Essay Larry Bensky

Plague Journal #7: Remembering the Shock of Reporting on Kent State

A mostly forgotten element that bridges the Nixon-Trump eras is the thuggish fact-free ways Trump et al are dividing the country to preserve their electoral viability. As is the search for scapegoats through xenophobia and ideology.  

Larry Bensky, a long-time radio and print journalist. has been writing his “Journal of the Plague Year”
since mid-March for the legendary Anderson Valley Advertiser.  He welcomes your comments and suggestions:”

Berkeley, CA – May 4, 2020

“If it takes a bloodbath, let’s get it over with.”

– California Gov. Ronald Reagan

Thus spoke then California Governor Ronald Reagan to a 1970 farm owner’s convention in Yosemite.  He was talking about the “mess” caused by protestors against the Vietnam War in Berkeley, Los Angeles, Santa Cruz, and Santa Barbara.  And also about the recent uprising in Berkeley which had resulted in the creation of the (now endangered; see more below) People’s Park .

That “mess”  perpetrated by what President Richard Nixon called “bums” had gone viral throughout the country.  Hundreds of campuses were shut down or on strike as the Nixon administration continued its senseless, bloody, secretive operations in southeast Asia.

Fifty years ago this week one of the seminal events of that era took place.

As narrated in “The New Yorker” by Harvard historian Jill Lepore (“Blood on the Green” 5/4/2020) on May 4, 1970 Ohio National Guard troops, some of whom  had been led to believe they were facing an armed uprising, opened fire on a few isolated young people on the Kent State University campus.  In thirteen seconds, they killed four of them.

At around the same time others were slain by law enforcement on campuses  at Jackson State college in Mississippi and Greensboro North Carolina, More had recently been killed at Augusta, Georgia and at South Carolina State.

It became apparent to a few of us reporters in what was then a widespread and widely followed alternative media that all of this was leading somewhere even more sinister than a tragic, random loss of life.

Kent State horrified the nation but
was not a suprise to those on the left.

We were right.  It was, as we eventually found out, leading to a plan to militarize the country.  Confront, arrest, and imprison however many people it took.  “Pacify” the USA by removing non-conforming people from daily life. 

One of those on the Kent State campus May 4 was an Ohio native who had recently come to California, as so many of us had, because of the alternatives it seemed to offer.  Jeff Gerth, then thirty years old, had graduated from Northwestern University with a degree in Business Administration.  He worked for Standard Oil in marketing, where he felt he was going nowhere. 

In San Diego he found a lively arts and political scene.  And alternative press weeklies and monthlies.

While visiting Northern California, he started to listen to KSAN, “Ace of the Airwaves,” which combined “free-form” music (mostly rock, blues, folk and Motown) with newscasts and talk shows. It was a transformation.  No longer was all the music chosen by a program director.  Each “disc jockey” brought his or her own steed to the track.

I was one of KSAN’s five reporters, newscasters and talk show hosts.  This was also transformative.  “Information” programming on almost all music stations was then“rip and read,” where announcers tore sheets of paper from clattering wire service machines and read them on the air.

Somehow I met Gerth,  (neither of us remembers where or how) and when I ran into him before his Ohio visit, I asked him to keep his eyes open   And if he ran across anything we could talk about on the air, to call me – “collect.”  (Note to young readers: ask your parents or grandparents what a lifeline “collect “calls could be, from phone booths coast to coast.)

On his visit home to Ohio, Gerth went to Kent State, about 45 minutes away, “because my instincts told me something was going to happen.” While approaching the campus, he heard what he like everyone assumed were firecrackers.  But then.  “I saw some of the dead bodies shortly after.”  He ran around looking for a phone to call me, far away,  in the KSAN newsroom.  When he finally found a working phone booth.  he’d been listening to fragmentary news accounts on his car radio.

I remember Gerth was breathless and shaken and didn’t want to go on the air,  pleading lack of radio experience.  I had begun to see bulletins about the Kent State shootings on wire service reports, and told him to just listen to me, when I went live, and then answer questions I would ask.  Which he did, for many minutes beyond our usual news format’s constrictions.  Then, as more information surfaced, we did more unscheduled newscasts.   The station’ phones went nuts, as wire services, radio stations, and newspapers wanted a piece of one of the few reporters on the scene.  

Jeff and I had a scoop.  One network offered me a lot of money ($100 was a lot of money then) if I would rush over to their local station affiliate and go on their evening newscast.  But I thought that was ridiculous, money notwithstanding.  I wasn’t there, in Ohio.  I was merely the beneficiary of a ghastly conjuncture.

Gerth went on to a distinguished career as an investigative reporter, including over 20 years at the New York Times, and as author and co-author of numerous books.

Now, when I tell him there is so much – especially after reading Lepore’s  historically contextual writing, that is reminiscent of the Nixon era in the Age of Trump, he agrees.  But says it would take him a long time to even begin to state the ways.

For me, it doesn’t take long to get to one way.  A mostly forgotten element that bridges the Nixon-Trump eras.  It’s the thuggish fact-free ways Trump et al are dividing the country to preserve their electoral viability.  Pure Nixon.  And how Trump-Pence-McConnell  resemble Nixon-Kissinger-Westmoreland is also obvious.  As is the search for scapegoats through xenophobia and ideology.  

But it is important to remember, as Lepore reminds us, that Nixon’s forces were not just top-down.  They had lots of supporters.  People who for decades had accumulated grievances against individuals and groups.  Anti-black racists.  Anti-semites,  Haters of all things Mexican or Asian.  Bible belters loathing the unchurched.  And hysterical McCarthyite anti-communists who saw “subversive” “un-Americans” behind everything .

In the street, where they often were, sometimes spontaneously, sometimes in organized mobs, labor union members were among the most gregarious, violent, and aggressive anti-anti-war activists.  They sought out those who were not of their tribe.

Lepore again:  “On May 7, three days after the shootings at Kent State, as many as 5,000 students thronged the streets in New York for the funeral procession for Jeff Miller (one of those killed).  As the mourners marched through the city, scattered groups of construction workers, up on girders, threw beer cans at them…while police officers looked on more or less approvingly.   The workers, many of whom had lost friends and relatives in Vietnam, attacked the protesters, clubbing them with tools, kicking them as they lay on the ground…”

Courting those white working class men became the intentional fulcrum for Nixon, advised by right-wing zealot (and mass media darling) Pat Buchanan.   “Those people were Nixon’s, then they were Reagan’s, now they’re Trump’s,” concludes Lepore.

But how far would they have gone then, how far would they go now, if they could?

Seventeen years after Kent State, one of the accidental, one-day wonders of the Iran-contra hearings was the disclosure – via journalistic, not legislative proceedings – of Operations Cable Splicer and Garden Plot.  Originally drawn up in 1970 for then California Governor Reagan,  the same year as the killings at Kent State, these draft executive orders could have opened (or re-opened – some had been WW II internment camps for Japanese)  huge prison camps.

Right wing conspiracists quickly announced  there were “800 prison camps in the United States, fully operational and ready to receive prisoners.”  The supposed capacity of these places was somewhere around 200,000.

Investigations into the sites found they either didn’t exist, or were not where they were supposed to be, were something else would be impossible to staff and supply, or all of these. But for whatever reason, a future Hall of Famer in the right-wing pantheon, Oliver North, was assigned in the Reagan White House to be part of their structure.  

What about today?  Very different era, very different “enemy.”  Who is suspiciously “subversive” now?   Not the MAGA guys, the gun-proud descendants of those 1970’s hard hats.  Rather, today’s “subversives” are the medical establishment, with its thousands of dedicated and endangered doctors, nurses, maintenance workers, and custodians.  And governors, and mayors, who listen to those dedicated professionals and take measures to save lives.

There are small, isolated protests.  Some have people in them who show up with guns.  Some seek out and hurt people who disagree with them.  So what about law enforcement?  What’s it doing to control and police the MAGA-maniacs, who increasingly feel emboldened to attack, verbally and physically, random folks for whatever reason?  MAGA men want to get that Wall built!  MAGA men want to  go to the beach!  To church!  To the movies.   They want the right to be FREE!

The nation’s top law enforcement official, who operates as if he were a part of Trump’s re-election campaign, not an independent, powerful cabinet officer, does indeed have his Justice Department investigating.  But what Attorney General William Barr wants investigated are activities that “could be violating the constitutional rights and civil liberties of individual citizens.”

Barr, like Buchanan before him, believes there is no  permissible collective element to humanity, outside of religion.  The right to assemble, spread disease, babble dangerous and inaccurate “scientific” material – all of these must  be assured.  The right to health and well-being, not so much.   And if millions die as a result of this ideology…well, it’s part of natural life. The “herd” is developing “immunity!” 

Resuming “normal” business activity, abandoning things like Stay at Home orders, social distances, and masks would lead to “significant loss of life,” admits one particularly deranged local official, recently removed Contra Costa Planning Commission Chair Ken Turnage.  He says, that if restrictions were removed, “We would lose many elderly, but that would reduce burdens in our defunct Social Security system, health care cost (once the wave subsided) make jobs available for others, and also free up housing in which we are in dire need of.”

As usual, breathless, non-stop TV and web coverage is  megaphoning  visual material to back up such lunacy.  In early May, when about 50 people picketed shoulder to shoulder outside San Francisco City Hall, their signs read, “Wealth is Health,” “The Cure is Worse Than the Disease,” “Open California.”   

In Yuba and Sutter counties, by the time you read this, massage parlors, barber shops, nail salons  and tattoo storefronts  may reopen, with county government authorization.  “As long as appropriate social distance” is kept.  (One would love to see county officials demonstrating social distance at a massage table, in a barber shop or with a tattoo needle…)

The thinking behind such an approach goes beyond Nixonian, however.  Beyond Darwinian (not that Darwin, by the way, had the rigid take on his work which others later developed.)  You have to go to Hitler and his genocidal acolytes for that.

Their core belief is there are superior and lesser living creatures..  Proper breeding can produce “better” pigs, cows, goats.   And people.  We humans considered “lesser” automatically lose big pieces of our lives, as we inevitably move on to losing everything.  

For us now, “no dining out, no public transportation, no travel” speculates a San Francisco Chronicle reporter.  He quotes a Veterans Administration official as saying we in Geezer Nation “are going to have to be more conscious of assessing what public spaces we feel comfortable with.”  The common view is that “for the next year or two life will become about the fundamentals and not much else: shelter, food and necessary outings.”

So much for movies, or live music.  So much for libraries, or bookstores or museums.  So much for baseball games.  Or dog parks.  Or zoos and acquariums. 

Geezer Nation will be seated, nodding off in our reveries, on park benches.  Reading.  Feeding pigeons, perhaps.

That is, if there are any benches (more and more they’ve been removed or made uncomfortable so homeless people can’t use them).   And if, indeed, parks are “re-opened.”  

Which bring us, as we remember Kent State, to another 1970 era icon, People’s Park.  Built on land which so many of us (myself , as an “activist journalist” included) spent many years creating and defending.  And which another generation of insensitive,  “practical”  UC officials now is determined to destroy.  Onc again in the name of “badly needed housing.”   

The clandestine crooks who always infect the real estate market (see Trump, Donald) may well come up with what they think of as a palliative.  Maybe a “COVID-19” Memorial Tower.  Like the obscenely out of place 16-story structure now in the UC design for Peoples Park.    

A wildly unrealistic finance plan has been drawn up for the site’s destruction/construction, as it was ten years ago for the nearby Memorial Stadium and Athletic Center project.  Which originally was to cost around $100 million, and wound up with a balloon-payment stretched $500 million.  Completely out of line with what Berkeley, or California, could afford, even before the COVID-19 multi-billion dollar budget impact.  

The laudable goal, “housing” would be small in quantity, and,,of course, not available or affordable to those most in need .  And UC provides no useful analysis of why, if “housing” was needed in 1970, in 2020 it still hasn’t been constructed.

But in this Pandemic  it’s almost a relief to grapple with an issue like UC Berkeley’s unprincipled, wasteful behavior.  At least one knows the path they’re on.  We have much less knowledge – and some of what we have is partial, confusing, and possibly erroneous  -– about coronavirus.   

Even “Garden Plot” and “Cable Splicer” didn’t aim at such a foe.  

What can?

[To read previous entries of the “Journal of the Plague Year” click here]

Larry Bensky
Larry Bensky

Larry Bensky is a literary and political journalist with experience in both print and broadcast media, as well as a teacher and political activist. He is known for his work with Pacifica Radio station KPFA-FM in Berkeley, California, and for the nationally-broadcast hearings he anchored for the Pacifica network