Kent State and Jackson State: Looking Back/Leaning Forward

Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers

May 4, 2012

Again and again we learn that war and empire abroad will find a way home.

On April 30, 1970, Richard Nixon announced the US invasion of Cambodia, a sovereign nation
the US had been secretly bombing for several months. It was a saturation campaign involving
120 strikes a day by B-52s carrying up to 60,000 pounds of bombs each. But in the common
doublespeak of war, the president claimed: “This is not an invasion of Cambodia… once enemy
forces are driven out of these sanctuaries and once their military supplies are destroyed, we will
withdraw…”

Nixon’s aggression against Cambodia was accompanied by a verbal assault on those inside the
US opposing the war: “we live in an age of anarchy, both abroad and at home,” he intoned. The
next day, Nixon went to the Pentagon to clarify the point: “you see these bums…blowing up the
campuses…burning up the books, I mean storming around about this issue…you name it, get rid
of the war, there’ll be another one.”

On the rolling spring lawns of Kent State in the American heartland, students continued to
press against an illegal, immoral war of occupation. The first entering classes of Black students
formed themselves into what was to become a growing wave of Black Student Unions, even
at Kent State. Returning veterans were throwing their medals back at the war-mongers, and
themselves becoming students.

Two days after the official invasion of Cambodia, 900 national guardsmen amassed on the Kent
State campus. M-1 rifles were raised, and within 13 seconds, 61 shots were fired on unarmed
students—four were dead, nine wounded. It was, the official Presidential Commission on
Campus Unrest later found, “a nation driven to use the weapons of war upon its youth.”

The outright murder of (white) college students engaged in peaceful protest at Kent State
University, and the lesser-recognized but equally tragic murder of (Black) unarmed college
students at Jackson State University that same week, were shocking although forewarned.
Richard Nixon and the political class had denounced students as thugs and subversives for their
resistance to the pervasive US war crimes in Viet Nam, to the secret wars against Laos and
Cambodia, to the flagrant arming and supporting of tyrants throughout Latin America, and to the
lavish funding of apartheid and colonialism in Africa. Invasion, lawlessness, military occupation

and counter-insurgency, displacement, and systematic violence visited on others necessarily
created its domestic corollary: a militarized national security state promoting heightened cruelty
and callousness at home, the shredding of Constitutional liberty and rights, and the unleashing
of armed violence on its own citizens. The ten year war against Viet Nam and the murderous
(secret) assault on the Black Freedom Movement were blood cousins, Kent and Jackson State its
offspring.

Today the permanent wars carried out by the US military and its NATO spawn bring home
their own violence and tragedy. Witness the mass killings at Fort Hood, astronomical suicide
rates for returning veterans, widespread rape and assault on women in the military by their
fellow soldiers, attempted assassinations of politicians, and the galloping arms race among
ordinary citizens and residents who are increasingly arming up and carrying concealed
weapons to work and play. Add to that the quiet violence of a 20%, child poverty rate in
the richest nation in history, a prison gulag of mass incarceration sweeping up 2 ½ million
people, harsh economic “austerity” resulting in severe slashing and degradation of education,
health care, housing, public transportation and jobs at home—all of it hitting people of color
disproportionally. Empire and constant military wars not only squander the public wealth and
directly destroy the lives of millions, they inevitably bring about a Panopticon-like national
security state and a militarized domestic life at home.

At Kent State, students met with state violence and terror previously directed almost exclusively
at the Black and Latino Freedom Movements. In response, 80% of US colleges and universities
called for some form of strike. Four million students were involved in protests, willing to face
being beaten, gassed, or even shot. The National Guard was called out at 21 colleges and
universities, five hundred campuses cancelled classes, and 51 did not re-open until the fall. In
Washington, D.C., 130,000 students mobilized against war and repression.

It was all merely prelude: greater repression and disintegration at home will accompany the
long wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Bahrain and Pakistan; Occupy, Madison, Trayvon and
inevitable resistance will surely follow.

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