May 4, 1970 was a sunny afternoon in Kent, Ohio, the small, sleepy town 45 miles south of Cleveland that’s home to Kent State University. The protests that made the university a cultural stopover for intellectuals and academics were in full-swing. At that point the protests were so ingrained in campus culture that students meandering across the grassy commons paid them no mind – until National Guardsmen fired M1 Garand rifles into the crowd. Suddenly, chaos erupted and students scattered, running for cover.
In just 13 seconds, four students – Jeffrey Miller, Allison Krause, William Schroeder and Sandra Scheuer – were dead on the ground. Another nine students were wounded.
Jerry Casale, co-founder of the new wave band Devo and a member of Students for a Democratic Society while attending Kent State, explained the scene to HIGH TIMES.
“There was the screaming and the horror, like in a car accident when you go into slow motion and the sound gets surreal like Raging Bull,” Casale said of how he learned his friend Alison Kraus was shot. “I heard people screaming ‘Oh my God! Alison! Alison!’ and I realized it was her. I was just far away enough not to recognize her at first. And the blood is running down the driveway, red blood coagulating in the noonday sun, and I remember feeling like I was gonna puke and pass out. I dropped down on the grass and just sat there, because to see real violence is sickening.”
National Guardsmen marched students out of the front gate of the campus, Casale says. “Then the campus was closed for the whole entire summer. Crime scene. And there was martial law. For the next week there were curfews, 7pm students had to be in their dorms, and helicopters made rounds of the city over and over, circling, it was unbelievable.”
At a press conference days after the shooting, County Prosecutor Ron Kane displayed jars of marijuana next to weapons meant to explain the threat posed by demonstrators. The contraband – meager evidence one could uncover on any city block – had been discovered during an ACLU-denounced search of university dorm rooms.
“They made it look like [the shooting] was justifiable.” Ralph Solonitz, who was a senior at Kent at the time, tells HIGH TIMES. “They had everybody’s lockers broken into, and dorms searched and they had laid out tables and tables of Boy Scout knives and bongs and Zig Zag papers.”
Prior to 1970, marijuana arrests were relatively scarce in the U.S., though arrest rates had steadily risen throughout the prior decade.
“There was a lot of paranoia about walking around with some joints in your pocket, but the law enforcement hadn’t been militarized yet,” Bob Lewis tells HIGH TIMES. Lewis, a fellow Devo co-founder, developed the theory of de-evolution at Kent State. “There were still asshole cops, but they weren’t cranking them out of a production line. It was still a little bit of Andy and Mayberry.”
While anti-war protests and the peak of the hippie movement signaled a massive cultural change in America, newly-elected President Richard Nixon fought tooth and nail to squash it. Just days before the shooting, Nixon announced the U.S. invasion of Cambodia, intensifying an almost-unilaterally unpopular 10-year war in Vietnam. Throughout the next four years, he would try to maintain the status quo in any way possible – from quashing dissent with illegal, clandestine intelligence operations to targeting opponents with marijuana arrests.
Shortly after the May 4th massacre at Kent State, Nixon initiated a series of drug policies disproportionately targeting political activists and people of color.
The Nixon Tapes provide the most telling evidence of Nixon’s bigoted scheme to use marijuana criminalization as a tool to clamp down on political dissent. “Homosexuality, dope, immorality in general, these are the enemies of strong societies,” Nixon was revealed as saying. “That’s why the Communists and the left-wingers are pushing the stuff, they’re trying to destroy us.”
Nixon's Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman wrote in his diary that Nixon "emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.” Nixon's paranoia about a connection between the blacks, Jews, political dissenters and marijuana ultimately fomented that "system" as Nixon's war on drugs.
Less than six months after the May 4th shootings, Nixon moved to pass the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, which categorized marijuana as a Schedule 1 substance, in the same category as heroin. In 1972, the Shafer Commission produced a report urging marijuana to be decriminalized. Nixon, despite the recommendation from the nation’s top health officials, denied their pleas and maintained marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug. The law stands to this day.
“There was a real war on drugs,” Casale recalls. “It was just a really paranoid dark time, and you felt it. You felt it in your daily life. You felt things getting really hopeless. Just a sick feeling in the air,” Casale continued.
The events of 1970 were a whirlwind of cultural changes, dovetailing into a shift in government policy, the effects of which are still being felt today. In Nixon’s war, civil rights, drug policy, equality and liberty itself were damaged. The shootings at Kent State on May 4th, 1970 were the catalyst to mutations of American democracy, irreparable to this day.
“We lived through a civil war in the 60’s, that’s what that was.” Casale said. “And we won the cultural battle, but we lost the powered political battle because the organizations like the FBI and the CIA just got more powerful.”