My sister Allison Krause was one of four students killed in the 1970 Kent State shootings. You may have heard about that day in American history - May 4, 1970 - when the Ohio National Guard opened fire on unarmed students protesting the invasion of Cambodia. Some of those killed or injured were just walking to class. After the guardsmen fired their weapons, four students lay dead, and nine others were wounded by gunfire. Forty years have passed and no one has ever been held accountable.
When courts fail to bring justice to the injured and when governments prefer to neglect their role in such tragedies, families sometimes turn to alternative means of gathering the truth. So after years of exhausting efforts to find out what happened on the day of Allison’s death, and failure to receive any meaningful recognition for the injury suffered by our family, we decided to establish the Kent State Truth Tribunal on the 40th anniversary of the killings. We felt the imperative to do this for our family and also to come together with others to create an accurate historical account of what happened at Kent.
The Kent State Truth Tribunal (KSTT) teamed up with a remarkable filmmaker named Emily Kunstler, who has dedicated her work to the pursuit of criminal justice in this country. Her father Bill Kunstler was a larger-than-life civil rights attorney who had stood with the Kent State students in the difficult years that followed the shootings. Emily is carrying on his work by harnessing the power of storytelling to establish and memorialize the truth about Kent State.
The KSTT was held on the first four days of May in Kent, Ohio and we recorded and preserved over 70 personal stories of original participants and witnesses. A number of the wounded students shared their truth of what happened that horrific day in American history, along with faculty, student witnesses, Kent townspeople and friends and family of those killed. Some spoke publicly for the first time in four decades. The stories that emerged are powerful narratives about a day that changed America and helped us understand what happened on that historic day. As we filmed the interviews, they were broadcast live on MichaelMoore.com and were viewed throughout the country. This is the first time that a truth-telling initiative in America set out to use new media in this way and it was remarkable to broadcast these accounts live throughout the country.
Little did we know that as we wrapped our project in Kent, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and ace reporter John Mangels would break a key piece of news long sought after by those eager to learn the truth about Kent State. The journalist uncovered evidence of an ‘order to shoot’ given to the National Guardsmen on Blanket Hill that May 4th so long ago.
Over the ten years that the families pursued justice in Ohio state and federal courts, the testimonies from the Ohio National Guard and ranking decision-makers supported the ludicrous claim that no order to fire was given. An order would have implicated higher-ranking officers and would have led to court-martials for those involved. Since an admission of command responsibility for the shootings was not forthcoming, it became our job to prove them wrong. This was almost impossible…until now.
The Plain Dealer investigation produced a copy of an audio tape recorded by a student using a microphone on his dormitory room window ledge. This tape surfaced when Alan Canfora, a student protestor wounded at Kent State, and researcher Bob Johnson dug through Yale Library’s collection on 1970 Kent State to find a CD with the tape recording on it from the day of the shootings. Paying $10 to have a duplicate made, Alan listened to it and immediately knew he probably held the only recording that might provide proof of an order to shoot. Three years after the tape was found, the Plain Dealer commendably hired two qualified forensic audio scientists to examine the tape. They verified an order for the guards to ‘prepare to fire’.
Shortly after the tape was publicized a remarkable event unfolded in another part of the world with direct parallels to Kent State. British Prime Minister David Cameron formally apologized before Parliament for the events and killings of Bloody Sunday.
As you may recall this event occurred on January 30, 1972, when British paratroopers opened fire on demonstrators in Northern Ireland and 14 civilians were shot and killed and others wounded. The bloodshed led to a major escalation of the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland, which have only recently largely subsided. Like Kent State, the military shot and killed its own unarmed citizens.
After 12 years of exhaustive study by an independent judicial commission set up by the British government, the findings spurred this apology from Prime Minister David Cameron. I am moved to think how these words could apply to Kent State in our country:
What happened should never, ever have happened.
The families of those who died should not have had to live with the pain and hurt of that day, and with a lifetime of loss.
Some members of our armed forces acted wrongly, the government is ultimately responsible for the conduct of the armed forces, and for that, on behalf of the government, indeed, on behalf of our country, I am deeply sorry.
While news of the Bloody Sunday apology begins to spread and settle, original participants are beginning to call for even greater steps to condemn the higher-ranking officers that made this deadly decision to shoot and kill.
As I watch from my perch in America, I ponder the complexities of apologies and our need for truth in the Kent State killings of 1970.
From conversations with others who were present at and witnessed the shootings at Kent State, I know that we all wish to have the truth revealed in 2010 and applaud Britain’s important first step to address the harm caused by Bloody Sunday. And I have to ask: what will it take for America to heal the wounds of Kent State?
To learn more about the Kent State Truth Tribunal, please visit http://TruthTribunal.org