I was 17 and a college dropout in May 1970, the month of the Kent and Jackson State killings of protesting students. For me these events came at the end of two years of active engagement in and many years of passive support for the antiwar and other social movements of the time. I had attended innumerable demonstrations, been chased by police with batons at the ready, handed out leaflets, read nearly every radical publication I could get my hands on, and believed that radical social change was on the agenda.
In Vietnam, millions were being butchered by our county's desperate attempt to hold onto every outpost of its empire, no matter what the imperial subjects wanted. At the end of April, 1970, I watched with hundreds of others in an MIT lecture hall as President Nixon announced that he was further exporting U.S.-sponsored death and destruction as he radically expanded the U.S. attacks on Vietnam's neighbor, Cambodia. Then, on May 4th the bullets flew at Kent State, killing four students.
The killings brought home to millions across the country that our country's violence overseas would not spare the citizens at home. Across the country, students went on strike in their millions. These included students at traditional radical centers like Columbia, Berkeley, the University of Wisconsin, Madison. But it also included those attending community colleges and thousands of high schools.
In Boston we planned for a citywide demonstration. One faction wanted to invade and occupy the Massachusetts State House, seeking to broaden the confrontation with the forces of authority. I was in the faction that resisted that action, a position I've wondered about ever since.
As we planned for the rally, it was not just students who expressed support. We met with delegations from many work places I can no longer remember precisely which workplaces these were where workers, who still had unions in those days, expressed opposition to the war and support of our protest. Some unknown thousands joined our protests, as did many professionals.
The demonstration came. There were 100,000 people out on a weekday, protesting the murder of U.S. citizens and the murder of Vietnamese and Cambodian citizens. Across the country there were similar demonstrations. It seemed that the Southeast Asian war could not survive this militant rejection by an aroused and active citizenry.
But then the next day came. Gradually students returned to their classrooms. And the workers returned to work; there were paychecks needing to be brought home. When, 10 days after the Kent State shootings, two students were killed at Jackson State, there was little expression of outrage. For one thing, the dead were poor black "African-American" didn't exist yet students in the south where murders of protesting blacks was no stranger, who did not arouse quite as much identification as did the white students of Kent State. But, alas, the movement had already died over that week and half. When school resumed in the fall, the movement was but a shadow of its former self, gradually fizzling out over the next several years.
We did not realize it yet, but the Kent State protests were the beginning of the end of the sixties' protest movements. In the national student and worker strikes encompassing millions, we activists had exceeded many of our dreams. Yet, the empire didn't stop. It didn't even hiccup. The bombs continued raining death and destruction on Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos for another five long years. The protests declined. And there was no accountability for the deaths in Kent State, at Jackson State, or in Southeast Asia.
We didn't know it yet, but the lesson learned by all too many of the post-Kent State protesters was that the opinions of people in our country hardly matter, that the forces of law and order will continue on regardless. Protest movements lost their force and power. Cynicism ultimately reigned supreme. Political and civic engagement became largely a spectator sport, as we watched the Watergate hearings on TV. We saw the culmination of this defanging of social movements when, in 1981, the newly-elected Ronald Reagan easily crushed the PATCO air traffic controllers strike with mass firings of thousands of strikers, dealing the labor movement in the U.S. a blow from which it has never recovered.