I.F. Stone: Exposing Kent State
THE "forces of order" disposed of six students last May-four whites at Kent State and two blacks at Jackson State. Immediately after the shots were fired, in each case, the killers and the officials who dispatched them began covering up the crime and preparing to use the legal system to discredit and punish "ringleaders."
At Jackson, the local police, the Mississippi Highway Patrol, and the authorities proceeded with coldblooded efficiency born of long practice, using well-established administrative practices to cover up the wanton murder of blacks. As soon as the troopers had stopped firing, the Scranton Commission reported, they calmly picked up and hid the shell casings lying on the ground. They then agreed on a story and stuck to it in their testimony before the Hinds County Grand Jury and their replies to FBI investigators. All of those interviewed denied shooting-a story so ridiculous that even the local grand jury, which found the murders justified, called their declarations "absolutely false."
After further questioning, the Highway Patrol produced a few shells which it had forchandedly saved-all were from city police guns. When confronted with this evidence, three Jackson policemen admitted that they had fired. However, neither the local nor the federal grand juries felt compelled to consider charges under the perjury or "false declaration" laws, Instead, they turned the shell casings over to the FBI. Before recessing, however, the county grand jury indicted a young black named Ernest Kyles for arson and inciting to riot.
The cover-up mechanism here was strong; it was roughly the same as that used by the authorities in Orangeburg, S.C., in 1968, after troopers there shot and killed three black students and wounded twenty-seven. Although nineteen policemen were indicted for the shootings, they were later acquitted, returned to duty, and promoted. It seems unlikely that the Jackson State cover-up will be broken and the guilty punished-especially since the Nixon administration has given unmistakable notice that it is not very interested in pushing investigations into murders of blacks by whites upon whom it is depending for reelection (FBI agents interviewing the police in Mississippi did not bother to keep written records of the interviews-a standard practice intended to make preparing a case easier for local prosecutors).
Initially, the killings at Kent State and the after-math follow the same pattern: disorder breaks out, deadly force is called in to quell it, people are shot at random, evidence is suppressed, and a kangaroo tribunal returns indictments against the victims while clearing the killers. This is what happened during the summer and early fall at Kent: a grand jury cleared the Guardsmen, while indicting 25 students on charges of riot, arson, and unlawful assembly. The report-including a passage which stated that the responsibility for the shootings lay with the students, faculty, and Administration of the University-was published. It seemed likely that the students would be tried and sentenced and the matter forgotten.
BUT the analogy has broken down; for the victims at Kent were not blacks (whose murders are accepted as a matter of course by most of the white middle class), but-as the media never tired of repeating-the children of middle America, kids like the kids next door. Liberal response was impressive-Ramsey Clark and Mark Lane, among others, came to Ohio to defend those indicted. The pressure has paid off in some partial victories for the Kent 25: two weeks ago, a Federal district judge invalidated the Ohio grand jury report and ordered all available copies burned because it might prejudice jurors if the case came to trial. Ohio State Attorney General William J. Brown is appealing the case and opposing a move to quash the indictments which followed the decision, but it now seems possible that most of the Kent 25 will get off.
I.F. Stone has written a book, The Killings at Kent State. which illuminates some of the pressures which caused the shootings and the cover-up which followed. Moreover, he has published some official documents which reveal how the cover-up was effected-including an FBI report prepared in June which says "we have some reason to believe that the claim by National Guardsmen that their lives were endangered was fabricated subsequent to the event." The book is partly a collection of pieces about the shootings which Stone wrote late last year for the New York Review of Books, with a special report by the Akron Beacon-Journal, a summary of the FBI report-never published before-and the text of the original grand jury report appended.
He also deals with Jackson State, but there he found less information to go on. The Justice Department and the media have taken less of an interest in Jackson: what happened there was established procedure. As Attorney General John Mitchell said last month: "The case is closed. The judicial process has taken its course."
Stone has been around for a long time, and he can see through official lies and half-truths better than any other American journalist. He also has a large capacity for liberal outrage, and he finds plenty to anger him in the Kent situation. It is apparent that, from the decision to call in the National Guard until the publication of the Grand Jury report, the students at Kent State were victims of a cynical political system that counted their deaths merely as embarrassments or opportunities to entrench itself further in power.
Ohio Governor James Rhodes took over the handling of the Kent situation personally on Sunday, the day before the murders. The night before, students had burned the ROTC building on campus, slashing hoses when firemen came to put out the fire. Rhodes went to great lengths to demonstrate that he was hopping mad. He told a press conference that he had ordered the Guard to break up all assemblies on the campus, regardless of whether or not they were violent.
Pounding his fist on the table, he intoned, "We're going to employ every force of law that we have under our authority. . . . We are going to employ every weapon possible. . . . You cannot continue to set fires to buildings that are worth five to ten million dollars [the ROTC building was valued at about $50,000] . . . . These people just move from one campus to another and terrorize a community. They're worse than the brown shirts and the Communist element and also the night riders in the vigilantes [sic]. They're the worst type of people that we harbor in America. . . . There is no sanctuary for these people to burn down buildings. It's over with in Ohio."
Some of Rhode's deep moral outrage may be explained by the fact that he was running for the Republican Senatorial nomination in a primary two days away. Anti-student measures were good politics and Rhodes seized the chance to show what a tough guy he could be by turning the Guard loose on the Kent students with orders to let them have it.
THE GUARD he was using to prove his point was a weapon with a hair-trigger. The Ohio National Guard is the barony of Gen. Sylvester T. Del Corso, a former Army Colonel with the habit of keeping his office clock four hours fast. Del Corso appeared on televised hearings of the Scranton Commission last summer, sporting a complacent smile and carrying a large rock and a length of steel pipe which he claimed students had thrown at his men. Corso had achieved fame in Ohio before Kent by denouncing Cleveland Mayor Carl Stokes as a tool of black revolutionaries and Communists, and by blaming permissiveness and a Communist conspiracy for ghetto riots. His Guard was one of the few in the nation which routinely carried live ammunition, and it had standing orders to shoot back at snipers.
Before being ordered to Kent on May 2, the Guard units involved had spent four days on active duty fighting a wildcat strike. When the order came, one-third of the force was assembled and given a one-hour review lesson in riot control. Then the whole detachment piled into trucks and headed for the campus.
Rhodes and Del Corso had both made it clear that the Guard should not feel inhibited about their methods in breaking up student demonstrations. Students-all students-were the enemy. The Guard had no clear function on campus. It was there to punish the campus for being unruly, for being antiwar, for being young. It was there to garner a few points for an ambitious politician.
The Guardsmen shot, killing four and wounding thirteen. No one can make any sense out of the shooting; there was no sniping; the Guardsmen were neither in danger nor even surrounded; the number of rocks thrown was not large; and there was even plenty of tear gas-both FBI reports and the report by the Beacon-Journal make these facts clear. The only gun seized on campus that day belonged to a student taking pictures for the campus police.
The Guardsmen were acting on an ideology enunciated by Nixon, Agnew, and Del Corso. The students were the enemy, the American Viet Cong, guilty of the crime of being in the way. The Guardsmen had been given a focus for their anger, given live ammunition, and told to take care of the situation. No one can contend that they shot cold-bloodedly, taking out their anger like the hardhats. Undoubtedly they fired in blind, tired, nervous panic. But the shells had been loaded and the powder primed very carefully in Washington and Columbus.
Rhodes lost the primary the next day and went into seclusion, refusing to speak to reporters for three weeks. But the cover-up was under way before that. According to the FBI report, the Guardsmen got together and agreed to say that they had been in danger and had fired to keep from being overrun by students who wanted to grab their guns and bayonet them. The Beacon-Journal report explodes this flimsy story by quoting a Guardsman as saying, "The guys have been saying that we got to get together and stick to the same story, that it was our lives or them, a matter of survival. I told them I would tell the truth and I wouldn't get in trouble that way."
THE FBI reports also destroy the story, reporting that only one Guardsman was seriously injured in the action before the firing, and that "the Guardsmen clearly did not believe that they were being fired upon." Photographs do not show Guardsmen crouching or seeking cover from rocks. And, the report says, "We have some reason to believe that the claim by Guardsmen that their lives were endangered by the students was fabricated after the fact."
The Ohio Grand Jury that met to consider the shootings, however, was not programmed to accept these possibilities. It had one purpose: to exonerate the Guard. To have done otherwise, as Stone points out, would have been to condemn Rhodes. The political underlings accepted as a matter of course the Governor's complicity in the killings and moved to prevent it from being known. Thus, the chief prosecutor read the FBI report but did not submit it to the Grand Jury. He also neglected to call a number of Guardsmen named in the FBI report who gave testimony contrary to the pre-planned conclusion that the Guard had been in danger. Another prosecutor later told the newspapers that the National Guard "should have shot all the troublemakers."
The grand jury gave the expected whitewash, and the published report expanded considerably on its original mandate. It first dealt with the question of the Guardsmen (simultaneously deciding that a number of students should be charged with riot). The Guardsmen, it said, had "fired in the sincere and honest belief and under the circumstances which woud have logically caused them to believe that they would have suffered serious bodily injury had they not done so," and were "not, therefore, subject to criminal prosecution."
The report then fixed responsibility for the four deaths on the university administration, which was "permissive": even though SDS had been banned from the campus for more than a year, the Grand Jury made much of the fact that any other organization could be accredited to use University facilities without prior political screenings. The Administration had even, it charged, allowed a rock concert by "a rock music group known as the 'Jefferson Airplane'" at which slide projectors had shown shots of the Guardsmen firing at the students.
THE SOLUTION the report proposed was designed to prevent any more Kent States: "Expel the troublemakers without fear or favor."
The repressive mechanisms swung into action: the 25 were indicted, and tough new laws and rules were inaugurated to make pacification of students easier. One bill, the Ohio Campus Disorders Act, requires that an outside referee be appointed by the Regents of every State University with the advice of the local Bar Association. This referee would hear disciplinary cases of students arrested for-not convicted of-any felony or misdemeanor. He has the unrestricted right to expel or suspend students brought before him.
The Bar Association in Kent nominated Seabury Brown-the prosecutor who had said that "the National Guard should have shot all the troublemakers."
This nomination was vetoed by the Regents; and it seems possible that the Kent 25 may not be jailed for the crime of having served as moving targets. But the machinery is being honed. Next time it will work better; and soon, it may be as ruthless and efficient everywhere as it is in Mississippi.
It would be satisfying to imagine that this book-thorough and remarkably well-documented, considering the haste with which it was assembled-could cause a public outcry; but it is impossible. Stone told a reporter last week that he did not expect much reaction to the book. "The war has made moral imbeciles of us all," he said. Truly, six years of escalating war at home and in Vietnam have revealed clearly that our democratic institutions are a sick joke, and the realization has numbed us. We may be beaten to the ground before feeling returns.