Allison Krause
Jeffrey Miller
Sandra Scheuer
Bill Schroeder
Phillip Gibbs
James Green

An Open Letter to America's College Students

Media Rants

from the May, 2005 issue of The Valley Scene

By Tony Palmeri

May of 2005 marks the 35th anniversary of two terrible college campus tragedies. On May 4th, 1970 a protest against President Nixon's expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia left four Kent State University students dead and nine injured from National Guard bullets. On May 14th of that year, a riot resulted in police killing two students and wounding twelve others at Jackson State College in Mississippi.

In the following open letter, I want to explain to contemporary college students why the events at Kent and Jackson hold great meaning for today.

Dear Students:

Thirty-five years ago this May, six students were killed and twenty-one injured by National Guard and police forces at Kent State University in Ohio and Jackson State College in Mississippi. Our national corporate media--in a feeding tube frenzy over Terri Schiavo, riddled with rage inspired pundits more wacko than Jacko, and with profuse Pope coverage not able to mask the pious fraud that passes for news--provide only passing mention of Kent and Jackson.

You should know and care about what happened in 1970 at Kent and Jackson. You should understand and critique the methods employed to silence student voices then and now. And you should engage and assist your peers involved in the modern struggle to place colleges and universities on the side of justice.

To know what happened at Kent and Jackson, we have to know something about the birth and development of student activism in the 1960s. In 1962 the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) released the Port Huron Statement, a call for activism that rejected the narrow careerist focus of colleges and universities, developed a vision of society based on participatory democracy, and advocated nonviolent methods of social protest. In the south, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights activists; they employed sit-ins, demonstrations, and a variety of other civil disobedience tactics. The Berkeley Free Speech Movement of 1964-1965 established that campus issues like climate for expression and curriculum could be legitimate targets of student activism.

By 1968 a huge part of the student movement had become concerned almost exclusively with ending the Vietnam War. Unlike today, America at that time had a formal military draft in place. Almost every student knew someone who had been drafted to fight, and quite a few knew someone who had been seriously injured or killed. That so many students had a personal connection to the chaos led increasingly to more angry protests that often succeeded in shutting or at least slowing down university life.

Mary Ann Vecchio kneels over the body of Jeffrey Miller

The killings at Kent and Jackson on the surface were attempts by government authorities to restore order to campuses that, from the government's perspective, had gotten dangerously out of control. More realistically, the killings were the natural consequence of what by 1970 had become a government obsession with getting students back "in line" and out of the realm of mass political protest. This does not mean that government officials were guilty of premeditated murder. But what it does mean is that when a government fears the voices of its population, it creates a climate in which the murder of dissent is inevitable.

Your voices are feared today, by government and its corporate sponsors. They understand that nothing forces progressive social change in America like youth united. They know that student activists have been in the forefront of opposition to the Iraq war, in the forefront of efforts to end sweatshop labor, and in the forefront of the environmental and peace movements.

But the silencing today is more sophisticated than the simple crushing of a protest. Growing numbers of youth have no voice on the campuses because they literally cannot afford to attend. If they are not priced out, they graduate racked in debt. Time that could be devoted to activism is spent at part-time jobs designed to make ends meet. Meanwhile military service for many remains the only viable way to get money for school.

Campus demonstrations and protests have been undermined on many campuses by the creation of "free speech zones" and other bogus methods.

I urge you to engage and assist your peers involved in campus activism. Here in Wisconsin, students from several UW campuses recently participated in a hunger strike at the state capitol designed to dramatize the tuition crisis. Josh Healey of the UW Madison Student Labor Action Coalition was one of the leaders. He says that "The only way students can win any real change is to demand it-as the 230,000 striking students in Quebec, Canada have shown. They are about to win their campaign against tuition hikes there."

The late Mario Savio was a Philosophy student at UC-Berkeley during the 1965 free speech movement. In his famous "An End to History" speech he said something that still holds: "Students are permitted to talk all they want so long as their speech has no consequences."

The best tribute you can pay to the Kent and Jackson State martyrs is to get involved in consequential struggles for peace and justice. Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Scheuer, William Schroeder, Phillip Gibbs, and James Green may have died at Kent and Jackson State, but the spirit of resistance to tyranny lives on. Will you join the resistance?

Tony Palmeri (www.tonypalmeri.com) is an associate professor of communication at UW Oshkosh.