Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

"My 285th post on Kent State." Why the 1960s still matter

Saturday is the 43rd anniversary of those tragic events on that Ohio campus -- May 4, 1970, when National Guardsmen murdered four students during a chaotic protest against President Richard Nixon's escalation of the war in Southeast Asia.

Yes, I do read the things you say about me in the comments section. I know I'm a big, easy target, and -- believe it or not -- the rare good ones really do make me laugh. The best one this year -- I apologize for forgetting who said it -- said that at least something controversial I'd written wasn't "my 285th post about Kent State."

Ha! By the way, Saturday is 43rd anniversary of those tragic events on that Ohio campus -- May 4, 1970, when National Guardsmen murdered four students during a chaotic protest against President Richard Nixon's escalation of the war in Southeast Asia. It was, for all intents and purposes, the spiritual end of the era that we call the 1960s (or the '60s. or the Sixties...take your pick), later wrapped up in a bow by the surprise epilogue of the Watergate scandal. So to mark the occasion, here's "my 285th post on Kent State" (give or take 279, or so.)

One reason the comment struck a chord it was more spot on than he or she realized, because I've actually been obsessing about the 1960s more than ever in the last year. Some of the reasons are surely just personal: The arrival of mid-life (heh, if I live to be 108) has caused me to think back more and more about the things I've seen along the way and how the scenery has changed. In a few months will be the 50th anniversary of my first political memory -- a 4-year coming in from the chilly yard and seeing his mother weeping, and trying to understand the incomprehensible notion that someone had shot the president. At some point when I wasn't paying attention, the 1960s went from a wired near-present to an unplugged past on the other side of something, an era that comes to me now so distantly through the AM radio static of a Galaxy 500, fading echoes of "Mr. Tambourine Man."

That feeling of loss intensified a year and a half ago when I covered the Occupy Wall Street movement, a no-acid flashback in living color, a thousand people in the street -- and then we looked away for a second, looked back and they were gone, like a mirage. It confirmed for me something that I'd known inside for a long time -- that nothing like the things I'd witnessed through the innocent eyes of a child -- the chaos that was scary yet, in the words of a song, all too beautiful -- were ever coming back in any way that would be quite the same. Right after that brief "American Autumn," I reported an e-book on the 1948 Eagles and struggled with how many of those players were gone, or in various stages of dementia -- and it struck me one day that the front-line players, if you will, of the 1960s are not that far behind them,. In the last year, I found myself staying up to 2 a.m. to watch "Berkeley in the '60s" on Netflix, or listening to "Volunteers" or "Let It Bleed" while I worked, or reading "The Assassination of Fred Hampton" on the Market Street El. The obvious question hovered like a thought bubble while my strange time capsule whizzed over the 21st Century streets of West Philadelphia.


The question of why the 1960s matter to me is one thing, but what's important is, should the events of 50 years ago matter to the rest of us? Is what happened on May 4, 1970 - and in the tumultuous years leading up to it -- still relevant on May 4, 2013? OK, I've clearly revealed my bias, but I think the answer is undeniably yes -- because there is a straight line between the skirmishes people fought then and the all-too-real war for the future of America that is taking place today.

Here's another question to put that era in perspective: Was what happened on the homefront just a brief time of heightened social upheaval, or was there really a full-blown revolution in this country? Well, before you jump in with what seems like the obvious answer -- consider the hallmarks of the other revolutions that you've seen. You'd see peaceful protests escalate to street violence, with a mounting death toll and with the military eventually called up. You'd see revolutionary cadres form, and intensifying government efforts to stop them but also legitimate protest. with wiretaps and informants, leading up to targeted killings. There'd be deadly suppression of protests, and daring acts of defiance. Yet in some revolutions, the government is ultimately toppled, its leaders put on trial, its secrets aired in a national reconciliation effort. But the underlying tensions remain.

I could have been describing Egypt in 2011, but of course I was talking about the United States from 1965-1975 . Yes, the 1960s were the Second American Revolution, but why and how did it end? This is where history gets messy. I'd argue that the era ended in an uneasy draw. On one hand, the millions protesting the government got some of the things that they fought for -- the draft ended, the war in Vietnam wound down to its inevitable end, 18-year-olds won the right to vote, African-Americans won the right to vote as well as other civil liberties with women, gays and others on their heels. But the revolution of the 1960s also ended because of the often-violent crackdown by the government. More than two dozen leaders of the Black Panthers, for example, were killed by police bullets, and most others were sent to jail.

For a few days after Kent State, the volley of National Guard bullets that inexplicably killed four young people (none of whom were breaking the law, including two bystanders who weren't involved in the anti-war demonstrations) felt like the start of an even bigger revoluttion, but in the reality is was the end; campuses closed for the summer and when the students came back in the fall, the active protests were all over but the shouting. Killing people has a way of doing that. We don't like to admit it, but too often, violent repression works.

Yet only later would it come out that antiwar protests played an important role in preventing Nixon from escalating the war even further. And the government paranoia caused by the revolution of the 1960s led directly to the spying, the break-ins and the other covert activities that toppled Nixon and sent many key aides to jail. What I'm trying to say that both sides won -- and lost -- the revolution. Kent State was an ending -- but it was a horrible ending that really satisfied no one. And so it created the uneasy domestic cold war that drives too much of political life more than four decades later.

What do I mean by that? There's a lot of examples but let's look quickly at two. Since the end of the 1960s, the cities that burned and rioted in revolution have been torn apart anew -- by mass incarceration. Much of this has been driven by a so-called "war on drugs" that started at the end of the 1960s with New York's Rockefeller drug laws that mandated lengthy sentences for small amounts of narcotics. We may think of the "war on drugs" as beginning that time that Nancy Reagan went on "Diff'rent Strokes," but it really was a response to the 1960s. The result has been astounding: Since 1972, the number of prisoners in America has gone from 196,000 to 1.6 million, a 700 percent increase, and the United States now has the highest incarceration rate of any nation in the world.

The policies that created this situation -- including ridiculous disparities in drug sentencing for blacks as opposed to whites, and now the "stop-and-frisk" policies that clearly target African-Americans and Latinos, most of them law-abiding citizens -- have continued or expanded to this day. At some point, America needs to look with clear eyes at mass incarceration and ask itself: Does this look like a country that's fighting crime, or does it look like a country that's suppressing part of its population in the aftermath of an uprising. I think people are afraid to ask -- because they are afraid of the answer.

Want another example of our 1960s revolutionary cold war? Get in your car and hit the button for your AM radio. Yes, you'll hear Rush Limbaugh, but you'll also hear something else: A conscious, reactionary movement that was created in response to the 1960s. It started in 1971 with something called the Powell Memorandum, drafted by future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell when he was a corporate lawyer giving advice to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He proposed what essentially was an infrastructure for reaction -- conservative think tanks that would try to create an intellectual halo around policies to dismantle the safety net, trade unionism and other policies that had created middle class prosperity, as well as a new conservative media. That second aspect -- coupled with the invention of modern liberal-media bashing by William Safire and his mouthpiece Spiro Agnew, brought to its full flower by a young Nixon aide named Roger Ailes -- gave birth to our current generation of Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck, a movement that protects a wealthy-1-percent-elite-turned-kleptocracy by dividing the working class against itself.

This didn't happen overnight, but it did start somewhere. It started at the end of a revolution called the 1960s. So did so much of the stuff that we're dealing with today, 43 years later. The effort to take down urban public schools and unionized teachers, our militarized police forces and our shrinking rights to public assembly, the transition from a noble, if poorly run, War on Poverty, to classifying the underprivileged as "moochers" or "takers," and the dismantling of the safety net for the middle class -- look more closely, and you can almost always trace a line back to the 1960s. It is why I think often of Rick Perlstein's epic history of that era, Nixonland, and how he concludes of that saga that, "it hasn't ended yet."

That's one reason why the culture of the 1960s. the soundtrack of an unresolved revolution, still bubbles right under the surface after so many years. Kent State has lived on in part because it inspired arguably the greatest political song of my lifetime, "Ohio," by Neil Young (in his flirtation with Crosby Stills Nash and Young), a song that haunts me as much today as the very first time I heard it, an 11-year-old boy with long bangs and a transistor radio. Why? Why do I write and write, even as the audience fragments in a search for 140-character gratification. I have to think that the parent activist in Chicago, the marcher on the docks in Oakland, or the prison chaplain in Louisiana asks the same thing. Why -- especially when the government can always crack back when things gets too real, from a grassy knoll in Kent, Ohio, to the hard concrete of Zuccotti Park.

And then I hear Neil Young answering the question. Because what if you knew her, and found her dead on the ground? How can you run when you know?