William Moses Kunstler
May 3, 1994
I am very happy to be here, but at my age I am happy to be anywhere; I must tell you that. When I first came to Kent I was 51 years old and that was 24 years ago and they wouldn't let me on this campus. That was, I believe the day after May 4th of 1970 and we met at the Kove, since burned down, I understand, in Kent, and I remember that it was wall-to-wall students in the Kove and I made a rash promise that if there were any indictments out of the Portage County Grand Jury , that I would come back, we would form a legal team which we did. (The Portage County Grand Jury indicted 24 students and one professor for alleged riot related activities on May 4th, 1970. Most of the charges were subsequently dropped. The Grand Jury issued a report which attacked the students while exonerating the National Guard. Following a court challenge, this report was eventually expunged from the official record.)
And it was a very heady day. Also a very sad today. I had supper tonight with Martin and Sarah Scheuer whose daughter Sandy was killed on May 4th here. And May 4th is the wedding anniversary of the Scheuers. And Sarah told me that on May 5th or 6th she received in the mail an anniversary card from Sandy, mailed from Kent, but of course Sandy never lived to know her mother received that card.
Before I start, everyone here has read poetry and while I was listening I got so moved that I decided to write one of my own. Which I did, sitting out there, on the back of the flier indicating what's going on here. I write political sonnets and I've been doing it since I was a sophomore at Yale University. And I wrote three books of them, the latest coming out in September. It's called "Hints and Allegations." My friend Paul Simon let me use that from the song "Call Me Al" which is in the "Graceland" album. And that's filled with political sonnets of all sorts. But I wrote one here to Richard Nixon because I felt that everybody's in a revisionist view of history, is giving him accolades, whether it be Henry Kissinger or Bob Dole with those crocodile tears at the funeral [of Nixon], that I ought to give my two cents in as well. So, this is called "To Richard Millhouse Nixon."
This is billed as justice in America, but I think that's too formal a term. When I was simmering up I once read a statement by Clarence Darrow that there was no justice in court or out and I firmly believe that, that the best we ever can do is to keep the system at bay as long as we can, that government everywhere must be fought constantly, that government takes with it guarantees of liberty. We give it to government because we think government will give us back something, and government does. My Social Security checks now arrive on May 3rd and June 3rd and July 3rd and every 3rd of every month with regularity. But on the other hand government takes away a certain amount of liberty and in some countries it takes away all of liberty. And it will, everywhere, if people who fight government do not fight government any longer.
What happened here on May 4th of 1970 was something that we should have expected. As you recall, and I hope you do, and I know that a lot of people out here in front of me were not born when all of this happened. And yet it's part of your history too. You go to an institution that is known in many places in this world of ours only because of May 4th, 1970. It wouldn't matter how good the English department was or the Sciences or a football team or anything else. You go around in London and Madrid and Paris and elsewhere and you mention Kent State. They say, "Oh. That's the place where they murdered the students." And so the university is known everywhere because of that one historical fact of the murder of four students and the wounding of many others on that fateful day on May 4th, 1970.
Those of you that know the story, know that this same Nixon who was extolled in Yorba Linda by everyone from Gordon Liddy, up or down; Depends on how you rate your hierarchy! That that same man ordered American troops into Cambodia in April of 1970, the theory behind it was that the Viet Cong had sanctuaries in Cambodia and that it was important to send troops in to root out those sanctuaries. Four years earlier I had been selected, with Kay Boyle, the writer, and a number of others, to go to Cambodia and come back and prove that there were no sanctuaries in that country. I was trying the Washington DC school case then and my judge would not give me permission to go to Cambodia. And so my place was taken by Rabbi Dressner from New Jersey. Another person on the tour was Floyd McKisick, then the president of the Congress of Racial Equality and a number of others. And I said goodbye to them at the Albert Pick Motel in Washington. I was sickened to death that I could not go.
When I was in the Albert Pick, a sailor came up to me with a chain around his waist leading to a briefcase and he said, "I come from Assistant Secretary of State, William Bundy." Now, William Bundy was a classmate of mine at Yale. He and I enlisted together in the Army on September 5th of 1941 at Fort Mammoth, New Jersey. We were friends. He became the Undersecretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs under Johnson. And he had called me a few day earlier and asked me to stop the people from going into Cambodia, that President Johnson did not like this, that it would hurt the war in Vietnam. And I said, "Bill." I was gonna say, "Go fuck yourself." But I figured the Undersecretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs. So I said, "Bill. I can't do that. They have a right to go and I'm glad they're going and I would go with them if my judge would let me go." So he said, " Well. I'm gonna send something over to the Albert Pick Motel where I know you're having your last meeting here before they leave. And that will give you facts and figures on Cambodia." etc. And so this sailor came and he took out a key and he unlocked the chain and opened the briefcase and handed us a lot of bullshit about Cambodia which I promptly threw in Albert Pick's men's room waste basket. Cause, I knew it would not be helpful to the delegation. I did ask them whether I could throw it in the men's room waste basket and Kay Boyle said, "Be our guest." and so I threw it where I threw it. They never saw it and it was just as well they didn't because the idea of it was to intimidate them and inhibit them, either from going to Cambodia or, if they went, from really seeing what they wanted to see.
When they came back, they delivered a report to the President by first degree prepaid mail in which they said that they had gone over all Cambodia, that they had seen no Viet Cong, no North Vietnamese, that there seemed to be no sanctuaries, that they traveled all over the country in a period of three weeks and that was it. And yet, in April of 1970, three years later, the President, who kept saying out of one corner of his mouth, "I'm gonna end the war in Vietnam," was thinking of enlarging the war in Vietnam by moving into Cambodia.
Once the troops move into Cambodia, the colleges and universities of this country were on the verge of civil war. Many closed down. The students were up in arms. And it looked very much like there were going to be real problems in this country.
The Governor, then, of this state, after talking to Mr. Nixon, when the protests began on this campus, frantically called for the Ohio National Guard. And units of the guard were sent here. And I think most of you are familiar with the picture of them on the top of Blanket Hill with their M1s. The students were down below, most of them in the parking lot, and then a Major fired his baretta and the guard panicked and began firing down the hill. And, as you know, one of the bullets entered Jeffrey Miller's mouth and tore out the back of his skull. And he fell in the parking lot on his back and then the force of the bullet rolled him over. And then John Filo, eighteen years old then, took that momentous picture of that young woman screaming over Jeffrey Miller's body. A picture that went around the world and Filo was so afraid that picture would not get out that he did not drive it to Cleveland. He drove it to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to the Associated Press office and the Associated Press office than put it on the wire and it is one of the most graphic pictures symbolizing just what happened here that I have ever seen. And I am sure all of you have seen it.
That scene preyed on that young woman's life as many of you know and she had a hard time with her life after that. But the picture, like the picture of the nude little Vietnamese girl coming down the road or the Bhuddist monk immolating himself in the streets of Saigon or the Colonel in South Vietnam blowing out the brains of a suspected young Viet Cong. These photographs symbolized what was happening in our dirty world, symbolized what we had let loose, the devil, in Southeast Asia, symbolized what our President Kennedy, the so-called occupant of Camelot, who sent the first combat troops in disguise, really, to the world, into Vietnam breaking an international agreement that no combat troops would go into Vietnam. I always wondered why they called the Kennedy years Camelot because I think most of you know that Camelot was a pretty sordid place. The queen was sleeping with Lancelot. Modrin was out to kill the king, All the knights were jealous of each other and forever conniving against each other. But maybe that was an apt description of the Kennedy years. But Kennedy's action in South Vietnam was the ground work for what later swelled to a half million men to some 56 thousand corpses wearing American uniforms and lord only knows how many Vietnamese were murdered in the process.
It was a period in our national life that is probably the low point of our civilization on the official level. On the unofficial level it was a glorious moment in our national life because young people decided that this had to stop, that they could no longer stand the shedding of blood in this tragic adventure in Southeast Asia. And the four that died here, Jeffrey and Allison, Sandy and Bill, did not die in vain. Because, after their deaths and the crippling paralysis of Dean Kahler and the wounding of others, the president was forced to withdraw those troops from Cambodia.
I was exhilarated when I saw him forced out of the White House to go down to the Lincoln Memorial and meet with students who were picketing around the Lincoln Memorial and tell them that he couldn't sleep over Cambodia. And within seventeen days the troops were withdrawn from Cambodia and, at least, that areas did not become a bloodbath under American instigation. So they died, yes, but it was hardly in vain.
Sandy Scheuer would be forty-five years old today had she lived. And so would the other three. And while their deaths are as tragic as any deaths, two of them weren't even demonstrating. They were merely walking across the parking lot. Two were demonstrating. But the random firing by those frightened National Guard, stimulated by that major's incalculable arm in firing his weapon, unleashed the student protests that ended the Cambodian incursion.
When we talk about justice in America we're really talking about justice brought about by the people, not by judges who are tools of the establishment or prosecutors who are are equally tools of the establishment or the wardens or the police officers. We're talking about people who rose up in righteous wrath and prevented the extension of an already bloody war into another theater of operations.
Coming here as I do almost every other year, I've missed that last three, I was here in '70 and god knows how many times before that. It's to me, like a rite of passage. Yesterday I got up at 5 am, drove to Hartford, Connecticut where I had...For some strange reason I was invited to commemorate Law Day by the Hartford County Bar Association, a critical error on their part. I reminded them that Law Day, May 1st, was a design of the American Bar Association to kill May Day as we knew it, [a] May Day that grew out of the Haymarket Massacre in Chicago so many years before that and May Day was a national holiday created by people, a native, American festival on every May 1st to symbolize the struggle of people. It didn't come from Russia or anywhere else. It came from Chicago, Illinois. And I told them that what they had substituted for it, Law Day, was a desecration of the Haymarket and the origins of May Day.I saw the twenty-four judges in their robes squirming as I went on.
I then left Hartford and drove up to the Colchester Golden Hill Pocoset Nation Reservation north of Hartford where I am representing Moon Face Bear who is attempting to raise the standard of living for his 160 acre reservation by selling untaxed cigarettes to the chagrin and anger of the Governor, Lowell Weiker of Connecticut and had been indicted for a number of crimes.. And then we drove to court to argue a motion to dismiss. I got home at midnight. Today I argued for the World Trade Center defendants, the convicted defendants, in Federal Court, in lower Manhattan. And my wife said to me, "You're going to die traveling all over. Don't go to Kent State." And I said I would just as soon cut off my right arm than not come back here after I've said I would be here. Because this is part of my life too. And while it all may have happened twenty-four years ago, it became ingrained in my consciousness and the people involved became part of my history. And so every chance I get, whether I'm tired or not, I come back here on May 4th and I certainly will be back next year which marks a quarter of a century since the May 4th shooting in 1970, and that should be a major outpouring, because we must keep alive, if there is any justice in America, we must keep alive this day.
We tried desperately to have Blanket Hill declared a national historic site. We thought it was probably more important that it be a national historic site than Elvis Presley's Graceland in Memphis, which is a national historic site. We struggled with Justice Thomas Lambros to have him stop the bulldozers that were trying to clear away for the new gym. We did it for awhile. There were sixty-two days of sit-ins here and them Judge Lambros did sign an order stopping the bulldozers for awhile. We argued it in Cleveland. But in the end we lost because he couldn't bring himself, although he seemed wholly sympathetic. He couldn't bring himself to say that he had the power to stop the bulldozers for a national historic site that had not been declared a national historic site. But whether it's declared or it isn't declared and whether there's a gym sitting on part of it or not, it IS a national historic site. It's the site where young blood symbolized that the war had come home.
Several years later when I came back here... I can't even remember what year it was, but it was rainy. We've been very unlucky with weather on these May 4ths for some reason. And we were indoors. Ron Kovic was here in his wheelchair. Dean Kahler was here in his wheelchair. Ron spoke in the auditorium and after he spoke he wheeled his chair back to where it was adjoining that of Dean Kahler, threw his arms around Dean and screamed in a voice I will never forget, he screamed, "The war in Vietnam and Kent State are now one." And there wasn't a dry eye in the house. You could hear people sobbing. Vietnam and Kent State are one. And they were. Because now people knew when these four young white children were killed, and where, just previously, young black had been killed at Jackson State and Orangeburg, South Carolina, that they were killing our young people, now, on these shores as well as in the rice paddies and mud of Vietnam.
We're in the nineties now, not the sixties. We all understand that. But the sixties taught us a valuable lesson. The sixties taught us that if there are things worth fighting for and people worth doing the fighting, that you can hold back the night, that you can bring government dead in its tracks if there are people willing to jeopardize themselves, to risk their careers and their lives in order to fight for something that's bigger than their lives and bigger then their liberty and bigger then their educations. That's the lesson of the sixties, that, as they say in Ecclesiastics, "There's a time to fight back." The bible may not put it in those exact terms but I think we can paraphrase a bit, with apologies to whoever wrote the bible.
There's a lot ahead, a lot of fights. The urge and the will to fight are never lost in this country, fortunately. In every age, everywhere, there are people who are willing to fight. It may not always be on a national scale. It may be very local. It may be national. But there are people who are willing to fight.
Roe V. Wade exists today as part of our legal lexicon because women and their lives have fought since 1973 to prevent an anti-libertarian Supreme Court from rolling back Roe V. Wade to the day of the back rooms and the hangers and the deaths of illegal abortions. And so we still have it as part of the liberty and the privacy of women. But I think one of the reasons we have it is that the Supreme Court understood that if they reversed it, there would be a civil war of sorts in this country. There were just too many people out there, not to be reckoned with.
So that's what we have to be able to do. We have to be able to put too many people out there, not to be reckoned with, with reference to every grievance that we that we can think of. And there are many.
The president has approved a crime bill that puts seventy-two capital crimes into our Federal code, many dealing without homicide at all, having nothing to do with homicide. We have a drug policy that passes all rational understanding and that criminalizes conduct that should be treated as illness and that causes more deaths, more ODs, more crime, more police being killed than anything I can think of.
We Spend 20 billion dollars a year on law enforcement in the drug area. The pentagon spends a billion dollars a year to interdict shipments of drugs into this country. And yet, heroin and cocaine have never been more available, in purer form than they are today. Virtually 64% of all the inmates in federal penitentiaries are on drug related crimes and we're trying to kill ourselves to build more prisons, to privatize prisons till we are a country which has more people in jail, pro rata and proportionately, than any country on the face of the earth.
We're the charnel house of the Western World in so far as executions are concerned. Every Western nation has abolished capital punishment. Every single one. And we alone, with the old communist block and China and some of the Islamic nations are the only ones who have capital punishment, thinking that in some way it prevents crime, even heinous crime.
There's a lot of things in this country that are terribly, terribly wrong. We have a diverted electorate that spends more of its time in front of the boob tube than in thinking about things political. It is probably not coincidental that the Superbowls have Roman numerals because they resemble very much the Coliseum in Rome where the lions used to chew up the Christians in order to keep the people amused while they ran away with their rights down at the Senate. This is a country where we have certain liberties that we could use. We're not bereft of access to the press. We're not bereft of spirit and soul. We're not bereft of people who are willing to take chances.
And I want to close with just three allusions, literary, artistic, whatever, which have been important to me and may be important to you.
One is the book "Moby Dick" by Herman Melville. When I was one of the lawyers for the Attica inmates living in 'D' yard during those four terrible days, just a year after Kent State, September of 1971, I spent my last minutes in the yard with a young man whom I had represented, Sam Melville, a revolutionary, who had bombed a Chemical Bank in New York City as a protest, firebombed it, and he had taken the name Melville from Herman Melville. And I asked him why. And he said, "Well. If you really understand "Moby Dick," what Melville is saying is that the fight always goes on. That evil, represented by the white whale, cannot be conquered, but is not all conquering." That Ahab, representing all of us, half man, half saint, goes down lashed to the giant mammal's back to his death. The long boat is destroyed by the whale's tale. The Pequod, the ship, is destroyed. Everybody dies but one. Ishmael, the youngest member of the crew sails to safety on Quehog's, the Indian's coffin that Quehog had built because he thought things were going to go wrong on this voyage. And he goes back to sea again. In fact, those were virtually the last words of Melville. Ishmael goes back to sea. And that is what we must be. There will always be Ishmaels to carry on. Unfortunately, Sam Melville's head was blown off by double 'o' buckshot the next morning when a State Trooper approached this unarmed man and murdered him.
The second allusion is to the statue of David which you will find in the Academia in Florence, Michelangelo's statue. You've all seen pictures of it if you haven't seen statuettes or the real thing. And when I first saw that in the Academia in the fifties, I thought it was a great statue. You remember David has the rock in the right hand, the sling over the left shoulder. He's looking up at the hills where Goliath is leading the Philistines down to attack the Israelites. And when I first saw it I just thought it was a beautiful statue that Michelangelo had harassed the Florentine fathers long enough for four years, in fact, to get this piece of Carrera marble that another sculptor had started, taken a few chisel cuts out of it; that's where the bend in David's hip is, and finally Michelangelo got it, after four years of harassing the local authorities. And a man next to me said, "Young man," he said, "Do you know what that statue's all about?" And I said, "It's a beautiful statue,. I know David, the story of David, the biblical story." I'm not sure I said to him if it's true of not. But whether it is or not, it's a beautiful story. "He kills Goliath. He saves his people," [I said.] He said, "That isn't what that's all about," he says, "Michelangelo has done the only artistic presentation of David before he kills Goliath." Donatello's bronze, all the paintings show David holding up in triumph the severed head of Goliath. But here David is thinking about, like Prufrock's "Do I dare? Do I dare." He is doing what all of you will do at sometime during your lives. You will be confronted with a situation in which, if you don't act, no one will be the wiser that you even thought about it. If you do act, you may well jeopardize yourself, because I'm sure that if David put the rock in the sling and hurled it and missed, there would have been one dead shepherd boy on that hill. If he only wounded him, things might go terribly wrong. He had to kill him.
Now, when your crisis comes or many crises, I know they won't be as climactic as Philistines coming down Blanket Hill or anywhere else but there will be moments when you will be in a position where something will confront you, where you think you should speak up, act, do something. And you'll decide in your own crania whether you're gonna do it or you're not gonna do it. You'll be doing the same that David must've been doing as Michelangelo portrays him. "Do I dare? Do I dare?" And how you respond to those inner urgings will, in a way that only you know, will let you know whether you have failed or you have not failed or whether you will go on with the haunting memory that your time came and went and you did not respond. Or as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said, "where you did not live the passion of your times." That's the second allusion.
The third I brought in because I could never remember it all. In a poem he wrote in the early thirties, G. K. Chesterton wrote about the battle of Altheny in Saxon England called "The Vision of the King." And King Alfred is in his tent the night before this battle with the Danes. He's gonna lose the next day. He's gonna be killed. The Virgin Mary comes to see him in the poem and she tells him that he is going to die. But she also tells him that the struggle still goes on, that even though it will be bleak tomorrow, there will be another day. This poem became the only editorial, the eight lines I'll read to you , of the "London Times" the day after the successful evacuation of the British and French armies from Dunkirk in 1940. The German Wermacht had driven them towards Cherbourg and was going to decimate them, capture them or kill them. And for three days by private boat, by warship, by raft, by every floatable means, the armies were evacuated successfully to Great Britain so they could fight another day.
And on the day after, the "London Times" appeared with a whole blank editorial page except for these eight lines. And I'll read them to you and hope they have as much meaning in your lives as they've had in mine. They were given to me by one of my more celebrated clients, Father Phillip Berrigan, one of the great Catholic antiwar activists, in jail today still because of it and gave me these in 1968 and I have never forgotten them. [I] put them down on paper and they've been sort of one of my, my stars along the way.
Remember, it's the Virgin Mary talking to the King who is going to die and lose on the morrow and she says,