Memories of a participant: Kent & Jackson State, 1970 -- A firestorm they could not contain

By Mike Ely

May 4, 2010 -- Kasama Project -- May 4, 1970. Forty years have passed. It is history now in the eyes of the world. But for me, and many others, it is raw and alive. It always will be.

I won’t tell the well-known details – if you don’t know them, look them up. But I will tell you what it felt like, and looked like to a teenage boy who wanted desperately to see the liberation of the Vietnamese and Black people in America.

May Day for Bobby Seale — New Haven, 1970

On May 1 1970, I was in New Haven, Connecticut. Bobby Seale, the chairman of the Black Panther Party was facing a murder trial in New Haven. They had first bound and gagged him in the  courtroom of the Chicago 8, then shipped him to Connecticut to lock him up for life. We were determined to free him.

Students came from all over the US east coast to turn the city upside down. On my campus, we had worked day and night to explain the attack on the Black Panther Party – and to mobilise busloads to go New Haven.

Bobby Seale, chairman of the Black Panther Party.

There was a heavy, heavy air over the whole event – we did not know it yet, but US President Richard Nixon was about to unleash an invasion of Cambodia, and he was determined NOT to allow student radicals and Black militants to obstruct his plans. Everywhere in the country there was a stiffening of the power structure. We didn’t know it then, but Nixon and his minions were on the phone demanding that governors, mayors, police chiefs and college administrators prepare to suppress resistance.

What we did know was that all kinds of ominous moves were being made. Nixon’s attorney general, John Mitchell, airlifted 4000 army paratroops and marines from east coast bases to the New Haven area. And, the press was announcing that a military train had been looted and that thousands of military rifles were missing. It was a lie, it was disinformation – but it was clearly intended to create mass hysteria, and it was clearly designed to justify Nixon’s own preparations for violence.

Within the city, the police focused heavily on tracking and demoralising the Black Panther Party. A book, written by the police chief, later explained how he had developed a set of teams to deploy parallel to the Black Panther’s own teams. Whenever the BPP went out into the Black community, to agitate for Bobby Seale and to mobilise for the May Day march, a plainclothes police team would be there, disguised as ordinary passersby. And they were trained to heckle and denounce the Panthers – to give them the (false) impression that they were isolated, and that the mood among Black people had turned sharply against them. It was the kind of Cointelpro [counter-intelligence program] tactics that were being deployed generally at those times – to divide and confuse the growing revolutionary forces.

The Panthers had inspired us to be revolutionaries. The attack on their leadership had brought us into the streets. We looked to them for leadership. And yet, things were about to become more complicated than I expected.

The Black Panthers generally were skittish about gathering Black people in large militant crowds. They tended to believe that they would be exposing the community to mass murder. And while they often supported the mobilisation of supporters (“mother country radicals”), there was a reluctance among Panthers to bring out the Black community into the streets – even in their own defence.

And, to the surprise of many of us, the Black Panther Party pulled out of the plans to bring out New Haven’s Black community for May Day for Bobby at the last moment. Part of this was their reaction to the unmistakable signs that this system (at a high level) was preparing bloody acts. Part of it was, I believe, confusion that police disinformation caused among their own members. And part of it was their own ambivalence: the Panthers (as a movement) did not have clear grasp of the need to  mobilise and rely on the people. The Panthers were very much in the crosshairs — literally. And sections of them, especially on the east coast were already thinking about retreating to a strategy of “moving in twos and threes”.

Black Panthers in New Haven.

We didn’t know about the Panther decision until very late in the game. And it did not (could not) deter tens of thousands already making their way to New Haven.

Fighting spirit

My plans had been to hook up with some of my close high school friends who were coming with a radical contingent from Antioch College. And I remember vividly how intense it was to see them come marching through the milling crowds on the Yale college campus: they marched though the crowed in disciplined ranks, wearing motorcycle helmets, and carrying red flags on heavy wooden clubs. They cleared a space on the green lawns and started practicing karate – moving in lines, moving in groups. We were preparing for street fighting.

My close friend David Sullivan took me aside to show me his special pack. He was always eager for a fight, and he loved gear. He pulled out a special combat first-aid kit, and pointing out that he had bought a dozen gunshot dressings – heavy cotton padding and gauze.

I remember thinking: We all understand the stakes now… the pigs may come at us this time with guns, and we have come prepared to fight, and even to die. David planned to stuff cotton into massive wounds if need be, as we carried off our injured and kept fighting.

It had come to this. We were determined to free Bobby Seale. We were determined to confront and defy anything Nixon threw against us.

Liberal foes become reluctant allies

In the complex swirl of events, there were all kinds of forces gravitating toward the radicals. On a campus like Yale, the administration of Kingman Brewster were basically the kind of liberals who we had viewed as enemies on campus (and who had been persecuting our SDS -- Students for a Democratic Society -- takeovers). But things were shifting massively. Brewster was confronted by plans for a student strike at Yale. At a campus rally, a Panther leader had declared: “The Panther and the Bulldog gonna move together!” The faculty had endorsed that rally – and had called for suspending classes. No student was going to be penalised for abandoning schoolwork.

New Haven Rally for Bobby Seale, outside Yale, May 1 1970.

And faced with all that, Brewster simply climbed on board, and announced that Yale would open its doors to the march. I suspected he didn’t want his campus torn up, and I believe he also wanted to end the war. But in any case, as we arrived in New Haven, we went to sleep packed back-to-front on floors in Yale dorms and ate at the college cafeterias.

And after the huge rally in front of Yale, after all the speeches, the fighting began. And it went late into the night, with tear gas hanging heavy in many parts of New Haven creating blue halos around the street lights. Lines of us squared of with their lines of riot police. We broke up into squads and darted around doing our work. And we retreated as needed, into the courtyards of Yale. I remember the surreal sight of ducking back through one of the Yale entrances, and seeing Alan Ginsburg, cross-legged and dressed in white, surrounded by dozens of kids, all chanting “Om” in a resonant prayer, surrounded by the chaos.

The news hits: new aggression in Indochina

In the middle of all this, the news arrived: Nixon had invaded Cambodia. He had expanded the hated war to yet another country. He had sent his planes to flatten the world of peasant farmers, and sent soldiers across a new border. He thought he could crush the command posts of the revolutionary forces – and save his criminal invasion from defeat. Through new escalation! New aggression!

Fuck Richard Nixon!

It was intolerable. It was infuriating. We wanted to fight, to risk anything and everything to stop it. And it is worth remember that our mood and organisation did not “pop out of nowhere” — it had been building for a decade. Even as teenagers many of us had been through a lot, had seen a lot, were becoming hardened and determined. Nixon wanted to win this war, we wanted to defeat him hard.

The day after our Saturday action, many of us gathered in some vast Yale lecture hall to make plans. We had activists from campuses all over the eastern half of the US. SDS had collapsed in the summer of 1969, but all those networks and political links were very much alive. And some of us were starting to connect with the Revolutionary Union, a Maoist group on the west coast that was circulating its “Red Papers” call for communist collectives.

In other words, our rally in New Haven for Bobby Seale put us all (collectively) in a position to organise a massive response to Nixon’s new crime. And while I watched wide eyed on the edge of my seat, the gathering called for a nationwide student strike:

US Out of Southeast Asia

End Campus Complicity with the War Machine

Free Bobby Seale & All Political Prisoners

And we dispersed – not to chill out from the fighting of New Haven, but to spread it, to call out our campuses.

Toe to toe: strike and gunfire

We had barely gotten back, we had barely written the leaflets calling for a campus shutdown when a new event lit the sky: Kent State, Ohio… National guardsmen had shot four of us dead on campus.

May 4, 1970, they had opened fire on protesters. Nixon had brought the war home. The troops had not been deployed in New Haven, but they had been (by Nixon’s close crony Governor Rhodes) in Kent. Nixon had wanted to answer us this time in blood. How would we answer him?

The climate among students was like a blazing forest fire that swept everything in its path. School stopped. Classes were canceled. Exams were forgotten. Colleges that had been quiet were suddenly seized by the movement. Colleges that had been storm centres were intense. My campus formed dozens and dozens of squads to go out among the people – to factories, communities, high schools – and reach out widely. We got maps and learned our way through the whole of society.

Bullet holes in the Jackson State dorm

And then 10 days, as this firestorm raged and spread, more terrible news: On May 14, 1970, two Black students were killed and 12 wounded by state police gunfire at Jackson State in Mississippi.

The mainstream media and historians often simply ignore Jackson State – in a way that is so obviously and shamefully racist. But at the time, among the people in motion those names “Kent and Jackson State” were mentioned together, always. And so it is for us today.

In the middle of this, I was put on trial at my college – for taking over a building and putting a big shot on trial in a city park. The oh-so-very-liberal college prosecutors had a fat folder of pictures – tracking my activities through every step of the actions (which was not hard to do given my unmistakable blond Afro standing out in every crowd shot). Looking the photos over in their disclosure of evidence hearing I felt like a character in Arlo Guthrie’s song about Alice’s Restaurant (“with circles and arrows on the back of each one”). And they were convinced of course that they had me, and would make an example, to dampen the upsurge around us.

But in the heat of this student strike, they could not find a single student willing to sit on that trial committee – not even the ambitious student government types. And so they attempted their repression without even a fig leaf of legitimacy – and ended up even more exposed and weak.

An eye-opening communist view

Mao Zedong sent out a powerful summation of these events, and in it he wrote:

“A new upsurge in the struggle against US imperialism is now emerging throughout the world. Ever since the Second World War, US imperialism and its followers have been continuously launching wars of aggression and the people in various countries have been continuously waging revolutionary wars to defeat the aggressors. The danger of a new world war still exists, and the people of all countries must get prepared. But revolution is the main trend in the world today.

“Unable to win in Vietnam and Laos, the US aggressors treacherously engineered the reactionary coup d’etat by the Lon Nol Sirik Matak clique, brazenly dispatched their troops to invade Cambodia and resumed the bombing of North Vietnam, and this has aroused the furious resistance of the three Indochinese peoples …

“While massacring the people in other countries, US imperialism is slaughtering the white and black people in its own country. Nixon’s fascist atrocities have kindled the raging flames of the revolutionary mass movement in the United States. The Chinese people firmly support the revolutionary struggle of the American people. I am convinced that the American people who are fighting valiantly will ultimately win victory and that the fascist rule in the United States will inevitably be defeated….

“It is US imperialism which fears the people of the world. It becomes panic-stricken at the mere rustle of leaves in the wind. Innumerable facts prove that a just cause enjoys abundant support while an unjust cause finds little support… This is a law of history.

"People of the world, unite and defeat the US aggressors and all their running dogs!”

Poster from the Black Panther paper.

Mao’s words made a deep impact on many of us. I put on a Mao badge, and never took it off.

Meanwhile, on the chessboard of empire, the ruling class saw it was losing control of a generation. The rulers felt like important parts of society were slipping out of their control. They could see that each action they took for victory in Vietnam and on the homefront was producing greater and greater resistance. The emergence of revolutionary currents was real and powerful.

At the centre of this was (as Mao pointed out) the heroic self-sacrifice of the Vietnamese people – who quite simply rose up to fight for their country, and simply stepped up one after another to take the place of those who fell. And driven by this, the youth within the US caught the contagion of revolution. The calculations of those days looked bad from the White House and Pentagon – and the result was a historic defeat for the US in Vietnam.

And here we are today …

Many things about 1970 must seem distant. Many of those events may seem impossible. But grasping the reality and possibility of such things is exactly the point of remembering.

Many of us have already seen, in our own lives and practice, how the crimes of this system can ignite a firestorm. We have seen how the resistance in a small, distant, unknown country can bring a world empire into crisis. We have seen how the activity of a few hard-core internationalists and radicals can, under some conditions, reach tens of thousands. And we have seen how the bloody repression of the government can produce a response that they simply cannot control.

Once you have seen this, it cannot be forgotten. It is life changing. It gives great hope. And it gives us ideas of what to do now.

[Mike Ely is a member of the Kasama Project. This article first appeared on the Kasama website. It has been posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with Mike Ely's permission.]

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