I was 17 and a college dropout in May, 1970, the month of the Kent and Jackson State killing of protesting students. For me, these events came at the end of two years of active engagement in, and many years of passive support for, the anti-war and other social movements of the time. I had attended innumerable demonstrations, been chased by police with batons at the ready, handed out leaflets, read nearly every radical publication I could get my hands on, and believed that radical social change was on the agenda.
In Vietnam, millions were being butchered by our county’s desperate attempt to hold onto every outpost of its empire, no matter what the imperial subjects wanted. At the end of April, 1970, I watched with hundreds of others in an MIT lecture hall as President Nixon announced that he was further exporting U.S.-sponsored death and destruction as he radically expanded the U.S. attacks on Vietnam’s neighbor, Cambodia. Then, on May 4th the bullets flew at Kent State, killing four students.
The killings brought home to millions across the country that our country’s violence overseas would not spare the citizens at home. Across the country, students went on strike in the millions. These included students at traditional radical centers like Columbia, Berkeley, and the University of Wisconsin, Madison. But it also included those attending community colleges and thousands of high schools.
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In Boston, we planned for a citywide demonstration. One faction wanted to invade and occupy the Massachusetts State House, seeking to broaden the confrontation with the forces of authority. I was in the faction that resisted that action, a position I’ve wondered about ever since.
As we planned for the rally, it was not just students who expressed support. We met with delegations from many work places – I can no longer remember precisely which these were – where workers, who still had unions in those days, expressed opposition to the war and support of our protest. Some unknown thousands joined our protests, as did many professionals.
The demonstration came. There were 100,000 people out on a weekday, protesting the murder of U.S. citizens and the murder of Vietnamese and Cambodian citizens. Across the country, there were similar demonstrations. It seemed that the Southeast Asian war could not survive this militant rejection by an aroused and active citizenry.
But then the next day came. Gradually, students returned to their classrooms. After all, there were final exams to be prepared for. And the workers returned to work; there were paychecks needing to be brought home. When, 10 days after the Kent State shootings, two students were killed at Jackson State, there was little expression of outrage. For one thing, the dead were poor Black – “African-American” didn’t exist yet – students in the South, where murders of protesting blacks was no stranger, who did not arouse quite as much identification as did the white students of Kent State. But, alas, the movement had already died over that week and half. When school resumed in the fall, the movement was but a shadow of its former self, gradually fizzling out over the next several years.
We did not realize it yet, but the Kent State protests were the beginning of the end of the sixties protest movements. In the national student and worker strikes encompassing millions, we activists had exceeded many of our dreams. Yet, the empire didn’t stop. It didn’t even hiccup. The bombs continued raining death and destruction on Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos for another five long years. The protests declined. And there was no accountability for the deaths in Kent State, at Jackson State, or in Southeast Asia.
We didn’t know it yet, but the lesson learned by all too many of the post-Kent State protesters was that the opinions of people in our country hardly matter, that the forces of law and order will continue on regardless. Protest movements lost their force and power. Cynicism ultimately reigned supreme. Political and civic engagement became largely a spectator sport, as we watched the Watergate hearings on TV. We saw the culmination of this de-fanging of social movements when, in 1981, the newly-elected Ronald Reagan easily crushed the PATCO air traffic controllers strike with mass firings of thousands of strikers, dealing the labor movement in the U.S. a blow from which it has never recovered.
In the decades since, there have been important social movements, such as the nuclear freeze movement, the movement against U.S. intervention in support of murderous regimes in Latin America, or that against the reckless expansion of nuclear power. There have been some successes. But the basic disempowerment of ordinary people has continued apace, reinforced as it was so recently by a corporatist politician claiming that a vote for him was a vote for a vacuous “hope,” a hope that became synonymous with business as usual once the election was over.
In the decades since the Kent and Jackson State killings, the message that the rich and powerful can rule as they wish has become ever stronger, as we have seen the most rapid expansion in inequality ever seen in this country, with the wealthy waging unceasing class warfare against the majority. Millions of poor, largely people of color, have been thrown into horrific prisons resembling those in the most infamous human rights offenders in the world, with systematic brutality, beatings, and rapes arousing hardly any outrage. The American empire continues to inflict death and destruction to those in poor countries around the world. And the impunity with which traditional taboos against openly-expressed support for torture have disappeared, as its organizers and supporters flood the airwaves with explicit defenses, showing that there is no longer much of a pretense of civility for the ruling powers.
But the protests after Kent State also remind us that there are times when millions of people become fed up with the lies, the deceit, and the brutality of the powerful forces that rule. Difficult as it is to believe that these voices will overcome their lethargy and again become aroused and challenge the powerful, we cannot give in to the cynicism which those powerful rely upon.
We may not know when, but we can be assured that moments of radical social protest will again sweep our country, perhaps sooner than we think as we enter a long period of massive unemployment that may eventually shake the sense that the status quo, however bad, is good enough. When that moment comes, we must do what we can to help the movements challenge and transform the forces which are bringing misery to millions. As Joe Hill said before his firing squad death, “Don’t mourn. Organize!”