Today marks the 47th anniversary of the Kent State shootings, during which members of the Ohio National Guard shot and killed unarmed college students who were protesting the Vietnam War, after they burned down the campus’ Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) building. To mark the occasion, NPR has an excerpt of 13 Seconds: A Look Back at the Kent State Shootings , Philip Caputo’s 2005 book about covering the massacre as a 28-year-old reporter for The Chicago Tribune.
My first question was, “Where the hell is Kent State?” I had never heard of it. Informed of its location, I booked the next available flight to Cleveland, packed a bag, said goodbye to Jill and drove to O’Hare airport. During the hour-long flight, I read a wire-service story to bring myself up to date. Ohio’s governor, James A. Rhodes, had blamed the disturbances on “outside agitators.” I had learned to be skeptical about such claims, but was willing to set my skepticism aside. The burning of the ROTC building was right out of the Weather Underground’s handbook. Except for that – and it was no small exception – the protests appeared to be like those at Illinois. Maybe there was one other difference. Illinois Governor Ogilvie had taken pains to calm the situation at Champaign-Urbana. Gov. Rhodes adopted the combative approach. At a press conference on Sunday he’d compared the protestors to Nazi brown shirts, describing them as “the worst sort of people we harbor in America,” and promised to “use every weapon possible to eradicate the problem.” A bit of political grandstanding perhaps – Rhodes was then involved in a tough primary fight for the Republican Party’s senatorial nomination – but it struck me as an inflammatory statement.
My memory is patchy. I believe the shootings took place while I was flying to Cleveland and that the report I heard on my rented car’s radio was an update. My immediate reaction was the one you would expect: I was stunned.