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“This Is Not What It Sounds Like On TV:” Carol Mirman on the 1970 Kent State Shootings

When the United States invaded Cambodia in 1970, college campuses around the country erupted in the most violent, disruptive set of antiwar demonstrations of the entire Vietnam period. The FBI listed 1,785 student demonstrations and 313 building occupations during the 1969–1970 school year. At Kent State University in Ohio, four undergraduates were killed on May 4, 1970 when the National Guard opened fire at an antiwar rally. Carol Mirman was a senior at Kent State in 1970, preparing to graduate with a degree in Fine Arts. Like other students, she was outraged that National Guard troops were stationed on campus. She took part in the rally on May 4, and witnessed, to her horror, the shooting deaths of her fellow students.

Listen to Audio:

MIRMAN: On Sunday the troops were called in. I’d heard the governor was coming down to the site of the former ROTC Building which was right near the heating plant which is where I was doing my graduation show. I was getting ready to graduate and I was preparing for my senior show in painting and my studio space was in the heating plant which was an eye view from the ROTC Building so I hung down there all the time. So I went down there to check out the governor who came in and called the students Brown Shirts and Agnew who was making all sorts of nasty statements about the students. And the Guard came out and there was tanks and helicopters and guys with uniforms and guns and things like that — I’d never seen anything like that.

And as it became darker word was going through the crowd — I don’t remember if it was officially announced — that we needed to disperse, and after a certain hour we were to stay on campus and were no longer allowed to leave campus. I was exceedingly irate about that. ‘What is this war — it’s war here.’ I mean it’s ridiculous. Nobody’s really done anything. I didn’t support the ROTC Building being burned down but nonetheless that didn’t mean the tanks had to come. That didn’t mean that Guards and people with guns and bayonets and teargas and helicopters had to come. But, sure enough, there they all were. And as night approached and the helicopters there ‘thup-thup-thupping’ overhead and the strobe lights were flashing which was a sense of complete unreality — I was thinking 'Phooey on those guys. Who says we can’t go someplace. This is my school. My campus and my country. This is America., ya know. I have rights — 21 year old rights — I was 21 years old — and I want to go where I want to go. But not everybody felt that way. Actually up at the other end of the street away from where I was, that’s where I had heard someone had, several people had been bayoneted.

I don’t recall exactly what transpired. There was a lot of movement. It was dark at that point — people — and then tear gas was released, and I definitely felt the tear gas and got the heck out of there. And it burned.

Then I heard through the grapevine, and there was just a lot of grapevine — I couldn’t even tell you what the grapevine was, but there was — that there was a rally, an antiwar rally this time on Monday. And while I had never been to an antiwar rally that I can recall in the past, it was cool because I had had a growing awareness to the opposition to the war. I went to it because I was pretty pissed off about all this army — it seemed like an army to me. Now they were stabbing people. Now they were tanks and this time there was tear gas and awful things and it didn’t seem to make any sense and we were not supposed to be in groups of more than two people at one time. Excuse me! So I went to the rally. And when there was somebody in charge, organized and said “Disperse” and people didn’t disperse — I was as stubborn as many others saying, excuse me, I’ve got my rights, I’m not dispersing. But in fact when they started coming at us with guns, I dispersed with the rest of them. And we ran up the hill with the Guard behind us marching in line. And that was like a scary sight.

So as — there weren’t that many students there that were involved in the rally. I couldn’t tell you how many at that time. And there weren’t even that many on the periphery at the rally. But as things began to get more heated up, and it was noon, and it was a school day, more and more students began to appear on the periphery. So the Guard drove us up over the top of that hill where the sculpture was and down — I went down into the parking lot. I was one of those people in the parking lot that you could see in a lot of photographs, and it’s from the parking lot that the more active people were, and the few rocks that were thrown were thrown. And I did throw some rocks. I have to be frank about that because, heck, I gave that testimony 30 years ago to the FBI, I quit, I couldn’t seem to hit a darned thing. It didn’t seem to make any sense to me to throw a rock if you can’t hit something — these guys were really far away — and I couldn’t throw for beans anyway. It was more of an angry statement to me. I really never wanted to hurt anybody, but I was mad at all this — war. It seemed like war to me. I’d never seen anything like that in my life. I did see one rock hit a Guardsman. And I say this because there were reports that came out of the press that fire hydrants had been thrown, Guardsmen had been bleeding and there was lots of lies afterwards, but I was right there, in the middle of it — nada — did not happen. But the one rock that I did see bounced off of a Guardsman’s helmet. And we’re talkin' like a long way away. These guys were way down in the field. And that was that. So the Guard were in a crouching position with their guns out to shoot. Like you would think the Continental Army was. I mean, they were literally in that kind of a position. It was a shock. I thought they would shoot tear gas. But they didn’t. And they — the next thing I knew from where I was — there weren’t that many of us in the parking lot — the Guard was not surrounded at that point. There’s pictures to show it. Lots of lies about that. Now that’s not to deny that there were those people, those Guardsman down there didn’t feel surrounded, didn’t feel threatened, weren’t tired, weren’t in all kind of different circumstances, but the physical reality was not that.

So they got up and moved and, I thought retreated up the hill. I was with that group of people that followed them up the hill and said “Yeah, get off the campus, get outta here, we don’t want you here, get outta here” and was makin' lots of noise. And then I heard a single shot. And then there was a volley. I was very close to the Guard and the bullets whizzed past my ears. I was very much in the line of fire.

I do recall — some of those things are sort of burned into my memory. I remember thinking so clearly when that volley went by my ear “This is not what it sounds like on TV. This is not what the bullets sound like on cartoons.” It was a very different sound, the bullets so close to one’s head, to one’s ears. Very different sound. And I jumped over bodies and ran down the hill. I also recall some students saying “Walk, don’t run. They’re only blanks.” And I remember thinking “Huh? Why carry a weapon if you don’t have something in it that’s intended to work.” I’m outta here. And I did. I ran over bodies two, three deep were hittin' the ground. And so I ran down the hill to a place of safety, but by the time I was behind that yellow Volkswagen which was right near where Jeff Miller was shot, the volley had stopped. I got up when the volley had stopped to look to see what the heck had happened. And I did see Jeff Miller at that time — and — that’s when the photograph of me was taken by Jeff Miller. I’d never seen blood like that. I’d never seen anything like that. It was a complete shock. I wanted to touch him. I remember wanting to hold him, but I was afraid of the blood. I did touch and hold his hand. I didn’t want him to feel alone. I figured how can anybody live with this. Life is running down the sidewalk. Running. Just kept flowing. And there was nothing to be done, that I felt I could do.

Source: Interviewed by Sandra Perlman Halem, April 1, 2000
Courtesy of May 4 Collection Kent State University