One, two, three, four, we don't want your fucking war!
-- Kent State University, 1970
Mark Mori, a Jacksonville native and University of Florida journalism grad, decided early to record the social issues of the modern world. His activism during the Vietnam conflict -- he was a member of the militant Students for a Democratic Society -- continues to determine his world view. Whether tracking the birth of the atomic bomb, or the sorry legacy of radioactive waste, or putting faces and voices to the pain of South Central Los Angeles, his work as a filmmaker has sought insight into America's modern tragedies.
Now his cameras study the first four days of May 1970 in Kent, Ohio, and the events that would spill the young blood of unarmed demonstrators protesting the spilling of blood in Vietnam.
"I was 20 years old, a student at Emory [University] in Atlanta," he says. "Kent State was numbing and has stayed with me. When I realized that this year was the 30th anniversary, I thought it an appropriate time to take a fresh look."
"Kent State: The Day the War Came Home," co-produced by Mori's Single Spark Pictures and the Canadian company Partners in Motion, is a riveting retrospective of what moved Ohio's National Guard to fire at, wound and kill student war protesters and observers. It is the first time that some of the National Guardsmen have spoken publically of the tragedy.
"Through the years, I had not thought much about the point of view of the guards, nor attempted to understand their perspective," says Mori, "but in every film I've done, the strongest points are made by letting everyone speak."
He knew that to be even-handed, part of the perspective needed to be that of the Guardsmen. "Not to absolve them, just that their account would be useful," says Mori. "So I listened and learned details of how events developed."
It took no arm-twisting to convince victims to participate in the film. Except for Barry Levine, whose companion, Alison Krause, bled to death while he held her. Levine had not spoken since about that day.
"We had to convince him -- also the Guardsmen -- that the film would be serious, in-depth and of quality."
With unflinching recall by key participants woven into emotionally raw footage of old newsreels and with a '70s soundtrack that is, by turns, rousing, mournful and militarist, Kent State grips a viewer and does not let go:
Friday, May 1: A hundred students meet at the campus Victory bell. Speeches fan passions. Because President Nixon, without Congressional approval, has declared war in Cambodia, protesters dig a bitter hole and bury the Constitution.
That night, as swarms of students swill and debate in downtown bars, militants begin stone-throwing at "political" establishment targets. Small businesses sustain damage. Bars close, forcing students into streets. Police back them to the campus gates.
Saturday, May 2: The Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) building is a long-time target. At sunset, 2,000 students converge on the building. Windows break. Small blazes are set. Responding firemen are impeded. Flames engulf the building. Now the National Guard rides the fire trucks.
Sunday, May 3: By daybreak, a surreal atmosphere prevails: The occupation by the National Guard's weekend warriors leads to a scene in which a girl presses blossoms into a gun barrel. Students and soldiers exchange grins. Then, Gov. James Rhodes, a law-and-order megalomaniac, gets involved. The protesters will be eradicated, he says.
Few students see the leaflets forbidding gatherings. A nighttime demand to meet with Kent State's president ends in confrontation with Guardsmen. By midnight, students are pushed into dorms, arrested -- and one stabbed by a bayonet. By dawn, the issue is the military occupation of Kent State.
Monday, May 4: The tension is palpable. Angry students assemble at the Victory bell. Hostile, wary Guardsmen assemble at the burned-out ROTC building and form a long, green line and stand fast. A bullhorn voice orders chanting, yelling students to disperse.
"We didn't think anybody had the right to tell us we couldn't stand there peacefully and express our feelings," said one student.
The line of guards, lobbing tear gas, move toward retreating students, who become agitated. Rocks and bottles fly. Suddenly, some guardsmen drop to their knees, pointing weapons at students in an adjacent parking lot.
Students had no idea that the guns were loaded.
Thirteen seconds and 67 bullets later, four students lay dying, some 400 yards from the shooters, some shot in the back. Thirteen others were wounded, one paralyzed for life.
Thirty years later, Mori has a more sophisticated understanding of that weekend, how political and social forces were more complex than he could have imagined. "I see how leadership of the Guard, President Nixon and Gov. Rhodes all share blame," he says.
His Kent State retrospective is meant to remind: It is incumbent upon us to keep a check on the power available to and used by our governments against us.
Could such a thing happen again?
"Well, we didn't come across anything that made serious argument that said it couldn't happened again," he says. "The fact that the question goes unanswered is the answer."
"Kent State: The Day the War Came Home" airs 10 pm Friday, May 5, on The Learning Channel (TLC).
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