Oldspeak: One of the most colossal blunders ever perpetrated by the U.S. military happened 40 years ago today. Thankfully hard lessons have been learned from the tragedy.
From The National Post (Canada)
Four decades ago today, members of the Ohio National Guard shot dead four students at Kent State University. Peter Shawn Taylor looks at the events of that day and what we’ve learned from the deaths of those four protesters.
It’s been 40 years since four died in Ohio.
Today is the 40th anniversary of the shootings at Kent State University. These deaths — William Schroeder, Sandra Scheuer, Jeffrey Miller and Allison Krause — at the hands of the Ohio National Guard on May 4, 1970, persist as a significant historical marker.
The incident is today seen as the moment the free-spirited idealism of the Sixties collided head-on with the state’s deadly coercive powers. A nation’s youth, attempting to exercise their rights to free speech and assembly, were deliberately gunned down by their own government.
That the deaths were immortalized in iconic photos and the song Ohio by the band Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, which still receives substantial airplay today, has solidified the incident’s stature as a signature moment in modern social and cultural history.
But here’s another way of looking at it. Kent State was one of the biggest blunders ever committed by the American military.
A close examination of the actions of the National Guard on May 4, 1970, reveals numerous and egregious failures of preparation, communication, leadership, equipment and tactics. From this perspective, the shootings were not so much a social earthquake as a series of dramatic mistakes by trained men at arms. And it’s an event that has had a permanent impact on modern crowd control methods. A revolution in mob management — rather than the sentiments of a classic rock anthem — is the true legacy of Kent State. No one, especially not the Army, wants another four dead in Ohio.
The events at Kent State were set in motion with U.S. president Richard Nixon’s April 30, 1970, announcement that he was invading Cambodia as part of the war in Vietnam.
Students across North America rose up against the news. At Kent State, a typically peaceful school about 50 km south of Cleveland, the protests quickly took a dangerous turn. The campus building for the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program was set ablaze on Saturday, May 2. When the municipal fire department arrived to put it out, protesters attacked the firemen — slashing their hoses with machetes and tossing bricks at them.
The firemen promptly retreated and the local mayor called in the National Guard. The firetrucks then returned under military escort. By this time the ROTC building had burnt to the ground; but the Guardsmen, mostly young, part-time soldiers, stayed put.
Over the weekend the campus remained generally quiet. On Monday, May 4, student leaders called a noon-hour rally to protest the military presence. This was to occur on the Commons, a field adjacent to the smouldering ruins of the ROTC building. The Guard leadership, however, declared a curfew. Whether this was sanctioned by civil authorities remains a contentious issue today. It appears not.
Regardless of the curfew’s legitimacy, as students began to gather and provocatively ring an historic bell on the Commons, the Guard decided a show of force was necessary.
Around 11:45 a.m., 96 Guardsmen and seven officers assembled on the Commons in a skirmish line led by Brig-Gen. Robert Canterbury. The troops wore standard-issue fatigues and helmets and were armed with M-1 carbines and bayonets. The soldiers loaded their rifles, fixed bayonets and began marching across the field to disperse the crowd, estimated at perhaps 2,000 students.
The Guardsmen succeeded in their immediate goal of clearing the Commons. Yet the mob proved an elusive foe. It parted to let the soldiers pass but then formed up again around the edges of the Commons. Some students began throwing rocks from a nearby construction site. The FBI would later collect 174 pounds of rocks from the field.
Without any clear purpose other than shooing away the pesky students, Canterbury kept his troops marching. With gas masks on, the Guardsmen launched tear gas at the crowd. The students threw the canisters back, in a kind of tennis match.
The soldiers then went up a small rise beside the Commons called Blanket Hill. They paused briefly at a concrete pagoda. Then, like a dog chasing a squirrel, they took off after the students again — blindly marching down the other side of Blanket Hill.
The trek ended when the soldiers arrived on a practice football field with fences on three sides. Behind them was a student mob at the top of the hill.
Without any clear objective in mind, the troops had marched themselves straight into a box.
Such a move should be seen as conclusive a tactical error as Lt.-Col. George A. Custer’s actions at Little Bighorn, where he charged recklessly down a river bed with 200 men, only to find several thousand Sioux waiting for him. If it had been a war, Canterbury would have led his men into a bloodbath.
Instead, the event played out like a grim and pointless parade. Students were screaming “pigs off campus” and “Fascist bastards.” The air was thick with bricks. And no one in charge seemed to know what they should be doing or where.
The gas masks also seemed to have a dehumanizing effect on the soldiers, both visually and mentally. On the football field, some soldiers dropped to a knee and pointed their guns menacingly at the students. No one fired
When these actions didn’t scare the protesters off, the only thing left was to march back up the hill through the gauntlet of rocks and angry students. Canterbury at this point assumed he had run out of tear gas, so he stopped calling for gas grenades. In fact there were plenty left. Once they reached the pagoda again the soldiers once more shouldered their weapons.
This time 61 shots rang out in 13 seconds. Four students died, nine were wounded.
In the numerous investigations that followed, no officer ever admitted to giving a fire order. Whether it was a spontaneous reaction to the harassment, a misheard directive or a deliberate action that was later covered-up, someone — either the officers or enlisted men — lost control.
And they lost control with M-1 carbines, the only weapons they carried that day.
In the days following the shooting, public opinion was actually split. Many Americans thought the students got what they deserved for torching the ROTC building and attacking the Guardsmen. President Nixon’s comments seemed to echo this sentiment. “When dissent turns to violence it invites tragedy,” he said.
Yet any sympathy for the Guardsmen was eventually swamped by the student’s perspective. Close examination by the media, FBI and the Nixon-appointed Scranton Commission into Campus Unrest, as well as civil lawsuits, made it clear the students’ actions had not warranted lethal force that day. Public opinion eventually turned the Guard’s actions into a convincing and comprehensive defeat. “Kent State was a national tragedy,” the Scranton Commission concluded. “We must learn from the particular horror of Kent State and ensure it is never repeated.”
Perhaps surprisingly, this rhetoric has largely come to pass. The many mistakes committed at Kent State were not ignored by the military or law enforcement. Today it is seen as a watershed moment in the history of crowd control and non-lethal tactics.
“Kent State has become the standard from which everything else is measured,” says Sid Heal, a crowd control expert with 33 years experience (now retired) at the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. “Everybody studies it. One hundred years from now, we will still be studying it. It is the perfect example of what not to do.”
Heal commanded police and military personnel during the 1992 Rodney King riots in L.A., served as an advisor with the U.S. Marines in Somalia in 1995 and currently lectures at war colleges on mobs, riots and non-lethal weapon techniques. He has a checklist of necessary steps for minimizing confrontations with large crowds. The Ohio National Guard missed them all.
Today crowd control begins with exhaustive pre-planning. Preparations for major events such as the Vancouver Olympics or the upcoming G20 summit in Toronto begin months or years in advance. Every possible scenario is contemplated. For example, Toronto recently announced an empty east-end movie studio will serve as a massive temporary G20 jail, if required.
There was no pre-planning or basic reconnaissance at Kent State. Canterbury didn’t even know where he was going.
The next step, says Heal, is the need to establish a clear mission. This typically acknowledges the right of citizens to peaceful assembly, but also sets out the objectives of law enforcement. Negotiations with protesters have become a crucial component of this process. “It is important to establish what the protesters want and what they intend to do,” notes Heal. The student rally at Kent State was a legitimate event.
Containment of a mob is now considered more desirable and practical than outright dispersal. Canterbury discovered this the hard way. The creation of designated free speech areas, separate from the security zone, has become standard operating procedure for potentially volatile events. While these “protests pens” are often contentious, they provide a safer outcome for everyone.
The understanding of crowd psychology has also improved dramatically since 1970. Mobs are not homogenous, observes Heal:
“There are provocateurs, supporters and those who are just mildly interested. You have to realize that not everyone is your enemy.” It makes no sense to tear gas innocent students on their way to class, as was the case at Kent State. This risks turning bystanders into participants.
As for crowd control personnel, Heal observes that well-trained, competent front-line officers are vital; and their main job is to keep a close watch on the rank-and-file. “It is very easy to get emotional in a riot,” he says. “But we can never be seen as the instigator.” On-field leadership’s inability to control their troops’ emotion was another obvious failure at Kent State.
Showing up with M-1 carbines was the Guard’s final mistake. “This left them with only two choices: shout or shoot,” notes Heal.
“You’ve got to have more options than that.” Since 1970 there have been huge innovations in crowd control equipment. Full-face shields, body armour and batons are now standard riot gear. And an entire armoury of non-lethal weaponry has been invented.
The U.S. military even has a Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate, charged with creating equipment and tactics that don’t kill their enemies. This alone should be considered a revolution.
While investigations into the U.S. race riots of 1967 had earlier recommended better training and equipment for soldiers and police involved in crowd control, it took the Kent State shootings to fully implement such changes. No one moves crowds with rifles and bayonets anymore.
“We have learned that prevailing on the field is not always as important as legitimacy,” notes Heal. The modern take on crowd control is that it’s necessary to show restraint and attempt to resolve situations with minimal force. Anti-globalization riots in Seattle in 1999 and Quebec City in 2001 have certainly tested that commitment but there has never been another Kent State. The lessons have stuck.
“Kent State was a whole series of errors,” says Heal. “And those mistakes were so profound they cascaded into a calamity.
Nobody wants a repetition of that.”