We look back at two days in May.
Sí, mis amigos, Cinco de Mayo is a well-known date (that’s May 5 in English), and of course it’s a time for margaritas (made with tequila), cerveza (that’s beer in Spanish) and your favorite enchiladas. This article is about May 5 and also about May 4, a date that is probably not as familiar to Rag Blog readers.
More about May 4 in the second half of this blog entry, but so you won’t be scratching your head or going to Google, I’ll tell you right now that on May 4, 1970, four anti-war protesters at Kent State University in Ohio were killed by National Guard soldiers.
“Ah, yes, Kent State! I remember that!” you might be saying. But first, please read on about Cinco de Mayo.
It’s now the middle of May, and there’s a good chance earlier in the month that you were aware of Cinco de Mayo, and perhaps you celebrated with Mexican food and drinks. Many people did, in both the USA and in Mexico. I found references on the internet to the amount of tequila and beer consumed, as follows:
According to the Washington DC-based Beer Institute, Cinco de Mayo is one of the biggest American holidays for beer sales, especially at restaurants and bars. In 2022, volume sales were eight percent higher the week of Cinco de Mayo compared to an average week throughout the year. A 2013 Nielsen study of beer consumption found that more beer was consumed during Cinco de Mayo than during the Super Bowl.
On Cinco de Mayo Americans consume 126 million liters of tequila.
It’s not just beer, however. Reports suggest that on Cinco de Mayo, Americans consume 126 million liters of tequila. No doubt, the holiday has helped drive the popularity of the agave-based spirit, with the USA consuming more tequila than any other country in the world.
So what is this May 5 holiday all about? Is it Mexican Independence Day? Nope. It is not. Cinco de Mayo celebrates the anniversary of the Battle of Puebla, where an outnumbered Mexican army battalion secured an unlikely victory over French troops in 1862.
What the heck were French troops doing in Mexico? Here’s the background. The French invaded Mexico decades after the country had secured its independence from Spain, and it took a while to expel them.
Spaniards, in the 1500s, were the first Europeans to cross the ocean and plunder this beautiful land with both Pacific and Caribbean coasts, inhabited for centuries by various indigenous peoples (Aztecs, Mayans and more). Spain colonized Mexico but eventually the racially mixed Mexican people wanted independence. September 16 is the national independence holiday in Mexico. It was on that day in 1810 that Miguel Hidalgo, a Catholic priest, gave the clarion call for independence from Spain after a moving speech he made after midnight in a small town known as Dolores. After a war which lasted 11 years and in which many people died, Mexico finally achieved its independence from Spain in 1821.
Despite Mexico’s sovereignty, under the terms of its independence the country was compelled to pay off a staggering amount of foreign debt to European nations that had spent the last three centuries plundering Mexico of its natural resources. But before long, Mexico declared a moratorium on the repayment of foreign debts, prompting the English, Spanish, and French to invade the country. The English and Spanish withdrew after one year, but the French continued on, occupying Mexico for five years and extracting further wealth from the country.
As they say in Spanish, ‘La lucha continua.’
As they say in Spanish, “La lucha continua.” (The struggle continues.) I was in Baja California, Mexico, in March of this year. I was there as a tourist, and by chance observed a noisy political demonstration. Curious, I learned that the people were not angry, but were showing support for contemporary government activity to limit foreign involvement in exploitation of natural resources, including the familiar oil and the more recent lithium (much needed for clean energy batteries).
Post-colonial struggle from the 1800s (including Cinco de Mayo) echoes today in the speeches of Mexico’s populist president Andres Manuel López Obrador, who has recently begun the process of nationalizing major mining and energy industries. A popular leader, he has pointed out that foreign firms still control much of the country’s natural resources. He recently condemned U.S. influence in the Mexican economy in a speech announcing renewed ownership of the country’s power plants. “Mexico is an independent and free country, not a colony or a protectorate of the United States,” he said.
Dear Rag Blog reader, I was awarded a Master’s Degree in 1963 from Stanford University in Hispanic American and Luso-Brazilian Studies, but if you asked me a few days ago what the Cinco de Mayo holiday is all about, I would not have known the answer. I had to reeducate myself!
Cinco de Mayo, while celebrated in the city of Puebla, is not actually a national holiday in Mexico. It is obviously celebrated in the United States through “the triumph of marketing,” one website quipped.
The site added:
Cinco de Mayo had always lurked on the calendar as a date… it only swept into U.S. popular imagination in the 1980s when marketers started using the idea to promote Mexican beer, tequila, and food. But, as the marketing took off, Mexican-Americans took notice and started celebrating the day as an assertion of their Mexican heritage.
The combined forces of late capitalist marketing and Mexican-American identity have combined to make Cinco de Mayo one of the most important secular parties in the USA.
I want to focus on May 4 and the tragic events at Kent State University.
Now, let’s leave May 5 behind, and don’t fret, because you won’t be tested on this convoluted history. I want to focus on May 4 and the tragic events at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio. The following website-based article is a “must read” about what took place there as the Vietnam War raged on. The article is entitled ”The May 4 Shootings at Kent State University: The Search for Historical Accuracy,” by Jerry M. Lewis and Thomas R. Hensley. Here is the link.
I think it is fascinating and admirable that the university not only has a website but archives and a museum devoted to these events. My undergraduate alma mater, Columbia University, has no such recognition of its historic moment in April 1968. Columbia was the focus of significant anti-war activity that also led to newspaper headlines as well as the arrest of more than 800 people, including me! Well, no one was killed at Columbia’s 1968 turmoil, but there was police brutality. My friend and occasional Rag Blog writer Jonah Raskin was among those bloodied by police.
Campus protests and disruptions continue today, though not on the scale seen during the Vietnam War. For example, I just received in the mail my copy of the Stanford University magazine (published by the school’s alumni association), and one of the articles is about this issue.
The author of this 2023 Stanford article, the law school dean, concludes that free speech is vital but a line must be drawn between “dissension and disruption.” The leftist anti-war protests at Columbia, Kent State and many other campuses and cities certainly were disruptive — and I participated without hesitation in that disruption. However, response to such disruption by authorities, while it is easily justified, certainly does not have to result in the shooting of guns. In the end, too many guns (whether in the hands of the military or ordinary citizens) remains one of the most significant problems in today’s America.
In 1970, the violence of the Vietnam War caused ever-increasing turmoil.
In 1970, the violence of the Vietnam War — exacerbated by the decision of President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to bomb Cambodia — caused ever-increasing turmoil among the people of the United States. On college campuses, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and other groups — already having engaged in many demonstrations — organized more anti-war protests. A few months before, in October of 1969, the Days of Rage sponsored by the SDS Weatherman faction, had caused havoc in Chicago as demonstrators wore helmets and brandished clubs as they smashed store windows (leading to many being arrested).
Kent, Ohio, a municipality of about 25,000, is easily characterized as a college town. As elsewhere, protests took place on the campus of Kent State University over the escalation of the war in Southeast Asia.
The Lewis-Henley web-based article describes what happened in great detail, including the important fact that there was “rioting” in downtown Kent on May 2. “Rioting” may be a loaded word, but it’s a fact that there were some bonfires and some store windows were smashed.
It became national news when four students were killed and nine wounded by the National Guard.
A planned anti-war rally for May 4 was banned, Ohio Army National Guard soldiers came onto the campus, and it all became national news when four students were killed and nine wounded by the Guard. Several memorials have been placed at the site over the years and commemorations have been held annually since 1971. In 2010 the entire site was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The article concluded:
The impact of the shootings was dramatic. The event triggered a nationwide student strike that forced hundreds of colleges and universities to close. H. R. Haldeman, a top aide to President Richard Nixon, suggests the shootings had a direct impact on national politics. In The Ends of Power, Haldeman (1978) states that the shootings at Kent State began the slide into Watergate, eventually destroying the Nixon administration. Beyond the direct effects of the May 4, the shootings have certainly come to symbolize the deep political and social divisions that so sharply divided the country during the Vietnam War era.
I think one of the most famous photographs of American history is from Kent State, as recalled by the Lewis-Henley article: “A photograph of Mary Vecchio, a 14-year-old runaway, screaming over the body of Jeffery Miller, appeared on the front pages of newspapers and magazines throughout the country, and the photographer, John Filo, was to win a Pulitzer Prize for the picture. The photo has taken on a life and importance of its own.”
As with any historic moment, there are many people involved. Included in this story are the mayor of Kent, the president of the University, the governor of Ohio, and the general in charge of the National Guard. You can find them mentioned by name in the article I’ve been urging you to read. There are also details about how National Guardsmen reacted to their role, subsequent legal actions and court-ordered payment to victims. Here’s the link again (yes, I’m being pushy about wanting you to read it)!
Here you will see the names of the ‘four dead in Ohio,’ to quote the line from the enduring song by Neil Young.
To conclude this piece, I will quote here the most dramatic part of the story as recounted by Lewis and Henley – the actual shootings and here you will see the names of the “four dead in Ohio,” to quote the line from the enduring song by Neil Young, a haunting tune which I hear on the Pandora station my partner Dave plays often. The link to that song, a solo by Neil Young, is here.
Of course, there are other versions.
After the following Lewis-Henley details about the shootings, I offer a final paragraph with a “never forget” theme:
WHAT EVENTS LED DIRECTLY TO THE SHOOTINGS?
Shortly before noon, General Canterbury made the decision to order the demonstrators to disperse. A Kent State police officer standing by the Guard made an announcement using a bullhorn. When this had no effect, the officer was placed in a jeep along with several Guardsmen and driven across the Commons to tell the protestors that the rally was banned and that they must disperse. This was met with angry shouting and rocks, and the jeep retreated. Canterbury then ordered his men to load and lock their weapons, tear gas canisters were fired into the crowd around the Victory Bell, and the Guard began to march across the Commons to disperse the rally. The protestors moved up a steep hill, known as Blanket Hill, and then down the other side of the hill onto the Prentice Hall parking lot as well as an adjoining practice football field. Most of the Guardsmen followed the students directly and soon found themselves somewhat trapped on the practice football field because it was surrounded by a fence. Yelling and rock throwing reached a peak as the Guard remained on the field for about 10 minutes. Several Guardsmen could be seen huddling together, and some Guardsmen knelt and pointed their guns, but no weapons were shot at this time. The Guard then began retracing their steps from the practice football field back up Blanket Hill. As they arrived at the top of the hill, 28 of the more than 70 Guardsmen turned suddenly and fired their rifles and pistols. Many guardsmen fired into the air or the ground. However, a small portion fired directly into the crowd. Altogether between 61 and 67 shots were fired in a 13-second period.
HOW MANY DEATHS AND INJURIES OCCURRED?
Four Kent State students died as a result of the firing by the Guard. The closest student was Jeffrey Miller, who was shot in the mouth while standing in an access road leading into the Prentice Hall parking lot, a distance of approximately 270 feet from the Guard. Allison Krause was in the Prentice Hall parking lot; she was 330 feet from the Guardsmen and was shot in the left side of her body. William Schroeder was 390 feet from the Guard in the Prentice Hall parking lot when he was shot in the left side of his back. Sandra Scheuer was also about 390 feet from the Guard in the Prentice Hall parking lot when a bullet pierced the left front side of her neck.
Nine Kent State students were wounded in the 13-second fusillade. Most of the students were in the Prentice Hall parking lot, but a few were on the Blanket Hill area. Joseph Lewis was the student closest to the Guard at a distance of about 60 feet; he was standing still with his middle finger extended when bullets struck him in the right abdomen and left lower leg. Thomas Grace was also approximately 60 feet from the Guardsmen and was wounded in the left ankle. John Cleary was over 100 feet from the Guardsmen when he was hit in the upper left chest. Alan Canfora was 225 feet from the Guard and was struck in the right wrist. Dean Kahler was the most seriously wounded of the nine students. He was struck in the small of his back from approximately 300 feet and was permanently paralyzed from the waist down. Douglas Wrentmore was wounded in the right knee from a distance of 330 feet. James Russell was struck in the right thigh and right forehead at a distance of 375 feet. Robert Stamps was almost 500 feet from the line of fire when he was wounded in the right buttock. Donald Mackenzie was the student the farthest from the Guardsmen at a distance of almost 750 feet when he was hit in the neck.
So, dear Rag Blog readers, now you know a lot about Mexican anti-colonialism and more about how four people came to die in Ohio. As the anti-democratic and pro-gun elements in the USA threaten us under the leadership of Donald Trump, let’s hope that our necessary protests — disruptive or otherwise — do not result in any more deaths.
Also, next May, when Cinco de Mayo comes around, please enjoy your favorite Mexican beverages and food, but be aware about our Mexican neighbors’ many battles to end colonialism, and think about what happened on May 4, 1970, in Ohio. Please consider mentioning these historical facts to your friends and family. As the saying goes, “Never forget.”
Postscript: Thanks to my cousin Linda’s husband Tim Spence for posting a Kent State photo on Facebook on May 4, which was the impetus for writing this piece.
[Allen Young has lived in rural North Central Massachusetts since 1973 and is an active member of several local environmental organizations. Young worked for Liberation News Service in Washington, D.C., and New York City, from 1967 to 1970. He has been an activist-writer in the New Left and gay liberation movements, including numerous items published at The Rag Blog. He is author or editor of 15 books, including his 2018 autobiography, Left, Gay & Green; A Writer’s Life — and a review of this book can be found in the Rag Blog archives.]
I love this piece! Not entirely sure about the connection between cinco de mayo and Kent State, but, what the hell, I liked it all anyway. I was around when Kent State and all the other stuff mentioned went down. They were tumultuous times indeed, and Allen Young writes about it well. I live way down in Albuquerque where cinco de mayo is a big deal thanks to Yankee marketing. So, let’s all raise a glass of tequila to the Mexicans, what was left of them after colonialism, who ran the pinche (that more or less means “asshole” in Mexican Spanish) French out of Mexico. After all, there are still lots of Canadian and U.S. mining companies left to run out down south. Like they say, “Never forget.”
Allen Young did a superb job of linking past and present, Mexicans and Americans, even beer and blood. A remarkable feat of reportage and interpretation. He is to be commended.
By the way, the comment above is by Cliff Wilkie. Forgot to add my name to it.
Thanks to Cliff and Lewis for your comments on my article. I appreciate the feedback, and Cliff, you know, I hope, that I really enjoyed your recent piece about your time in Mexico.
Were you the LNS Allen that I interacted with when I was editor of Muhammad Speaks?
Kent State has never been far from my mind for the last 53 years. I was nearing the end of my two years of alternate service as a conscientious objector when the killings and woundings happened. I had probably the most serious disagreement I ever had with my boss (a WWII veteran) over what happened at Kent State. My family stopped at Kent State once while on a vacation about twenty or so years later to view the monuments and remember what had happened. Thanks for telling the story for later generations, who may not understand or appreciate the extent of the violence that permeates the US both here and abroad.