How a fabricated story stimulated sincere horror on the Kent State Campus.
In 67 Shots: Kent State and the End of American Innocence (Da Capo Press, 2016), Howard Means discusses the Kent State shootings that were both unavoidable and preventable: unavoidable in that all the discordant forces of a turbulent decade flowed together on May 4, 1970, on one Ohio campus; preventable in that every party to the tragedy made the wrong choices at the wrong time in the wrong place.
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“Kent State is a super prison.”
“The first part of the Yippie program is to kill your parents. They are the first oppressors.”
“We have to free the children who are imprisoned in the suburbs.”
“We have to say ‘f---’ everywhere. What’s everybody thinking out there? (Shouted back: F---!)”
“We’re going to build a new society within American society, composed of long-hairs, women and blacks.”
“The working class is becoming yippieized and black pantherized.”
As Rubin talked, the administration spy noted, money was being collected from the crowd to help free the Kent State 4, still doing time in the “maximum-security” (Rubin’s words) Portage County jail.
Press reports of Rubin’s appearance tended to downplay both the crowd size — the spy put attendance at “1500–2000 strictly a guess”— and its enthusiasm, but the very presence at a university-sanctioned event of a nationally famous radical leader urging students to kill their parents fed the unease that many Kent townspeople were beginning to feel about their outsized university neighbor. They didn’t think their children needed liberation from the prisons of their communities. A new society composed of longhairs, women, and blacks was not on their bucket lists. Nor had they signed on to an America where everyone said “Fuck!” everywhere, all the time. Witness the inability of the administration spy to even spell the word out, but as the spy’s reticence suggests, it wasn’t just the nuance-challenged locals who took the theatric Rubin more literally than perhaps he took himself. Jerry Lewis, then a young sociology professor at Kent State, took his sociology class to hear the Rubin talk. “The next time we met, I said ‘kill your parents’ was a metaphor for socialization, right?’ They said, ‘No, he meant kill your parents!’”
Less than two weeks after Jerry Rubin’s talk, Bill Arthrell celebrated his twenty-first birthday by handing out flyers on campus announcing plans to napalm a dog the next day, in front of the student union. Arthrell had flunked out of Kent State a year earlier — largely because, he said, he had been so heavily involved in SDS activity. He’d returned in the spring of 1970, but his interest in political action clearly hadn’t disappeared, and the dog stunt read like something straight out of the Yippie playbook: take a horror of the war — the broad use of napalm — and reduce it to street theater that the media couldn’t ignore.
The street-theater part worked. As many as four hundred students, by Arthrell’s estimate, showed up for what turned out to be not a ritual canine sacrifice but a teach-in session on napalm, its development near the end of World War II, and its applications in the Vietnam War. By then, though, the larger Kent community was fully tuning in to what was happening on campus, and it was in no mood for irony, if it ever had been.
“There was never any napalm, or never any dog,” Arthrell recalled a quarter century later, “and yet, the newspapers reported — at least one of them—that they took the dog out of my hands. And this is how vivid people’s imaginations are: the county prosecutor was there, Ron Kane; the Animal Protective League; the Sheriff’s deputies.”
Also in the crowd was Glenn Frank, a popular geology professor and later to be one of the bona fide heroes of the May 4 shootings. According to Jerry Lewis, Frank, too, had taken Arthrell literally: the dog, he believed, existed and was soon to be a goner.
Real or not, the “napalmed dog” was still on locals’ minds on April 29, when the Kent State 4, whom Rubin had been soliciting funds for only nineteen days earlier, were finally released from county jail. The next night came Nixon’s Cambodia speech, fresh meat for an antiwar movement that had been ebbing as the war slowed down. In retrospect, a number of students talk about a sense of foreboding that seemed to creep across the campus along with the warming weather, like the eerie calm just before the leading edge of a hurricane arrives.
Chuck Ayers, who would go on to national renown as the illustrator of the comic strip Crankshaft, recalled a water fight that Monday as the warm spell spilled over Northeast Ohio. “It was big, and it spread across the campus… I don’t think there had ever been a water fight on campus where there was actual physical damage to buildings, other than some water damage. But there were broken windows, there were things pulled down from buildings, and I remember thinking: This is kind of strange.
“There was a tension in almost everything people did at that time,” Ayers went on. “Things in the war were just building up; the antiwar feelings were getting stronger and stronger. So, even a Friday night down in the bars... had a tension about it.”
Excerpted from 67 Shots: Kent State and the End of American Innocence by Howard Means. Copyright © 2016. Available from Da Capo Press, an imprint of Perseus Books, a division of PBG Publishing, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.