In the Wake of Kent State: Lessons in State Violence, Billy Clubs and Tear Gas

My first direct experience of state violence came during the protests that erupted after the Kent State killings on May 4, 1970. By “direct” I mean getting teargassed and billy clubbed live and in person! I wasn’t alone. 

The week that followed the Kent State tragedy was a week of explosive protests around the country, mostly on college campuses. The protests were uniformly met with police violence. Hundreds of colleges and high schools were closed down by students going on strike in protest of the killings and the escalating Vietnam War. Some four million students joined the strikes. A mere five days after the shootings, 100,000 people descended on the nation’s capitol to express their outrage.

I was a freshman at American University in Washington, DC. The city, like much of the country, had been convulsed with antiwar protests since the prior week, when President Nixon announced the “Cambodia incursion” — an expansion of the Vietnam War into neighboring Cambodia with both troops and heavy bombing. The entire nation had been convulsed, as a matter of fact, with college campuses around the country playing a central role in the wave of protests.

In Washington, rapid response demonstrations were organized at the White House and at the Vietnamese Embassy. At an evening protest the day after Kent State, at the embassy on DuPont Circle, I was introduced to the concept of agent provocateur. As with many of DC’s numerous traffic circles, the center of the circle comprised a small park — some trees, some benches, a flowerbed. The embassy was on the far side of the street, protected by a formidable line of riot police. A guy who had been standing next to me reached down, grabbed a small rock and heaved it toward the police line. I was appalled. A second guy near me, after watching the stone thrower, reached down for his own stone and let it fly in the direction of the embassy. Whereupon guy #1 reached behind himself — as if he was going for his wallet — and produced, from beneath an untucked shirt tail, a pair of handcuffs, which he very quickly and professionally slapped onto guy #2, who was now under arrest for assault.

An organizing meeting on the American University campus drew hundreds of students. Two proposals carried the day — AU would join dozens of other campuses around the country in going out on strike, and, in conjunction with other DC universities, we would seek to shut down Washington. 

AU is located on Massachusetts Avenue in northwest Washington, a major commuting artery into the city from the Maryland suburbs. The plan was to physically take over the intersection of Massachusetts and Nebraska Avenues (another traffic circle) and block morning commute traffic. (We would soon find out who one of our more famous commuters was.) At the same time, Catholic University in the northeast sector would block Rhode Island Avenue, another major road leading from the suburbs to downtown, while students from Georgetown University and George Washington University would close down the two bridges that crossed the Potomac from the Virginia suburbs.

And so it was that on Wednesday, May 6, 1970 (as best as I can reconstruct these events) I found myself standing in the middle of Massachusetts Avenue at 8:00am, instead of in my Political Science 101 class (which I usually missed anyway, not being an early-bird sort of person). About 1,000 schoolmates were with me. And traffic was not moving.

By about an hour into the occupation the police had managed to reroute the inbound traffic and we were staring up and down deserted streets. The police made no effort to remove us from the intersection. It appeared the police were going to be content to cede Massachusetts and Nebraska Avenues to us and simply wait us out. After all, there was no more commuter traffic to block.

On one corner of the intersection stood a large church. I had noticed a fairly steady trickle of police coming and going from around the back of the church. I thought I would go see what the police were up to back there. Without going near the church — too many police moving around! — I did manage to get to a point where I could see the parking lot behind the church. It was filled with police buses and there were hundreds of officers in riot gear getting into formation. I tore back to the intersection to alert the others.

I had barely gotten back to the intersection when everyone could see for themselves the ranks of police approaching. They were lined up in rows of about 20 across, stretching from curb to curb, filling Nebraska Avenue, marching toward the intersection. They surrounded us on three sides. The only available exit was the corner where the campus abutted the intersection.

Then things happened very quickly. The police came at us with their billy clubs, not swinging them, rather pushing us with them, poking and prodding us, getting us to move out of the intersection and back onto campus. There was not much resistance because anyone who did not immediately move did get clubbed.

As I neared the curb where I could step back onto the presumably safe real estate of the campus, I found myself pressed hard up against a crush of people in front of me. There was a cop right behind me who kept poking his billy club into my back. I turned my head toward him and said, “Please, I’m moving as fast as I can.” Without a word, he drew back his billy club and smashed it full force into the bridge of my nose. I went down fast and hard. Lying on my back in the street, I could see the cop was winding up for another swing at me. Before he could bring his club down again, several protesters grabbed my arms and dragged me out of the street and onto the grassy area at the edge of the campus. They saved me from getting more seriously injured.

When the intersection had been completely cleared of protesters, the police lined up at the curb in a solid blue wall. There was a great deal of profanity shouted at the police, but no direct confrontation, at least for a while.

About ten minutes passed in this standoff situation. And then we saw a car coming down Massachusetts Avenue. Just one car. A long, black limousine. And they were taking their time about it. We didn’t know who was in the limo, but it had to be someone who we didn’t want getting to work that day. The crowd surged spontaneously toward the police line, trying to get back into the street.

And that’s when the tear gas started. There were about eight policemen with tear gas guns and they fired round after round onto campus. Fire and reload. Fire and reload. The air became an unbreathable miasma. I was still woozy from the blow I had taken and was sitting on the ground when the fusillade began and so I got quite a dose of the gas.

The limousine finally entered the intersection and it was then that we could see the occupant was Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, the man directly responsible for running the war we were protesting. He was staring out his window at us. Smiling. It was obvious that he was gloating. He could have taken another route to get downtown but clearly he wasn’t going to be put out of his way by some hippie protesters. So he had us clubbed and teargassed to clear his route, then smiled at his handiwork as his limo slowly paraded past us. (In fairness, I should note that Laird had counseled against the expansion of the war into Cambodia.)

The scene repeated itself over the next two days. Students take over the intersection early in the morning, students get teargassed and clubbed, Mr. Laird goes to work, clocking in slightly late each day. Similar scenes played out at Catholic, Georgetown and George Washington Universities. Similar scenes played out on hundreds of campuses around the country.

On Saturday, May 9 (fifty years ago today), 100,000 people descended on Washington to protest the war and the Kent State massacre. It was a peaceful protest.

The nine days between Richard Nixon’s April 30 announcement of the war’s expansion into Cambodia and the march on Washington on May 9 was probably the most intense period of sustained nationwide protest in the history of the country, before and since. That period also seemed to mark an inflection point in the antiwar protests. The unleashing of so much state violence — capped by the murder of four students and the wounding of nine at Kent State — changed everything. The war had come home.

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