By Cameron Coyle, F/G Scholar
The movie “Fire in the Heartland” begins with different shots of Kent State’s modern campus until a foggy substance begins to fill the screen, slowly revealing itself to be the tear gas thrown by the National Guard at hundreds of college students protesting the Vietnam War on May 4, 1970. The audience is transported back to that fateful day as the narrator begins to speak about the 67 total bullets fired over the course of 13 seconds which killed four students, two of which weren’t even protesting.
Unreleased to the public since it was finished in 2010 due to soundtrack copyright issues, “Fire in the Heartland” makes one thing very clear; the protest which preceded the killing of these students wasn’t an anomaly, but instead the straw that broke the camel’s back.
The town of Kent, Ohio was a microcosm of America in the 1960s. The campus was unevenly split on the political spectrum with the majority of students leaning conservative, but also housing a good amount of liberal (and more vocal students) as well. Townspeople resented most of the students and saw them simply as a benefit to the local economy they had to tolerate. People were divided by politics, age and race and at odds with each other because of it.
Protests were not uncommon at Kent State during this time. In the early 1960s students began to protest racist housing policies since African-American students had been designated to live in an inferior area called the Flats. Free-thinking hippies protested alongside Black United Students (B.U.S.). Later, students would form the Students for a Democratic Society (S.D.S.) and the two groups would often work together.
Many students began to take am anti-war stance in 1967 after enough of their classmates and friends had either been killed in action or returned home irreversibly scarred with P.T.S.D., and once they saw this and believed it was all for nothing, they couldn’t sit idly anymore. The more liberal students at Kent State tried to emulate Dr. Martin Luther King, and his anti-Vietnam War stance helped lead them to this position too.
Hubert Humphrey visited Kent State while campaigning for president in 1968 and received a cold welcome. While giving a speech to the student body, B.U.S. walked out of the event, believing Humphrey was too positive about the issues the country was facing which made him seem weak and complicit.
S.D.S. and B.U.S. also protested the Oakland Police Department recruiting students in the late 1960s. The Oakland Police Department had developed such an infamous reputation that they struggled to locally recruit new officers and were forced to travel to areas where people were more ignorant of their racist and abusive reputation. S.D.S. and B.U.S. shut down the recruitment building which led Kent State to attempt to expel multiple African-American students.
The majority of African-American students walked off campus after the attempted expulsions which caused national media attention. Kent State had the reputation of a liberal-arts college, so losing all of their African-American students so shortly after the civil rights movement would permanently smear the university’s reputation. Kent State realized this and reversed their decision.
In the spring of 1969, an S.D.S. student wrote the “Spring Offensive,” a document detailing changes S.D.S. wanted made to the campus, including banning the R.O.T.C. which they believed symbolized imperialism and everything wrong with the war on their campus.
S.D.S. students went to nail the “Spring Offensive” to a campus door, drawing inspiration form Martin Luther and his 95 Theses. This caused Kent State to resort to expulsion again, deciding to kick four students out of the university. S.D.S. members later marched in protest and 300 of them made their way inside the building holding the expulsion hearing. Students were charged with criminal trespassing and inciting a riot, and S.D.S. lost their charter as well. One student, Jim Powers, was even sent to prison and determined to be criminally insane for prying open a door that let the students inside.
With the S.D.S. gone, a void was left which was soon filled by student Terry Robbins who wrote “the Weathermen Proposal” and founded the group the Weathermen, named after the Bob Dylan lyrics “You don’t have to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” The Weathermen gradually became extremists and Robbins drove people away with his radical methods. He later accidentally killed himself trying to make bombs.
Richard Nixon’s announcement of the invasion of Cambodia in the spring of 1970 kickstarted the days long protest which would eventually lead to the fatal shootings. People were led to believe the war was beginning to come to an end, but Nixon’s latest plan showed the United States still planned to stay on the offensive.
Students drinking at restaurants threw a few beer bottles at police officers on May 1 which caused officers to order students into the streets. Almost no African-American students were involved in this or later days of protest, as they knew what law enforcement was capable of doing to dissenters. Some students then decided to break windows of buildings on the road, but other students returned the next day to help repair the damages.
On May 2 students attempted to occupy the R.O.T.C. building. One student threw a flair inside the building and others chopped up the firetrucks’ firehoses when the fire department arrived. After the scene looked to have been cleared, the R.O.T.C. building became engulfed in flames. The National Guard arrived the next day and Governor James Rhodes—who was running for re-election—said, “We’re going to eradicate the problem, not treat the symptom.”
On May 4 students assembled the largest student protest of all time. The National Guard threw tear gas at students, only for the students to throw the canisters back. Rocks were thrown, people were clubbed and students were arrested. As the protest seemed to wind down, a group of National Guard soldiers marched up the hill some students were protesting around, turned, knelt, and fired 67 bullets in 13 seconds. Cars became riddled with bullets as screams filled the air along with cries for ambulances.
Jeff Miller was closest to the guards and was shot in the mouth and killed instantly.
Alison Krause was shot in the left side of her chest and died later in the day.
Bill Schroeder, a member of the R.O.T.C. and an eagle scout, was shot in the chest while watching the protest. He died an hour later.
Sandy Scheuer was shot in the neck while walking to class and died soon after from a loss of blood.
Richard Nixon excused the National Guard from any blame by saying “When dissent turns to violence it invites tragedy.”
3 million students went on strike after this across the country, but one turned into another tragedy. Jackson State, a historically African-American college, was host to another shooting by police officers in which two students were killed and 12 were wounded. Bullets were shot up into a women’s dorm building that broke multiple windows. Jackson State received almost no coverage because of their high African-American enrollment.
The F.B.I. ruled both shootings unjustified, but the Ohio grand jury bragged on the National Guard for “bravery.” Any indictments were thrown out and expunged, and no members of the National Guard were reprimanded.
After 20 years, Kent State University eventually built a memorial honoring the students who lost their lives.
“Fire in the Heartland” shows students weren’t killed because they were protesting the Vietnam War, but instead because of how loudly they dissented. A total of six students, including the kids from Jackson State, lost their lives because people were using their Constitutional right, and some of the deceased were truly innocent bystanders. It’s an aching thing to reflect on, but should serve as a warning for something the United States should never repeat.