell me about what happened on May 4th?

The crowd didn’t get really serious until the National Guard was ordered to disperse the crowd and so they moved forward on the crowd. This is on an open area, it’s in the commons area where they had the rally on Friday. Same area, same victory bell, and they’re all forming around there giving speeches. All of a sudden, the National Guard is put into motion and they fired tear gas. But the kids picked it up and threw back at the National Guard. All of these are from pictures that you have seen from other campuses.

So they marched on the students, it’s open area, so the students would give way in front and kind of move around behind. They marched through the commons, up the hill, past the building called Taylor Hall, and onto a practice football field. They marched across the practice football field where there’s a chain link fence. They stopped at the chain link fence and had no idea what to do. They didn’t know where they were going, their leadership had no idea what to do. So they kind of decided to march around and back. So now they’re marching back to where they were. Students are still around them, so they were totally ineffective. The kids were throwing rocks at them, they didn’t know where they were going.

If you think about it, you had the National Guard sitting at this top of this hill, next to Taylor Hall, and they’re having people throwing rocks at them. It’s a warm day, it’s noon, the sun is overhead, they’re wearing these old gas masks, which covered their whole face and had big eyes, they couldn’t see, and these are kids that are in the National Guard. The only reason they’re in the National Guard is because they worked on the farms and needed to be there for their family. So they joined the Guard so they can get a deferment from being drafted.

You go through that and at one point, nobody knows why, but they opened fire. There was one shot and somebody said it was a sniper, but there never was a sniper. Somebody said it was fireworks, but there was never fireworks. There was one shot and then there was a series of shots, about 60 of them, and they were with these M 1 riffles, which had a huge bullet. They just fired, almost at random, on the students. I think they panicked. I don’t know why they aimed at students because the students were not a threat to them. They did throw rocks at them, so to that extent they might have perceived a threat. But that was the problem, they just opened fire, and that was the shootings that everybody remembers.

Where were you exactly during all of this?

I was taking photos of the whole thing. I actually was down, and found myself a guy who was standing outside of the university gymnasium, which is where the National Guard was bivouacked, they were staying there, and he was guarding that. So I looked over and he had a 45 caliber pistol, strapped to his side, and I thought, “well they won’t take my camera if I’m standing next to a guard with a pistol,” but I was probably 100 yards from where the shootings were. And I was taking pictures throughout the whole thing.

Once the shooting occurred, was it just chaos?

Yeah, it was chaos as soon as the shooting started. It was chaos from there on. I mean nobody knew what to do. People had gotten killed, there were four students that were killed, there was one that was permanently injured, and there were seven or eight I think that were shot and recovered from their wounds. Of the four that were killed, I think three of them were part of the protest. That doesn’t depict whether they were radical protestors or they were like me, standing there watching, but they were there in the group. There was one that was simply walking from class back to her dorm to have lunch and just wanted to get out of there and most of the shooting was toward the dorm.

So, everybody kind of dispersed. There was a group of college professors that were actively trying to get the Guard out of there and people went back to their dorms and the magnitude of what you had just seen was hard to digest no matter what your world view was. I mean, there was a group of people who were anti-war and their immediate conclusion was it was a National Guard, it was a conspiracy of the authorities, and they were against the students and they did it and so this was a confirmation of their world view. There was another group of people whose world view was that they might not have understood the war but they weren’t vocally against the war who would have seen it a different way. To me that was one of the lessons learned out of there, we all stood and watched the same thing and even immediately after that there were different conclusions forming as to what caused it. That kind of helped form some of my life views on how decisions are reached and I look back on that whole process and I see a number of decisions that were made by various people along the way that had they not been made there would not have been four dead students.

The first one was, as I said, the first night in downtown Kent if they hadn’t emptied those bars and declared a state of emergency the chain of events probably wouldn’t have moved toward a confrontation between the students and the National Guard. You had a governor who made a very bad decision about allowing the National Guard to show up on campus. I guess the next bad decision was the decision to cancel the rally. You had a rally, let the kids protest. I think the decisions by the students, whomever they were, to burn the R.O.T.C building. If you hadn’t burned the R.O.T.C building you probably wouldn’t have had the pressure to cancel the rally and you probably wouldn’t have had the confrontation and finally the confrontation itself. Don’t throw things at somebody who has a loaded gun. The decision to allow the National Guard to go into a crowd control, riot situation, for which they weren’t even trained, with loaded rifles, was another monumentally stupid decision. So, you had a series of very bad decisions that ended up with a very, very bad outcome.

After the shooting

Do you feel like the national sentiment afterwards matched your experience and how it all happened?

No, Kent to me became an accidental icon. As I just described, there was a series of bad decisions that lead to a bad outcome on a campus that was never known for protest, was primarily apathetic. But you had four dead students and those four dead students became the symbol of anti-war. From that moment on, even today, you mention Kent State and people know it and they place it as an anti-war.

How do you feel this affected your perspective on the war and your life afterwards?

Well, it’s always lived with me and I think it has lived with all of us. There is a little bond with those of us who were there at the time. They closed the university, that afternoon by about 4 or 5 o’clock it was deserted. They just told everybody to go home, which was interesting because it was the suitcase college that I said it was. So everybody could call their parents in Cleveland or Youngstown and say “help I need a ride home.” I rode home with somebody who lived in Cleveland and then my parents actually lived in Ann Arbor at the time so I had to hitch a ride to Cleveland, and then hitch a ride to Toledo and my parents came to Toledo to pick me up. I mean this was totally unexpected. Then you start digesting what went on and you start the pure tragedy of it and you read some of the stuff that starts to get published about it and you go “wait a minute, that didn’t happen.” To me, it made me a little bit better at critical thinking about how things are perceived, because you’re standing right there.

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