Blind To The Obvious

The Urban Outfitters/Kent State sweatshirt controversy seems unbelievable to me — but maybe I just don’t realize how little companies know about the schools whose names get put on the front of products those companies sell.

In case you missed it, Urban Outfitters was offering a faux vintage Kent State sweatshirt that was daubed in red paint smears and splots.  Of course, anyone who knows anything about Kent State and its history would immediately think that the sweatshirt was referring to the shootings that killed four Kent State students and wounded others on May 4, 1970.  Not surprisingly, people were outraged by what seemed like a sick effort to profit from a terrible American tragedy.

Urban Outfitters claims, however, that it “was never our intention to allude to the tragic events that took place at Kent State in 1970 and we are extremely saddened that this item was perceived as such.”  Which is worse:  trading on a tragedy, or being so obtuse and insensitive that you don’t recognize that a red-spattered Kent State shirt would inevitably be thought to allude to the May 4 shootings?   It’s a close question in my view.

Urban Outfitters is one of those stores that tries to portray the most hip image possible.  I wouldn’t be surprised if the people who designed the offending sweatshirt had never heard of the Kent State shootings.  If you treat everything as just another “brand” and make no effort to understand an institution or its back story, this kind of embarrassment inevitably is going to happen.  Urban Outfitters should be ashamed.

Reflection, And Remembrance

Forty-three years ago, four students at Kent State University in Ohio were killed when the Ohio National Guard opened fire into a group protesting the Vietnam War.  Another nine students were wounded.

Forty-three years later, it remains a mystery to me how anyone, Guardsman or officer or politician, could ever have thought that American soldiers should fire live ammunition into a crowd of protesting students.  It is one of the enduring questions about the shooting that, I think, will never be satisfactorily answered.  Kent State University, however, offers information that seeks to present the competing viewpoints on that issue and to answer other questions about the shootings and their aftermath.

Forty-three years is a long time.  The Vietnam War and Cambodian invasion that prompted the protests that led to the shootings ended long ago.  The lessons to be learned from the shootings, however, remain fresh and vital today.  Kent State was an example of what can happen when government goes too far and forgets its ultimate role as protector of the people and guardian of individual liberties.   American citizens therefore should be mindful, and skeptical, of the accumulation of governmental power.   Blind trust in governmental institutions is not wise.  I’m sure the students protesting on the Kent State campus 43 years ago never dreamed that the Ohio National Guard unit would fire — but it did.

That’s one reason why it’s an incident worth remembering.

Tin Soldiers

Forty years ago today, Ohio National Guardmen fired on student protesters on the campus of Kent State University.  It was a massacre.  Four students were killed and nine were injured.

Looking back on that appalling day with the perspective that comes from the passing decades, it is almost impossible to believe that the shootings occurred.  The ’60s were a time of constant protests, riots, and frequent instances of civil disorder, yet even in the tumultuous context of that decade Kent State was an enormous shock.  How did our culture become so polarized that anyone — be it a politician, the commander of a military unit, or an individual National Guardsman — could think it was appropriate to shoot down unarmed students?  Yet they did.

My perspective on the shooting also has changed as I have aged.  As the parent of one college student and one very recent graduate, I wonder how I would react if I had been the father of one of the four.  Colleges are supposed to be places of growth and learning, not death and horror.  I cannot imagine the disbelief, the anguish, and the revulsion that the parents must have felt upon receiving the news that their child was dead, gunned down by soldiers on a bucolic campus on a spring day.

In the late ’70s I was a columnist for The Lantern, Ohio State’s student newspaper.  On May 11, 1979, I wrote a column on the Kent State shootings.  Yesterday I fished it out of the filing cabinet and reread it for the first time in years.  It is a bit over the top, maudlin and overdone, and written with a callow certainty, but it captured some of what I felt then and still feel now:

Student political apathy forged by Kent State deaths

Last Friday was the ninth anniversary of the Kent State shooting — the nightmarish massacre of four college students at the hands, and gun barrels, of the Ohio National Guard.

But it seemed as if Ohio State students had forgotten.  Or did they simply choose not to remember?

Unlike past years, there were no massive protests, no rallies, no marches.  The painful memory of the wretched deaths had been tucked away into a cobwebbed corner of the OSU student consciousness, and no one seemed eager to haul it out again.

Certainly, Kent State is not a pleasant or comfortable thing to ponder.  The images its memory evokes are harsh and bitter — images of blood and splintered bone, of bullet tearing into yielding flesh, of screams and confusion and terror and, ultimately, death.

It is easier to put such horrors out of the mind and contemplate disco, TGs, and which bar to patronize Saturday night.

Indeed, in these quiet, apathetic days where the Oval is used as a playground for frisbee-throwing and suntanning instead of as a rallying point for activist student politics, the specter of Kent State seems very far away.

It is hard to imagine a wave of national guardsmen charging across the campus with fixed bayonets, just as it is difficult to imagine today’s students caring about injustice or political issues.

But in a very real sense, the attitudes of today’s generation of students were forged by the crackling hail of gunfire that rang through the Kent State campus on May 4, 1970.

The Kent State shootings, and the shootings at Jackson State which occurred soon afterward, were the last gasps of the dying concept of student activism.

In the years that followed, the excesses of death scared students away from confrontation politics and into the present state of political catatonia that characterizes the OSU student body.

Student life is a tattered collage of polyester clothes, sorority formals and midterms in Econ 200.  The efforts of those who are consciously trying to effect change are ridiculed by students starting into a half-empty mug of beer.

The death of four Kent State students should have radicalized students and alerted them to the dangers of runaway political power exhibited by people like Richard Nixon and Jim Rhodes.  Instead it had the opposite effect.

Ironically, Jim Rhodes holds the same office he did in 1970 when he ordered the Ohio National Guard onto the Kent State campus.

It seems the four students who died at Kent State died in vain.

Appropriately, it was an older man who stood in the middle of the Oval last Friday, braving a grey downpour to encourage students to sign a petition memorializing Kent State.

There were few signatures on the posterboard that served as a petition, and the man was unsuccessful in recruiting more.

Pellets of rain spattered against the few names written boldly in blue ink on the cardboard.  The ink bled across the petition like aqua tears.