As I awakened this morning, the four young people shot down, and the others whose lives were changed by wounds at Kent State University 44 years ago, were on my mind. Their sacrifice carries meaning and a message across the decades. I have to admit, however, that I was surprised at the level of shock and outrage expressed by so many people at the time of the attack.

As someone who was beaten, harassed, and threatened with deadly force by police on the streets from the time I was thirteen years old, as someone who knew the feeling of being locked away in solitary confinement by an all powerful government, as someone who had friends victimized by the Chicago police riot of 1968, as someone who knew people who “committed suicide” while in police custody, I evidently had a different kind of knowledge.

As someone who knew about the lynchings and the government sanctioned, sponsored, or accepted murders of scores of civil rights and labor activists over the previous 150 years, as someone who consciously lived with the genocide of slavery and the near extinction of the First Peoples by our government, I was as saddened by the reaction of many around me, as I was by the shootings at Kent.

Over and over again in my head the words reverberated, “What in the world did we expect?”  I too was outraged by the National Guard’s actions, but not because the shooting was exceptional. It was because it was “one more time.” Within days Black students were murdered by state police at Jackson State University. The reaction to that incident never seemed to resonate with the intensity of the ongoing outrage that continues to be expressed at the Kent State shootings. Why? That is a discussion we need to continue to have.

I was saddened then because it seemed that those who were so uniquely outraged by the Kent State shootings were either oblivious to our history or had somehow not been able to see themselves in the lives of all the activists who had been murdered, beaten, maimed and tortured by our government right up to that very moment. I recognized an irony at the time that just 84 years earlier (exactly 128 years ago today) the “Haymarket Square Massacre” had taken place. The Chicago police marched into a labor rally that had been protesting the police killing of a striker. A small bomb was thrown that killed a police officer. The police then opened fire, shooting down seven of their own and a number of the rally participants. Who was held accountable for these killings? The police? Not a chance. Seven local labor leaders and a man who was known to have made bombs were arrested and charged. After a sham trial, four of these men were hanged. The bomb maker blew himself up, and three went to prison. None of them was proven to have had anything to do with the bomb. “What did we expect?” 

Our government has always maintained the right and the power to harm its citizens. The students at Kent were no exception. It is sad and it should always be outrageous that any government will attack its own citizens. Our government may not do it as often during some periods as it does in others, but we must never forget that, almost whoever seems to be in power, they will use it against us if they choose.

It is our job to know our history and to fill the streets with our humanity when necessary, trying hard not to forget that, “The people united, will never be defeated.”  See you at the barricades!


River Smith is a trouble making punk who was locked up as a teenager, and after all these years, he still can’t keep his smart mouth shut.