Image © John Paul Filo.

The Kent State shootings: Thirteen seconds of chaos that forever changed rock history

In the shadow of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a rather unassuming sculpture that could be in the Hall itself.

Sun Totem #1 sits in the middle of Kent State University’s campus and was regularly passed by multiple future members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, including Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders, Joe Walsh, nominees Mark Mothersbaugh, and Gerald and Bob Lewis of DEVO who were all students at Kent State University at the same time. However, it is not the statue’s proximity to musical greats that would warrant its placement in the Rock Hall of Fame, it is the events that occurred on the campus of Kent State on May 4th, 1970 that left a small bullet hole in the sculpture (which still remains), student deaths, and a nation reeling. This particular incident also led to the writing of one of the most important protest songs ever written, Neil Young’s ‘Ohio’. The events in this sleepy northern Ohio town on May 4th, 1970 forged some of the most important art ever created in America, proving that the most important art is created during times of war, especially when the war is brought home to the doorstep of America. 

The bullet hole is a scar from what some have dubbed ‘The Kent State Massacre’, a protest by unarmed college students that left four dead, one paralysed, and eight others injured. Four days earlier, on April 30th, President Richard Nixon announced a bombing campaign in Cambodia thereby escalating a war that most Americans were already fed up with. Protests ensued around the country but things were getting extremely dicey in the small city of Kent. A group of about five hundred students held a brief protest on May 1st, in which a group of history students buried a copy of the Constitution signifying that Nixon had “killed it.” On this day a mysterious sign was nailed to a tree on campus which read, “Why is the ROTC building still standing?” Another protest was scheduled for May 4th at noon. 

Later in the night of the 1st in the city of Kent, people leaving a bar started throwing beer bottles at police cars and breaking windows of storefronts prompting other local bars to close early. Once more bars emptied out, fuel was added to the fire and the crowd began to grow. By the time the police arrived there were roughly 120 people—some of which lit a small bonfire in the street—began to yell obscenities at police as they threw beer bottles at them. As Chrissie Hynde recalls, “we took these big garbage cans from the side of the road, wheeled them into the middle of the street and set them on fire. It was an awesome sight.” Kent Mayor LeRoy Satrom declared a state of emergency and ordered all of the remaining bars to close which only increased the size of the mob. Governor Jim Rhodes was made aware of the situation and Kent Police flushed the crowd to campus using tear gas. The city was on edge. 

The next day, May 2nd, local businesses received a multitude of threats. Rumors were rampant that revolutionaries were planning to destroy the city and Kent State University. It was also believed that the ROTC building was at risk of being burned down. The decision to send the Ohio National Guard was made at 5pm. By the time they arrived, the ROTC building was engulfed by flames. Unknown individuals, not believed to be students of Kent State, threw railroad flares into the structure setting it ablaze. As the firemen arrived to attempt to control the fire, protesters hacked at and destroyed their hoses allowing the building to burn to the ground. 

(Credit: Wikimedia)

On Sunday May 3rd the governor gave an emotional speech in which he called protesters “un-American” and promised to “eradicate the problem”. He claimed he was going to declare a state of emergency that would ban future demonstrations such as the one scheduled for the next day, but never did so. The stage was set for a disaster. 

Monday, May 4th started out with campus officials handing out flyers stating that the protest was cancelled, but by noon, two thousand people showed up anyway. As protesters began to speak, an Ohio National Guardsmen sprung into action and tried to disperse them under threat of arrest from his jeep. The crowd immediately turned on him beating him into retreat with rocks. The Guardsmen returned a second time demanding the crowd disperse. When most of the protesters refused, he began to tear gas them, but the crowd stood strong and attacked him again using rocks and chanting “pigs off campus.” At this point it was clear that the crowd was not going anywhere and seventy-seven Ohio National Guardsmen fixed their bayonets to their M1 Garand rifles and began to advance on the students. 

Chrissie Hynde, who was just eighteen-years-old at the time, recalls from that fateful day: “The grassy, rolling common was teeming with students, I’d never seen it so packed… Then I heard the ‘tatatatatatatatatat’ sound. I thought it was fireworks. An eerie silence fell over the common. Then a young man’s voice: ‘They fucking killed somebody.’” Hynde remembers buckling under the weight of reality and collapsing to the ground in disbelief. She had to be lifted and carried out of harms way by other students. Shortly after the shooting, Hynde decided to drop out of school and moved to England to pursue her music career. 

English major Joe Walsh was also at Kent State that day. Walsh has been surprisingly quiet about his experience, but has stated: “Being at the shootings really affected me profoundly. I decided that maybe I don’t need a degree that bad.” Walsh dropped out of College after only one term to pursue his music career. He later wrote the song ‘Turn to Stone’ in response to the shooting and mentioned it directly in his 1993 song ‘Decades’. 

Bob Lewis and Gerald Casale, two of the founding members of Devo, were also in the crowd of students. Gerald Casale remembered seeing the soldiers lining up and taking aim at them and thinking it was simply an attempt at intimidation, it was not. Two of his friends were shot dead, Allison Krause was within a matter of feet from where he was standing when a bullet penetrated her left arm before entering her chest and fragmenting. His other friend, Jeffrey Miller, was shot through his opened mouth and was left with a massive exit wound in the back of his head that left a stream of blood rolling down the pavement. The moment immortalised by John Paul Filo’s Pulitzer Prize winning photograph from that tragic day. Casale recalled, “I see the effects of a fucking M1 rifle, the reality of what a bullet does. I saw for the first time clearly, and horrifically, how everything really works, and how the truth doesn’t matter, and how things were rotten to the core.” This disillusionment led to the concept Lewis, Casale, and Mark Mothersbaugh obsessed over in all future endeavors, known as devolution, shorted to DEVO when they finally named their band. 

(Credit: Wikimedia)

Neil Young was so taken by the story of Kent state that he quickly penned ‘Ohio’ and handed it to his bandmates in Crosby, Steels, Nash, and Young. Legend has it that it was recorded in two to three takes and led to David Crosby weeping at the conclusion of the take that was ultimately used, evidenced by the recording itself.

America had reached the pinnacle of disillusionment. The war was brought home and the nation took notice. Within a week, hundreds of college campuses across the US went on strike and millions of students walked out of classes to oppose the war in Vietnam. One hundred thousand college students marched in Washington in opposition to the Vietnam war within a week of the Kent State Massacre. The tide had clearly turned in America. 

As I stood in the hallowed grounds of Kent State for the first time a couple of weeks ago, there were several things that stood out to me. For one, kudos to the school for not trying to whitewash history. There are several monuments dedicated to the memory of the victims, most are four pillars marking the spaces where each victim fell. Some of the victims were kids walking from one class to another and not protesting at all. The best art comes from times of war, a sentiment that is highlighted by the tragic events at Kent State on the afternoon of May 4, 1970. 

Statistics: It is mind numbing that the average distance from shooter to victim was 345 feet, when shooters claimed self defense. Four people were shot dead and nine more were injured, one paralysed from the neck down. It is believed that twenty-eight guardsmen fired approximately 67 rounds over a period of 13 seconds, although eyewitnesses have claimed that it seemed like well over a minute of gun fire. No one was ever held accountable for the shootings at Kent State. 

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