Will a Militarized Police Force Facing Occupy Wall Street Lead to Another Kent State Massacre?
Today is an ugly anniversary in American history: 42 years ago, National Guardsman opened fire on anti-Vietnam protesters at Ohio’s Kent State University, killing four students. Ten days later, Mississippi police fired on civil rights protesters taking refuge in a women’s dormitory at Jackson State University and killed two more students.
Four decades later, as police across the country deploy paramilitary tactics developed for fighting foreign terrorists on Occupy and some May Day protests, and as campus police ratchet up responses to tuition hike protests, we must ask, is this where things inevitably are headed—toward deadly confrontations between overly armed police and angered protesters, or just as likely, innocent bystanders caught in a crossfire?
Some of us lived through the Kent State shootings, anti-war protests and assassinations of that era. We also cannot forget the student strikes after the Kent and Jackson State killings that shut down universities and colleges. We are uneasy about a paramilitary police force's escalating tactics as Occupy protests continue into 2012.
What’s similar today, but happening faster in our Internet-driven era, is how both sides, police and a handful of provocateurs—who may not even be associated with protesters—are willing to use violence. That was the case Tuesday as bricks were thrown at police from a San Francisco roof apparently by a disgruntled veteran and black-clad men vandalized downtown storefronts in Seattle, San Francisco and other cities. These exceptions to what have been overwhelmingly peaceful protests get the most media attention, despite condemnation by protest organizers, including some who say police may have moderated their tactics since last fall.
I don’t want to be unduly cynical, but the Kent State and Jackson State protests were typical in their day—and were met by the same kinds of police shows of force that we have seen since last fall—the use of the paramilitary tools of their time. I don’t think it is a question of if police will be provoked into indiscriminately shooting or tasering if protests seem out of control, but of when they will panic and unleash deadly force.
Police have shown no reluctance to put on riot gear, conduct mass arrests and use pepper spray, teargas and concussion grenades in recent months, just as they have shown no reluctance to spy on protesters and preemptively arrest people they suspect, often erroneously, of being leaders, as happened in New York this week. Even this video from Portland, where protest organizers say police have backed down, shows SWAT team aiming high-powered rifles at unarmed protesters and videographers.
The Kent and Jackson State anniversaries underscore many questions. When and where will a fatal police overreaction take place? Who will be the victim? What will be the reaction, including from politicians who helped to unduly militarize the police?
This scenario is not an accident waiting to happen. Police use undue force all the time, where the consequence is the armed police shooter kills an unarmed victim. It has happened many times in 2012, according to statistics compiled by the government, just not yet at an Occupy or student protest.
Excessive Police Force
What happened in May 1970 has eerie echoes today, particularly in terms of the police responses.
At Kent State, 500 students came out to march a day after then-President Richard Nixon gave a televised address to announce the expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia. Some students burned a copy of the Constitution and their draft cards -- common protests at the time. That night, some students vandalized downtown businesses and called for more protests, to “bring the war home.”
Another larger protest was planned for May 4, which was criticized by Ohio’s governor and which the university sought to shut down. But an estimated 2,000 people gathered anyway. The university requested that National Guard troops assist with the policing. What followed was a series of orders by Guard officers to disperse that were ignored, rocks thrown at the National Guard officers and their jeeps, tear gas fired at protesters in response who retreated and regrouped, and eventually, 29 of 77 guardsmen fired 67 rounds in 13 seconds at the protesters, killing four students and wounding nine—one of whom was permanently paralyzed. Two of the dead were anti-war protesters; the other two were students walking to class.
According to official inquiries after the shooting, National Guard officers said one of the protesters fired first—which was debated and never fully resolved, just as the role of a student police informer who carried a gun into the protest was also never resolved. Eyewitnesses said the guardsmen, who carried rifles with bayonets and wore gas masks, took aim at protesters several times before a sergeant started shooting with a .45 caliber pistol. The other guardsmen opened fire after that. A presidential commission that looked into the shootings criticized both the students and the Guard, but concluded the indiscriminate firing into the crowd was “unnecessary, unwarranted and inexcusable.”
Four days later on May 10, 1970, 100,000 protesters gathered in Washington, DC and 150,000 gathered in San Francisco. Meanwhile, at more than 450 high schools, colleges and university campuses across the country, an estimated 4 million students stopped attending classes to protest the Kent State shootings and the war. Then, on May 14, in Mississippi, it happened again: police shot and killed more student protesters.
The protests at Mississippi’s Jackson State were sparked by a rumor that Charles Evers, a local politician, activist and the brother of slain civil rights leader, Medgar Evers, had been killed along with his wife. After nightfall, about 100 African-American students gathered on a street that ran through the campus and lit a fire, threw rocks at passing drivers and overturned cars. The fire department responded and called state police and highway patrol for backup. The protesters refused orders to disperse and took refuge in Alexander Hall, a women’s dormitory. The standoff lasted until after midnight, when dozens of highway patrol officers armed with shotguns surrounded the building.
What happened next is unclear. Police say they saw a sniper in the upper dormitory windows and were being fired upon from several directions—a claim that an FBI investigation later found to be untrue. At least 140 shots were fired by state highway patrolmen using shotguns from 30 to 50 feet away, blowing out every window on the street side of the building. Two young men, including a high school senior who was behind the police lines, were killed. Others were injured by falling glass or trampled while fleeing. No arrests were made in the deaths but the presidential commission investigating the incident called the 28-second bombardment “an unreasonable, unjustified overreaction” to “unconfirmed sniper fire.”
History never exactly repeats itself. But its currents are never far from the present. As today’s protesters and police employ bolder tactics, the Kent State and Jackson State anniversaries should remind us that deadly mistakes can and do happen. It is the government’s responsibility to wield proportionate force, not to over-arm police and place them in a position where they could panic with deadly results.