3/14/18: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young “Ohio”

Today’s the day. Courageous high school students here in our Chapel Hill-Carrboro community and all over America are walking out of the classroom at 10 a.m. in a protest against gun violence and a plea to our political leaders to actually do something about an increasingly prevalent problem. This amazing effort was inspired, of course, by the students at Marjorie Stoneman High School in Parkland, Florida — where 17 people recently lost their lives in a school shooting.

These students want everybody to know that they shouldn’t have to fear for their lives at school. They shouldn’t have to fear someone coming on campus with the intent to kill. Today is the one-month anniversary of that atrocity in Florida, and there are around 3,000 protests planned at high schools all over the country in a nationwide walkout. Our lawmakers can’t seem to agree on anything having to do with gun control, it all keeps happening again and again. These students can agree on something, though: enough is enough. We adults need to listen.

There are a lot of great protest songs out there. They’ve been a major part of rock and roll history, particularly in the turbulent years of the ’60s and ’70s. This morning, thinking about the protests happening today and their connection to those from years ago, I heard a specific song in my head: “Ohio,” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.

In 1970, there was a massive protest at Kent State University. People were protesting the escalation of the Vietnam War, already an unpopular conflict. President Richard Nixon had promised to end the war, and after a period of scaling back, announced on April 30 that American troops were being sent into Cambodia — and that bombings of the country would continue. Large-scale demonstrations at Kent State directly resulted from that announcement, putting events into motion that would lead to a bloody climax.

On May 4, 1970, there were confrontations between protesting students and National Guardsmen sent in by Presidential order. Tear gas was deployed, and those troops eventually opened fire on the crowd — resulting in 4 people receiving fatal gunshot wounds. 28 Guardsmen fired almost 70 rounds in 13 seconds, killing four students and wounding nine others. One of the wounded suffered permanent paralysis. Two of the students who were killed were involved in the protest… the other two were just walking to class.

The incident sparked outrage all over the country, and the incident became known as the “Kent State Massacre,” after the Boston Massacre, where a comparable number of people were killed. Neil Young, who’s always been an activist, got very angry — like a lot of other folks at the time — and wrote a song about it. Within days, he and David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash had recorded it in the studio. The song was so timely and so powerful that it became more than a simple protest song… it became an anthem.

There a famous photo of a young woman kneeling over a fallen student on the sidewalk. That photo won a Pulitzer, and became synonymous with these dark days in U.S. history. Protesters at universities across the United States were being beaten, gassed, and even stabbed with bayonets. The right to assembly and the right to free speech — two essential American liberties — were being tossed aside.

What happened at Florida isn’t the same as Kent State, and far more people lost their lives in Parkland. But any avoidable loss of life is unacceptable, and people died needlessly at both campuses. These protests are bringing back memories from close to a half-century ago, and today we need to make sure that none of us have forgotten what it feels like to have the need to express our ideas, to disagree with the way things are, and to stand up and say something about it. We need to remember how to speak with a voice louder than any that can be bought.

I haven’t forgotten, though I’m older now. I don’t think we’ll forget these high school shootings, and I think we can do more to keep them from happening. Not just in schools, either. These high school students are making their voices heard. Let’s hope our leaders are listening.