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The Sound of Silence

Student Activism Now and Then; the 30th Anniversary of the Kent State Killings

Strife and Forgiveness: A Kent State Protester Goes Back to Vietnam

My journey to Vietnam began on Taylor Hill at Kent State 30 years ago. That day I was fired upon by the same military that was firing on Southeast Asians 8,000 miles away. That day was May 4, 1970.

The 13 seconds that the Ohio National Guard shot at students protesting Nixon's invasion of Cambodia seemed like an eternity. Four young lives ceased forever. Nine more protesters were wounded.

As we said in Kent, "The ones they missed with bullets they got with indictments." A subsequent grand jury would indict 25 students and faculty with charges of rioting while exonerating the trigger men of the National Guard.

I was one of those indicted. Again I felt the ricochet of injustice at Kent State. A year later charges were dismissed for most of the Kent 25 for "lack of evidence." Indeed, the President's own Commission on Campus Unrest asserted the killings were "unnecessary, unjustified and probably illegal."

Still, war stormed abroad and injustice prevailed at home. Still, I protested the 13-year U.S. invasion of Vietnam and for it was arrested 11 more times. When the U.S. signed the peace treaty in 1973 I could not persuade my conscience to accept the deaths of 58,000 Americans and three million Vietnamese. Picture from Kent State

So in 1998, 28 years later, I went to Vietnam as a private U.S. citizen. Traveling alone, I intended to apologize for the war and pay reparations out of my own pocket. As I went down America's heart of darkness I was astounded to see a country very much suffering from a war we only watch on the History Channel. I saw B-52 bomb craters pockmarking the delicate landscape (the Pentagon dropped more bombs on Vietnam than in all of WWII). I saw disabled veterans of the "American War" pull themselves across Saigon's streets with roller skates on their hands and knees. I met a sad old woman who only said to me, "You Americans, you killed my husband."

I apologized to the Vietnamese one by one. I paid double at restaurants, I donated to the Vietnam Red Cross and the War Museum. I literally handed out money on the streets to people impoverished by a war that has never ended for them. One million babies have been born since the war with birth defects from Agent Orange, 17,000 have been killed by land mines left by the U.S. military and four million still sustain physical wounds from that war.

Finally, I went to My Lai. As I surveyed the foundations of homes burned down by G.I.s, a coconut tree still inundated with M-16 bullet holes and the ditch 179 villagers were forced to lay in before being massacred, I was heartbroken.

I pondered the moment, exactly five years after Kent State, in which the Vietnamese got their peace. 25 years ago this month Saigon was liberated. Or, as we are taught to say, "the fall of Saigon."

Looking again at the profoundly scarred earth before me I wondered if it wasn't really America that had fallen.

- Bill Arthrell, Oberlin town resident

The Relationship Between Credit/No Entry and Kent State

I was a freshman in May 1970, a time of political activism and cultural fomentation greater and more exciting than any since the 1930s, when worker activism and the WPA defined American culture while the Peace and Freedom Party and American Youth Congress energized political life on college campuses. I came to Oberlin on an already cresting wave of profound change, initiated by the Berkeley Free Speech movement and given profound human relevance by civil rights activism in the South. Closer to me in time and place were the rising protests against the Vietnam war and the breathtaking energy of the Black Power movement.

Many of us came to Oberlin at least initially still committed to The System. By 1968, President Lyndon Johnson decided he had had enough of Vietnam, but rather than deciding simply to end the war, he bailed out, deciding simply not to run for re-election. By the fall of 1969, students entered Oberlin dejected and convinced that The System was hopelessly bankrupt; Kennedy had been assassinated, McCarthy railroaded at the Chicago convention, and thousands of our brothers and sisters had been brutalized at the hands of the police-crazed, racist, anti-Semitic, crypto-Fascist (a favorite term of the time) authoritarian Mayor of Chicago, Richard Daley (the current mayor's father, believe it or not). Even my father, still somehow a diehard Democrat, voted for Dick Gregory - a radical black former comedian who was by far the most intelligent, and funniest, man on the ballot.

Against this backdrop, it was nearly impossible not to have political views of some sort. It seemed that anyone who came to Oberlin without a political stance developed a rather serious interest in politics. Thirty years ago, on May 4th, I found myself on a field trip led by David Miller, a professor in the biology department. We were collecting various specimen mosses and ferns, but spent most of our time looking for wild asparagus next to railroad tracks out towards Kent. I remember military-style helicopters, thinking this an odd site on a sunny spring afternoon in the middle of nowhere. Upon returning to Oberlin, we learned of the shootings. We learned that even for us middle class white kids for whom politics was a passionate but largely intellectual exercise, the war had finally come to us. And as political as we all thought we were, it was now real, and nothing has been the same since.

That evening, or perhaps the next day, a mass meeting was held in Finney Chapel to discuss what to do. Groups of Oberlin students helped plan the resulting march on Washington. Locally, without requiring too much prodding from us, the administration basically canceled classes. Finals were made optional and students were given the option of freezing our grades as they were on May 4th, taking a final or opting for what was then an experimental grading system - credit/no entry. Many of us opted for the latter, and perhaps owed our good academic standing to this particular option. By the fall, CR/NE was institutionalized, but offered as an "all or none" option: either all of your courses were graded or all were taken CR/NE. Although I recall arguing with faculty that the option should be on a course-by-course basis, this compromise was not granted. Given all that had transpired, I personally felt that concern about grades was profoundly self-indulgent and was happy to go without my sophomore year, and in fact during my entire time at Oberlin. I graduated happily with a GPA of 0.00. This remains a source of some pride, although in the end, I do not think that I was exactly in the majority.

We all live in unique times in history. I truly hope that the pain, the staggering waste of human life, the poverty, the violent racism and the egregiously immoral behavior of the United States that we lived through 30 years ago will never be repeated. At the same time, I will admit that it was perversely energizing. It touched us all in ways which have kept many of my generation of Obies grounded in the values which, I can say with overwhelming satisfaction, seem in at least some small part to be preserved better in Oberlin than any place else I know. Perhaps better even than in my own memory.

- Ira Mellman, OC '73, Professor at Yale University School of Medicine

Politics Professor Ron Kahn Talks About Activism Then and Now

Although current students have continued Oberlin's long tradition of leftist activism, Professor of Politics Ron Kahn, who came to Oberlin in 1969, said that current student activism fails to compare to that from 1970, the year of the Kent State and Jackson State shootings. "During the Vietnam war there were tons of protests against the military - today there's no big force that molds the whole community," he said.

While acknowledging that student activism remains strong at Oberlin and that Oberlin boasts a more active community than other schools, Kahn said current students seem more focused on service learning and identity politics. "Today students identify with groups more so than with ongoing issues," Kahn said. "The closest thing we have to activism now deals with labor and capitalism and also with environmental issues."

Kahn also said that while activism may not be as totalized toward a single issue now, Oberlin remains a political hotbed for student activism. "Students are more into activism and raining questions than at other places. There's a lot of interest in rights and First Amendment issues - people's political visions just tend to be a little more narrow."

- Nick Stillman

Under Wraps: The African-American Student Shootings You Never Hear About

Everybody knows what happened at Kent State University on May 4, 1970. Four white students were killed, seven were seriously injured and the mental scars have persisted on all who were present. But do you know what happened at Jackson State University on May 14, 1970?

If you're like most others, you may be unfamiliar with the poorly publicized incident on the campus in Jackson, Mississippi, or at most only know a brief outline of the details. Unrest surrounding the United States' invasion of Cambodia permeated Jackson State's student body, culminating May 13 in a small riot on campus. Black students vigorously expressed their frustration at the U. S. government for drafting them to fight for their country when many felt their own personal rights were protected minimally at best by the same government.

Tim Spofford's 1988 book, Lynch Street, offers a harrowing account of the terror Jackson State students faced in mid-May of 1970, and includes many first-hand accounts from students present during the turbulence that shook the University. "'There was tension on campus'," Eddie Jean McDonald Carr said in Lynch Street. "'A lot of things were contributing to it: the Cambodia invasion, and a lot of people said the war in general. A lot of guys that we had known had been drafted and didn't want to go, but they had to. Some came back. Some didn't'." image From Kent State

A crowd of about 125 gathered on a street corner in May 14, cheering on what Spofford calls a "corner boy" throwing rocks at white drivers. When the same corner boy set a construction truck ablaze, campus security was notified. They arrived at the increasingly riotous scene to cries of "pigs" and "motherfuckers." A shattering glass bottle, apparently interpreted as a gun shot by the apprehensive security staff, broke the tension, as the armed authorities shot blindly into the fleeing crowd.

Pandemonium ensued. Spofford details how frantic students formed piles four feet high in front of dormitory entrances. Bullets riddled the building's wall and windows. "'"They're shooting rice"' I was thinking'," former Jackson State student Gloria Mayhorn said in Lynch Street. "But they were pellets hitting my body. Then I felt a big prick - it felt like a bee sting - and I felt blood running down my arm. I looked and there was a perfect hole on one side, and the other side was blasted out."

When the smoke cleared, two students were left dead and at least 30 were injured, some of them shot. Any account omitting this disturbing incident ignores the real history of student protests of the Vietnam War.

- Nick Stillman

Oberlin Student Activists Revisit Kent State

by Gillian Russom

About 15 student activists from Oberlin traveled to Kent State University Thursday morning to attend the commemoration of the killings at Kent and Jackson State universities thirty years ago. Kent State University stopped sponsoring the May 4 commemorations in 1975, at which point the organizing was taken over by the student-run May 4 Task Force.

A powerful event, the commemoration featured family and friends of the slain student activists as well as numerous speakers from current activist movements.

As Oberlin students arrived, Kent state alumni who had witnessed the May 4 shootings were beginning to take the podium. The most forceful speaker of these was Barry Levine, the best friend of Alison Krause, who was slain in the protest. Levine had been holding Krause in his arms when she died, but had never before spoken publicly about that day. "The events of May 4, 1970 left a gaping hole in my heart," Levine said. "And it will never be filled until someone takes responsibility for those deaths."

A banner in front of the podium read "Long Live the Spirit of Kent and Jackson State," and event organizers stressed the need to remember the less-publicized Jackson State shootings in the May 4 commemorations. This was the first commemoration featuring speakers from Jackson state, however. Gloria Green McKray, sister of James Earl Green, who was killed by police at Jackson State on May 14, 1970, spoke of her brother's unfulfilled ambition to be an Olympic track runner, and her own attempts to take advantage of opportunities his young death denied him.

This year, the May 4 Task Force was under attack from Kent's student senate and some alumni who opposed the inclusion of Mumia Abu-Jamal as a commemoration speaker. Abu-Jamal's case has become a focal point for many anti-racist and anti-death penalty activists who believe that constitutional violations in his original trial put an innocent man on death row. Some have attacked this movement for giving too much attention to a prisoner they believe should be put to death.

While nearly all those in attendance at the commemoration cheered in support of Mumia's comments, most of the media focused their cameras on the three anti-Mumia protesters who attended the event, carrying an American flag and a sign which read, "Mumia Shut Up." As Abu-Jamal's brief taped speech began, virtually every media camera in the audience rushed to film the anti-Mumia protesters, who briefly interrupted Abu-Jamal's speech with shouts.

Oberlin students who attended the event supported the inclusion of Mumia's comments and were angered by the media behavior. "Mumia's presence was completely appropriate, not only because of the clear historical link between state repression of the anti-Vietnam War movement and state repression of the Black Panthers and MOVE, but also because Mumia exemplifies a living commitment to continuing the fight for social justice 30 years later," said Oberlin senior Peter Olson.

Oberlin students left the commemoration with a sense of the historical continuity of student activism. David Jessop, an Oberlin first-year and activist against the U.S. sanctions on Iraq and other issues, said, "There was an overwhelming atmosphere of love and peace that I think struck a chord of deep hope in all of us present."


The Review sought out Oberlin's most politically passionate and asked: Is student activism dead or alive? They responded....

In my three years at Oberlin, I've witnessed a steady increase in the level of political activism and awareness of the issues that face working class and poor people both in the U.S. and internationally.

At Oberlin, a variety of issues, movements and campaigns surrounding criminal justice have sparked new life into the political discourse of the campus. The 1990s saw an unprecedented ideological offensive of the ruling class against the ideas of socialism. Student movements were unable to withstand this onslaught and unfortunately reached an all- -time low as the confidence of the left diminished.

The mass protest of 50,000 in Seattle against the corporate agenda and the effects of neo-liberal policies of the WTO shows the growing backlash against this system. The new millennium opened with a similar outpour of resistance in the capital of world imperialism, Washington D.C., against the IMF, bringing together about 15,000 activists throughout the East Coast. Socialist Alternative eagerly awaits the coming period when socialist ideas will re-emerge with a vengeance around the world, in the US, and right here at Oberlin.

- Ben Arenburg, Junior

Is student activism alive or dead at Oberlin? Yes, I can point to many friends of mine that were emphatically apolitical six months ago who are now actively participating in such campaigns as the anti-Marriott campaign and the movement to get a new trial for Mumia Abu-Jamal. At the same time, this campus is weak when in it comes to actively resisting institutions and policies that we say we're opposed to.

You see every fist raised in the air at a hip- hop show and people yelling, "Fuck Police Brutality." But then you get those same people sneering at you or giving you blank stares when you try to hand them a flier on political prisoners. At Oberlin, most of us are "too busy" - it's just a matter of who is willing to make it a priority and who's not.

Students have to participate. I don't agree with every flier made, every action taken by the organizations that I'm involved with, but, that's one small reason why I'm there in the first place - to actively participate in making campaigns more effective.

To end on a positive note, because I realize so far I've been fairly critical, I'm excited about all the people who have become involved this year for the first time. I think this is a growing trend and I look forward to the progress that this renewed participation will likely make.

- Eva Owens, Senior Image From Kent State

Student activism is not dead. On the contrary, student activism is an essential part, if not the driving force, of many movements today.

The anti-sweatshop movement, SOA Watch and the Mobilization for Global Justice are three examples that relate to Oberlin because there are active groups who work on all of these issues here. Oberlin is really seen as a leader in the student SOA Watch movement.

The battles we are fighting today, as opposed to in the 1960s, are more complex. It's not one war. The negative effects of things like globalization and militarization touch virtually all nations, including the U.S. That's why the activist movements today must be different than the Anti-War Movement. To succeed, they must build coalitions across issues, class, race, nationality, etc.

I think this has begun to happen in the Mobilization for Global Justice movement, but not nearly to the degree necessary. What is emerging in the form of the Mobilization is a movement built of groups and individuals working on a great variety of issues who recognize the inherent ties in their struggles. Their collective voice adds strength to each of their individual causes. The movement must now strive to open itself up to the voices which are right now under-represented.

- Jackie Downing, Sophomore

One of the biggest changes in student activism at Oberlin - and around the country --is a new emphasis on volunteer work. Volunteering can be merely a band-aid for problems that ultimately must be met with a fundamental re-thinking of our society. However, because of its political semi-neutrality, volunteering has the advantage of bringing together a wide a range of people who "just want to help" and thereby creates a unique meeting ground and a uniquely open forum on social issues.

- Manfred Elfstrom, Sophomore

Student activism is in no way dead at Oberlin. Nor do I think it is dead all over the country and the world. We are seeing the promising beginnings of what could be a large-scale movement against globalization, militarism and the growing disparity between the rich and the poor. The WTO protests in Seattle, the recent protests in D.C., the anti-sweatshop building take-overs on campuses around the country are just some examples of how students are taking action and putting their bodies on the front lines to try to stop business as usual. I believe we are willing to make sacrifices for what we believe in. I don't believe the current movement can be seen as our generation wanting to re-live the '60s. I think we want to shape our own movement and learn from our parents' mistakes. We don't have one issue, such as the Vietnam War, to focus on. The war being waged now is so total and has so many manifestations; one of our challenges, as a movement, is to bring ourselves together and see how issues are connected and how we can support all aspects of the struggle. Oberlin students are very involved in challenging aspects of the war we face today both on the local level and in national and international campaigns. Hopefully we can learn from our history and it can help us overcome obstacles placed in our way, both here at Oberlin and outside of Oberlin.

- Laurel Paget-Seekins, Junior

Student activism is very much alive, but somewhat lethargic, I fear. When compared to other schools, Oberlin seems like a Mecca for radical activism. But when it comes to our own standards, I think we fall short as a community.

In the 1960s, there was a cause. There was a focal point for all activists to aim for, and the collective energy was used to destroy that system. Now, people can pick and choose from a wide array of causes. The IMF, gay rights, abortion rights, foreign policy - there is no longer a strength behind any single cause and so the students are spread out, fighting for their "own thing."

Our protests now focus on the rights of the oppressed. No longer is everyone screaming "Down with Government." Today it's "more rights for the little people." I think that students today are much more aware of the use of U.S. power to take advantage of less powerful peoples whenever possible. We're more attuned to where rights are deserved but not received.

- Allison Moon, First-Year

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Copyright © 2000, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 128, Number 23, May 5, 2000

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