Distant Echoes

In Kent, Ohio, any discussion of war begins with May 4, 1970.

The Ghosts Of Kent State

A famous Vietnam War protest -- and its tragic consequences -- still haunts an Ohio college campus.

Cover Story

April 13, 2003|By Story By John Woestendiek

KENT, Ohio -- Sun plays off the streaks of gray in Alan Canfora's ponytail as he strolls the same green hills where he and 12 other Kent State University students were shot by National Guardsmen in 1970.

He was a longhair then, too -- opposed to the Vietnam War and the invasion of Cambodia; opposed to how, after student rioting, rifle-toting National Guard units had been called on campus; opposed, like many of his generation, to a lot of things, including what they liked to call "the system."

On May 4, 1970 -- a day as spring-like as this one -- Canfora took a bullet through the wrist, one of 67 shots guardsmen fired during a 13-second barrage that killed four students, injured nine and sparked revolt on campuses nationwide. Some say it was the end of youthful innocence. Some say it cemented government mistrust, if not among a generation, at least among millions of its members. Some say, by galvanizing the peace movement, it changed the course of a war.

Nearly a third of a century later, Canfora is part of the system he once fought -- chairman of the Democratic Party in his hometown of Barberton -- but he still fights to keep the memory of May 4 alive, still is opposed to war, still visits the campus frequently.

And, just as then, he does not always emerge unscathed.

Rounding Taylor Hall, the building on the hill where, depending on one's mindset, the massacre, tragedy, or unfortunate incident took place, Canfora encounters student Abby Slutsky on a smoke break. A discussion ensues.

Yes, Slutsky says in answer to a question from Canfora -- he maintains a knack for getting in your face -- she does believe in free speech. She's a reporter for the Daily Kent Stater, after all. Students have the right to protest the war, she says. And she has the right to consider them both wrong and obnoxious.

Besides, the senior from Cincinnati points out, the majority of Americans support the war.

"How long do you think that majority will last?" Canfora fires back. "As soon as the body bags start coming home, the majority will swing the other way and the war will stop. You watch."

Canfora talks about dissent, about the idealism of students in his day, about how protests -- as he insists they did with Vietnam -- can help end a war, all, in his view, parts of the legacy of May 4.

"This might be the wrong thing to say, especially to you," says Slutsky, "but those protests didn't change things. The deaths changed things."

Taken aback, Canfora asks, "Isn't it OK for protesters to exercise free speech?"

"Exercise away," Slutsky responds, "but don't tell me that just because I don't, I'm selfish or don't care about the world. ... The reason a lot of students have time to be activists is because they don't work. Mommy and Daddy are paying their bills."

And on that point, Canfora can't entirely disagree. When he was in school, his summer job more than covered the $450 he needed each year for in-state tuition at Kent State, then a working-class school viewed as one of the most affordable in the state. Today, at more than $3,000 a semester, its tuition is the third highest in the state.

As much as the world might need to be changed, working two jobs while going to college leaves little time to do it.

"Some of these people are facing the equivalent of a small mortgage when they get out," said Jerry M. Lewis, a Kent State sociology professor who witnessed the 1970 shootings and still cries at the commemorations held here each year.

Today's students, he says, often work one or two jobs while going to school, or, in some cases, join the National Guard or ROTC to help with tuition. Worse yet, the payoff they expect their college education to lead to after graduation often isn't there.

"Children today are much more worried about jobs and the economy and gas prices, not the war," Lewis said. "If they were to be handed an envelope with a solution to the war, and another envelope with the solution to the economy, students would take the economy nine times out of 10."

Lewis, as he was in the 1970s, is still a faculty monitor at student protests -- the biggest of which here came March 20, the day after the invasion of Iraq. About 200 demonstrated against the war, prompting about 50 other students to demonstrate in support of the troops.

If the amounts of dissent, idealism or social consciousness seem to have diminished since the 1970s, Lewis says, it is because of increased economic concerns, the absence of the draft and the newness of the war, he says.

"The first major protests in the Vietnam era weren't until 1965 in New York and San Francisco. The first one on this campus wasn't until 1967."

Despite its reputation, Kent State was not then -- and is not now -- a nexus of student protest.

"International journalists come here and ask, 'Where are all the protests and peace signs?' One I talked to called it 'the ground zero of protest,' " Lewis says. "It's not."

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