Why Remember?

In my sort-of hometown and at my Alma Mater last night, beginning at about 11 p.m., a candlelit-led procession marched along a specified route on campus, bound for a residence hall parking lot. The four leaders took their places in the lot, holding the candle within a velvet-roped square, taking the first shift of a 12-hour candlelight vigil.

I was one of those leaders on the 19th commemoration of the shootings at Kent. Today is the 39th.

In my time with the May Fourth Task Force, the student organization that plans and carries off the commemoration, I was often asked by friends, why does one need to remember May 4? That was like 20 years ago, man. What a drag.

I would of course offer up the typical “to prevent it from happening again.” But that reason felt weak coming out of my mouth, and it’s weak now. It’s not a good reason. We remember the Holocaust, but Rwanda occurred nonetheless. We remembered, say, Boston or Wounded Knee, but Kent happened anyway, and after Kent was Tiananmen Square; there is no denying it that, from time to time, one’s own government will rile up and strike, and you can remember the hell out of these events and it could still happen. So I needed a new answer.

Here it is: If you went to a “Gettysburg University” without learning about the battle and the resulting speech, you didn’t get much of an education, now, did you? If you don’t get out and walk the ridges or go out to Culp’s Hill while you’re a student at “Gettysburg University,” then what in the wide wide world of sports did you learn there? Zero Point Zero. Any student from Kent who never bothered to pick up a book on the subject or to take Jerry Lewis’ class or to even walk over to the memorial didn’t learn a goddamn thing. That’s why.

So, what happened at Kent State on May 4, 1970?

Regardless of who one blames or how it washed out in court or what Tom Hensley thinks or what James Michner thinks; regardless of whether or not you think, as some might, that the kid waving the black flag was asking to be winged in the wrist, there is one fact that can’t be tainted: The state of Ohio killed four innocents that day and wounded nine others—including one whom the state of Ohio put in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

This happened because a few powerful men, including Ohio’s then Gov. Rhodes, were rabid authoritarians, men with the same mindset of the same idiots who ran these Untied States through most of the aughts. See what the man said of protesters in Kent on May 3:

They’re worse than the brown shirts and the communist element and also the night riders and the vigilantes. They’re the worst type of people that we harbor in America. I think that we’re up against the strongest, well-trained, militant, revolutionary group that has ever assembled in America.

Do we notice anything similar in Rhodes’ language to describe a bunch of undergrads and that of, say, Congresswacko Michele Bachman regarding the current administration? Or in the language used by the GOOPers in lamely attempting to defeat the extraordinary person who is now President Barack Obama?

I realize I am drawing a silken line here. But there is a line to be drawn. Even 39 years later, even with all the remembering and with remembering’s failure to prevent, even with history, even with common sense, it is clear that there’s more wrong here than just politics. There is a psychology at work here. I think the same illness that led James Rhodes to permit those kids to carry live ammunition is the same wretched illness that allowed Failed Former President George W. Bush to permit those kids to pile up those naked Iraqis.

Americans need to learn to recognize the symptoms and continue to vote it out of office.

By the way, to be fair, the state of Ohio eventually apologized. 20 years later and with a Democratic governor in office. But it did. As then KSU President Michael Schwartz remembers it:

[Interviewer]: What was your reaction to the [State of Ohio] governor’s public apology that occurred?

[Michael Schwartz]: I had no warning that it was coming. Here were maybe four thousand people standing under umbrellas in a cold and driving rain on May the 4th, 1990, and they had come for the memorial dedication and they had come to hear Eugene McCarthy, I thought. And of course the governor showed up. We did not really expect him. He came and did the public apology that nobody had done from the state ever before, or I think had never considered. I was really quite stunned by it, and I thought it was just an amazing performance. I thought Dick Celeste honored himself and this university that day in ways that nobody else probably would have, or could have. So he really stole the event. And then, of course, people lit candles in that rain under their umbrellas, somehow managed to put them on the memorial and—it was an amazing day, just an amazing day.

Schwartz’s categorization here is spot-on, by the way. I was there. Dick Celeste’s comments in May 1990 were profound. A little humility can go a long way toward driving these authoritarian bastards out of their cracker minds.*

*See “Clarke, Richard, March 2004.”

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