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Kent State Protesters Call For University to Divest, Echoing Vietnam War Protests

Hundreds of pro-Palestinian demonstrators gathered at Kent State University in Ohio on Saturday to protest the war in Gaza, exactly 54 years after a similar campus demonstration ended in four student deaths.

The activists were silent but impossible to miss. They assembled in a semicircle around a stage on Kent State’s commons where speakers were commemorating the events of May 4, 1970: James Rhodes, then the governor of Ohio, had called in the National Guard to quell a demonstration against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. The troops opened fire. Four people — Allison Krause, William Schroeder, Sandra Scheuer and Jeffrey Miller — were killed. Several others were wounded.

The campus still bears the scars of the 1970 shooting. Illuminated columns mark the precise spots where the four students were killed, and the tragedy was immortalized in the song “Ohio” performed by the folk-rock quartet Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.

In a speech on Saturday to honor the victims, Sophia Swengel, a sophomore and the president of the May 4 Task Force, a group formed in 1975 to keep the students’ legacy alive, also acknowledged the protesters. Many of them were hoisting signs calling on the university to divest from weapons manufacturers and military contractors.

“Once again students are taking a stand against bloodshed abroad,” she said, referring to Israel’s assault on Gaza, which followed the Hamas-led attack of Oct. 7. “Much like they did against the Vietnam War back in the ’60s,” Ms. Swengel added.

Among the student demands in 1970 were abolishing the R.O.T.C. program, ending the university’s ties with police training programs and halting the research and development of the liquid crystal used in heat detectors that guided bombs dropped on Cambodia.

Today, demonstrators at Kent State are asking the university to divest its portfolio of instruments of war. “The university is profiting from war, and they were arguing in ’69 and ’70 that the university was also profiting from war,” said Camille Tinnin, a 31-year-old Ph.D. student studying political science who has met with the school’s administration to discuss divestiture.

While Kent State cannot end the war in Gaza, “what the university can control is its own investment portfolio,” said Yaseen Shaikh, 19, a member of Students for Justice in Palestine who is about to graduate with a degree in computer science.

Ms. Tinnin and Mr. Shaikh, along with two other students, met with Mark Polatajko, senior vice president for finance and administration for Kent State, on Dec. 4, a meeting confirmed in a statement from Rebecca Murphy, a Kent State spokeswoman. Mr. Polatajko shared the university’s investment portfolio with the four activists during the meeting, Ms. Tinnin said in an interview before Saturday’s protest. She said activists who scrutinized the portfolio found that it included investments in weapons manufacturers.

On Saturday, in a nod to nationwide student demonstrations against the war in Gaza, Ms. Swengel said that encampments and demonstrations “stand as living, breathing monuments of the willingness of students to stand up against genocide and for what they believe in.”

In a statement emailed to reporters, Ms. Murphy said the university “upholds the First Amendment rights of free speech and peaceful assembly for all.”

“Consistent with our core values, we encourage open dialogue and respectful civil discourse in an inclusive environment,” she added.

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