Friday marked the 42nd anniversary of the infamous Kent State shootings. When President Nixon told the American public in a speech on April 30, 1970, that U.S. forces had invaded Cambodia, anti-war protests erupted across the country, especially at Kent State University. Nixon called antiwar protesters “bums,” and Ohio Governor James Rhodes compared them to brownshirts and communists. Tension was building on campus, including some vandalism and property damage, and a few days later, Ohio guardsmen fired shots into the crowd, killing four students and injuring nine others.
Over four decades later, should we be worried about another Kent State event and our ability to freely protest and petition? A closer look at the incident, and American history, is not a promising sign.
Up until the Guardsmen pulled the triggers, undercover FBI agents were heavily involved with the protesters on campus, and even fired the first shots at the Guard units. The Guardsmen were nearly 100 yards away when they fired back and killed four students, including Jeffrey Miller, who was immortalized in a famous photo.
The U.S. government has a long history of not only infiltrating popular or growing dissident movements, but of violently suppressing them. In 1789, George Washington personally led an army of 15,000 men to force Americans protesting a tax on whiskey to pay it. While only a few people were killed, the message was clear: Refusing to pay a tax on British tea was an act of bravery, but refusal to pay a tax on American whiskey was an act of insurrection. And just one year prior, Congress signed a bill that outlawed public criticism of them.
In his 1869 book American Bastille, John Marshall chronicled the U.S. government’s response the huge amount of dissent and protest, in the North and the South, to the Lincoln administration’s violations of civil liberties and law during the Civil War. Mass arrests and executions without trials were a common response to anyone who dare protest the president.
After World War I, over 40,000 veterans and their families gathered in Washington, D.C., demanding the money and benefits that the U.S. government promised them for fighting the war in Europe. Eventually, a platoon of six Army tanks led by General Douglas MacArthur quickly squashed the protest.
What’s going to happen when another swell of brave veterans stage mass protests against the post-war treatment they have received? Or when the global debt bubble pops and the Social Security checks can’t buy much of anything thanks to the devaluation of the currency? The passing of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and H.R. 347, two bills that made our vanishing Bill of Rights even weaker, are not good signs for the future of any mass protests.
But more than the brute force of government power in suppressing dissent, I fear that the unnecessary and artificial Left-Right divide in America will provide all the enforcement needed. When unarmed Occupy protesters across the country are pepper-sprayed and beaten, “conservatives” revel and cheer. When right-wingers are labeled as seditious by the Department of Homeland Security, “liberals” get giddy. The Left and Right battle every few years over control over the force of the state and use or threaten its use against each other’s perceived interests. Who needs the NDAA when you have Ed Schultz and Sean Hannity?
The Kent State shootings should be a reminder of the dangers of government force and government power and the lengths governments will go to violently defend their interests and oppose dissent. Ron Paul is the only candidate in the 2012 election who has adopted this message as a central part of his campaign. As Paul suggests, the most effective form of policing and enforcement comes not vertically from the state, but horizontally from the artificial divisions that are created between us by the media, popular culture, and political demagogues that pit us against each other while ignoring the real enemy: political power wielded over others.