Justice  /  Comment

Kent State and the War That Never Ended

The deadly episode stood for a bitterly divided era. Did we ever leave it?
Derf Backderf

On May 7th, three days after the shooting at Kent State, as many as five thousand students thronged the Manhattan funeral service of Jeff Miller. As the mourners marched through the city, scattered groups of construction workers, up on girders, threw beer cans at them. The mayor, John Lindsay, had declared May 8th a “day of reflection,” and closed the city’s public schools. A thousand college students turned up for an antiwar rally, hoping to shut down Wall Street: “One-two-three-four. We don’t want your fuckin’ war! Two-four-six-eight. We don’t want your fascist state!” They were met by construction workers, many of whom had come down from the Twin Towers and not a few of whom had buried their soldier sons, or their neighbors’ sons, in flag-draped coffins.

Joe Kelly, six feet four and from Staten Island, was working on building the elevators at the World Trade Center. He said he’d reached his “boiling point,” and headed over to the protest during his lunch hour, joining hundreds of workers in yellow, red, and blue hard hats, some carrying American flags, many chanting, “Hey, hey, whaddya say? We support the U.S.A.!” and “Love it or leave it!” Kelly thought the students looked “un-American.” The students called the hardhats “motherfucking fascists.” Kelly punched a kid who, he said, swung at him and knocked the kid down. While police officers looked on, more or less approvingly, the workers attacked the protesters, clubbing them with tools, kicking them as they lay on the ground. Some of the policemen dragged hippies out of the fight by their hair. Even some Wall Street guys, in suits and ties, joined the hardhats. Lindsay had called for the flag at City Hall to be lowered to half-mast. The construction workers swarmed the building and forced city workers to raise the flag back up. Other workers chased undergraduates from Pace University back to campus, breaking into a building on which students had draped a white banner that read “VIETNAM? CAMBODIA? KENT STATE? WHAT NEXT?” Pace was next. Students tried to barricade the buildings while construction workers broke windows and leaped inside, shouting, “Kill those long-haired bastards!”

Two weeks later, at the White House, Nixon received a memo from his aide Patrick Buchanan. “A group of construction workers came up Wall Street and beat the living hell out of some demonstrators who were desecrating the American flag,” Buchanan reported. “The most insane suggestion I have heard about here in recent days was to the effect that we should somehow go prosecute the hardhats to win favor with the kiddies.” He advised the opposite tack: abandon the kiddies, and court the hardhats. The day before, a hundred and fifty thousand New York construction workers, teamsters, and longshoremen marched through the streets of the city. The Daily News called it a “PARADE FOR NIXON.” They were trying to make America great again. Nixon invited the march’s leaders to the White House, where they gave hard hats as a gift. Nixon was well on his way to becoming the hero of the white working class, men and women, but especially men, who left the Democratic Party for the G.O.P. “These, quite candidly, are our people now,” Buchanan told Nixon. They were Nixon’s, and they were Reagan’s, and they are Trump’s.

On May 7th, the day of Jeff Miller’s funeral in New York, signs were posted all over the Jackson State campus:

Be Concerned
Meet in Front The Dining Hall
At 2:00 P.M. Today
To Discuss Cambodia.

A small crowd showed up. Two days later, only about a dozen Jackson State students went to a rally in downtown Jackson. One student leader recalled, “The kids at Kent State had become second-class niggers, so they had to go.” They had found out what he and his classmates had known their whole lives: what happens when the police think of you as black.