In 1970 the Ohio National Guard, armed with bayonets on M1 rifles, marched on and shot unarmed students at Kent State University who were engaged in a civil protest event that authorities had not approved. Although there were political agitators at Kent State that week, all of those shot were university students. I was only 9 years old at the time and did not hear about the story until perhaps months later. I recall that my mother did not wish to speak about the story with me; understandable given my age and the fact that I had younger siblings at home. The story never came up at my Catholic elementary school. Yet it was impossible for a kid to avoid hearing and thinking about the protest song “Ohio” over an over again on radio playlists. (My memory is unclear on whether the song played on AM of FM; this was a big distinction at that time. Philadelphia’s wildly popular AM station WFIL played top 40 and emerging FM radio played a wider range including more “radical” music. It was this type of distinction that eventually pulled younger audiences from AM to FM music venues. At that time many kids had handheld AM radios we called “transistor radios” but FM, for me was only available through dad’s stereo system in the living room). My only exposure to the Kent State news was discussion, usually with older kids, about the song and the underlying event. This event at Kent State – reinforced by the emotional power of the popular song – remained a sobering lesson for me about the limits, risks and consequences of social/political engagement. This thinking eventually led me to adopt the attitude that I would not let my behavior be guided away from taking the right position by a fear of the liabilities of taking the action.
Now, 44 years later it seems that few remember the actual story. I feel embarrassed and ashamed that many younger Americans know more about the controversial clothing line by Urban Outfitters than the true events that crushed the civil rights of freedom to protest on a college campus.
Civil protest will never be pretty. It might be as ugly as the clothing company’s marketing. Sometimes there are staggering costs to freedom of expression; these costs can be far greater than the emotional toll of being blasted on social media platforms (as seems to be the extent of the social/political risks I take today). Yet civil protest will always be necessary among the free-thinking individuals in any society.