I can’t believe that it’s been forty years since the killings at Kent State. In Kent, Ohio they call the event May 4th like December 7th or 9/11. Everyone knows right where they were when they heard and I remember too.
I’m amazed that I lived through such a time. In March, hundreds of city and county cops occupied the campus when the acting University president hit the panic button over demonstrations about playing sports with the wrong school. In April, the Nixon Administration indicted radicals – called the Seattle Seven – for leading protests. The musical Hair opened at the Moore Theater. On May 1, a young man set a series of fires in one of the buildings. I helped put out some of the little fires, too excited to even speak clearly to my fellow officers.
I heard about Kent State on May 4, 1970 after a morning of writing parking tickets. Despite the increased tensions and scheduled rallies, the process of parking enforcement had to continue. I kind of liked that duty. I was outside walking around, sometimes talking to people, and I enjoyed seeing how many tickets for no permit and for parking outside a designated area I could write. That’s when I learned how to block print. We were already on high alert and putting in overtime because of the expansion of the war into Cambodia. (for Baby Boomers “the war” is Vietnam).
At break time, I got a ride to the station and the patrolman gave me the news. My first reaction was that it had to happen sometime. Seattle had been hit particularly hard by anti-war protests during those years. We were 19th in population and 2nd in bombings. The UW had more than its share. Two people were arrested setting a firebomb at an ROTC building. Another firebomb practically destroyed another ROTC building. A big bomb trashed the Administration Building and the library. Someone placed two pipe bombs under campus police vehicles set to go off five minutes apart. The first would pull the officers in; the second would take them out. The lieutenant on duty was wise enough to wait to respond. Then there was all the petty vandalism. Every night someone tagged a building or glued locks shut in some demented rationale that it would somehow bring peace. What a time it was.
So we knew what was coming when the reports of the killings in Ohio came out. The students would crank up the volume of the protests disrupting classes, damaging property, and even causing injuries. The campus police department had only recently expanded to meet this new challenge and we were seriously short of training and decent leadership. Everyone knew that another Kent State could easily happen (and it did in Mississippi). The response was to put everyone on twelve-hour shifts. We crowded into patrol cars three at a time to be able to deposit enough officers at the scene of a disturbance to calm things down. Such was the thinking of the time.
But the disturbing protesters were either too many or too fast for us and all we did was create our own traffic congestion as we circled the campus slouched down and exhausted. That was during the time between organized rallies. When people gathered to give speeches or to take action, that was called an Unusual Occurrence or UO. It was a month of UOs. I compiled a partial list here.
The University and City strategy was to let the people march until they became intolerable somehow. Intolerable was things like blocking the freeway, trashing businesses, and trying to shut down the University. When that happened the authorities and the police pushed back, not nearly hard enough for some, too hard for others. In the field of public safety you never make everyone happy.
For me the fallout from the killings peaked the night of May 7. General rioting drifted off campus into the University District where people no one recognized broke windows and threw rocks. Hundreds of city and county cops responded in buses. A few dozen Seattle PD plainclothesmen, on official orders, started roaming the neighborhood clubbing anyone.
I can still see the body of a man on the grass. A young woman comforted him and shrieked that those were the guys who did it. I ran, armed with a long riot baton, at the man with the night stick. Only because he dropped the club and showed me a badge did I not cold cock him right there. I saw it. My fellow campus cops and I stopped it. The response from the Seattle chief was that individuals “at least overreacted.” My ass.
But no one was killed. Probably the most serious injury during those years was a plainclothesman clubbed by a campus cop. And he turned out not even to be one of the goons.
There are men my age with much more dramatic memories, but we have the memories we have. Those are my memories that come up when Kent State – May Fourth – is mentioned.