William Moses Kunstler
May 4, 1994
Thank you very much. This is kind of a very emotional return for me because last year in 1990 (sic). And my first touch with this university was on May 5th of 1970 when I came out here the day after the shooting and the object was to see what legal steps would be taken, if any. And I was refused entrance to this campus which was like an armed camp and we went to a place called the Kove in Kent. And the place was jammed with human beings, wall-to-wall, and we discussed what would happen if the Portage County authorities were to charge any of the students or faculty with any crimes coming out of what happened on May 4th. And I swore that I would come back, that we would work out a legal team if that happened. And of course it did happen. Twenty-four students and one faculty member including students like Alan Canfora who were injured, were indicted by the Portage County Grand Jury.
And the legal team was formed, some of them are dead like Dave Scribner. Others came from Cleveland, Ben Sheerer. Ramsey Clark came form New York. Bill Whitaker was just a law student then but he was part of the legal team and a very important part of the legal team. And we defended the students. They only tried one. After the acquittal they realized they had to drop those vindictive charges, charging the victims with what had happened at Blanket Hill at 12:24 on May 4th, 1970.
Since that time I have come back many times to this campus. It is a rite of passage for me, to come back, and next year of course would be a quarter of a century, the 25th anniversary. If I'm still on top of the the ground, I will come back again. And I am sure of many times after that as long as I have on this earth because this place is a fountain for me. It's a place where four young people died but out of which some good has come and did come. They died, yes, but seventeen days later the president withdrew the troops from Cambodia, which was due to the incipient civil war that occurred on the campuses of this country after the Cambodian incursion, and particularly after the events of May 4th on this campus. And they will, of course, be forever young. They would have been in their middle forties had they lived, but they will be forever young in the eyes and hearts of all of us. Young people who died, young people who died without even knowing why they were dying. Two of them them were just walking across the parking lot. Two were involved in the protests.
But they became a symbol and this university became a symbol around the world as I said last night when I mentioned Kent State. Anywhere outside of Ohio, across the seas people only remember, not for its educational achievements or its lab or that old gym that was built on Blanket Hill. They remember it for what happened here at 12:24 on May 4, 1970.
Last night since everybody was reading poetry, I wrote a sonnet. I spent a lot of my life writing political sonnets, but the juxtaposition of the the death of that arch dissembler, murderer and crook out in Yorba Linda, California almost (at this point he was interrupted by applause) almost juxtapositioned with this event. He murdered these young people by what he did and yet he was praised by the likes of Henry Kissinger and Robert Dole, with a tear in his eye, as they gave their acclimates to a thief and a murderer and a crook. I thought that after that happened we would have a day of mourning for Dr. Mengale, Jack the Ripper and Jesse James.
And last night I had to put something on paper. I read it last night but I'd like to read it again because many of you were not there last night. This is a sonnet to Richard Milhous Nixon.
While we are here today, as you know, injustice, genocide, cruelty permeate many areas of the earth including our own precincts in this country. Haitians who are not killed in Haiti by the Ton Ton Macoute are stopped on the high seas by our navy form seeking refuge in this land of ours.
We have something called the Statue of Liberty sitting in New York Harbor, given by the French many years ago. And on its face are lines from a sonnet written by a young woman, Emma Lazarus who won the prize that was offered for the best poem about the statue. She called it "The New Colossus" and at the end of the poem she says, "Give me your poor, your tired, your huddled masses yearning to be free." That does not include apparently those with black skins coming form Haiti.
And so our president who promised breathlessly to open up our shores to Haitians fleeing from the oppression of that country, the moment the votes were cast and he was elected, forgot those promises as he has forgotten almost all the promises he made. And now the Haitians can no longer enter this country. They stop them as sea.
One boat got through the other day, merely because it was so overloaded that the administration realized that it would sink unless it were allowed to seek political asylum on these shores. But hundreds and thousands await, await the opening of the golden door, await the fulfillment of Emma Lazarus's sonnet on the Statue of Liberty.
In Rwanda genocide goes on in a specter of murder with machetes and every other potential weapon you can think of. Of people fighting each other merely because one group is of one ethnic strain and one, the other. And we sit idly by while people murder each other.
In Bosnia-Herzegovina, the same, Muslims against Serbs. Croats killing each other. For what? For a senseless, ethnic hatred that passes all unsaid.
In Somalia, where we unleash more murder and blood.
Children are murdered every day in Brazil by police who drive by or [by] hordes of crazies.
What we have going on in the world is a breakdown of morality. We have the terrible specter of racial war, ethnic war, religious war and we stand, in most instances, idly by. Oh yes, we promise there'll be a bomb drop here and there against the Serbian forces, but we do not really do it.
And so Kent State should be a memorial, not only to four young people, but to what's happening with people all over the globe including Blacks and Latinos shot down in our urban centers, including the degradation of Native Americans on reservations and including the imprisonment of political prisoners who fight, like Leonard Peltier, only for the relief of their people.
We are an immoral nation. We are a nation where platitudes are really the signs of our immorality, platitudes that are meaningless and which have no effect in actuality at all. We say we beleive in liberty and the Bill of Rights and we systematically destroy the Bill of Rights on every level.
We execute more people than any nation in history as executed under so-called legal permission. We are the charnel house of the Western world. There are sitting now on death rows over three thousand people throughout this country. If we executed fifty a week, we couldn't keep up with the new convictions that take place. We utilize gas. We utilize firing squads. We utilize nooses. We utilize electricity. We utilize lethal injections. We utilize all sorts of methods of execution.
Just some time ago I saw one in the Huntsville, Texas [prison], the lethal injection capital of the world where the only sign for the way to the execution chamber is a sign from the Huntsville Funeral Home saying all welcome to our facilities. For those that use them the most are those who die in the lethal injection chambers in unit number one in Huntsville, Texas.
They wheel in the victim and put him on this other gurney, strapped down. They turn the gurney so it is parallel to the viewing room. There's not a one way mirror. It's a two way window. They can look in, you can look out.
Attached to his vein in his left arm is a needle and a tube. And the tube goes to the back of the room where it hangs in the funnel. And at the appointed hour, two hands come out mysteriously, disembodied hands in white surgical gloves. And a solution is poured into the funnel. The solution contains Potassium Chloride which stops the heart and several muscle relaxants including Sodium Pentathol.
It takes awhile for the solution to make the trip from the back of the room to the vein of the victim. And when it hits the victim; they tell me all do this, gives an involuntary sigh. And then you wait. The eyes close and then a physician in the room, with a prison guard, comes over with a stethoscope and signals that we have executed another human being.
Outside the execution chamber that day there were a number of young people wearing buttons and the buttons were graphic. They said, "We kill people to teach people it's wrong to kill people." I sent one of these buttons to Harry Blackmon on the United States Supreme Court and recommended that he wear it on his robe at the next session of the court. He wrote back that he would not do that but that he would pin it up on his office wall where, I presume it still is, as long as he has chambers in the Supreme Court building.
No country on earth executes as many as we do. Our nearest competitor is the Republic of South Africa. And they are way, way behind. All of Western Europe has eliminated capital punishment.We are the only industrialized nation associated with the Western world that has capital punishment. We share it with the old Soviet Union, with China, with some of the Islamic nations and several other countries. We know that it doesn't look good, that it is murder in the name of the state, that it doesn't prevent crime or have any inhibitive effect whatsoever. But we do it regularly and systematically since the Supreme Court opened the flood gates some 20 years ago. This is a nation that prides itself on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and yet, denies all freedom to certain sectors of our population
And so the murders of these four young people were of course not alone. Many have died and it is good that [at] Kent State we have always recognized the union between Jackson State and Orangeburg where other students of a different hue and skin color also were shot down by the authorities in the same year as Kent State.
It is important that their memory and what happened here be kept alive. Because this is not an isolated Ohio event which is pertinent to only KSU. This is a worldwide event. The picture of that young woman taken by a young eighteen year old photographer who was so afraid that his picture would be confiscated, that he rode it to Pittsburgh and handed it over to the Associated Press, of a young woman screaming beside the body of Jeffrey Miller, was one that the whole world looked at and wondered. It takes its place with that naked Vietnamese child running down the street after a bombing raid that ripped off all her clothing, of the monk who immolated himself in the streets of Saigon, of the South Vietnamese Colonel putting a bullet into the head of a suspected young Viet Cong. These pictures have a powerful effect. But I think none more powerful to us then the picture of the young woman, taken by John Filo, screaming over the body of Jeffrey Miller.
I find it a privilege to be here, to be part of this as many times as I can. I was fifty-one years old on May 4th, nineteen hundred and seventy. I will be seventy-five on July 7th of this year. I managed to live these twenty-four years since that incident but, I'll tell you that every day of those twenty-four years, somewhere along the line, their deaths have an effect on me and an effect on the way I lived my life since that period of time. That doesn't mean I stop and suddenly think of them during the daytime or while lying in my bed. But it means that every so often the memories revive, whether it's by another May 4th or by seeing that picture again in some book of photographs or by reading one of the innumerable books and articles about May 4th, 1970. And you go out of that remembrance with some feeling that, by God, we're going to do something about it along the way, in whatever way you can, small, medium or large. And so they have become part of my life just as their parents have over the years, just as the students here were part of it in 1970 and the students who today who were not alive when all this happened, are part of it. The fact that you're here, that you're thinking , that you've gone back in time, those that lived it, to that time at 12:24, that bell that rings, those fifty-six thousand flowers for Americans who died in Vietnam. And God knows how many Vietnamese died to advance struggle.
These are all things that are powerful and important to us. Much more important than a basketball game a movie, a sitcom and all the other trivia of which our life is burdened. This is real. This is history. This is part of humanity, part of our long trail from the slime to what we are today. And so when I come here I come here with deep memories of Kent State as part of my own life. I come here with terrible regrets that they never made it to forty-six and I did and beyond. But with an understanding that their deaths were hardly in vain. They galvanized an era. They ended the extension of the war into Cambodia. They served to bring down a president.
As I watched Mr. Nixon's funeral, saw that flag-draped coffin, heard those praises from people who either literally misunderstood what he stood for or believed what they were saying, which is infinitely worse. I looked at that coffin and I almost expected the coffin to open and for him to pop out and suggest another crisis. I had a feeling of hoping the coffin would fall over and he would spill out on the ground. And my wife said that I was being morbid. And I said...But I realize that he was a personification in many ways of the evil spirits of our country and our times, that he was a murdered and a thief. He was a person who took our constitution and trampled it into the ground. He was a person who was both a megalomaniac and half insane most of the time. And yet he was a person that the American people twice voted into office and who, while in office, despoiled and dirtied and sullied every illuvium principal we had. And yet by the mere fact of longevity and the fact that those who wanted to praise him saw political gain in it. Or Mr. Clinton was saying to himself, "Hope I got a big funeral when I go. They can't not give me one because I've given this man one."
Whatever the reasons, they serve to personify the dirtiness of political life in this country. Bur we can't let ourselves fall down and just point fingers at those who are supposed to be our leaders. We have to continue what they [the four] died for. We have to continue. People have to stand up for what they believe in. They have to fight the fight wherever the fight is. They have to understand that only the people have the real power in this country. Our preamble says, "We the people in order to form a more perfect union." We give up our powers to a government but that government cannot be all conquering and all pervasive. There always must be people who understand that government is essentially evil, all government, everywhere. That doesn't mean we're all anarchists. That doesn't mean that the Social Security checks don't come through. That doesn't mean that we have some form of restraints, but what it does mean is there must be people always out there to fight and protest against the excesses government. When that stops, the long night begins as it did at the end of the Weimar Republic and the beginning of the Third Reich.
And so they symbolize that kind of fight. And it doesn't matter whether they were in the leadership role or just passing by or even protesting. They have become symbols of that fight. And they are important and valuable symbols. Forever young they look out, still, on the country that has this dirtiest of aspects that kills in the name of the law, that murders and pollutes and that effects the lives of Third World people in the most adverse of ways, both here and abroad.
So I am really unhappy to be here in a way and I'm sad to be here in a way. But I'm privileged to be here. And I only thank whatever gods there may be that I have managed to live these twenty-four years since May 4th of 1970. And that I have tried to play my own role, small as it may be, in this eternal fight of humanity to be clean and pure, as clean and as pure as can be. I'm glad you're all here. I'm glad you've asked me to be here. I go back to New York to the prosaic world of World Trade Center prosecutions and the rest. I go back to that feeling that I am a better person for being here, that despite all the aches of age, the arthritis, the urological problems and all the rest, that I go back feeling quite young. And quite imbued with a feeling that I've come to the fountain again and it has renewed me. Now I don't know how my urologist would answer this or what his tests would show, whether I could beat mortality or not. But, Godammit! I'm gonna try.