Blocked: Open-carry march turns to chaotic Esplanade standoff

Police officers keep watch over the Schwartz Center parking lot as it fills with open-carry advocates. 

A mild fall September day quickly descended into chaos as open-carry marchers, police in riot gear and counterprotestors clashed on the university Esplanade. 

Four people were arrested for disorderly conduct, and one was also charged with assaulting a police officer, the university said in a press conference Saturday evening. To its knowledge, none of those arrested were Kent State students. 

Kaitlin Bennett, a Kent State alumna, met with gun rights activists at the Schwartz Center parking lot Saturday around 1:30 p.m. Watching from the outskirts was a long line of police in black, tactical riot gear.

A cheery Bennett addressed the group, along with media, about gun rights and open-carry on campuses 10 minutes before they started walking.

Meanwhile, tensions began to boil over a mere 250 feet away on Risman Plaza. As the police drove in trucks to block entrances to the plaza and control the flow of gatherers, those who were already assembled began to clash. 

A majority of those gathered in Risman Plaza were protesters dressed head to toe in black. A man dressed in medieval armor exchanged barbs with everyone from anti-fascists to students to members of Black Lives Matter. He seemed to be at the center of contention as he hit people with his shield and picked arguments with anyone. Whenever his mask lifted, he had a crazed smile. 

A large group of students watched from the top of the fountain — the same fountain featured in Bennett’s infamous graduation photo taken four months ago. 

Drones flew high in the air, mostly above the plaza and the University Library, their dull buzz drowned out by the arguments. Ohio State Highway Patrol troopers and police in riot gear were present everywhere and patrolled the campus area.

Then, at 2:35 p.m., everything changed.

Bennett began her walk, flanked by fellow gun rights activists with police in front of them. As Bennett calmly walked across the temporarily closed Summit Street, a mix of protestors and police sprinted across the front of campus. Some protestors sprinted straight toward her. Others ran ahead in an attempt to get in front of the walk. 

The scene was chaotic as the two groups converged on the southeast edge of Bowman Hall. The plan was to proceed in a circle around campus, snake behind Stopher and Johnson Halls, pass the Center for the Performing Arts and Eastway and finish in the exact same spot it started. 

In total, it didn’t progress more than a quarter of a mile. The walk never got beyond Bowman Hall.

Once the walk reached Olson Hall, counterprotestors formed a wall, preventing the walk from moving forward. Police in riot gear confronted the protestors in an attempt to break up the man-made blockade.

“Move, move,” the officers shouted as a unit. As they attempted to break through, a man was arrested behind them. 

When it was clear the police wouldn’t be able to get through without confrontation, they began to put on riot gear. 

They buckled on their shin guards.

“No Trump, no KKK, no fascist U.S.A,” the protestors chanted. 

The police adjusted the walkie-talkies on their jackets.

“No Trump, no KKK, no fascist U.S.A.” 

Next, they put on their black riot helmets, complete with a visor.

“No Trump, no KKK, no fascist U.S.A.”

Behind them, a circle of police surrounded gun rights activists, with Bennett in the middle, looking shaken. She spoke to some of the officers, but no reporters were close enough to hear what she said. 

As the police formed a circle in preparation to attack the wall blocking the Esplanade in front of them, the rest of the participants had now caught up to the group, creating a melting pot of protestors, gun rights activists and student observers. A man with a loudspeaker yelled about socialism to no one in particular. A group of students watched from the stairwell window in Olson, mouths agape. 

The man in medieval garb held an animated conversation about fascism. “Is this some loose Antifa I see?” he asked gleefully, seeming to delight in antagonizing the group. 

“Ohio” by Crosby, Stills & Nash played over a speaker in the distance. The song is a reference to the May 4, 1970, shootings on campus. Earlier in the day, one sign held by an open-carry marcher said, “The Kent State shootings wouldn’t have happened if the students were armed.” 

At 65 degrees, the weather was an ideal fall afternoon on a college campus. Last weekend, this part of the Esplanade was filled with students out and about, enjoying one last gasp of warm weather before the fall chill came to campus. This weekend, it was an assembly of vitriol.

At 2:04 p.m. the police began moving back toward the Student Center. They moved as a unit, heads darting back and forth in an attempt to try to fully grasp the situation. The protestors followed, arms interlocking, yelling back at the police officers. The officers eventually ended forming a circle in front of the Undergraduate Center for Student Excellence. The protestors formed a circle around the police officers. 

At one point, a protestor shoved one of the officers, setting off a fiery exchange. An officer ended up tangled on the ground with a protestor. The police shoved away protestors after protestors with hundreds watching on.

“Get off him. He’s choking him. Let him go,” someone shouted over the scrum. Once the shoving ended, the police interlocked and formed a wall around the man as three officers arrested him. An officer with a bull horn stood above him. He had a bloody cut on his head.

On the fringes, the panic subsided. Some gun rights activists, who went around the blocked center of the Esplanade, held conversations with bystanders and spoke about why they supported open-carry on college campuses. Other people stayed further away from the crowd, merely observing the moment.

After five minutes, the groups dispersed, directing their attention toward the Schwartz Center lot Bennett was now at. In total, the confrontation in front of Olson Hall lasted about an hour. 

The group made it to the road in front of the Schwartz Center parking lot before the Ohio State Patrol formed another wall. The protestors formed a wall opposite them — another standoff. Some of the open-carry marchers, who saw themselves as Bennett’s personal protectors, walked close to her on the way back.

A lone Jimmy John’s driver stopped and spoke to police right before the road could be entirely closed down, headed to his delivery location. Some people took photos with the wall of police officers. A group of protestors began to play the song “Mo Bamba” by Sheck Wes over a speaker. Gun rights activists and members of the III% Ohio Security Force walked around the outskirts of the group, talking to students and observers about gun rights. 

In the nearby parking lot, Bennett gave an impromptu press conference to some of the media gathered in the parking lot as some of her supporters cheered her on.

“I’m not going away,” she said, her voice shaky but defiant, her smile now gone. “If you guys think this is the last time I’ll be here, you guys are so wrong. … I’ll be back, and I’ll be back with more people.”

As the press conference ended, the protest began to wind down. The wall of protestors began to shrink one by one, too tired to continue waiting. The campus began to go back to normal. After taking numerous pictures with supporters, Bennett started to get ready to leave. 

At 4:45 p.m., Bennett was ushered into a car as the final protestors left. In total, the walk lasted a little more than two hours. 

In a press conference afterward, Kent State President Beverly Warren applauded the work of the law enforcement officials who helped keep the peace during the rally. 

“We will always do everything necessary to safeguard our university community and those who visit us. … There’s no limit on what we would say is warranted to ensure safety,” Warren said.

Contact Henry Palattella at [email protected]

Contact Laina Yost at [email protected]

Contact Brandon Bounds at [email protected]