This Will Not Be Kent State: Fear, Loathing and Radical Movement: 1960s and the Present
By Eugene Koveos and Nicole Solomon
Carlo Giuliani was given the tragic distinction of being the first high-profile death at a demonstration against capitalist globalization. A 23-year old anarchist, he was gunned down by police and run over by their armored van. As the Group of 8 meeting he protested came to an end, and world leaders dried their crocodile tears, numerous media outlets compared Carlo’s murder and its repercussions to the killings at Kent State university.
However, for the US at least, this is not and likely will not be Kent State. It is worth the comparison to see why the brutal murder of a demonstrator, though explicitly considered a part of a global movement with many participants in the US, is devoid of the same disruption and controversy as the Kent State murders.
Over 30 years before Genoa, four students were murdered during demonstrations at Kent State University on May 4, 1970. Anti-war protests had occurred almost continually on campus in May, and on the second the mayor asked the Ohio National Guard to step in. On the fourth, the National Guard attempted to disperse an unpermitted rally with tear gas, and were met with jeers and occasional rocks by the students. Eventually the Guard fired live ammunition. Most fired into the air or the ground, but some fired directly into the now fleeing crowd. Nine people were seriously injured and 4 killed: Allison Krause, Sandra Scheuer, William Schroeder and Jeffrey Miller. The guardsman claimed they fired because they feared for their lives. This explanation was ultimately upheld in court.
Any contemporary liberatory movement with participants in the US cannot shun analyses that reference this nation’s past movements. Although Carlo Guiliani’s murder occurred in Italy, it has direct relevance to and impact on the US population of the global movement. We recognize that while the movement against capitalist globalization is an international one, US-centricity within the US segment of the movement is a problem. While US-centricty informs the distance from the Genoa tragedy for the US branch of the movement, it may also inform its co-option. We should be particularly mindful of this when discussing the US national impact of events outside the US.
Eleven days after Kent State, a college and a high school student were killed by police and state troopers at Jackson State. National and movement empathy passed over the slain at Jackson State without mass controversy or outrage. There were critical differences between these killings: the Kent State students were white and attending a predominantly white school, while the Jackson State 2 were Black and killed at a historically Black institution. The protests at Jackson State were expressions of rage against a war overseas and the war being waged against those demonstrating in the US. The focus of their anger was not primarily the shootings in Ohio (as was the case with the hundreds of other Kent-related demos that did not result in casualties) but the racist attacks occurring regularly against Black residents of their town. The most confrontational of these protests was caused by a rumor that mayor Charles Evers (brother of slain civil rights leader Medger Evers) and his wife had been murdered. These contextual differences are key: the agenda of the Jackson State students was broader and more personal, illustrating various deeply interlocked manifestations of state violence and oppression in a way that blatantly implicated local power in global imperialism. In essense these demos were both more radical and more threatening.
Confrontations escalated between students and cops. Late in the evening a stand off between students and local and state police ultimately turned fatal. After a bottle was broken (dropped or thrown, no one is sure,) police opened fire. James Earl Green, 17, and Phillip Lafayette Gibbs, 21, were both shot and killed; 12 other students were struck by the bullets, and many more were injured by broken glass as the police fired not only into the crowd outside, but through the windows of the nearby dorm.
The deaths of Green and Gibbs did not receive the justified anger, the mass student strikes, the controversy that compelled Richard Nixon to proclaim the days after Kent State among the worst of his presidential career. Silence was the voice of the racism of the mainstream media, the anti-war movement and the general public. The Jackson State shootings and public reaction illuminate the connections and tensions between the anti-war and civil rights movements of the 60s. These connections were too messy, complicated and implicating for white-dominated organizations, whether media or movement, to examine too closely. Within the pathology of white supremacy, white life is simply worth more than the lives of people of color, and white deaths are more shocking.
Indeed, white supremacy still flourishes and holds white people’s lives at more value than others, both inside and outside of social movements. On June 26, 2001, four protesters were killed and seventeen wounded during protests against the IMF in Point Moresby, Papua New Guinea, during a five-day blockade of federal buildings by approximately 3,000 students and workers. Little media attention was given to these deaths in the US and much of the US movement remains ignorant that these murders even happened. In fact, in researching these murders we were unable to even find the names of our slain comrades.
In this sense the globalization movement still carries with us, unsurprisingly, much of the anti-war movement: its US-centricity and its racism. The movement has not done enough to challenge the workings of white supremacy within and outside of our ranks. That blood was spilled in Papua New Guinea and met with near indifference gives a cold and undeniable truth to that. We will not, nor should we, gain widespread support and build mass movement for global justice until white privilege and supremacy are dismantled to the extent possible for a movement existing within a neo-imperialist, white supremacist nation. That such issues as property destruction have received so much internal attention and been subject to movement debate while attempts to attack movement racism have been generally marginalized and/or tokenized paints a dangerous picture. White-dominated movements build white power, not global resistance nor revolutionary worlds.
While Kent State was a galvanizing event in the United States, perhaps shocking many outside the anti-war movement into sympathy, Giuliani’s murder in Genoa has not elicited a similar response. This is due in part because of the lack of tangibility of the anti-globalization movement’s goals to those outside the movement. Stop the draft, and, more broadly, stop the war, are objectives easier to grasp than to stop the G8. Most people in the United States were probably not even aware such a group existed until the demonstrations occurred and resulted in a night or two of gory news coverage. While revealing that these economic puppeteers are around is one of the points of such demonstrations, what they do and why is still blurry as hell. Even those within the movement, though certain of not only the injustice of these anti-democratic institutions but also the systems from which they are born, may find themselves at a loss when attempting to explain what exactly they do. This is largely due to the secrecy under which these institutions operate, as well as how enmeshed they are within the nuances of world economic trade. The war was obviously a national issue of public concern, and everybody knew it was occurring – though perhaps not the details of exactly what was happening and why. The possibilities of alternatives to capitalism are invisibilized and whether to support this economic system is a non-issue. It is hardly a matter of public debate.
The context in which the murder in Genoa occurred was one of perceived stagnancy versus the time of perceived possibility and chaos that was the 60’s. Kent State happened not long after 1968, a year of global uprising and massive political disruption. For example, students and workers declared a general strike and paralyzed France. Within the United States, each day brought news coverage of new upheaval and unrest. In this year alone, both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated. These times were indicative of both potential transformation and great national fear. Today, within the U.S., we do not experience such high profile and broadly effecting political events that create situations in which anything seems possible, be it the revolution or the apocalypse. Fundamental change is felt an impossibility and demonstrators are not met with questions of what they will change, but only perhaps the unproductive violence they will “create” and how much they will inconvenience commuters. The deeply entrenched status quo seems immutable.
The fact that Genoa demonstrations occurred overseas also contributes to the lack of widespread U.S. attention. In fact, by Sunday’s weekly wrap-up, the protest and murder were nothing but an interesting footnote in U.S. media. While the current mode of mainstream news is that of an accelerated profit-driven business, exploiting then abandoning stories, the fact that this horror occurred in Italy facilitated a disconnect. Carlo’s death was explicitly contextualized by the news within recent – mostly U.S. located – demonstrations. So were the escalating tactics of demonstrators requiring police discipline. However, the murderous behavior of the Italian cops was not. The subtext of these reports was that such disorderly and problematic resolutions to social unrest occur “over there.” To make the story more exciting to U.S. viewers, the fireworks of the demonstrations were directly linked to those at demonstrations here, but without linking the deadly police response. To do so would implicate law enforcement in the United States more than was necessary. It would also implicate the citizens of this country beyond pure voyeurism.
While Carlo’s murder generated a brief flurry of U.S. media excitement, the story lacked the emotional weight for the public that the Kent State killings did. The Kent State murders were so jarring partly because they smashed both a sense of security felt by those both within and outside the academy, and the notion of the sanctity of the university. Demonstrations by students, whether one supported them or not, could be seen as on the continuum of free debate and expression that was theoretically a cornerstone of academic life. Such security was compounded by the privileged locations of academics. Students for whom police violence is not a personal reality may feel a sense of entitlement to expression of their views, and lack of fear that there could be truly dangerous results to such expression. This naiveté was characteristic of the 60s student anti-war movement, and stands in direct contrast to the sometimes over-lapping civil rights movement. The student movement enjoyed a measure of safety, not only because it was based on the safe zone of the campus but because of white, classed privilege.
The civil rights movement took to the culturally-constructed unsafe zone of the streets and was led by Black people who did not as a group benefit from the same privileges, and could not afford to enjoy the same naivete, as the students. People within the civil rights movement regularly encountered police violence, there was not the option to have a loss-of-innocence event.
These splits highlight some of the strengths and weaknesses of the current anti-capitalist globalization movement, which has much in common with both the civil rights and student anti-war movements of the 1960s. Though there are many white students involved, it is not a student movement. The locations of demonstrations are not campuses but the streets. The U.S. segment of the movement clearly suffers from white-centricity, with high-profile factions and events entrenched in white domination. With this comes the cloud of privilege that disrupts effective organization and facilitates a (sometimes false, sometimes not) sense of security amongst activists who may not occupy marginalized and oppressed locations. In general, however, factions of the movement today who engage in street activism are less wide-eyed and innocent than those in the 60s student movement, as every mass mobilization (which, problematically, have been centralized in resistance only against capitalist globalization) has been met with escalating state violence. Mass numbers of demonstrators are regularly beaten and jailed, and for longer than just overnight. It’s never a surprise when the cops show up and get rowdy.
The “good protester”/”bad protester” theme that has emerged in the media, the non-movement identified public, and the movement itself has also had explicit effects upon the impact of Genoa, deadening and differing it from Kent State. While variations on this theme thrived in the 60’s and 70’s as well, the Kent State victims were constructed as “good protesters.” They were, so the story goes, non-violent, fleeing the approaching National Guard, who were later revealed to have planned to attack all along. They were privileged students, seen as innocents, “our children” to a degree – even in the specifically fear-and-distrust-infused, generation-gapped 60s. While lying politicians initially spun the event in a manner that allowed many to see the kids as having had it coming, students nation-wide mobilized effectively in protest.
While Europe was a different story, with major, continent-wide demonstrations of sorrow and rage following the murder of Giuliani, the reaction within the U.S. was more muted. Its important to remember that the Kent State 4 as individuals may not have been as scary to those invested in the system as Giuliani – they were “good protesters.” They were white college kids, a random four students out of a massive crowd, one of whom was just heading to class and actually opposed the demonstrations. Maybe if some privileged Green party members had been taken down at a Rally 4 Ralph it would be comparable, but comrade Carlo was criminalized as an anarchist, blatantly opposing capitalism, and coming at the cops with a fire extinguisher. Never mind how much danger a fire extinguisher realistically poses to an armored police vehicle, Carlo has, in a sense, been constructed as the ultimate bad protester paying the ultimate price. And within this ideology he clearly deserved to pay it. Even leftist periodical In these Times felt the need to editorialize on Carlo’s “foolish”ness and how “terrified” the young cop was, after blasting “violent” protesters for committing property destruction that “overshadowed” the bulk of the respectable demonstrators. The author attributes the murder to these factors, as well as the mistake of arming the cops with live ammunition rather than those lovely rubber bullets. While no less a man than W. has solemnly dubbed Carlo’s death a tragedy, the mainstream remains unshocked and undisturbed. He definitely had it coming. Unfortunately, outside of certain circles, reaction internal to the U.S. movement itself has been mixed at best, sometimes straying to the right of Bush’s proclamation. In a scurry for respect, many have distanced themselves from Giuliani, condemned him, even extended sympathy to the cops. There has been no massive public outrage and sorrow. Empathetic rage has become a casualty of “good protester”/”bad protester” politics.
In his book SDS, Kirkpatrick Sale reports that the reaction to Kent State within the U.S. was massive uproar and upheaval:
“The impact is only barely suggested by the statistics, but they are impressive enough. In the next four days, from May 5 to May 8, there were major campus demonstrations at a rate of more than 100 a day, students at a total of at least 350 institutions went on strike and 536 schools were shut down completely for some period of time, 51 of them for the entire year. More than half of the colleges and universities in the country (1,350) were ultimately touched by protest demonstrations, involving nearly 60% of the student population (nearly five million students) in every kind of institution and in every state in the union.”
While there were protests in major cities across the U.S. following Giuliani’s death, they were no where near the scale of those post-Kent State in terms of numbers of people involved or impact on business running as usual. Those who do not identify as part of the new movement or listen to Pacifica radio probably were not aware that there was any angry reaction at all.
Now, shortly after the murder, we run the risk of letting the mournful energy produced by the tragedy dissipate. Without unduly romanticizing Carlo Giuliani’s life and death, without martyrizing him, we have the opportunity to honor him and all others fighting and sometimes dying in the war against what author bell hooks calls White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy. We can honor them by tapping into our righteous fury and funneling that emotion into action, by using this tragedy as a catalyst to expose the murder machine of global capitalism for what it is. We cannot let the public forget or gloss over the events of July 20. We are obligated as those driven by desire for a just world to fight like hell against the inevitable historical re-writing of the murder as anything other than what it was.
Kent State and Genoa were two very different chapters in histories of resistance, with very different aftermaths in the U.S. The fact that Carlo Giuliani’s murder and those of other anti-capitalist globalization activists have not generated the outcry that Kent State ushered must spur us on to vital organizing. No death can go by unnoticed. We must build the mass movement for which we yearn and others have died.
Eugene Koveos is a student at Queens City College in New York City and works with the October 22nd Coalition Against Police Brutality.
Nicole Solomon is a writer and musician living in New York City.