Kent State University Massacre survivor Joseph Lewis, hosted by Portland State’s English department, spoke in Cramer Hall on Wednesday, Feb. 28, about the importance of peaceful political demonstrations and uncovering the truth behind what he called hidden histories.
Lewis was one of 13 victims of the May 4, 1970, shooting and claims the government covered up evidence for decades that incriminated national guardsmen. Lewis has shared his testimonial across the country for at least seven years.
“I’m here because of [the] four students that couldn’t be here today,” Lewis said. “[Kent State students] Sandra Scheuer, Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller and William Schroeder died…during a peaceful protest.”
In 1970, as the Vietnam war entered its 15th year, Lewis described, ongoing tensions were brewing between the government and protesting civilians at the time. In the three days of student-led protests leading up to May 4, hundreds of national guardsmen flocked to the Kent State campus in Ohio armed with rifles and bayonets.
On the day of the shooting, 900 national guardsman occupied campus while classes ran as usual. At noon, the Victory Bell rang in the university commons, which summoned protesters to the hub of campus. The Victory Bell was traditionally used to announce football game victories but later became a signal for the beginning of demonstrations or protests.
Lewis said demonstrators chanted “one, two, three, four, we don’t want your fucking war” and held picket signs. Some chants were directed at guardsmen, Lewis said, but for the most part demonstrators were protesting the war as a whole.
However, tensions between guardsmen and students hit a peak that day. Lewis said he read in news reports at the time that students overturned guardsmen’s cars and attacked officers with bricks and bats. However, Lewis added, more hostility came from the guardsmen. Officers tried forcefully moving demonstrators back to their dorms up the hill away from the commons and announced their assembly was unlawful.
Of the armed officers, 12 were members of Troop G of the 107th Armored Cavalry Regiment, known for being particularly critical of demonstrations. Three of the guardsmen leveled their rifles at 18-year-old Lewis, at which point he gave them the middle finger and the officers opened fire. The guardsmen claimed later on in court they began to shoot because they were afraid for their safety.
“I was naive,” Lewis said when describing his shock a real bullets shooting out of the gun, “I didn’t think there would be real bullets. I thought they would be shooting blanks. Looking back, I don’t know why I would think that, but I also never thought there would be loaded guns on campus either.”
Lewis said when victims took the guardsmen to court, they were offered money and the guardsmen were let go. Later on, other victims suggested evidence, including an audio recording in which guardsmen were ordered to fire, was covered up.
Attendee and Vietnam veteran Mike Hastie said he is afraid history will repeat itself if the government continues to cause destruction or hurt innocent lives and cover up the evidence. “It’s important for you young people to be here,” Hastie said. “You need to know this history because the government is going to hide the truth in order to repeat what they’ve done without consequence.”
Sara Appel, adjunct instructor of English at PSU, said she feels a responsibility to expose her students to voices like Lewis’.
“If the government is not supporting our rights to convene and identify injustice when we see it,” Appel said, “then that’s what we need to be afraid of. That’s why I want to make sure that [Lewis’] perspective is not forgotten.”
Appel added, “More than ever I think whether in high school or higher education settings, we need to understand that our safety as a society is dependent on understanding who it is that we should or shouldn’t be afraid of.”
When asked about school shootings, protests and demonstrations Lewis explained his shock that school shootings is a phrase that has been normalized in our society. “I’m about peaceful demonstrations,” Lewis said. “We need to defend our most vulnerable people in our society.”
Lewis did not address recent shootings like those at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School or Las Vegas, but he made it a point to tell student attendees they should be empowered to fight for change. “It’s your world to change,” Lewis said. “But we can’t fight violence with violence.”