Monday, May 4, 1970.
The first reports came from Kent State via a Telex machine in our College Press Service office, part of a small Telex network linking college newspapers around the country: National Guard shoots at students. Unknown number killed and wounded. We had been gathering then disseminating news about the national student strike that had been organized to begin that day to protest the U.S. expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia. This was our best instant communication. As I recall, we tried to call, but I can’t remember if we got through. A Washington Post reporter showed up in our office to see what we had heard. This was before IPhones or cellphones, before YouTube or CNN or the Internet or National Public Radio. The images and information would filter out during the afternoon, first on network TV, then in the morning newspapers: In 13 chilling seconds, the guardsmen had fired 67 rounds, killing four students and wounding nine others. There was a new escalation to the war: on the home front. Neil Young would write the song the following week after seeing photographs of the killings in Life magazine.
One year later, on Monday, May 3, 1971, US marshals wearing yellow jumpsuits dropped out of dozens of helicopters at the foot of the Washington monument, fanned out over Foggy Bottom toward the Lincoln Memorial and herded anyone on the street – student protesters, veterans, tourists, journalists – into buses that delivered nearly 10,000 people to makeshift barbed-wire enclosures in southeast Washington. No names, no arrests, no charges, no prospect of release. The dragnet was a new tactic to break up anti-war demonstrations that had blocked commuter traffic to protest the widening war in Southeast Asia and commemorate the killing of students at Kent State and Jackson State in 1970. The next day, thousands more were arrested at sit-ins in front of government offices across the city. Wednesday afternoon, after two nights in the old DC Coliseum and two meals of stale baloney sandwiches and water, the final 2,500 “John and Jane Does” were released by US District Court judges on habeas corpus petitions filed by the American Civil Liberties Union.
As one of those John Does, I had a profound new appreciation of freedom, and how easily it could disappear. I left Washington the next week in my yellow Ford van, bound for a job as a police reporter in Upstate New York. Every year at this time, my thoughts roll back to those days in early May of ’70 and ’71.