On May 4th, 1970, a protest occurred at Kent State University which led to the massacre of four unarmed students by members of the National Guard. To clarify “unarmed,” at least one of the students killed had been seen throwing rocks at members of the National Guard. The members of the Guard, however, were equipped with M1 assault rifles. The incident prompted an FBI investigation. The FBI documents were initially kept secret, but later released through a Freedom of Information Act request.
|The iconic flower-in-the-rifle barrel gesture of a 1960s "terrorist"|
In these documents, the focus is not on the massacre itself, but on the fact that a campus ROTC building had been set on fire. The documents clearly convey the sense that, were it not for the existence of protests on the campus and the presence of a separate group of arsonists, the shooting would not have occurred. The FBI report (available here) describes the protest as a “riot.” Walter Adams, a Kent State professor at the time, said that the attitude of law enforcement was that, “we had brought this on ourselves, because, if you behave that way, naturally, someone's going to shoot you to death.” He likened it to blaming a rape victim for dressing provocatively.
Until the National Guard arrived, Adams did not see a riot. “Things didn't seem to be at all threatening. I had an impression of the atmosphere as being really quite pleasant (source).”
The atmosphere changed once the National Guard arrived in tanks and armored personnel carriers. Guard members announced, by megaphone, that the campus was surrounded and that protesting was not allowed. The student protesters, however, were determined to exercise their First Amendment rights.
According to Eldon Fender, a student who witnessed the events of May 4th,
One of the most interesting experiences was, frankly, you felt like you made a wrong turn off of [Interstate] 76 going into Kent because of all the armed vehicles, military hardware, military vehicles on campus. You almost felt like you drove onto Fort Knox or something where you have a highly protected federal property or something of that nature. So the atmosphere on the campus certainly was very tense and very different than the way I left it (source).
The FBI was not concerned with investigating the National Guard members who fired the fatal shots. Instead, FBI investigators sought to identify students who could be prosecuted under the charges of criminal conspiracy, sabotage and sedition -- the latter, a capital offense.
Cooperative students spoke of “hippie types,” “radicals,” “militants” and “hard core trouble makers” but few offered any substantive leads. Parents were also interviewed. One father describes becoming estranged from his son after his son allowed his hair to grow long.
FBI agents sought to validate their suspicion that members of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) had been involved in the incident. This would be significant because the Weather Underground Organization (or simply, "the weathermen") was a splinter group of SDS and was, according to conventional wisdom at the time, a terrorist organization.
According to Mr. Fender, Kent State had been a relatively apolitical campus until Nixon announced an expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia. The news inflamed anti-war sentiment because many people were hoping that the war was drawing to a close. People believed that the decision to enter Cambodia would prolong the conflict. Also, Cambodia was an ally; the ruler, Lon Nol, was pro-U.S. He was, however, unable to control the Cambodian border with Vietnam, and Viet Cong fighter were able to slip into the country to move supplies and set up bases.
The resemblances between the situation in May of 1970 and the situation today are striking. The word “terrorist,” then as now, is not confined to individuals who use violence against civilians to promote a political agenda, but is a label used to describe political opponents. This label legitimizes the unrestrained use of force. We bombed an ally in 1970 and today, we bomb Pakistan and other non-combatant nations such as Yemen.
The differences are also striking. Nixon was a widely despised ruler; President Obama is relatively popular. Then, students protested the war even when confronted by a contingent of heavily armed troops. Today, students will occasionally muster up the energy to send politically-charged tweets.