We Can Still Change the World

Students Demonstrate Against Injustice Then and Now

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Anniversaries are important. They are the perfect time to celebrate achievement, mark progress, and take pride, but also to identify work that still needs to be done. The issues of the day play out on campus as students come of age equipped to navigate and achieve in the world waiting for them. So it’s relevant to ask, about how we have positively changed the world during our past history, are there still lingering issues that haven’t yet been settled? And, what social justice moves can we make to help finish the job and stop repeating history? Anniversaries are important to make sure we ask those big questions.

My alma mater, Northwestern Illinois University, recently celebrated its 125th anniversary which caused me to also reflect on another anniversary: the 50th anniversary of a time that has alternatively been called the darkest in the university’s history, or the moment when a student body—and a generation—found its voice and said “enough.” The campus still bears the scars.

On May 4, 1970, the National Guard killed four students at Kent State University protesting the extension of the Vietnam War into Cambodia. It signaled to the young people of the country that the government had turned on them. Those who were designated too young to vote but not too young to die. Those who didn’t matter. Those fresh from a school year that began with a Moratorium to End the War and a March on Washington. Those still reeling from the game-show brutality of the draft lottery—where students gathered around screens throughout the campus to watch their fates be determined on television. Watching those same TV sets to see our peers murdered at Kent State was the last straw.

On May 25, 2020, despite civil-rights movements that started back in the same time frame as the Vietnam War, George Floyd was killed in real-time on television, and students were again pushed to the edge.

I feel the same rage, but also such sadness that after all this time, problems we thought were so close to being solved are here before us, once again, and far worse for having been swept under the rug for so many years. Similarly, the effects of the Vietnam War didn’t go away because we refused to talk about it—but the lessons did: the fatiguing, draining hamster wheel of history.

Since my protest days, I’ve been concerned about how we seem not to acknowledge the lessons of the past and the parallels to the present: a big reason I wrote my debut novel The Fourteenth of September, based on my experience at NIU during the time of campus Vietnam protests and the Kent State shootings.

Activism is and has always been complicated. When you hit the streets, it’s because you’ve tried all the proper channels to no avail and found yourself powerless. However, rage and reason need to balance if anything is to really change. There are always differences about how to turn message into action to where the point can get lost, and the only thing that’s heard is the sound of breaking glass.

Back in 1970, after the shootings, we didn’t think it could get worse. We were sure there would be a revolution. Universities across the country were set ablaze. The planned response to Kent State at NIU had been to be peaceful. We were going to take the only action we felt was open to us—to vote ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) off campus. Yes, it was a reach, but we saw it as the symbol of what we called “The War Machine on Campus.” Its removal was the only thing we felt we could actually accomplish to express our outrage over the war that was killing so many of us. Students gathered in the Union Ballroom to support the unanimous Student Senate vote to remove the military presence from campus. In a surprise veto it was defeated, a move that shocked the crowd. The resulting anger was impossible to contain. Hundreds of students streamed into town, where they broke windows, pulled up landscaping, and turned over benches, alienating the community. Others went to the dorms, destroying the glass front of the electric utility building, plunging the campus into darkness, and setting a cop car on fire, alienating the university.

There were arrests. There were two nights of sit-ins on the Lincoln Avenue bridge, cutting off access to both town and campus. The National Guard arrived with their rifles. They were the Kent State killers. Would they shoot us too? It was terrifying. It was out of control. It was everywhere across the country. Kent State ended up being a turning point against the war—but it took a very long time to recapture the message, and the war dragged on for another bloody five years.

After the death of George Floyd on camera, NIU students joined others throughout the country and again said “enough.” They hit the streets of DeKalb, Chicago, and beyond with a purpose and a message . . . and yes, a few broken windows and more.

I’m gratified: this time the Black Lives Matter message seems to be resonating despite the violence. Yet every new spike on either side continues to speak louder than the sound of progress.

I’m encouraged the movement has both promise and, it appears, legs. It gives me faith that we can still change the world, a quest my generation couldn’t quite pull off. But I am enraged that it took a violent death flashed in our faces to get us here, after a long series of videoed violence, dating back to the 1960s.

There is one thing I know. The minute the first piece of glass breaks, that sound is all anyone hears.

We have a social justice lesson sitting before us. Same campus, same hike down Lincoln Avenue, same glass, same issues of injustice and powerlessness, same murder on television, same powerless lives that are worth more. It’s time to stop breaking glass. What can we learn from our own heritage about how to ensure lasting social justice without violence?

The more voices we hear from, the more likely the path of progress will be straight forward, swift, and permanent, and we can finally retire the repetitive hamster wheel of history.

The hope would be that fifty years from now . . . though progress may be difficult, and incremental, we can point to the fact that 2020 was the year when we learned to listen to each other, where we used the lessons of the past, where we used the streets to connect. Here’s where we turned real communications, including with those of age and experience, into genuine social action. Now, that will be something to celebrate.

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