On May 4, 1970, the Ohio governor called a regiment of the National Guard onto the campus of Kent State University. The troops then opened fire on a crowd of unarmed civilians — mostly students protesters — killing four and injuring nine more, including one man who was paralyzed for life.
It bears repeating: U.S. troops fired 67 rounds into a crowd of U.S. citizens exercising their right to peaceably assemble.
A new documentary by Daniel Miller, an associate professor in the University of Oregon journalism school, digs deep into the story of the Kent State massacre, using archival footage and eyewitness testimony to reveal a narrative of cause and effect that traces the roots of that fateful day back to the Civil Rights protests of the early 1960s and the ongoing upheaval over the war in Vietnam, which ended 40 years ago on April 30, 1975.
Fire in the Heartland is a tense, infuriating, heartbreaking film — equal parts historical document and shocked survivor’s testimony.
Encircle Films hosts a special screening of Fire in the Heartland at 6 pm Thursday, May 7, at Bijou Art Cinemas, after which Miller will lead a discussion with the audience.
Miller says that in part it was a desire to unpack the whole story of the shootings that compelled him to make the documentary. “The first reason for Fire in the Heartland,” he says, “is that the story of the Kent State shootings, like many events of the Civil Rights and anti-war movements, has been largely limited to the events of May 4, and the story has been misrepresented as an unlikely, spontaneous event that happened at an unlikely place, a working-class public university in northern Ohio, and not at elite institutions like Berkeley or Columbia or Yale.”
Miller’s technique of providing a fairly straightforward account of the decade leading up to the shootings has the disconcerting effect of making the massacre both more and less understandable. The racial segregation and unrest on campus throughout the decade, the increasing political actions of both black and white students, including the rise of Students for a Democratic Society, countered by the repressive, inflammatory rhetoric of Kent Mayor LeRoy Satrom and President Richard Nixon, along with the riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago and the quagmire in Vietnam — these opposing forces created a kind of pressure cooker that, in retrospect, seemed destined to erupt.
And yet, though explained, the absolute treachery and betrayal of a so-called democratic government slaughtering its own people remains, in the end, monstrously baffling.
Miller, who grew up in Ohio and attended Kent State from 1968 to 1970, says that he hopes viewers are transformed by Fire in the Heartland, and that they gain an understanding of the students of the ’60s anti-war movement as “patriots and optimists who made a difference and created a means of nonviolent education and organizing” that had profound effects on everything from women’s and gay rights to immigration justice and environmental activism.
To wrest positive meaning from a moment in history as dark and troubling as the Kent State shootings is a gesture of profound hope. Miller says that despite the forces now working against grassroots organizing — student debt, gaps in civic education, income inequality, a mass media that doesn’t cover activist movements — he does feel hopeful that citizens will continue to fight back against the abuses of power.
“I believe grassroots activism for social justice is on the rise and will face the challenges before it,” Miller says. “I am ever the optimist.”
Encircle Documentary Series presents Fire in the Heartland: Kent State, May 4th and Student Protest in America, with an appearance by director Daniel Miller, at 6 pm Thursday, May 7, at Bijou Art Cinemas, 492 E. 13th Ave.; info & tickets at bijou-cinemas.com.