Review: Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio

Kent State Four Dead in Ohio

Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio, Derf Backderf. New York: Abrams Comicarts, 2020.

Summary: A graphic non-fiction account of the shooting of four students at Kent State University, focusing on the students who died, and the sequence of events leading up to the shooting, and the dynamics within the National Guard Troops sent to suppress the student demonstrations.

Today marks 50 years since the shootings that took the lives of four Kent State students and wounded nine others, some disabled for life. I grew up about 35 miles from Kent in nearby Youngstown. Sandy Scheuer, a student walking between classes, grew up in Boardman, a Youngstown suburb. She was a sweet, apolitical, speech pathology major until one of the shots severed her jugular. She bled to death in minutes. I was a high school sophomore at the time. We walked around school the day after utterly stunned.

The others who died were Allison Krause, Jeff Miller, and Bill Schroeder. This new graphic non-fiction work by Derf Backderf traces the last days and final moments of these four students, from May 1 to May 4. It also covers the events surrounding the shootings. It begins with the announcement of Richard Nixon of the expansion of the Vietnam conflict into Cambodia, and the student reaction, including extensive rioting at Ohio State, a debacle for then governor James Rhodes, running for Senate. with a primary election coming up that week. Backderf profiles the Ohio National Guard, portraying these “weekend warriors” as coming into Kent from a tense standoff between teamsters and “scab” truckers in nearby Richfield. Short of sleep and already on edge from fear of snipers and other attacks, they arrive in Kent confronting students who have gutted a number of downtown businesses, and set an ROTC building on fire. Furthermore, a swirl of rumored threats put them on further edge.

Bill Schroeder was an ROTC student, likable yet a serious student with increasing doubts about the war. Jeff Miller, a transfer student loved the Kent bar and music scene but was increasingly upset by the war, and the Guard presence, having been gassed and eluded helicopter surveillance to get back to his home. Allison Krause, a politically engaged student also had encounters with an increasingly hostile Guard, and was amid the demonstrators. Both Schroeder and Scheuer were in a parking lot more than 400 feet from where the shots were fired. The closest students were at least 150 feet away. Backderf’s accounts of these students corresponds to others I’ve read.

While Backderf’s focus is on the students, he does explore radical elements with the Students for a Democratic Society and the Weatherman that had been on campus, but apparently cleared out before the student demonstrations on May 4. Unfortunately, Jeff Miller’s red headband, matched descriptions of the headwear of some of the radicals. Backderf also gives attention to a suspicious photographer, Terry Norman, apparently working for the FBI or another agency. Backderf note that he was armed and in the middle of the demonstrations on May 4. He also explores the possibilities of significant government infiltration of the campus prior to the shootings.

Two things stand out in the account of the shooting. One is the origin of the shooting. Backderf, like others, cannot come to a definitive conclusion, beyond focusing on Company G, and the reported huddle that occurred in the minutes before they opened fire. All the Guardsman were “locked and loaded” meaning that had live ammunition clips in their semiautomatic rifles, with a round in the firing chamber. Guns were reloaded  with new clips afterward and no one was ever held accountable for the shootings.

The other thing that “graphically” stood out was the portrayal of the deaths and wounds of each student, including portrayals of entry and exit wounds, along with text describing the damage rendered by each bullet that struck a student. The force of an M-16 gunshot can fatally wound at 2 miles. One round penetrated a plate of steel in a sculpture. I have seen the bullet hole. Casualty numbers do not convey the terror of those moments, how the students who died never had a chance, and the utter waste of what occurred.

Although this is a graphic work, it is not fiction but an attempt to render the history of these events graphically. The artist spent time onsite, and his renderings of places, including Kent’s downtown bars is accurate. He interviewed people close to the four students and spent extensive time in other interviews and in the Kent archives. The back matter includes extensive notes detailing Backderf’s research.

On this 50th anniversary, amid a time of a country in a health crisis, an economic crisis, and already facing deep divisions, this book portrays how demonstrations can go horribly wrong. Violent words can accelerate to property damage and attacks on others. Sometimes, the forces called to intervene are not adequately prepared or properly led. Political officials at every layer of government can de-escalate or exacerbate tensions by their words and actions.

The subtitle of this work is “Four Dead in Ohio,” quoting the words from “Ohio” by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, released later that summer. At the conclusion of performances, these words are followed by “how many more?” I hope this work, conveying the history of what happened to the Kent State students will renew our commitment to “no more,” even as occurred in the summer following these events. Some of us will never forget, some of us need to remember, and some of us may need to learn from this history to avoid repeating it.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review galley of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

 

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Sandra Lee Scheuer

Sandra Lee Scheuer

Sandra Lee Scheuer, undated photograph, source unknown.

This past week marked another May 4th. Not Star Wars day for me, but another anniversary of the shootings at Kent State the took the lives of four students and wounded nine. This year, the site of the shootings was designated a National Historic Landmark. During the mid- 1980’s, I worked in collegiate ministry with students at Kent and walked the grounds where the shootings occurred. Apart from evidence of bullet ricochets in a statue if one looked closely, you would not know the tragedy that unfolded here on May 4, 1970, as students demonstrated here, and on many campuses against the expansion of the Vietnam war into Cambodia. In the mid-1980’s, it seemed there was a studied effort by campus and town to distance itself from the memory of these events. I’m glad for more recent efforts to ensure that the four who died will not be forgotten: Bill Schroeder, Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, and Sandra Lee Scheuer.

I was not quite sixteen at the time of the shootings, a sophomore at Chaney High School. When we returned to school after the shootings, I remember how stunned all of us were. It did not seem that you could find words. There was fear as we heard some adults say, “they should have shot more.” My hair was kind of long then, and I wondered if some would have said or thought that of me.

I was hit particularly hard because one of those shot was Sandra Lee Scheuer, who was born in Youngstown and graduated from Boardman High School. Sandra was twenty years old at the time, an honors student in speech therapy. I didn’t know her, but the fact that she was from the Youngstown area and how she died shook me, and troubles me to this day. She was walking to a mid-term exam with another student, across a parking lot, at 12:25 pm when a group of National Guardsmen 130 yards away turned and fired toward a group of students in the vicinity of the parking lot. When I later walked the ground, I was stunned by how far away the students were who died from the guardsmen who fired–more than a football field away. They were not an imminent threat. Sandra Scheuer was not even involved in the demonstration. A round severed her jugular vein and she died within minutes. Tom Grace, wounded in the ankle, was in the same ambulance as Sandy as paramedics attempted to keep her alive. They could not.

Map of Kent State"Location Map May 4-Shooting" 08780_2005_001

Map of Site of Shootings at Kent State University via National Archives. (Note the distance between the lower left where Guards fired and where Sandy Scheuer fell in the upper right.)

 

I wonder if we will ever truly know why that particular group of Guard troops turned and fired. What we do know is that the world lost a wonderful young woman in Sandy Scheuer. Speech therapy is a tough academic discipline and to be an honor student requires intelligence and hard work, and a rapport with the people you work with.

Bruce Burkland, who had been going with Sandy for five years before her death, wrote in a letter to The Vindicator:

“To begin to describe what a beautiful person Sandy was would take forever, but there is one thing I want people to know about her which is that Sandy was not a reactionary student and was not involved in the demonstrations at Kent State. Sandy was not the type to cause or incite such events, but rather she always spread joy, happiness and laughter in people’s hearts wherever she went. She was the ultimate of life, especially of my life.”

It is significant that he would emphasize her not being a reactionary or a demonstrator. She was apparently accused wrongly of both, as if this would justify her death. She was neither, but simply a good student, an Alpha Xi Delta sorority sister with ambitions to try to make the world a better place by helping young people with speech and hearing impairments. Others described her as not the least bit political.

We never got to see the life she would live, only hints of what it might have been. But she has been memorialized at Kent State, and in song and poetry. I only recently learned that these words in Neil Young’s “Ohio” are a reference to Sandy:

“What if you knew her,
And found her dead on the ground?
How can you run when you know?”

Canadian poet Gary Geddes also memorialized her in a poem, Sandra Lee Scheuer in 1980. He tells the story of the poem in this article in North by Northwest.

Harvey Andrews also wrote a song called “Hey Sandy” that asks:

“Hey Sandy, Hey Sandy, why were you the one?
All the years of growing up are wasted now and gone.
Did you see them turn, did you feel the burn
Of the bullets as they flew?”

You can listen to the song with the full lyrics here. The problem with this song is that it implies that Sandy was part of the demonstrations, which was not true. The song would have been more powerful, in my view, if it told the true story of how she was simply a good student in the wrong place at the wrong time, and posed the question of how students so far away posed any threat.

When I think of the Kent State shootings, I not only think of the protests against an ill-conceived war in which old men were sending young men to die without a clear mission. I not only think of the day when we awoke to the unthinkable that our government would use those weapons of war on campuses where we assumed our children would be safe. I think of the day when one of Youngstown’s own, an innocent victim, died on the way to take an exam. Sandra Lee Scheuer, I never knew you. But I will always remember…

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Vietnam

3rd_Marines_patrolling_near_Quang_Tri_River_in_Vietnam_1967

3rd Marines patrolling near Quang Tri River, Russell Jewett, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

There was a cloud that hung over many of our lives growing up in the Youngstown of the 1960’s and 1970’s. No, it is not the clouds from the mills. It was the ongoing war in Vietnam (which was actually good for industry). Many of our young men would go there, some would die, and others would return, some wounded, and some bearing mental wounds they carry to this day.

While our involvement began in the Eisenhower era, and John Kennedy sent a growing number of “advisors,” it was during the presidency of Lyndon Johnson that I became aware of the war. I was in about fifth grade when I first started reading daily news stories in The Vindicator of “body counts” and plans to send more troops there. We were told with more troops and bombing, we were winning the war. We would see nightly news coverage of embedded journalists and footage of battle action in our living rooms.

For many, the turning point seemed to be the Tet offensive of 1968, a major reversal despite a half million troops and extensive bombing. We began to wonder if this was a different kind of war and if we were being told the truth. It helped bring Richard Nixon to office in 1968, on promises to get us out of the war with our dignity intact. Around this time, I was a paper boy. One of my customers was a returning veteran. He offered to tell me the real story of the war. I regret I never took him up on it.

In 1970, I was a high school sophomore at Chaney. Richard Nixon decided to extend bombing campaigns into Cambodia where enemy troops took refuge. To many college students facing the draft, this was a betrayal of the promise to end the war and demonstrations and riots broke out on many campuses. At nearby Kent State, May 4 was the terrible day when four students died and thirteen others were wounded by the Ohio National Guard troops. All of us at school the next day walked around stunned. Stunned shifted to scared when we heard some adults say, “they should have killed more.”

It made me wonder how they looked at me, with my longish hair. It told me how deeply we were divided, and I think this gave everyone pause as campuses suspended classes early. Somehow, we walked back from the abyss as a nation. In 1972, I registered for the draft, hoping I wouldn’t be called and that I would get a high lottery number. Mine was 12, but I dodged a bullet in more ways than one. Nixon was winding the war down and bringing troops home. The last men drafted were those a year older than I was.

The most difficult thing perhaps was that we lumped our soldiers in with our politicians who lied to us about the war, not explaining the kind of conflict we were in honestly. I know there are lots of arguments about whether we could have achieved victory in Vietnam. I don’t want to re-fight that war. Rather, I want to acknowledge that the men and women who served deserve all the honor as heroes they have only belatedly received. Many were just like me–hoping it wouldn’t come down to them–but doing what their country asked of them as their fathers did in World War II.

Vietnam was a lesson for us as a nation of how important it was that our leaders tell us the truth, particularly when making the case for sending our young men and women into harm’s way. While deceiving the nation cost Lyndon Johnson another presidential term, it cost thousands of young men their lives. It has marked our life as a nation ever since. It is always the case that when our leaders lie, it will be our people, and especially our working classes that will bear the brunt. To paraphrase an old protest song, “when will we ever learn?”

Remembering Kent State

I grew up within 40 miles of Kent State University and was a high school sophomore on May 4, 1970. Students had been demonstrating all weekend against US incursion into Cambodia. Some of it had grown violent, with an ROTC building being burned down and students who engaged in rock-throwing at National Guardsmen sent to keep the peace.  Four students died when the National Guard troops ordered to Kent by then Ohio governor James Rhodes opened fire with lives rounds. Sixty-seven shots were fired. Nine others were wounded.  Two of the four students who died, William Schroeder and Sandra Scheuer, were not part of the demonstrations and were walking to class, nearly 400 feet away. Sandra Scheuer grew up in Boardman, Ohio, a suburb neighboring my home town of Youngstown.

kent_state_350

We were shopping for spring flowers at our local nursery yesterday when Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s “Ohio” came on their PA system. The memories came flooding back. Mostly what I remember are three things. One was the day after and walking around as a high school sophomore in shock that this could happen so close to home. Another was that a girl from the Mahoning Valley was among those who died. And the third was fear as I overheard adults who said, “they should have shot more of them.” My hair was kind of long at the time. I wondered how some of them looked at me. That’s an indication of how divided we were as a country at the time over the Viet Nam war and how divided generationally we were.

I find myself reflecting on three things today. One is the importance of responsible dissent. Student dissent did contribute to ending the Viet Nam war and the events at Kent State were part of what caused our nation to pause. Yet not all of the dissent at Kent was responsible. When dissent escalates from words to acts of violence against people and property, we deepen the divides between us. It is also folly to take on an armed force, presuming it won’t act when life and limb are at risk of harm.

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The Guardsmen were also victims that day. They were in a situation for which they were not trained, and they bore the opprobrium of many afterwards, as did returning veterans from the war. It seems that we have learned since to focus more attention on the elders who make such decisions rather than the young men and women who have to put themselves in harm’s way.

Finally, I think about how the war divided our generations. It is not only a case of old men ordering the young into battle. It is what happens when public trust is broken and the keepers of that trust (and those who believe in the keepers) and the ones who are served by those leaders are set at odds with each other. This points up the deep responsibility of those of us who are elders to think not only about protecting our interests, but most deeply, about caring for the next generation when we face such decisions.

If those of us who were young at the time of Kent State can remember these lessons now that we are older, and pass them along, perhaps then we might avoid the sad situation of governors giving orders that result in the killing of our children.