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How the Kent State Tragedy Started a Revolt -- Have Baby Boomers Forgotten?

Just like today, it was difficult 40 years ago to maintain a high level of activism and political engagement over the long haul.
 
 
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I was a freshman at Georgetown University when it happened, 40 years ago on May 4. Most of us didn't know what had taken place until late in the day. We were in class or studying for finals, so hours went by until my friends and I heard the news. On that warm spring Monday, the Ohio National Guard had opened fire on an antiwar demonstration at Kent State University and four students lay dead. Nine others were wounded.

It took a while to sink in. This was the sort of thing that happened in South American dictatorships -- student protesters gunned down for speaking out against the government. Not here.

Then I remembered that some of my high school classmates were at Kent State, a campus fewer than 250 miles from my western New York hometown. But I had no phone numbers for them; there was no immediate way to find out if they were safe (they were).

In those faraway days before 24-hour cable news, the details were hazy and slow in coming. That night, friends huddled around the tiny TV I had in my room -- one of those early Sony portables with a fuzzy, black and white picture the size of your palm. With each sketchy report, anger and frustration grew in the room but didn't start to go over the top until, believe it or not, The Tonight Show came on after the 11 o'clock news.

Johnny Carson's guest was Bob Hope, and when the sexagenarian comedian launched into what was his standard routine those days -- lots of jokes about long-haired hippies and smelly antiwar protesters -- the kids crowded into my tiny dorm room were furious. On this of all nights how could he be so crass as to trot out those tired one-liners about, well, us?

By the next morning, groups of students gathered around the campus taking about Kent State and the events leading up to the killings. A few days before, President Nixon had announced the invasion of Cambodia, justifying the so-called "incursion" as necessary to protect our troops in Vietnam. Protests had broken out at schools all over America. With the Kent State deaths, we wondered what to do -- and what would happen -- next.

A crowded meeting in the school's main assembly hall lasted late into the night, filled with the earnest bombast of callow youth and plans of action that ranged from Do Nothing 101 to Advanced Anarchy. The bookstore's stock of Georgetown t-shirts sold out as kids scooped them up and stenciled defiant red fists on the backs. My friend Romolo Martemucci trimmed his red fist in green, a gesture of Italian-American solidarity.

By midweek, two parallel strategies emerged: a national strike that would shut down the country's colleges and universities -- both as a protest and to give students the freedom to devote all their time to mobilizing against the war -- and a massive rally in Washington, DC on Saturday, May 9.

As did approximately 450 American schools, the Georgetown administration yielded to the strike. We were given the option to finish finals or take the grades we already had for the semester. We went to Capitol Hill and tried to see our hometown members of Congress to let our opposition to the war be known, then turned our attention to the big Saturday rally. Because we were already in DC, much of the logistics fell to us and the other colleges in town.

I volunteered to be a rally marshal, directing crowds and hoping to prevent violence. On the main campus lawn, we were given a crash medical course in how to cope with dehydration, tear gas attacks and gunshot wounds.

 
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