Last week, a Michigan GOP official made comments on twitter that called for “another Kent State” as a response to college protests at UC Berkeley. The protests were in opposition to a white nationalist and provocateur who had been invited to speak by the Berkeley College Republicans. Unfortunately, the protests turned destructive, with demonstrators causing property damage and hurling objects at police officers before the University cancelled the speech out of concern for public safety.
Berkeley’s chancellor defended the group’s right to invite this speaker, though he made it clear that he himself found no use for him, calling the speaker a “troll and provocateur who uses odious behavior in part to ‘entertain,’ but also to deflect any serious engagement with ideas.”
Unfortunately, however, the negative actions of the protesters brought more attention to the speech that didn’t happen than it probably would have otherwise garnered. The Trump Administration immediately called it an attack on free speech and intimated that it would consider cutting off federal funding to the school as retaliation. The Nixon Administration would, I think, have been proud.
The statements of the Michigan political operative were more concerning. He said:
“Violent protesters who shut down free speech? Time for another Kent State perhaps. One bullet stops a lot of thuggery.”
Another comment read in part “I’m thinking another Kent State may be the only solution [sic] protest stopped after only one death. They do it because they know there are no consequences yet.”
These statements were, thankfully, met with immediate rebuke from other politicians, both republican and democrat, as well as Kent State University. Additionally, this man deleted his Facebook page because of comments he said were “hateful.” He made several attempts to “clarify” his words, claiming that he had not meant to incite violence, but rather was calling for an end to the violence, fearing that it might otherwise bring about the same sort of tragedy that occurred at Kent State.
Looking at his statements, however, I cannot believe his denials that he meant only to tamp down violence for fear of the lives of protesters. You may judge his statements for yourself, but to me they are clearly an approbation of the force used at Kent and an invitation to use that level of force today, presumably when he doesn’t agree with the protesters.
The force used at Kent State killed four people. Allison Krause and Sandy Scheuer were in the honors college. William Schroeder was in the ROTC. Jeffrey Miller believed that peace and love could change the world. Schroeder and Scheuer were not even there to demonstrate. They were among the hundreds of students who had stopped to watch on the way to their next class. Allison Krause, the day before the shootings, had placed a flower in the barrel of a guardsman’s rifle saying “flowers are better than bullets.”
These are the young people who were mowed down by the National Guard. The average distance of the unarmed students killed from where the guard fired was 345 feet. Not one of them posed a threat, lethal or otherwise, to the Guard. There had been objects thrown at the Guard, including empty tear gas canisters, but not one of the Guardsmen was injured.
The students had had no warning that the Guard would fire. They were peppered with 67 rounds of M1 bullets in a matter of about 13 seconds. William Schroeder was shot in the back as he tried to flee. Sandy Scheuer never even made it that far. Her purse still clung to her arm, her books scattered around her on the pavement of the Prentice parking lot.
Nine other students were wounded that day, one of them paralyzed for life. Not one of them was armed. Not one of them was within a distance to cause the Guard any harm.
President Nixon went on television the night of May 4th and told the nation that he was sorry about the dead and wounded students, but that “tragedy is invited when dissent turns to violence.”
These are chilling words, not only for their inaccuracy of what occurred at Kent that day, but also in their their disregard for casualties when civil disobedience gets messy.
There is a balance to be maintained in a democracy between the right of citizens to protest and the right of other citizens to be safe. Civil disobedience in our nation’s history has at times turned deadly. Opposition to the Stamp Act during colonial times led to the tarring and feathering of tax collectors for example. Generally, however, the virtue of democracy is that, when people believe they have a voice, there is no need for violence. When there is violence by protesters, it is often limited to property damage or minor collateral injuries. Our police and courts are generally perfectly capable of handling these types of disturbances.
When the power of law enforcement is used inappropriately, however, catastrophic results such as those at Kent can occur. Kent State taught us that the right to use power on behalf of the people carries with it a tremendous responsibility. Free speech can only flourish in a society that protects and preserves this right fiercely. It can only flourish in a society that refuses to allow dissenters to be harmed.
And this is why the statements of this Michigan republican are so unacceptable and frightening. His words amount to the suggestion that the state has a right to silence dissent at any cost so long as there is any irregularity in the civil disobedience. His statements sanction the idea that government can escalate a situation to the level of deadly force to stop “thuggery” whether or not the situation warrants the use of force to protect other citizens. His statements create an Us v. Them mentality that attempts to sow silence into those who would use civil disobedience to protest.
The illegal activities at Berkeley that prevented the speaker from being allowed to speak were wrong and should be investigated and prosecuted as appropriate. But to suggest that those who were demonstrating should have been murdered in order to silence them is something else entirely. It is a chilling and unacceptable assault on the First Amendment. The fact that anyone could invoke the history of Kent State to justify that suggestion is the very reason why we must never forget May 4th.