Legacy of protest at Kent State University

By Rebekah Alvey, Lillie Eastham and Hayley Robb, F/G Scholars

In an age of civil disobedience and student protest, May 4, 1970 is an important date to remember and reflect on at Kent State University.

The university had been home to several widespread student-led protests against the Vietnam War. The weekend before May 4, students took to the streets of downtown Kent, Ohio, throwing rocks and bottles through shop windows.

On May 2, the ROTC building was burned down, and while no suspect linked to the incident, the governor of Ohio called in the national guard to keep order at KSU.

Students were peacefully protesting the presence of the national guard on May 4 when the soldiers opened fire on the crowd. Four students were killed and several others were injured.

Today KSU students remember the May 4 shooting and have continued the trend of student activism in the face of gun right issues.

As a history and political science major, Joann Bohr, a 1969 KSU graduate, said she went to college to learn and expand her knowledge. A part of that process involved protest and trying to make a change.

Bohr said she was never a member of Students for a Democratic Society but participated in protests while at Kent State. She said while she was a student there was tremendous change to the campus culture.

“Life had changed so quickly in so few years,” Bohr said. “It was amazing.”

The weekend before the May 4 shooting, Bohr was in Kent visiting her boyfriend at the time. She had gone home to Cleveland on Monday but said she believes she would’ve been at the May 4 protest if she had been on campus, a thought she found frightening.

“I remember the two of us watching the ROTC building burn and seeing tanks everywhere on my campus and soldiers,” Bohr said. “I can’t believe this.”

Current KSU freshman Diavian Francois said every first-year student at Kent State is required to take a course about May 4.

“Everything that we learn about is always tied into May 4,” Francois said.

Francois said Kent State is known to be an open-minded campus. She said some students may come to Kent without knowing a lot about the shooting, but they soon learn how the campus was impacted by the event.

Now Kent State is being linked to Kaitlin Bennett, a pro-gun rights activist and recent KSU graduate. Bennett posted graduation photos of her carrying an AR-10 rifle and a graduation cap reading “come and take it” to social media.

On campus, Francois said Bennett has received mixed reviews, but she doesn’t understand the need to advocate for more guns on a campus with a history of gun violence.

KSU senior Austin Bashore said he has a history of conflict with Kaitlin Bennett, whose gun rights rally in early October caused a counter protest. Bashore said he didn’t participate, just observed, and law enforcement was on the scene. Photo by Rebekah Alvey

KSU senior Austin Bashore said the campus has been impacted by Bennett’s presence and social media attention. Bashore said he has worked in the past with organizations Bennett strongly opposes and has some history with her because of this.

“[Bennett] is talking from what she actually believes, which is scary to be honest,” Bashore said. “She actually believes what she’s saying and she believes she is correct.”

In wake of Bennett’s rising national attention, Bashore said there has been a rejuvenation of student activism at KSU. Still, he doesn’t believe the campus is split, just more polarized than before.

“It has united people who otherwise would not have been united,” Bashore said.  

In the future Bohr said she hopes to be as involved as she can with increasing May 4 awareness such as planning for the 50th anniversary. She said she can find similarities between 1970 and today and hopes there are some lessons learned.

“If you don’t remember the past, you are doomed to repeat it,” Bohr said.  

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