On this 50th anniversary of tragic shootings on the campuses of Kent State University and Jackson State University, I can’t help thinking how different it might have been, and I’m not thinking, as I always have before, that those tragic events could have ended without fatalities. No, what I’m thinking now, in May 2020, is that the death count could have been much higher, had protestors in 1970 been armed with assault weapons, as were recent protestors this spring at the Michigan Capitol Building in Lansing.
Think about it. Unarmed students at Kent State faced National Guardsmen armed for war. Those at Jackson State were met by 75 units of the Jackson Police Department and the Mississippi Highway Patrol. Shots fired in Mississippi lasted 30 seconds, killing two; in Ohio, four lay dead after only 13 seconds of shooting.
Jackson State students had gathered to protest racism, a serious social issue for all Americans and a highly personal one to students at that historically black institution. The Kent State rally, originally organized to protest the war in Vietnam, became also a protest against the military occupation of their campus. It is true that some property damage had occurred in connection with both of these protests. But property damage – not violence against persons.
Scenes from the recent Lansing protest showed angry white men, many carrying assault weapons, many not wearing the face masks most of us are wearing these days to protect ourselves and others from the contagion of coronavirus, and some carrying not protest signs at all but campaign signs. The angriest men got right up in the faces of masked police officers who were constrained from any kind of retaliation. Some of the legislators on the floor donned bullet-proof vests.
No one was killed in Lansing, and that is a good thing. Maybe some think the protestors’ assault weapons protected them. I tend to give the credit to the forbearance of the law enforcement officers.
If you think I’m wrong and if you believe that the assault weapons carried in Lansing are what prevented the eruption of fatal violence, how do you imagine events at Kent State and Jackson State would have played out if the protesting students had been armed? We’ll never know, will we? But I for one cannot imagine the Guardsmen and police sent to control the situations in May 1970 showing the restraint taken for granted by so-called “American Patriots” in Lansing on April 20, 2020, had they faced students with lethal weapons.