On May 4, 1970, Ohio National Guard troops fired into a crowd of students at Kent State University, killing four and wounding nine. It was the most notorious moment in the college protest movement against the war in Vietnam, and became the subject of an antiwar anthem by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.
When I graduated from high school a year later, the war was raging on greater than ever, with half a million U.S. soldiers on the ground in Southeast Asia. Student deferments were cancelled, and I went off to college in August of 1971 with a draft card in my pocket.
During my first semester at a large university I heard very little about the war, but in the early spring we had a minor incident on campus. A handful of students, who objected to the government operating a recruiting office on the grounds of a private university, blocked the entrance to the building by sitting on the front steps.
The university president probably could have just asked security to push a couple students out of the way, but he wanted to make a point about who was running the place, so he called the police. They, in turn, upped the ante by sending the riot squad, in full battle gear, which promptly waded into the protestors with batons swinging.
The students were arrested, charged with a variety of crimes, and jailed. Among the charges was assault, which stemmed from a couple of students who held up bicycles to shield themselves from the nightsticks.
I don’t know whether or not the university and the police department really wanted to pick a fight with the 26,000-member student body, but they certainly got one. The demonstrations quickly swelled from a dozen participants into the thousands, buildings were seized, demands were made and threats were issued.
The establishment responded with busloads of troopers, tear gas and attack dogs, but ultimately there were simply too many protesters for the system to manage. Finally the university shut down and called the semester over.
My school was not the only trouble spot that spring, far from it. Colleges all over the country had experienced demonstrations of some sort, and some situations were as bad or worse than ours. That summer I transferred to a small college for reasons unrelated to the protest movement, but when I got there in the fall of 1972 I found that the atmosphere had changed.
It took me a while to figure out why the focus of American college campuses had suddenly shifted from antiwar rallies to frat parties, but over the course of that school year it became obvious. The government had stopped drafting people.
I was just as relieved as anyone else to stop worrying about being drafted, but along with the relief came a major disillusionment. The war was not over but the protests were, which meant that they weren’t really about the war. All that talk about moral outrage was just an elaborate smokescreen.
The protesters didn’t care that much about the war, so long as they didn’t have to fight it. It was shameful.
As you might expect, the whole experience left me skeptical about protest movements in general, and college protests in particular. I’m sure that some participants are principled and sincere, but I always suspect that many of them have a personal agenda, and others are just there for the party.
When the protests started at the University of Missouri this fall, my first reaction was indifference. With everything else that’s going on in the world, it just didn’t seem as though the grievances of Midwestern college kids, whatever they were, could be that important.
The movement got my attention when it spread to the Northeast, erupting at such prestigious old schools as Yale, Smith College and Amherst. Following a disruption at Ithaca College, which is near where I live, I decided to look into the matter.
Apparently the trouble started on September 12th, when Missouri student body president Payton Head, who is African American, complained on social media that somebody in a pickup truck had shouted racial slurs at him. The incident did not happen on campus, and was condemned by the university, but some students didn’t think officials did enough to respond to Head’s concerns.
They organized rallies to confront the perceived institutional racism, and over the course of a couple of weeks, the rhetoric was ratcheted up. Finally they demanded the resignation of the university president, and after a threatened boycott by black players on the football team, they got it.
Here’s the problem. While racism is repugnant, it is not illegal. The same amendment to the Constitution that protects our right peaceably to assemble, also protects our right to think, and in most cases say, whatever we want.
The First Amendment protects freedom of the press as well, and the demonstrators did not help their cause when they tried to prevent a photographer from covering their event for ESPN. Students at Smith made it worse when they actually tried to screen the journalists who would be allowed on campus according to whether they agreed with the protesters or not.
You may be wondering why I’m talking about a college protest movement in a magazine for people who sell children’s playthings. As a matter of fact, I originally set out to write a piece for a different publication, but the more I read about the demonstrations, the more I saw a connection to kids at play. At the risk of sounding like a cranky old geezer, I think we have raised a generation that feels a sense of entitlement, and among other things they feel entitled not to be offended.
Writing for The Washington Post on November 24th, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Kathleen Parker put it this way. “It’s not the students’ fault. These serial tantrums are direct results of our Everybody Gets a Trophy culture and an educational system that, for the most part, no longer teaches a core curriculum, including history, government and the Bill of Rights.”
I never want to see any persons or groups deprived of their rights as Americans, and I like to think that I would be quick to stand up and object if I see that happening. Before we can defend our rights, however, it’s important that we first understand what they are.
We all have some work to do here.
by Kevin Fahy
E-mail Kevin at firstname.lastname@example.org