Occupy Should Remember: The Public Blamed the Protesters for the Kent State Shootings

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Christine Lamberson is a Lecturer and History PhD Candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her dissertation examines the public and political responses to the violence of political protesters, criminals, and in popular culture during the 1960s and 1970s. She explains how the issue of violence divided Americans and changed U.S. political culture.

As police continue to evict Occupy protesters from their various encampments, most recently from Washington D.C., the Occupy movement is struggling to decide how to move forward and maintain its relevance.  After the brutality of the evictions and continued animosity between police and protesters, a few media commentators have made comparisons to the civil rights movement's confrontations with the brutality of racist Southern law enforcement during the 1950s and 1960s.  These commentators are right that the movement should look to this earlier moment of political activism as it figures out how to proceed; however, the more apt comparison is to events like the 1970 Kent State shootings.  The clear lesson from these earlier protests is that the activists should not shift their primary focus from income inequality and “the 1 percent” to the law enforcement officials who evicted them from their encampments.

Let me be clear:  instances of excessive force and police brutality must be condemned.  They are deplorable.  However, they should be condemned by the media, politicians, university administrators, and police officials themselves.  The Occupy movement can help publicize them too, but police action cannot be the focus of the movement.  The police have not made a productive long-term target for similar political activists in the past, and they will not here, either.  Instead, the Occupiers should move away from their narrow focus on encampments, which necessitate increasing police conflict, to find new methods of protest that can attract broad support.

A brief consideration of the Kent State shootings reiterates the point.  On May 4, 1970, students at Kent State University in Ohio found themselves face to face with the state’s National Guard during an antiwar protest.  The guardsmen ordered the peaceful crowd to disperse, but they refused.  The guardsmen used tear gas, and the demonstrators responded with rocks.  The Guard then fired on the group of students, killing four.

Both historians and popular memory view the shootings as embarrassing, brutal, and unjustified acts committed by young National Guardsmen on behalf of a government trying to suppress antiwar activism.  In the immediate aftermath of the shootings, however, anger at protesters accompanied sympathy for the victims, who were primarily observers rather than protest participants.  Critics argued that the protesters should have dispersed as asked.  Moreover, detractors claimed that the protesters’ own violence—their earlier acts of vandalism and hostility towards law enforcement—invited the National Guard’s response.  Officially, a presidential commission and FBI investigation found the National Guard’s actions unjustified, but a local grand jury said that they were understandable.  Media outlets conveyed the impression that Ohioans overwhelmingly agreed with the grand jury:  that though the deaths were a tragedy, the protesters, not the National Guard, were ultimately responsible.

There are similar stories from the late 1960s and 1970s.  In 1968, Chicago police used violent force at the mayor’s direction to clear unarmed protesters from city parks during a week of protests at the Democratic National Convention.  A federal investigation called the event a police riot, but public opinion polls showed that most of the nation supported the police, not the protesters.  In Mississippi, only a few weeks after the Kent State Shootings, Mississippi Highway Patrolmen opened fire on a black college campus, killing two.  The Highway Patrol (falsely) claimed a sniper had fired at them, but their shots showed no attempt to aim in the direction of the phantom sniper.  Nonetheless, public responses indicated that many felt the shootings, which followed a few nights of vandalism and disorder on the part of students, were essentially justified.  Whether in the North or South, Americans have again and again indicated they do not equate all police violence with the actions of Southern bigots in the 1950s.

So what should OWS take away from this history?  There are two important lessons.  First, even the slightest hint of violence on the part protesters can quickly become a justification for police excesses.  The movement must keep any would-be violent members out, or at least under control.  OWS should seriously consider adopting an unambiguous policy of non-violence.  Such a policy would do much to guard against the kinds of criticism that met the Kent State protesters.  Moreover, if OWS combined non-violence with a diversified set of tactics and events beyond the narrow focus on encampments, it would encourage more people to get involved in the movement and thus force a larger range of political candidates to listen to the movement’s arguments.

Second, even when law enforcement does use force without provocation, it is unlikely to gain the movement much support from the broader public.  It will likely serve as a good rallying cry for the movement’s members, but it’s best to stay focused on the original message of income inequality.  Finding a way to work with the police and appeal to their own class positions would be ideal.  In the protests against anti-union legislation in Wisconsin and other states earlier this year, protesters gained support and credibility from police officers marching with them.  OWS would do well to similarly convince police that the economic injustices the movement cares about also matter to police.  Short of creating such a connection, protesters should at least avoid making the protests all about police overreach.

The blatantly unwarranted violence of incidents like the pepper spraying of seated protesters at UC Davis begs the question:  what OWS should do about police brutality when it happens?  The movement should continue to photograph, film, and publicize these injustices, and should pursue legal action when possible.  Here again, the students’ unambiguous non-violence clearly helped galvanize public support.  In this manner, the movement can push law enforcement to act ethically, but still keep their primary focus on issues relating to the economy, whereas fully shifting focus to police brutality is unlikely to help the cause.  From the public’s perspective, the police simply do not make a convincing enemy anymore.

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