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The Day They Opened Fire

Alan Canfora, a survivor of the Kent State Massacre, looks back on a divided America — and sees parallels with the current one.

By Matthew Hays 10 Jul 2017 | TheTyee.ca

Matthew Hays is a Montreal-based journalist whose work has appeared in the Guardian, the Globe and Mail, the New York Times, Vice and The Walrus. He teaches courses in journalism and film studies at Concordia University and Marianopolis College.

The image is one of the most haunting of an era. A man waves a black flag of protest as armed soldiers stand in the distance with guns cocked, apparently ready to shoot.

And they did open fire moments later. The day was May 4, 1970, and the incident followed days of protest across the United States against President Richard Nixon’s announcement that the Vietnam War would expand to include Cambodia. The National Guard was called in to Kent State University in Ohio, where a peaceful protest was taking place.

But the peace didn’t last: 29 guardsmen opened fire, shooting almost 70 rounds of ammunition into the crowd over 13 seconds. They killed four and wounded nine, one of who was paralyzed for life.

Kent State became a rallying cry for activists, and a galvanizing moment for the anti-war movement. It also came to symbolize a country that was desperately divided along political lines: those who supported Nixon and the war and those who were against it.

One of the survivors, Alan Canfora — who was shot in the wrist — went on to continue speaking out against the war, finishing his education to become a law librarian. He continues to live in Ohio and is active in politics, staunchly supporting Hillary Clinton in last year’s U.S. presidential election.

The Kent State Massacre was back in the news early this year when a Michigan-based Republican, Dan Adamini, suggested in a tweet that it was “time for another Kent State perhaps” in response to anti-Trump protests at Berkeley. He was forced to step down from his party position as a result of the furor over his comment.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Canfora is bitterly disappointed in Americans for having elected Donald Trump: “We have let down the world,” he says. He spoke to The Tyee about his memories of being shot in 1970, and the issues that divided Americans then and now.

The Tyee: On that day in 1970, on the Kent State campus, there is that famous photo of you waving a flag in front of the National Guardsman, just moments before they opened fire. You were protesting peacefully, and you were in the United States. Yet they had their guns drawn. Did you have any inkling that they were going to start firing upon you?

Alan Canfora: Up until they aimed their weapons at me, I had no conception that they might start shooting live ammunition into a crowd of unarmed students. At that moment, when they started aiming at me and people nearby, I realized that if those weapons were loaded, this was obviously a very dangerous situation. Then I had to wonder if they would actually shoot. I immediately thought, “It’s broad daylight, they didn’t shoot anyone at protests in recent days,” so I thought they wouldn’t.

I gambled, I took a chance, but at the same time I thought that if they did shoot, my life would definitely be in jeopardy. These were momentary thoughts. I thought it was important to exercise my right to freedom of speech, freedom of expression and my right to oppose the war in Vietnam and Cambodia and the abuses by the National Guard that had been occurring during the previous two nights, when they had been beating students and stabbing students with bayonets during protests. Ten days earlier I had attended my friend’s funeral — he was killed in Vietnam — on April 24, and that was the overwhelming feeling on that day, was of my experience at that funeral, and the significance of our struggle, to try to stop that genocidal war. Thousands of our own citizens were dying, as well as millions of southeast Asians.

Memories change over time. How has your perception of what happened that day changed in the 47 years since it happened?

Obviously I know a lot more now. Knowing that their rifles were locked and loaded from the beginning, the vast majority of those guardsmen carried very deadly weapons. I think they definitely would have an impact on all our actions on that day, both on the students and perhaps on the National Guard, if they even knew they would have got that order, I think some of them would not have gone out that day. Only a minority of the 67 guardsmen up on the hilltop actually fired their weapons. I think that some people knew what was going to happen from the beginning of the confrontation. I think what basically happened was a 24-minute hunting expedition intending to kill human prey. That’s my conclusion after all these years, considering all the facts we have learned. I think it was a very calculated manoeuvre. I think they intended not only to disperse our rally, but to follow us around and figure out who were the most outspoken students, and then to target us. That put me in their line of fire as I had been waving a flag of protest.

It has become a historic point of reference. Do you think lessons have been learned from Kent State?

I think lessons were clearly learned. The government shortly thereafter stopped using such deadly weapons. They started to resort to what they call non-lethal or less-lethal weapons, including rubber bullets, plastic projectiles, wooden projectiles, various types of gasses. Which I think is an admission that it was wrong to fire 67 gun shots, mostly from high-powered rifles, into a crowd of unarmed students in broad daylight. Down through the years different people have made comments, even the National Guard leadership were compelled to express regret that the shootings happened. The governor of Ohio in 1990 expressed his apology to the victims of the shootings. Very few people try to justify the murderous actions of the National Guard now.

On the students’ side, some try to misinterpret the historical tragedy by suggesting that the students got silenced by the shooting. It’s a misreading of actual history. It’s a myth, and false. In the days and weeks after Kent State, the only national student strike in U.S. history occurred, when almost five million students joined a strike which shut down all of the large and medium colleges and universities in America for days and weeks. This had a huge impact on President Nixon, who said as much in his memoirs, that those were the darkest days of his presidency. Nixon’s aide H.R. Haldeman said in his book, The Ends of Power, that Kent State marked the beginning of Nixon’s downward slide to Watergate. It helped to bring down the president of the United States, it helped to turn public opinion against the Vietnam War, and it effected many changes that happened within the federal and state governments. I think some students learned you may have to pay a very dear price if you stand up against your government. Shootings like that did continue in other places, sadly.

I still remember the made-for-TV movie about it, which was produced by the Osmonds, of all people.

Yes, the NBC movie that aired in 1981. The National Guard hated it, so of course we liked it. Really, I thought it was kind of cheesy, and kind of schmaltzy at times, and some of the dialogue was kind of hokey. But the buildup to the shootings, the way it was captured, was actually very well done and chilling — it was a very accurate re-enactment. There was a character in there who was a composite character, he was based in part on me.

A GOP leader recently said we need another Kent State, but later had to retract his statement.

That’s an example of a misunderstanding of history by conservatives, and by others. They think that when the students were shot at Kent State the movement was terrorized into silence and submission. That did happen in Mexico City in ’68 when far more students were gunned down brutally in a protest about the Olympics. But with Kent State, the opposite happened. Universities were shut down by the strike I mentioned. For that conservative Republican to make that statement is just an expression of an ignorance of history. If he thought that shooting those people at Berkeley — which is what he was talking about — would somehow silence them, he’s speaking from a misinterpretation of what happened after Kent State.

Would you say America is now the most polarized it’s been since the Kent State shootings?

I think so. I think it’s right up there to the 1968 to 1970 years, when Nixon whipped the country into a hysteria, purposefully trying to divide the nation’s voters according to the war in Vietnam. Nixon spoke of a silent majority, he hoped to win over that majority of voters, but after Kent State and the student protests there was such a backlash, public opinion had turned against the war and against those who would think that they should brutalize the student protesters. Congress began to cut off funding to the war efforts in Vietnam. In 1971, the Congress lowered the voting age from 21 down to 18, so the youth voters and protesters were getting more respect. Now, you’ve got Trump and the GOP intentionally trying to divide people, based on immigration, racism, hoping that they can forge a new majority of voters. But already you can see a big backlash against him. Right now though, I’d say the polarization is very dangerous.

It feels like a strange rerun of Nixon.

It certainly does. I think a lot of people felt that politicians would learn from Nixon and not make those mistakes, but Trump is in his own category, he’s not really quite like any politician we’ve seen before. Hard to know what he’s thinking, but he certainly hasn’t learned from history, or polarization, or the American people, or world events or diplomacy, or the environment. It’s quite a scenario we find ourselves in now. It’s dreadful.

Do you have hope now?

I do. I feel that people can have awakenings with the help of others. When I was young it seemed like Nixon would be in power forever and the war would go on forever. People can turn things around and turn things into something positive. But people wake up and do take action and can take a crisis situation into a better one. Make no mistake, these are dark days, but I think people will rise up and reverse the damage that’s being done right now.

What’s your worst fear about what might happen now?

My worst fear is that Trump will fabricate an incident, such as the Reichstag fire that happened in Germany in 1933, a terrorist incident or something like that, something that would give Trump the right to suspend the constitution and start rounding up his opponents, and just destroy our democracy. My worst fear is that we’ll never have another federal election.

These are my worst fears, which are probably overblown. But we don’t have fascism yet in the country, we still have freedom of the press and the Internet, so that gives me some hope. The reaction to the repeal of Obamacare gave me a lot of hope. Politicians could see they couldn’t get away with anything they wanted. Those protests give me real hope.  [Tyee]

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