Ignore outrage cycle and remember victims of Kent State shootings

Matthew Champion@matthewchampion
Monday 15 September 2014 20:30

There is a predictable cycle in online news sometimes of perpetual indignation, feeding clicks to both news sites and the perpetuators of the outrage.

A classic example was witnessed today when someone noticed a well-known clothing brand was selling a sweatshirt that seemingly took its inspiration from the killing of unarmed anti-war demonstrators at Kent State University, Ohio, in 1970.

The company in question is barely worth mentioning, such is the contempt we should feel for the originators of the latest phase in this outrage cycle.

However, the events they later denied to be referencing (see below) are worth recalling.

At the end of April 1970 then president Richard Nixon escalated US involvement in the Vietnam War with the so-called Cambodian Campaign offensive.

The military operation came during a period of rising anti-war sentiment, and the next day 500 students demonstrated at Kent State University, with the US Constitution symbolically burned.

Unrest broke out later that night as the protest attracted demonstrators from outside the university.

After the city's mayor declared a state of emergency the National Guard were ultimately deployed, with tear gas used and a student wounded with a bayonet.

The situation worsened further when a building was set alight by protesters, leading to the state's governor to describe the demonstrators as the "strongest, [most] well-trained, militant revolutionary group that has ever assembled in America".

On Monday, May 4, students assembled for a protest to be held at noon, while hundreds watched on. University officials had attempted to ban the gathering, but classes had not been cancelled.

When it became clear that protesters were not going to disperse, the National Guard opened fire, firing 67 rounds in 13 seconds.

Four students were killed and nine wounded, including one student who suffered permanent paralysis.

  • Jeffrey Glenn Miller, 20, died after being shot through the mouth
  • Allison B Krause, 19, died the next day after being shot in the chest
  • William Knox Schoeder, 19, died an hour later from a chest wound
  • Sandra Lee Scheuer, 20, died a few minutes later from a neck wound

Only one student who died was within 100m of the guardsmen when they opened fire, while two of the victims were not even taking part in the protest.

The shootings were a watershed moment for the US, and intensified discontent with the war in Vietnam.

Four million students subsequently went on strike over the incident, while Neil Young even wrote a song about it.

The tragic events of May 4, 1970, had a profound impact on Kent State University, the nation and the world.

  • Kent State University

In the years after the shooting the university set up scholarships in memory of the dead students that seek to "prevent violence and promote democratic values from public service to civil discourse".

The tragic events witnessed in Kent still resonate today, most recently in Ferguson, Missouri, the site of the worst race-related unrest in the US since the LA riots.

Ronald Snyder was a captain in the Ohio National Guard at the time of the 1970 shootings but was not directly involved in them.

He told CBS News that the lessons to be learned from Kent and applied in Ferguson were: "You meet force with force. That's the basic ruled that's followed."

Instead of focusing on the clothing company seeking attention we should look to understand the profound impact of such an event.

"May 4 caused the largest student strike in United States history. It increased recruitment for the movement against the Vietnam War and affected public opinion about the war. It created a legal precedent established by the US Supreme Court during the trials subsequent to the shootings," the university, which has a dedicated visitor centre about the events of May 4 and commemorates those killed annually, told i100.

"It also attained iconic status as a result of a government confronting protesting citizens with unreasonable deadly force."

Kent State University said it took "great offence" at a company "using our pain for their publicity and profit".

"This item is beyond poor taste and trivialises a loss of life that still hurts the Kent State community today," a statement said.

"We invite the leaders of this company as well as anyone who invested in this item to tour our May 4 Visitors Centre which opened two years ago, to gain perspective on what happened 44 years ago and apply its meaning to the future."

The company we have so far avoided mentioning is Urban Outfitters, which later issued this statement, insisting any connection to the May shootings was purely coincidental.

"Urban Outfitters sincerely apologises for any offence our Vintage Kent State Sweatshirt may have caused. It was never our intention to allude to the tragic events that took place at Kent State in 1970 and we are extremely saddened that this item was perceived as such. The one-of-a-kind item was purchased as part of our sun-faded vintage collection. There is no blood on this shirt nor has this item been altered in any way. The red stains are discoloration from the original shade of the shirt and the holes are from natural wear and fray. Again, we deeply regret that this item was perceived negatively and we have removed it immediately from our website to avoid further upset."

The visitor centre's website says visitors are invited to find out "how such a tragedy could occur; to learn the lessons of nonviolence, tolerance and civility; and to reflect on ways to create a more peaceful, more just world".

We hope someone at Urban Outfitters accepts the invitation.

(Pictures: Rex Features)

More: This is what police officers now look like in Ferguson, Missouri