May 4, 2005

Anti-war fervor fades at KSU

Wednesday, May 04, 2005
Brian Albrecht
Plain Dealer Reporter

Kent - On a recent spring day, sunbathers blanketed the grassy hill where bullets once drilled through chants and jeers.

Flowers bloomed, buds blossomed, and the entire Kent State University campus seemed to breathe a green sigh - not unlike another sunny spring day when Ohio National Guardsmen fired point-blank into students protesting America's invasions of Cambodia and escalation of the Vietnam War.

Four students were killed and nine wounded on May 4, 1970.

Monuments now mark the exact spots where students fell and died, their symbolic presence lingering longer than the reasons that got them shot.

Nowadays, as a new generation of students inherits its own shooting war, whiffs of suntan lotion, not tear gas, drift over that infamous hillside.

Those who walk its paths say the flames of anti-military agitation that once burned so brightly on campus have largely dimmed to embers of uncommitted concern.

Recently sunning on a blanket not far from where Jeffrey Miller was shot in the face, KSU freshmen Wendy Smith and Kim Moody, both 19 and from Brunswick, had mixed feelings about the war.

The United States should be defending itself against terrorists, they said.

They're not happy about how that effort is progressing in Iraq, but not enough to join a protest rally.

Walking nearby - past the marker erected where Sandy Scheuer was shot in the neck - sophomore Brad Kozenko, 20, of Thompson Township in Geauga County, said he knows better than to invite hassles by wearing his Air Force ROTC uniform during the week of the May 4 commemoration, or while visiting the May 4 memorial.

Otherwise, he has seen little evidence of anti-war sentiment on campus beyond occasional pavement chalk drawings, such as the peace sign and flower he had just walked over.

Yet the faded banner of anti-war protest will unfurl again in events today on campus, commemorating the 35th anniversary of the shootings.

Friends and relatives of the slain students will speak not far from the 1,000 white crosses of a pseudo-cemetery, "Arlington West," representing the human cost of the current war in Iraq.

Seminars preceding today's events included a 1970s perspective from former students wounded in the shootings, Vietnam-era veterans and onetime Students for a Democratic Society members.

The inclusion was deliberate, because "as we move further away in time, we're starting to lose the story," noted Sarah Lund-Goldstein, co-chairwoman of the May 4 Task Force that coordinates the annual commemoration.

The difference between campus war concern, then and now, is "pretty much night and day," according to Thomas Hensley, professor-emeritus of political science who was teaching at KSU 35 years ago.

"The biggest difference probably relates to the fact that we no longer have a draft," Hensley said.

"That isn't to say there aren't students who have serious questions and concerns about the war," he added. "But I haven't seen anywhere near the intensity of activity, the same sense of urgency and personal involvement."

Kent Police Chief John Peach, who joined the force four months after the shootings, said much of the student activism that strained local law enforcement through the 1970s diminished as new issues replaced such bygone causes as civil rights and Vietnam.

Jerry M. Lewis, a KSU professor-emeritus of sociology who was among the students who were shot at 35 years ago, said few of the sort of dramatic events that once inflamed passions on campus during the war in Vietnam are coming out of Iraq.

Consequently, in recent years "the most dangerous thing about the Kent State campus, if there was any protest, was tripping over the media's TV cables," Lewis quipped.

Anti-war activism still occasionally surfaces, including a clash with police following the May 4 commemoration in 2003, not long after America invaded Iraq, resulting in 13 arrests.

Tim Mayer, a member of the Kent State Anti-War Committee that organized the 2003 rally, said only about 150 marchers participated, even after thousands of announcement fliers were distributed on campus.

Mayer, 21, said KSAWC folded that fall when just a handful of people attended the semester's first meeting, and nobody was sure what to do next. "It was really sad," the KSU senior, from Mentor, recalled.

But he plans to join today's post-commemoration rally and march set for 3:30-6 p.m. by the Portage Community Peace Coalition, a regional anti-war group, and a recently re-formed KSAWC.

Sue Jeffers of the Peace Coalition (whose membership includes some KSU students), said there has been a shift in public reaction to local anti-war vigils and other activities sponsored by the group since it formed three years ago.

Jeffers said public hostility has changed to gradual support - but more of a passing-honk-and-smile than join-a-demonstration participation, not unlike the apparent state of anti-war activism on campus.

KSAWC's recent efforts have included circulating petitions to ban military recruiters from campus because of the armed services' policy regarding gays.

The petition drive, however, was slammed by the university's student newspaper as "an unfortunate attack on freedom of speech." The Kent Stater editorial also said that when KSAWC members claim that discrimination is bad, "they discriminate against discrimination."

Committee members have been frustrated and surprised by the task of mobilizing students.

"Who would've thought that here at Kent State we'd have a hard time getting students to participate?" said Amanda John, 20, a junior from Berea. "I don't think anybody really wants to talk about it [the war] on a day-to-day basis because it just bums them out."

David Airhart, 23, of Barberton, a KSU freshman recently discharged from the Marines following service in Iraq and Afghanistan, also was struck by reaction to his attempts to give students what he called "a realistic view of the war in Iraq."

"It's a huge tragedy. There's certainly nothing in this conflict that's worth all the human life being lost," Airhart said. "But it seems college students nowadays could really care less about Iraq. They're just sort-of oblivious. When they see it on the news, it's almost like they're watching a movie."

The committee's frustration was evident during a recent KSAWC meeting, attended by 11 people, when one exasperated member remarked, "We need to be more than just this room all the time. We need people badly."

Marquis Belton, 25, of Cleveland, said students may be less inclined to protest due to the chilling climate of security imposed since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

"Personally, I think we'd get more support if there was a draft," he added. "People would be forced to deal with a lot of things they're avoiding now."

Freshman Matt Hanson, 18, of Minneapolis, suggested that perhaps time has come for a more pragmatic protest program - fewer '70s-style rallies and marches and more efforts to convince local and state legislatures to pass resolutions condemning the war.

He would like to do something that would make Kent State remembered for an anti-war effort that didn't end in tragedy; that people could look back on and say, "they actually changed something."

Change, rather than indifference, may already be the operative word on campus, according to Jessica Straub, 18, a freshman from Amherst, who recently enjoyed a break between classes seated on the dark granite of the May 4 Memorial.

Anti-war protest has matured, become less in-your-face confrontational, with more respect for soldiers doing their duty, she said.

Students aren't happy about the war, she added, but not to the point where they're going to drop everything and demonstrate. Plus, the duration of war can foster a sort of resigned acceptance. "It's just become so much a part of our everyday lives, it's not a big deal anymore," she said.

Surrounded by the green carpet of 58,175 daffodils planted to symbolize America's losses in Vietnam, Straub said she visits the memorial on nice days, to enjoy the quiet solitude and peaceful surroundings that have endured beyond the days of shouting and shooting.

Perhaps, she agreed, after 35 years that's the way it should be.

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