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Carrying On Kent State’s Legacy Of Antiwar Organizing

Above photo: Protesters turn their back on Kent State President Todd Diacon during his speech at the May 4 commemoration. WNV/Eman Abu-Khaled.

Students Press For Divestment.

Students at Kent State won disclosure of the university’s investment portfolio, but the fight to divest from the war industry is just beginning.

If you grew up in Ohio, one of the first things that comes to mind when you hear “Kent State” is the saying “Kent Read, Kent Write, Kent State.” If you grew up outside of Ohio, the first thing you think of when hearing “Kent State” is the shootings on May 4, 1970. And if you were present for the protest on May 4, 2024, you heard, “Kent Read, Kent Write, Kent stop funding genocide.”

As graduate students (one local, the other out of state), we grew up with different perceptions of Kent State. What united us is the decision to pursue our graduate studies at Kent State due to its long history of activism and the School of Peace and Conflict Studies — founded as a “living memorial” to the students who died on May 4, 1970.

On that terrifying day, four Kent State students — Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, William Schroeder and Sandra Scheuer — were killed by the National Guard on our campus during a protest against the expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia. Members of the National Guard fired 67 shots at students, lasting 13 seconds, killing four and wounding nine.

While those horrific seconds are what Kent State is best known for, we know that this university was a site of incredible organizing for peace and justice both before and after May 4. During the civil rights movement, a group of students worked on Mississippi Freedom Summer, others organized against racist housing discrimination in Kent. In the late ‘60s, students started a campaign to stop allowing the Oakland Police department to recruit on campus, occupying a building in order to have their voices heard. Following this occupation, Black United Students organized a campus-wide walkout to protest their organization being barred from campus.

In addition to the Black United Students, the Students for a Democratic Society made a list of four demands to the university in response to the Vietnam War: abolish the ROTC program, end the Project Themis Liquid Crystal Program (that created technology used by the U.S. military to locate and target people in heavily forested areas), end the Kent State law enforcement school and dismantle the Northeast Ohio Crime lab. Following the lack of response by the administration and the shootings of May 4, students fought for memorialization, including building and maintaining a tent city for two months in an attempt to prevent the university from building a gym on the site of the shooting.

It is on these memorial grounds that Concerned Students for a Better Future, which we co-founded, gathered to carry on the legacy of our activist predecessors on the 54th anniversary of the historical shootings.

At the annual May 4 commemoration, several speakers from the university, including the university president, gave speeches about the importance of remembering the past. In his speech this year, President Todd Diacon discussed the value of dialogue across differences, something that the university has been focusing on for the past several months.

Despite this, Diacon had not yet agreed to meet with us to discuss our demands to divest from weapons manufacturers and military contractors and to revise the university’s investment ethics statement. While we recognize that he is not the decision maker on financial matters — that responsibility belongs to the board — we had hoped someone committed to having difficult conversations would meet with us to simply hear student concerns about how university money is being invested.

During the commemoration, over 350 protesters formed a horseshoe surrounding the stage, while standing in silent solidarity to commemorate the lives lost — those at Kent on May 4, those in the Vietnam War and those in the U.S.-supported assault on Gaza today. Immediately after the proceedings were over, we all joined next to the stage at the famous Victory Bell that is rung every year during the commemoration. Students, faculty, alumni (including May 4 survivors), and community members gathered to listen to the speakers and join in chants.

To end the rally, former SDS leader and May 4 survivor Ken Hammond rang the Victory Bell after reading a letter he and 30 other May 4 survivors wrote supporting both our right to protest and the antiwar ideas of our action. A former activist who was a witness on May 4 pulled us aside and said, “Thank you for bringing the politics back to May 4.”

Winning disclosure

We recognize the limited space in which a public university can act related to war and genocide. Universities do not craft foreign policy, do not have input on the federal budget, and cannot stop military deployments or military aid. What they can control are their own investment portfolios.

However, in Ohio, we have restrictive laws preventing public entities from contracting with companies that boycott the state of Israel or Israeli companies (Ohio State Code § 9.76). This proves a large roadblock when trying to implement aspects of the Boycott, Divest, Sanction Movement, or BDS, at public universities in Ohio. In response to current university-based divestment campaigns, Ohio Sen. Jerry Cirino has stated that it is against state law for a university to divest from Israel.

That is why our demands are focused strictly on weapons manufacturers. The fact that our university’s investment portfolio even contains weapons has come as a shock to much of the campus community. Why is our educational institution profiting off war, genocide and human suffering?

Our efforts towards divestment began in early December 2023, when we submitted an application to speak before our Board of Trustees at their final meeting of the fall semester. While we had missed the deadline to be put on the agenda, the administration offered us a meeting with Dr. Mark Polatajko, the university’s senior vice president of finance and administration.

In this first meeting, he provided us with the current investment portfolio and pointed us to the board’s “ethics statement,” which vaguely outlines the efforts taken to ensure ethical investments. After stating that the primary objective is to earn “sustainable investment returns,” the statement says that “the university shall make reasonable efforts to invest in ethical and socially responsible companies.”

This revealed the first of many future hurdles. Depending on who you ask, “reasonable,” “ethical” and “socially responsible” can have drastically different meanings. For the board, these obviously include weapons, weapons manufacturers and military contractors. For Concerned Students for a Better Future, it does not.

Underlying our discussions was the elephant in the room, Ohio Senate Bill 83, championed by Sen. Cirino. We learned that if S.B. 83 — a piece of higher education legislation that has been working its way through the Ohio Statehouse — passed in its current iteration, public universities would no longer be allowed to engage in any boycotts, disinvestments or sanctions — nor would they be allowerd to
“endorse, oppose, comment or take action, as an institution, on the public policy controversies of the day.”

The fear of S.B. 83 had permeated all areas of higher education in Ohio, and the university was already seemingly caving to pressure from a proposed policy that had not (and still has not) passed. Getting the university to consider ethics in investing — when they were busy responding to a threat that had not yet materialized — appeared to be a longshot.

While the time did not seem ripe, we continued to research the university’s portfolio, discuss the campaign with scholars in the field of disarmament and talk to other students about our progress and goals. We learned from researching the university’s investment portfolio that Kent State University — through its investment firm SEI — is profiting off of stocks in military contractor companies, cluster munitions and nuclear weapons, among other forms of weapons that are used not only against the people of Gaza, but people worldwide. Currently, the university invests 1.6 percent of its portfolio in funds that include the aforementioned weapons, totaling $6 million — a pretty easy fix if you ask Concerned Students for a Better Future.

It wasn’t until April 2024, as other universities escalated their campaigns for divestment, that a window opened. As the pressure grew, and encampments began popping up throughout the country, we knew the time had come to officially launch our campaign. Concerned Students for a Better Future was formed as a student-led coalition focused on weapons divestment.

On April 26, on behalf of Concerned Students for a Better Future, we sent our demands for divestment to President Diacon. At the same time, we sent out a petition asking current students, faculty, staff, alumni and community members to show their support for divestment, and also stand in solidarity with the people of Palestine at the annual May 4 commemoration the following weekend. We encouraged attendants to wear their keffiyehs, bring signs, flags or anything that shows visible solidarity. Beyond that, no other details were provided to non-organizers.

With the calls by elected officials for the presence of the National Guard in places like Columbia circling the internet, Kent State’s violent legacy was reemerging. It was with this in mind that we also sent out a press release.

In the span of just one week’s time, we were able to connect with student organizations, students, community members, alumni, faculty and staff to coordinate what would later be referred to by a May 4 survivor as “the real commemoration.”

Unlike other university presidents, Diacon is known for his approachability and presence all over campus. Every day he eats lunch in one of the dining halls on campus, drives around in his golf cart waving to students, or can be seen smiling as he walks to a meeting in one of his signature bow ties. What this meant was that running into Diacon was inevitable.

On May 1, we happened to see Diacon in the May 4 Visitors Center and Museum and asked if he had received our emails. He said he did, and while we are just one voice of many, he ensured us that he believes we have the right to have our voices heard.

In an email from the board’s vice president, Dr. Char Reed, she reaffirmed that Diacon, “wants you to know that he heard you and he appreciates your arguments and your passion regarding this issue. He also informed me of your request which I will share with the board chair.”

The request referred to here was that he inform the board of his support for our cause, and allow us a slot on the agenda for the upcoming two meetings. The board chair, Shawn Riley, did eventually respond to our request. On May 13, he wrote that as the university’s fiduciaries, the board is required to make decisions “with the university’s financial health and sustainability as our top priority. Our investment decisions cannot be based upon factors such as political considerations… Consistent with our fiduciary responsibilities, the Board of Trustees will not consider the divestment of university investments you have requested.”

If the university is wishing to operate purely out of financial interest, then divestment still is within their fiduciary responsibility. In our multiple attempts to contact the board, we provided them with two alternative funds run by SEI that have a comparable or higher rate of return than their current investments, which have no ties to weapons. We know that they have been made aware of these alternative funds since it was the final pages in an informational packet we sent to every board member — which they confirmed having received in their letter.

Yet, despite outright denying our requests for divestment, the board chair, the chair of the Investment Committee (Donald Mason) and President Diacon invited us to meet with them to discuss our concerns two days before the general board meeting, which we were not permitted to speak at.

On the same day, at a faculty senate meeting Diacon addressed the calls for divestment. According to a member of the faculty senate, he stated that he is opposed to our divestment request, but that the board will make their own decision. Claiming this is a political issue, he likened our request to hypothetical requests to divest from media companies or companies that support abortion. Two faculty senators pushed back, saying this issue was not simply political: weapons are an environmental issue and a health issue — facts supported by scientific research, including studies completed by Kent State students. Yet, Diacon continued to assert that he feels this decision is purely political.

Fighting for Kent State

We hoped that when our coalition arrived at the commemoration with several hundred people carrying signs and Palestinian flags, drawing parallels between weapons divestment today (and its connection to the genocide in Gaza) with the demands of the 1970s (and their connection to U.S. war and imperialism in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos), that he would be open to hearing our concerns.

Yet, the only demonstrators the president engaged with that day were the handful of pro-Israel counter-demonstrators.

The board has an obligation not only to the financial health of the institution, but to its students. Yet, they cloister themselves from the student body, often not announcing the locations and times of their meetings until a few days before. They waited 13 days, until the semester is over, to respond to multiple direct correspondences.

We, too, believe in the power of talking across differences, as it is a way to deliberate and come to mutually beneficial agreements. Weapons divestment should be an area where we can find agreement. First, making money off weapons investments is discordant with Kent State’s history of state violence and ongoing commitment to promote peaceful change. Second, the investments themselves are not uniquely lucrative. As the board is aware, the funds they continue to invest in are not the best performing funds managed by SEI.

We are not fighting against Kent State. We are fighting for Kent State. Our institution has the opportunity to align its investments with its history and values, without compromising fiduciary responsibility. By doing so, it would become a national leader in divestment. Simply by disclosing the investment portfolio, Kent State has shown itself to be a leader. Students across the country are fighting for disclosure and divestment. We have disclosure. We have researched alternatives. All the board needs to do is listen.

If they do, this administration and board can establish themselves as a model and further differentiate itself as a school committed to peace. We want to take our university at its word that it cares about peace and believes things can be solved through dialogue and deliberation. But so far, the board is failing in that regard.

Students of the past similarly were ignored, until they took nonviolent actions so disruptive that they forced the university to the negotiating table.

We are the legacy of student activists at Kent State throughout generations. We are asking: Is our board willing to respect its history and work with students to truly honor the legacy of May 4 by breaking financial ties with the war industry? As of today, the answer is no.

You’ve disclosed, now divest, because as the chant goes: We will not stop, we will not rest.

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