May 5, 1970, I was walking from my dorm down a causeway to the campus at Rochester Institute of Technology. A friend coming the other way put up the alarm: “Have you heard! They are killing students in Ohio!” The news spread by word of mouth like wildfire. There was a TV at the student union and we gathered and watched the news come in about the shootings at Kent State. The event shattered the apathy about the Vietnam War that was prevalent in schools like ours. We felt violated, helpless, angry, outraged.
I’m not a Vietnam vet and I deeply respect all who served, especially those who gave their last full measure in that conflict. I’m simply reflecting on remembering the shock of hearing the news out of Kent State University 50 years ago.
On the day after, students at my conservative engineering school had reached a bursting point. We all took to the streets and marched 8 miles to the University of Rochester downtown. I remember being in that huge crowd of students filling a wide boulevard. We seemed to be a sort of headless amorphous mass.
At the time, there was a sentiment that war protesters were un-American. I remember feeling that by marching and expressing our outrage at the killing of unarmed students, we represented what America stood for as much as anybody. This gave me inspiration. I ran into a nearby shopping center and bought an American flag on a pole. I ran back out into the street pretty much at the tail end of the march and began running forward. The people cheered the flag and cleared a path. I got all the way to the front and found it was being led by a bunch of students in a Jeep. They said, “Pass it up.” I said, “I’ll hold the flag.” So I was pulled up onto the Jeep and we all rallied behind the flag. This made us all feel safer.
The flag gave us a powerful measure of protection. There had been threats of arrest if we marched. Now if the police were going to break us up they would have to tear down the American flag. There were no arrests. The march approached an underpass and I saw a photographer up there taking a photo. We made it to the University of Rochester and the state cops saw me with the rolled up flag and tried to corner me. I lost myself in the crowd. Later on, I met up with friends at a downtown bar. A haggard couple walked in. We invited them to join us for some 40 cent glasses of Genesee beer. They had just hitchhiked from Kent State and gave us their first hand account of what happened. The reality of hearing them speak emotionally really struck me very deeply.
David Stanwood lives in West Tisbury, where he is an inventor, pianist, photographer, and sailor.