It's graduation season and nearly two million undergrads will receive their diplomas this year. While campuses all across the nation groom themselves for commencement, one university reels from the weight of another commemoration.
Last week at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio, hundreds of visitors flocked to a solitary parking lot to pay their respect. Respect has been in short supply for the victims and families of the Kent State massacre.
On May 4, 1970 the Ohio National Guard opened fire on unarmed student protesters. 13 students were shot, four of whom died. The university has blocked off the spaces in the lot where the innocents fell - but has left the rest of the parking lot open to vehicles. You can't park on the exact space where Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Scheuer, and William Schroeder were killed, but you can park right next to them. And there aren't any barriers where the nine wounded students - Alan Canfora, John Cleary, Thomas Grace, Dean Kahler, Joseph Lewis, Donald MacKenzie, James Russell, Robert Stamps, and Douglas Wrentmore - where shot and bled.
The university decision to use as many available parking spaces as possible epitomizes how undervalued the lives of these victims were and still are. To be fair, you can still watch movies at the Aurora, Colorado Movieplex where 12 people were killed and 70 more were wounded. However, there's a glaring difference between Kent State and the Aurora shootings: in Aurora, the authorities held the shooter responsible. James Holmes has been charged with 165 counts - including murder and attempted murder - and NBC news carries video of the trial.
There's been no criminal trial for the shooters at Kent State. That's because state and federal governments are immune from prosecution.
Without transparency, without assignation of guilt, two inevitable consequences occur: survivors assume guilt that isn't theirs and offenders are free to repeat their crimes.
Visitors to the 45th anniversary of the Kent State shooting vocalized a great deal of internalized and misplaced guilt. Just prior to the 2015 memorial candlelight ceremony, Dean Kahler, who's spent the last 45 years in a wheel chair, remarked, "It's not about me, it's about the four who died."
Scott Duncanson, a protestor who escaped May 4, 1970 unharmed, still grieves the opportunities lost to his classmates, "We got to have children."
The Kent State demonstrations followed President Richard Nixon's acknowledgement that he - absent Congressional approval - was bombing Cambodia. The big picture is sketchy but the survivors share details that they remember vividly. There was a fire at the ROTC building. The city was locked down with tanks and vehicles mounted with machine guns. During protests the night before the massacre, guardsmen bayoneted students. And after nightfall, helicopters hovered over the campus with searchlights dropping tear gas. By the time the students were shot and killed at Kent State, Kent, Ohio was a city occupied by a heavily armed military force.
President Nixon promised America that without swift action to insure democracy, one government after another would fall victim to ruthless leadership. He used this "logic" to justify aggression across the Asian continent from Korea to Cambodia. The term he and his predecessor Dwight Eisenhower used for this successive collapse of republicanism was "The Domino Theory."
Kent State has proven Nixon's philosophy, but not in the way he intended.
Kent State is one incident in a long line of militaristic attacks on the civilian population. As far back as George Washington's suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion, the military and other police forces have been used as armed aggressors against the citizenry. When the Chicago Police attacked the protesters at Haymarket prompting a false trial and the execution of innocent men, it prepared the way for the Kent State shootings and the trial of the Kent 25. And the subsequent Justice Department refusal to examine what happened in that small Ohio town in 1970 has toppled the dominos leading to Freddie Gray's severed spine in Baltimore.
It's never too late to examine the reality of circumstances, motivations, and outcomes in history. Although, when decades pass and eyewitnesses die, it gets harder to illuminate the darker corners of the past. Last week, the Kent State campus filled with survivors seeking closure and comfort from visiting their past. The best way to prevent police brutality and government-sponsored violence is to expose it. In the case of the Kent State Massacres, there's still time.
Joe Lewis, the only Kent State survivor who was shot twice, summed up his desire for justice because he believes that survival comes with responsibility, "That 's part of the reason I come back here every year is to speak up for them. [Krause, Miller, Scheuer, and Schroeder] Because they would have spoken up for me had the shoe been on the other foot."
Laurel Krause, Allison Krause's younger sister and co-founder of the Kent State Truth Tribunal, seeks to open the closed book on Kent State and detail what really happened in 1970. Krause wants to know why the soldiers shot her sister, the other Kent State victims, and the lesser-known students killed and wounded later at Jackson state. In her remarks addressing the crowd assembled at Kent State May 4th Krause cautioned, "Even today, 45 years later, a culture of impunity persists. We read the news and see law enforcement killing young African Americans across the country. Those of us who witnessed Kent State have to ask whether things might have been different if this era of brutal suppression of political protest had resulted in accountability."