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Students graduating again with a real-life history lesson

Ken Light, Reva & David Logan Professor of Photojournalism at Berkeley Journalism | May 19, 2020

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The cancellation of university classes and postponement of commencements the nation is experiencing is not without precedent. For many of my generation, that time and that moment, May 4, 1970 — 50 years ago this month — is forever embedded in our cultural memory. Now the class of 2020 in grade, high schools and universities — a new and different generation, to be sure — will have a memory so rooted to and impacted by this time of coronavirus pandemic with actions synonymously far-reaching, yet different in many ways.

Fifty years ago, then-President Richard Nixon announced “several thousand ground combat troops had entered Cambodia.” The secret war in Cambodia meant to try and stop North Vietnamese soldiers and weapons moving inside Cambodia, a neutral country, along the Ho Chi Minh trail. When Nixon spoke on television, America’s campuses exploded with indignation. ROTC buildings were firebombed; windows were broken at some schools. Students gathered in large numbers often spilling into the streets and lighting bonfires, bringing out the local police, whose only tactics were to beat heads, or throw tear gas. An estimated 4,000 students hit the streets in Columbus, Ohio, the next few days. College campuses across the nation exploded into violence.

I hitchhiked up to Columbus. The Republican governor there had ordered the Ohio National guard deployed to restore order on campus. I had my 35mm camera and a 50mm lens, some Tri-X film, my press pass from the Ohio University school newspaper, and a gas mask. Reaching the campus, I found the became incensed with the idea of bayoneted soldiers on their campus and mayhem ensued. The young guardsmen were overwhelmed, and before long they and the Ohio Highway Patrol shot tear gas at us, ordering us to disperse.

The acrid smell of tear gas permeated the campus. Students walking out of class were caught in the melee; many became radicalized and threw back the tear gas canisters at the police and National Guard. I was able to photograph because I had a tear gas mask on, but it also created an easy target for the authorities. Soon I felt hands on both my shoulders and turned around to see two gas-masked Ohio Highway Patrol officers. They arrested me and handcuffed me. I protested, saying I was a journalist and “didn’t they see the press pass” that was pinned to my green army jacket. One of the officers grabbed it quickly, ripping if off and then tearing it up. He looked at me and said, “You are not a journalist anymore!”

I was booked, mugged and fingerprinted. My camera, film and gas mask were confiscated, and I wound up in a cell with hundreds of others. I had befriended the director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, who bailed me out for $5,000. I was charged with inciting to riot, a felony with the possibility of three to five years in prison. As I left the cell, I was handed a paper bag with my camera and the few rolls of exposed film from that day. I returned to Athens, developed the film, made prints and sent the photos to Liberation News Service in New York City, which distributed photos to the underground press.

A few days after I made my photos, a similar scene engulfed the nation when the National Guard opened fire at Kent State University in Ohio, killing four students. The guardsmen fired 67 rounds over a period of 13 seconds and also wounded nine. I remember being transfixed to the TV in my dorm lounge filled with fellow students. We were outraged, shaken and scared. Students flooded the streets, demanding justice. This was an attack on our generation and radicalized thousands.

My images taken a week earlier of the same National Guardsmen, who had fired at Kent State, were published all over the world. I realized at that moment that photographs have an incredible power to reach sometimes a vast audiences while at the same time you can witness your world, and tell the story of things unseen by masses of people. It was an epiphany for a 19-year-old, and it changed my life.

A photographer had been born, and I haven’t stop taking pictures since. Over the past three decades, I have also taught photojournalism at UC Berkeley, the beating heart of student protest.

From my position as a university professor, I have witnessed the sadness in my students finding remote teaching lacking the quality and closeness the classroom provided now that university has been shuttered. They are upset they will have no graduation to commemorate and the world they prepared for and were about to enter is so transformed: internships canceled, celebrations postponed.

I feel their pain deeply.

I have told them my own story of 50 long years ago, when the nation faced a political crisis not unlike their own today; only then protesters were gassed, shot at and killed, universities closed, students were sent home, graduations for the class of 1970 were canceled throughout the nation. My students today intuit there are no easy solutions to this moment. They recognize that student concerns then are similar to those on their minds today. They are living history, as we were back in 1970. My students and I ponder whether in 50 years as they look back on this time and post on whatever will be the new social media how those living in 2070 will reconcile this time. Will the upheaval and reordering of society overshadow and supplant the turmoil and protests of the 1970s be so distant as to barely represent the historical precedent it is today?

This article was first published in the San Francisco Chronicle.