Kent State University, Ohio

Beggar's Bullets by Chris Butler

And every window
My manifesto
Every rock
A beggar's bullet
Chris Butler was there. You can hear it in every word he sings and every word he says on "Beggar's Bullets." He was there at Kent State University on May 4, 1970, when the Ohio National Guard opened fire on the youth of the very nation and state they'd taken oaths to protect.

National Guard personnel on campus<br>Kent State University Libraries. <a href="" target="_blank">Special Collections and Archives</a>National Guard personnel on campus
Kent State University Libraries. Special Collections and Archives
Some have dubbed the event The Kent State Massacre. Others call it the May 4 Massacre or, most simply, the Kent State Shootings. Whatever name is used, that day has been discussed by countless historians, artists, and social scientists, and rightfully so. But Butler's take on it is different than those. His perception of it is not an emotionally removed political analysis or even secondhand outrage. Butler was actually there. One of those who were shot down, 20-year-old Jeffrey Glenn Miller, was his friend; all of the victims were his peers. The event is personal to him in a way that it simply cannot be for those who didn't see the blood, hear the shots, or lose their loved ones. So it is that when the artist rips out the line "I wanna see beggar's bullets flying through your television," the anger and hurt in his voice is visceral, and history becomes raw, human experience. Listen to "Beggar's Bullets" or any of the other songs from the masterpiece album Easy Life, and it's clear that May 4, 1970, is still very much alive in Butler's head and heart.

"Beggar's bullets" are simply rocks. The term was used by generations of Irish resistors of British occupation. The beggar's bullets were also the ammunition of choice used in Kent State as students fought against what they perceived to be a military occupation of their university. To what extent and to what effect these or other weapons were really used that day, however, is still a matter of contention. One of the oddest things, perhaps, about the Massacre is just how much controversy and debate surrounds the sequence of events to this day. Despite happening on a national stage, with media presence and hundreds of eyewitnesses, no one is exactly sure what happened on that day, or in the days leading up to it.

Before looking too deep into the actual shooting and trying to understand how it could have happened, we need to remember the general atmosphere of the times. America in 1970 was pulling apart at the seams. Political, racial, and ideological fissures ran through every aspect of society. Right and left, black and white, rich and poor, hawks and doves, clear divisions existed everywhere. The term "counterculture" really meant something back then. It wasn't just a term used for fashion or musical tastes. Tens of thousands of Americans, most of them young, but not all, were actively trying to create a revolution. Groups such as the Weather Underground took a violent approach and sought to overthrow the government by force. Others less militant but equally devoted wanted to transform the nation's consciousness with culture, art, and psychedelics.
Detail map of Kent State Shootings<br>on May 4, 1970<br>(National Archives)Detail map of Kent State Shootings
on May 4, 1970
(National Archives)
Looming over all the various issues of contention at the time was the Vietnam War, which bitterly divided people in a way that's difficult to understand today, when participation in the military is voluntary and people aren't being forced by the draft to join. This fight over Vietnam had become only more intense as the war years dragged on through the mid and late '60s, and it was in an air of outright resentment, rage, and paranoia that protests began in Kent State University on May 1, 1970.

It all started with 500 students on a scene that was typical of the time. War protests on college campuses had become part of the American routine. They usually ended quietly and peacefully, but such was not the fate for the participants of that day. In his excellent book "13 Seconds: A Look Back at the Kent State Shootings," author Philip Caputo likens the whole scene to a blood sacrifice that had to happen, something that the national zeitgeist demanded, a sort of psychic climax beyond any single person's control. Everything in the nation, he observed, seemed to be building towards that day's fateful confrontation.

The May 1 protests went by without trouble or fanfare. Some of the participants chanted, prophetically, that it was time to "bring the war home," but no overt signs of aggression or violence followed. They simply had their protest and then dispersed from the scene, taking their anger and sense of injustice with them. Attention spans were longer then, and passions weren't just forgotten when the next fad bounced along. This was the first generation to see, in real time, the horrors of the war being committed in their names and with their tax dollars, after all. Their moral outrage was deep and it was lasting.

The student protesters drank that night in downtown Kent bars. At around midnight, something kicked off the violent festivities that were to come. The students, joined by bikers and "transients," began vandalizing neighborhood businesses. They set a bonfire in the middle of the street. When the cops showed up, the crowd threw beer bottles at them. Kent Mayor LeRoy Martin Satrom declared a state of emergency. It's unlikely he had any idea for how bad things were actually going to get.

On the night of May 2, a campus ROTC building was set aflame. The fire department was there, but their hoses were cut so that they couldn't fight the fire. Even this event, which should be clear and straightforward, is shrouded in ambiguity. Students were seen flicking matches into the building's windows, and it's generally accepted that some of them started the fire; but there is just enough strangeness to it all to keep alive a full-blown conspiracy theory that states that the Nixon administration used agent provocateurs to start the fire in order to turn national opinion against the protestors.

The conspiracy angle isn't the work of random crackpots, either. It was initially put forth by insurance salesman Peter Davis, an Englishman who'd immigrated to the United States. Outraged that something such as the Kent State Shootings could happen in his adopted country, he took to investigating the story on his own and found several strange details. Cops reportedly told journalists to stick around because "there was going to be a fire," before the flames actually began. Suspects in the arson case seemed to have been investigated and then whitewashed by people in very high positions. Davies published a book titled "The Truth about Kent State," as well as essays in The New Yorker and The Village Voice, among other magazines. He even submitted a 40-page report to the House Judiciary Committee. While his conclusions are generally considered invalid today, many of his findings are admittedly suspicious, just enough to keep alive that air of doubt.
National Guard personnel walking toward crowd near Taylor Hall, tear gas has been fired<br>Kent State University Libraries. <a href="" target="_blank">Special Collections and Archives</a>National Guard personnel walking toward crowd near Taylor Hall, tear gas has been fired
Kent State University Libraries. Special Collections and Archives
There's also another form of conspiracy theory revolving around all of this that suggests that neither the Nixon administration nor the Kent State students were responsible for the fire or the vandalism or any of it. Many suspect that outside agitators had moved into the city to blend in with the student protesters and escalate the situation to violence. This too is a plausible scenario, and one with evidence both backing and denying it. Despite being a national event under scrutiny by armies of journalists and both government and private investigators, no one's really sure what the hell actually went down.

Whoever was ultimately responsible for that fire, the result was that the Ohio National Guard sent in troops to clear the campus. They forced students into their dorms or into whatever buildings they could find. The mood turned angrier. The students felt under siege and scheduled protests for the following day.

On May 4, 1970, the protests began again. The National Guard was right there with their gas masks and rifles, marching in formation to disperse the crowd. It all happened as hundreds of people watched, these columns of troops marching through the grassy University Commons, shooing protestors this way and that. No one denies that students were throwing beggar's bullets and tear gas canisters. Some say there were also chunks of concrete. The Guardsmen claim there was also a sniper shot, but no evidence was ever found to justify that claim. So it is that no one is really certain what prompted 29 of the 77 National Guardsmen present in the Commons to turn in unison, aim, and fire.

The shooting lasted for 13 seconds. Sixty-three rounds were fired. Four students died and nine were wounded. And, just like that, the war had come home.

The period referred to as "The '60s" is really one defined by cultural characteristics more than temporal, and is considered by most historians to have stretched from 1963 to 1974. It is that time of tea shades and flower children so often satirized today. When not used as a butt of a joke, it's often perceived as a bright, carefree age of innocence and discovery. In some ways, that might have been true, but it was also an age of fear and violence, even a sort of apocalypticism at times, as the social fabric of not only the nation, but the world, seemed to be pulling apart, revealing the black depths yawning in the empty spaces between the stitches.

At his MusiCares award acceptance speech, Bob Dylan remarked, "Those were difficult times. It was more intense back then and things hit harder and hurt more." He was speaking for his perceived rivalries with other musicians, but the observation applies to the time as a whole. American society today has largely become pacified. People don't gather as much in the streets, ready to have their heads busted in and their spines cracked for their causes. Instead they Tweet and share. Chris Butler isn't of this social media age, however. He's a product of the intensity of the '60s.

Butler recalls, "I am unbelievably influenced by events of that day. It sent me off into a completely unique, unknown, and uncharted territory as a person…It's a long story, but when you have that kind of event happen to you, it spins you off in a direction where you can't abide by the existing system, because it tried to fucking kill you. And you're going to have to make your own way if you're at all true to any of the creative parts of yourself."

One listen to Butler's Easy Life and it's clear that he's remained true to those words. It's an album of unapologetic sincerity and emotional authenticity released in this antiseptic age when those qualities are usually scrubbed away at first sight from popular music. You can read any number of books on the Kent State Massacre. You can even visit the site of the shooting and the memorials that remain there. Or you can put on Easy Life and hear the story told by someone who was there, and someone who isn't ready to make nice with history just yet.

Butler's "Beggar's Bullets" is more than a song; it's an experience. The same can be said for the whole album. It's one big tour through an explosive era that shaped our modern age in ways seen and unseen. It was a time when the Ohio National Guard could turn its guns on American students and not earn a unified national outcry against them, a time so mad and divisive that, according to Caputo, 58 percent of Americans felt the Guardsmen were in the right, while only 12 percent felt the shootings were unjustified. But the May 4 Massacre was so much more than statistics and timeline markers. It was a real, human event that ended real lives. Chris Butler was there, and when he sings "when I see a mountain, I see ammunition," you know for damn sure that he hasn't forgotten or forgiven anything that happened day, and no, he won't kindly retract his position on any of it, thank you very much. In an age when so many recall being "ex-hippies" with sheepish, self-deprecating grins, Butler is still standing there with one hand holding the neck of his guitar and the other giving the finger to Ohio National Guard, just like Joseph Lewis did before being shot that day on May 4.
Jeffrey Miller memorial<br>Photo: M. StewartJeffrey Miller memorial
Photo: M. Stewart
There's no better way to end this article than with the words of Chris Butler, spoken during the "Fortunate Son" track that immediately follows "Beggar's Bullets." It's both the end and the emotional climax of Easy Life, the final account of someone who was there.

"Thirteen seconds," Butler says with waves of guitar feedback washing over him. "On one side: youth, hope. On the other: defenders of all things corrupt, degrading, and oppressive. Which side are you on? Which side are you on? We didn't hate you. We hated what you represented. But you hated us for who we were. You accepted your 'cogness,' your 'guess this is my place in the scheme of things.' Well, we didn't. You believed that if you played along, you'd be rewarded. We knew that wasn't true. We must have been one hell of a threat. Why else would you have shot at us?"

Jeff Suwak
July 28, 2017

For more on this subject, see also Ohio by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young


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