This originally appeared on May 15, 2015
Many of us have heard the song, most of those probably know its famous backstory: “Tin soldiers and Nixon’s coming/We’re finally on our own/This summer I hear the drumming/Four dead in Ohio” sang Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young in 1971. The Kent State shootings – done by National Guard soldiers with live ammo are famous. The photo of the teenager screaming over one of the bodies of the four victims is one of the photos of the 20th century. It’s all so ‘60s – even if it happened May 4, 1970.
On Friday, some 11 days after Kent State, another Vietnam war protest on a campus turned deadly. At Jackson State University in Mississippi, a junior at the college and a passing highschool senior were killed by police who were responding to out of control protests. Twelve other people were also injured when some of the 75 local and state police fired more than 400 rounds at the crowds. Nobody seemed to know why they did exactly, with the police saying they had been threatened in various ways. Nobody was ever punished for the killings at Kent State or at Jackson State.
Neither at the time, nor 45 years later did the Jackson State killings have the same effect on people that Kent state did. (Not that middle America was terribly worried about the Kent State killing either, since 58 percent of them decided the students were to blame.) Perhaps they simply were overpowered by the loudness of Kent state, and a similar incident with a smaller body count was doomed to appear as just aftershocks. Yet, it seems unjust to forget one and sing about the other.
More forgotten anniversaries dot May. Wednesday was the 30th anniversary of the Philadelphia Police Department dropping a firebomb on the home of the MOVE group. Unsurprisingly in this nation of strong legal and social protections for police, nobody was ever punished for this act which lead to the deaths of 11 people (including five children) and burned out an entire city block.
Perhaps not surprising either is how often MOVE is ignored in favor of bigger horrors such as the raid and subsequent fire at the Branch Davidians’ compound outside Waco, Texas in 1993. (Since 30 years is a nice, round journalist’s number, however, there was some mainstream remembrance of MOVE this year. Plus the whole cops are finally a story thing.)
You could suggest that the victims of both Jackson State and MOVE were black and left, and therefore the patriot movements and militia types who were the strongest advocates of not forgetting something like Waco weren’t interested in keeping their names alive in the latter case. However, it’s never quite as simple as that. We know, if we’re paying attention, that some people are more valued than others in America. And sometimes – often, in cases of police misconduct and brutality – that lack of value does fall on racial lines. Blacks “acting up” must have done something to “deserve” a reaction from the state, or its armed actors – especially if they had any kind of criminal record. Whites can be excused as mentally ill, or upset, or childish, depending on their sins. But it’s rarely just about race. After all, Kent State was a left rallying cry, and continues to be a seminal moment in the anti-Vietnam protests. Why not, then Jackson?
A little known fact about the Davidians is that about a third of the victims were black. There were also Hispanics and Asians present. It was a diverse group, not the clichéd collection of overly armed white people on edge.
This is not made clear perhaps because the faces of the victims of the siege – beyond arguable cult leader David Koresh’s lily-white one – were kept so far away from cameras, they hardly exist now in memory. Hell, I’m not militia member, but I knew about Waco years before I found out about MOVE. And my first response to hearing about MOVE was wondering why I didn’t know about it earlier. Perhaps because Timothy McVeigh didn’t mention MOVE as motivation for the Oklahoma City Bombing. Perhaps because something in the events of Waco and Ruby Ridge captured people’s cultural attention better than with MOVE.
Sometimes there’s a logic behind why some historical events are remembered more strongly than others. The wartime sinking of the Lusitania is more historically significant than that of the Titanic three years earlier in 1912. However, even before James Cameron made one of the highest grossing movies of all time about that doomed ship, Titanic stuck in our heads more. The Lusitania sunk in 15 minutes. The Titanic was virgin, luxurious, and sunk in two and a half hours – just long enough for countless instances of great human drama to play out. (Plus, that whole ham-fisted hubris thing about the damn thing being “unsinkable.”)
This is all right. You cannot control what events not just strike people, but stay in their heads and hearts for years, and what is turned into song, story, and film. It’s not some empirical thing. But danger does lie in the fact that if you remember some deaths, and not others, you are suggesting that some lives matter more than others.
In America, we know that this is true. Well, not true, but commonly accepted. I’ve often grimly joked that a good mathematician should be able to figure out how many foreign people equal one regular American, and how many Americans equal one cop, or one soldier. The victims of the Oklahoma City Bombing matter more than those of Waco for myriad reasons. One is that the Branch Davidians were kept far away from the press, while Oklahoma City left us with haunting photos like this one. Photos matter to memory. There’s a reason the news doesn’t show graphic photos from drone warfare, or from the wars America has started. Even coffins of American soldiers is taboo. It’s not that the average person is dying to look at what war really is, but that they should be made to look if they want to know about news or about history.
Another reason Oklahoma City matters more than Waco is that law enforcement causing death can be a shame, but it can’t be an outrage in the same way a terrorist attack like Timothy McVeigh’s was. Never mind if McVeigh killed fewer children, he was a terrorist. He admitted his evil ends, and law enforcement pleads good intentions, and therefore the latter is let off the hook and the former is just a monster.
So certain things are memorable, and certain folks’ deaths are rallying cries and others are lost to history. And that would be natural if it weren’t helped along so much by the biases of a warmongering state. We can barely get people to remember the some 4,000 American soldiers who died in the Iraq war. That is a tragedy, but one to ignore in preparation for the next terrible threat. The million Iraqis who died thanks to America’s war are nothing. They are certainly not a folk song, or a even a famous photograph. They are an error on a balance sheet, a pity, an aside. Two at Jackson State, a million in Iraq, hundreds of thousands in the Philippines – every death can be forgotten if it is inconvenient for the powerful to remember.
Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for Antiwar.com. She has also written for Reason, Playboy.com, the Washington Post.com, The New Republic, and other outlets. Her blog is www.thestagblog.com. Follow her on twitter @lucystag.