The 40th anniversary of the Kent State killings of four unarmed students was commemorated earlier this month, a seminal moment for many of us who came of age during an unpopular war and mounting civic strife. But it’s worth noting that the violence of that bloody spring did not end in Ohio.
It spread all the way to my community just outside New York City, where an all-day school strike and protest march took place a few days after Kent State. I was in ninth grade; Cindy, my best friend at the time, was class president and one of the organizers. We all gathered at the high school, wearing black armbands, and strode through the streets to City Hall, where there was some sort of rally. Then we dispersed. I went in one direction, Cindy and a few others returned to the high school.
And that’s where it happened, in the parking lot — an older student whose name neither of us can remember hurled a large rock at his schoolmates, hitting Cindy in the back of the head with such force that she was slammed down into the pavement, crushing her face and nearly killing her. He was compelled to throw the rock, he testified later, “out of patriotism for my country.”
Justice was never in Cindy’s corner: Her family, broke and broken by the recent death of her mother, could not afford proper legal representation, and the rock-thrower was let off scot-free. Testifying at what passed for a trial left her feeling victimized yet again — “It made me realize what it’s like to testify after being raped. They make you feel like it was all your fault, as if you did something wrong.”
I reached her by telephone in San Francisco, where she now makes her home. We had not spoken in decades, and it took her a few weeks to respond to my request to revisit May 1970. Her recollections are fuzzy, and clouded in pain. Pain is, in fact, the one thing she takes with her from that time — the side effects from her head injury haunt her to this day, along with a fear of large crowds, demonstrations and events, like ball games, where objects are hurled through the air.
Why recount this story? To remind us that, not very long ago, we Americans lost the ability to express our differences without rocks and guns, and we can’t afford to lose it again. The ugliness characterizing too much of our political discourse isn’t particularly new or even worse than it has been in our past, but that doesn’t make it any less perilous to our future. “It doesn’t take much for something to become violent,” my friend reminded me. “It doesn’t take much to change your life.”