© 2024 WOSU Public Media
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

National Guard response to Gaza college protests? Kent State students, faculty say 'not so fast'

May4_1970army jeep.jpg
Kent State University
Ohio National Guardsmen watch from a distance as students gather in the commons late in the morning of May 4, 1970.

Scenes from protests on college campuses across the country and subsequent calls for the National Guard to be called in to restore order are resonating on Kent State University’s campus, with the 54th anniversary Saturday of the Ohio National Guard killing of four students and wounding of nine others.

Kent State students are planning a protest on the May 4th anniversary that connects protests of the moment to the anti-Vietnam War protests of the past.

Yaseen Shaikh, president of the Kent State chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, one of the student groups organizing the protest, said the history of protests across the country shows that students have the power to make change. The demonstrations at Kent State in 1970 were calling for a halt to war; specifically, the U.S. expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia. The protest Saturday similarly is calling for the university to put out a statement demanding a cease-fire in Gaza but also for the university to divest from Israeli weapons manufacturers and military contractors.

“This has been on our minds, the martyrs of May 4th and what they stood for: antiwar, anti-imperialism,” Shaikh explained. “The Vietnam War was the United States flexing its imperialism, its military strength on the innocent population of another country. Its invasion of Cambodia expanded the Vietnam War. And so these students were outraged by that. And the same way, these students are outraged by the United States and Israel's actions in Gaza.”

Prior to a crackdown by police this week at Columbia University on protesters occupying a building, U.S. Speaker of the House Mike Johnson demanded the National Guard be sent in to quell the pro-cease-fire demonstrations on campus.

Idris Kabir Syed, a professor in the department of Africana studies at Kent State, has taught a class on the May 4th shootings and the aftermath with fellow professor Karen Cunningham since 2016. He said Johnson's April 24 call to action is "problematic."

“I generally think that, as professor of May 4th, it's probably not a good idea to bring in the National Guard to campus to deal with students expressing their First Amendment rights and freedoms,” he said.

His parents attended Kent State at the time of the shootings. He said those critical of the protest movement should look to history and study what happened at Kent State to see what happens when demonstrations are repressed by the government.

He said students today in New York, California, Texas and even in Ohio – where students at Case Western Reserve University and Oberlin College have started pro-cease-fire encampments – are challenging society to think more deeply about the issues they’re protesting about.

He added that occupying buildings is a longtime protest tactic, and even happened on Kent State’s campus in 1968, when students took over Hamilton Hall to protest racism on campus. Syed himself attended protests on campus when he attended Kent State.

"What the students at Columbia and across the country have been doing with their protest is bringing this issue to the fore," he said. "And I think that it's actually a really critically important thing to do. Much like the protest movements against South African apartheid that I was engaged in in the late 80s and early 90s."

Shaikh, the student protest organizer at Kent State, argued that students’ right to expression is already under attack across the country, without the National Guard being called in.

“It's very similar to what we're seeing on campuses world, nationwide and namely, the University of Texas, where they have brought in tons and tons of riot police,” he said. “And in fact, some people are saying that they may even be more at risk of a May 4th repeat than, than even Columbia University. Their students are being brutalized by police. It doesn't take five police officers to take down one student. And yet we're seeing that on video. Faculty members are being being tackled to the ground.”

Paul Haridakis, director of the School of Communication Studies at Kent State, said freedom of speech is the core issue at play when hundreds turn out to protest and tensions rise between police, college administration and students.

“The question always becomes, what's the government interest in limiting speech?” he said.

The government can establish reasonable “time, place and manner” restrictions on the use of public space, Haridakis explained. So, universities across the country are balancing if protests are interrupting day-to-day operations and how to respond. He also said that calling in the National Guard, which is usually a determination made by states’ governors, should not be the answer in the case of Columbia University, for example.

“In this particular instance, the police seem to be handling what's going on,” he said. “The university seems to be dealing with the protests. And I think that's where it belongs.”

Tatsushi Arai, an associate professor in Kent State’s School of Peace and Conflict Studies, who has led conflict resolution initiatives in countries for over 25 years, said the Kent State shootings, and police repression of student protests on campus more recently, represent a breakdown in relationships between protesters, the government and university administrations.

He said universities should consider students’ demands – for universities to divest, and to uphold students' right to free expression, for example – and how they can meet them in the middle, to find solutions that could benefit both parties.

“I would venture to suggest that if the university leadership can focus on those goals, and find the means by which to have a peaceful dialogue so that the university administration, the faculty and staff, on the one hand, and the students on the other hand, can strive for those goals … then I suppose that involving armed personnel is totally unnecessary,” he said.

Events at Kent State to commemorate the May 4 shootings will occur on campus from May 2 through May 4, and include speakers and a candlelight vigil.

Corrected: May 3, 2024 at 12:27 PM EDT
Professor Idris Kabir Syed was referring to student protesters occupying Hamilton Hall in 1968 at Columbia University, not at Kent State as was reported in an earlier version of this story.
Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.