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Forty Years Ago

It was forty years ago that our government came after us, those who hated the war in Vietnam. First at Kent State, four dead, killed by the National Guard, and then Jackson State, two dead, one a high school senior, killed by City or State Police. The protests followed the announcement by Richard Nixon that he was expanding the war in Vietnam into Cambodia.

The Governor of Ohio at the time was James Rhodes, a Republican. On May 2, 1970, the ROTC building burned down. The next day, Rhodes went apoplectic, calling the students worse than the communists or the Nazis. On May 4, the National Guard was on the scene. As another protest began, the Guard was ordered to disperse the students. The students refused, and fought back, then were driven away from the main commons. Then the Guard started shooting, killing four and wounding nine. Two of the dead were protesters, the other two dead were just in the wrong place.

At Jackson State, the protests were against the war, in part, in response to the killings at Kent State, but they were also inspired by civil rights concerns, and a strong racist streak in the town. The road in front of Jackson State was named Lynch Street, and white bigots riding down the street frequently yelled racial slurs at the students. The city police and the highway patrol were out in force because of a couple of hundred protesters and a dorm fire. The heavily armed local police said they saw “powder flashes,” and had heard reports of gunfire in the area.

I remember this vividly. I was stationed at Fort Bragg at the time, in charge of a small unit of men on their way to or from Vietnam, all of us the same ages as the dead and wounded students, and of the National Guardsmen. I was angry at the Guardsmen in Ohio and at the cops in Mississippi, but in a way, I could sort of understand their fears, and even the racism of the cops in Mississippi. I vaguely thought that their responses were driven by strident demagogic leaders, the white power structure (as we called it then), the Republicans and their war lust, and their relentless drive to split the people of the United States into warring camps, so they, secure in their positions of power, could act freely for whatever ends they chose.

Elites were profiting from the war, and were ducking their taxes. The children of the elites were ducking the war, but working class and most middle class kids just did what they thought was their duty, and served if called, and died. It was clear even to my naive young self that the interests of the elites were different from those of me and my family and the men in my unit and their families.

For me, the lesson was clear. The governing elites, politicians and those with the money hidden behind them, don’t have to listen to the millions who recognized that the war was immoral and senseless. Anti-war activists failed to stop the war in Vietnam, and when the elites decided to invade Iraq, anti-war activists failed again. Time has proven us right on the evil and stupidity of those wars.

Time has proved that the elites are right, too. They do as they choose without consequences. They don’t even have to acknowledge the terrible consequences of their perfect freedom.

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