There are better ways to remember May 4

Zach Wiita

As a student at Kent State, I’ve always felt that it was important I attend the May 4 Commemoration every year. Logistically, the May 4 Task Force has always done an impressive job. Still, each year I’ve attended, the event has seemed to not be about the Kent State shooting. Every year I’ve attended, in my view, has been about Iraq and George W. Bush.

Last year it was no different. There was a lot of time devoted to Iraq and Bush and surprisingly little to May 4. Shortly after the commemoration ended, a peace march organized by the Anti-War Committee and Portage Peace Coalition began. I decided to participate to express my outrage over the war. This was perhaps a mistake.

When the leaders of the march asked us to stop at the sites of the May 4 victims’ deaths, I overheard a disappointingly large number of protesters express exasperation and irritation. In looking around I noted any number of flags displayed – red and black flags, Earth flags, Palestinian flags, Lebanese flags.

There were no U.S. flags displayed that were not defaced. The U.S. flag at the front of the march was upside down and marked with an anti-war slogan.

We stopped at the ROTC building where several protesters covered the glass walls of the building with peace flyers. At least one protester attempted to convince others to engage in a sit-in with him, but this idea did not catch on. The march continued until it reached the West Main Street bridge. There was a lot of commotion and talk of having a sit-in on the bridge to obstruct traffic. At least one group of people began singing “The Internationale.” At this point, I left.

I later learned that four of the protesters were arrested for refusing to clear the road after the police attempted to re-open the bridge. Some of the remaining protesters then verbally harassed drivers before going to police headquarters to chant, “No justice, no peace, fuck the police!”

My experience was thoroughly disillusioning. It was less an act of protest against an unjust war and war criminal president than it was an excuse to engage in mindless America- and Israel-bashing. Displaying one combatant’s flag (Palestine) but not another (Israel) is not supporting peace, it’s supporting that combatant’s victory.

I was similarly irritated by the lack of any standard U.S. flags. It’s important to send a message of support for the basic American values of universal liberty, equality and respect for human rights by using standard flags. Not to do so only leaves us vulnerable to charges of anti-Americanism.

I was struck by the foolishness of obstructing traffic. Nonviolent civil disobedience is a wonderful weapon, but like any weapon it has to be aimed at the right people. No one in the Bush Administration cared if traffic in Kent was obstructed. All the protesters accomplished was inconveniencing their fellow residents. It was an act of political masturbation – it accomplished nothing other than making them feel good.

It was an understandable impulse to use the May 4 Commemoration to speak about Iraq and Bush. The parallels between the Iraq War and the Vietnam War are obvious. It’s fair to remark upon the past repeating itself.

But the event itself ought to be about the Kent State shooting. Had there been a separate ceremony to protest the war, I wouldn’t have minded.

It’s my firm hope that this year’s commemoration will rededicate its focus to the Kent State shooting. I hope the spirit of activism against unjust war continues but finds a more appropriate venue than the commemoration. And I hope that we always remember the victims of May 4.

As for future anti-war marches in Kent, I hope its participants remember peace doesn’t mean taking one side or another in a war, and the flag of the United States is a flag of liberty and equality that was hijacked by the far right – a flag we on the left need to reclaim. And I sincerely hope that instead of engaging in harassment of their fellow citizens and poorly-aimed civil disobedience, protesters organize a respectful and peaceful march that does not obstruct traffic or lead to any arrests.

Still, something else about last year’s commemoration sticks out in my memory. As I was standing at the display of shoes for Ohio soldiers killed in action, I felt someone touching my right shoulder, as though to comfort me. I turned, but there was nobody there. It wasn’t a person who had touched me. It was the flag of the United States.

Zach Wiita is a senior theatre studies and political science major and a columnist for the Daily Kent Stater. Contact him at [email protected].