Devo’s Jerry Casale Looks Back at Kent State 50 Years Later: ‘Time Stood Still’

"I saw somebody in charge yelling at these two lines of National Guardsmen and then he made a hand gesture,” says Casale. “That is when they started shooting”

5/7/1970-Kent, OH- Kent State University student hurls tear gas cannister back towards National Guardsmen as the military is called out May 4th to put down massive anti-war protest. When the air cleared, four students lay dead and several others wounded.

Devo bassist Jerry Casale was a student protester in the middle of the Kent State massacre, which took place 50 years ago on May 4th.

It was 50 years ago today that the Ohio National Guard opened fire at a protest on the Kent State University campus in Kent, Ohio, killing four students, wounding nine others and leaving one paralyzed for life. The massacre was the culmination of fiery protests all across America in response to President Nixon going public with his plan to expand the Vietnam War into Cambodia.

The politically active students at Kent State had an uneasy relationship with the conservative townspeople of Kent, and they clashed many times in the weeks leading up to the shooting. Ohio Gov. Jim Rhodes sent the National Guard onto the campus on Saturday, May 2nd, 1970, as rumors swirled about a campus uprising. That night, students burned down the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) building on campus.

“These people just move from one campus to the other and terrorize the community,” Rhodes said on Sunday, May 3rd. “They’re worse than the brownshirts and the communist element, and also the night riders and the vigilantes. They’re the worst type of people that we harbor in America. Now I want to say this. They are not going to take over [the] campus.” All of this set the stage for the horrors that unfolded at noon on Monday, May 4th. Among the student protesters that afternoon was future Devo founder/bassist Jerry Casale. (Future Pretenders singer Chrissie Hynde was there as well.) Casale recently called up Rolling Stone and shared his memories of that awful day.

I arrived on the Kent State campus as a freshman in the fall of 1966 after getting a scholarship. And even then, I thought the Vietnam War was bullshit. It wasn’t like what happened to my father [during World War II] where it was clear that Hitler was a real threat. This was a ginned-up, imperialistic, bullshit war. There was no way of winning it and we were shitting on a sovereign nation that wasn’t attacking us. You don’t want to go die for that.

I was drafted in 1967. I thought I was going to go there and die, but my doctor that had been seeing me since I was an infant had been treating me for a hernia. He filled out a ginned-up report and made it a left inguinal hernia, and that got me a deferment. I just don’t think I was hard-wired to be a soldier.

Jerry Casale's Kent State ID card

Jerry Casale’s Kent State ID card
Courtesy of Jerry Casale

Anyway, Kent State University was plunked down in the small town of Kent in northeastern Ohio. That whole region was staunchly Republican and had a very blue-collar population at the time. They were very conservative with a lot of religious fundamentalism. The surrounding towns and the people in them hated the university.

I came there to study art, and there was this small clique of us artsy students from places like New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. We dressed fashionably and grew our hair long and liked Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground.

We were an anomaly on campus and I was picked on. I was threatened daily on my way to art class by frat guys. When I would walk past fraternity row, they’d start singing, “Are you a boy or are you a girl?” and giving me the finger and saying they were going to beat my ass. I was already somebody that didn’t have survival instincts. I talked back. I’d go, “Oh, yeah? If you think I’m a girl, why don’t you come down here and suck my cock?” Then I’d run. I just hated them.

My parents had no use for the university. They were blue-collar. They were conservative. They couldn’t afford to send me to a college and thought I should just get a job. There was no vote of confidence there. I wasn’t somebody my father was proud of.

I had to work in the summer because I had a work-study program as part of my scholarship duties. My job entailed shepherding new students through the registration process, helping them with their curriculum, and hooking them up with professors. That’s how I met Jeffrey Miller and Allison Krause, two of the four students that ended up being killed. They were both people on my caseload.

Jeffrey and Allison were both smart, already liberal. I guess they could be classified, now that there’s all these pejorative terms, as “lefties.” They certainly were anti-war. Allison was very sexy and all the guys were panting after her. Jeffrey was a big fan of the Who and Steppenwolf and all the music that was going on.

The political movement on campus grew my entire time there. It began with off-campus meetings of 20 students, where we were yelled at and harassed for attending such a thing. That grew into a couple hundred students the next year in the Student Union at lunchtime. That grew into a massive protest and people shouting at each other and Mark Rudd coming on campus from Columbia and signing people up to SDS after a rousing speech, where a couple of thousand people showed up at a rally on the campus Commons.

What I remember the clearest in the days leading up to Monday, May 4th, 1970, was the news from the TV that the war had been expanded into Cambodia. There were incidents in downtown Kent that night that got violent with the the townies and the students facing off. The townies believed all these crazy conspiracy theories, like we were going to spike their water supply with LSD, and they hated us. And frankly, not a lot of the activist students did anything to dissuade them. They hated them right back.

There were all these creepy, disenfranchised people that glommed onto the political activists and kind of muddied the waters. They were just there because they liked the trouble. They were just there to fight and tussle. It’s almost impossible in a democratic situation to control those people or separate them out.

That is how the ROTC building got torched. I don’t believe that it was members of SDS that did that. It would almost make you believe there were undercover operatives [that started the fire] to discredit SDS and make them look dangerous and give the people what they wanted, an excuse to go after students. I steered clear of it. I knew it was a bad scene, an offensive scene. When the fire started, I remember thinking, “This is ugly. I’m leaving. This is bad.” I got out of there. I went home.

Then the governor went on TV and called us “brownshirts.” He was always ratcheting up the conflict. It’s like Trump today, treating things like a WWF smackdown. It was Governor Rhodes, unbeknownst to us, who conspired with the dean at Kent State University to house the National Guard in buildings on Sunday night so they’d be ready to pounce at the protest that everyone knew was coming. The students weren’t hiding this protest. The plan was to declare martial law just before the protest and blindside the students, sucker-punch them.

I was in a drawing and design class the morning of the shootings. I went from there to the Student Union. That was the hub of all the various cliques of students, where science nerds or frat boys or politicos or artists all had their little areas. We were all trading information and preparing to go out at noon knowing that the protest had been called for then.

We went to an area called the Commons, which was near the Student Union. It was a nice bowl of flat, grassy green that then rose up to these rolling hills that went up to the rest of campus in a 180-degree spread. It was very, very beautiful. It looked like an Ivy League campus with big, old trees, and art deco–style streetlights. Students would gather there every day, throw down blankets if the weather was good, and eat their lunch there and make out.

We all gathered there at noon. This guy named Howie [Emmer], one of the most prominent activists, was speaking when we all became aware that the cavalry was coming in. Here comes the National Guard. Some were on foot. Some were in jeeps. Some were in a transport vehicle with a canopy on it. They were coming in from two or three directions at once, coordinated, coming in, swooping in.

Basically, they had us. We couldn’t turn around and go off campus. We had to go up the hill. The only escape route was up the hill.

They start by announcing, “This is an unlawful assembly. You must disperse. Governor Rhodes …” blah, blah, blah. Of course, what do the students do? “Fuck you!” Chanting back, “We don’t want your fucking war!” These were the rituals of the time. We’d seen it dozens of times.

The National Guard were wearing gas masks and they had M1 rifles and bayonets. And they start shooting tear gas. Of course, the more brave students had their hankies ready and tried to grab it and throw it back. The rest of us started moving up the hill like, “OK, fuck. This is on. This is not good!”

We were scurrying up the hill because I knew I could possibly get out by going through the student/teacher parking that was on the other side of the journalism building. It was situated at a nice perch at the top of the hill, with a huge balcony that came out of it with tables where students would eat their lunches and lounge between classes.

Everyone was out because it was a beautiful, sunny day. They were all curious as to what was going to happen with this protest, so there were a lot of lookie-loos that were like, “Oh, we know these students are going to do this. We want to see what goes on.” You could clearly see the difference in the cluster of students between who were the ones actively in the protest and who were at the edges of the hill and out on the edge of the building watching as spectators.

I had gone up the hill and they were chasing us. At the student/teacher parking lot we realized, “Oh, more of them are parked on the other side of the student/teacher parking lot waiting for us to get out.”

We were trapped. I turned around and looked back up the hill and here they are. They’ve come up the hill and they amassed there. They stopped and they lowered their riffles. We think, “OK, this is where they march at you with their bayonets horizontal and scare the fuck out of you so that they’re going to herd you across this parking lot and arrest us over there.” We thought it was a power game.

But they weren’t moving. I remember thinking, “Hmm, I wonder what they’re doing.” They all have gas masks on and you can’t hear anything clearly, but I saw somebody in charge yelling at these two lines of National Guardsmen, and then he made a hand gesture. That is when they starting shooting.

For a moment, time stood still. It was like a Scorsese film, like Raging Bull, where suddenly Jake LaMotta is getting hit in the face and it goes into slow motion. And then it snaps back just like a Hollywood movie, and, bang! Back to real time. Here’s the blood, the screaming, the crying, the chaos …

I turn around and I see a guy on his belly on the road. People are starting to gather around, and there’s blood running out of his head and neck area. The blood is glistening in the noon sun. I realize it’s Jeff Miller. I get sick to my stomach and I feel like I’m going to pass out.

I sat down on the grass. About 30 seconds later, I realize there are people screaming, “Allison! Allison!” I can’t really see her, but I see all these people hovering around somebody laying on their back in the student/teacher parking lot, not moving. That turned out to be Allison Krause.

We don’t know what’s going to happen next and there’s screaming and crying and chaos. There were these student monitors out during the protest, sort of like the friendly cops. They were wearing arm bands and yelling out, “Don’t move! Don’t move! Just sit down! Don’t run!”

We didn’t know if they were going to keep shooting. We didn’t know what the fuck was going to happen. And you’re frozen in trauma and fear. You just about shit your pants. The students are 18, 19, maybe some were 20. I was 20. I wasn’t going to move anyway. I couldn’t move. I was shaking. I saw what real violence is and what happens when M1 rifles are fired with military shells and go through humans.

You gotta understand the people shooting are the same age as the people they just killed. They are all standing there freaked. They aren’t moving either. They realize what they’ve done.

It seemed like hours went by. I don’t think hours actually went by, but by the time the ambulances got there and navigated their way off-road, across the lawn and into the area, the students who were dead were dead.

The other two students [Sandra Scheuer and William Knox Schroeder], who I didn’t know at all, were even farther away. They were near the journalism building. They weren’t activists at all. One was just trying to leave to go her car, and the other one just came out to see what the hell was going on. Those two students were just collateral damage from this political horror show.

I didn’t get shot and nobody in my group got shot because they were firing over our heads. It’s just the luck of the draw. But that’s it. Nine wounded. One paralyzed for life. Four dead.

For the next 10 days there was a form of martial law where there was a curfew at 7 p.m. and all students had to be off the street. There were jeeps and military helicopters patrolling the city hourly. They closed the campus until the next fall. I was robbed of my graduation ceremony. I had to graduate by mail.

The day of the shooting was the beginning of my red-pill moment. Not that I hadn’t been political, but I still was like, “OK, there are some things wrong with our country and there’s some bad apples, but it’s fixable.” I believed in the brand that was America a little too much.

Once you go down the other path, you realize this has been a history of genocide, racism, inequality, corruption, hacking away at the very tenets of democratic rule of law, power grabs, imperialism, dirty tricks, supporting dictators, CIA … you just go down the whole thing and you realize what a fucking Disneyland-load-of-shit you were sold.

I’ve said it often and I mean it, but I don’t think there would have been a Devo if not for Kent State. Without that trauma and the red-pill changeover, I would have gone down this other path in life. I had a scholarship to the University of Ann Arbor Graduate School as an artist, but because I was a member of SDS, after the killings at Kent State, the governors of four states, including Michigan, made a pact that all out-of-state students that were members of any radical group would lose their scholarships and be denied admissions.

They developed this kind of theory, pushed by Nixon and [Vice President] Spiro Agnew, that it was outside agitators that had corrupted and polluted these good students at the universities in the Midwest. It stirred the pot.

I had to go back to Kent State with my tail between my legs and ask to go to graduate school there. Because I had graduated with a high grade-point average, they let me in.

But by then, student organized protest was over. Nobody was gathered. You kill a few students and that really works. The activists left town or went into hiding or joined the Weather Underground. Other kids cut their hair and went to work for their dads, who had been bugging them to get it together. Kent State killed the movement.

Looking at things now, I think we’re much worse off as a country than we were back then. More information was getting to the public unfiltered than it does now. We supposedly live in an “information digital highway that’s wide open,” but it’s all bullshit. It’s all controlled and disinformation. Everybody believes what they want. They’re all in their own private Idaho. They all have their own reality bubble.

There’s the conspiracy people who think the climate is being controlled by the Rothschilds. Then there’s the climate deniers like Trump. It goes on and on and on. What you have is chaos. What does chaos serve? It serves an authoritarian, cruel government. It’s a plutocratic kakistocracy where everybody unqualified was purposely put in charge of every government department where they hated the mission of that department. It’s like a Marvel Comic movie.

What’s happened in 50 years? The right wing may have lost the culture wars because they didn’t look cool, and the hippies thought they won with the groovy music festivals like Woodstock. Everyone thought they were so cool. Well, the right-wingers took that rejection on a cultural level and they built that anger and resentment inside them, and they stayed at the table and they didn’t give up.

The bad apples took over the barrel. It is corrupt to the core, a kakistocracy. There is no power to meet that power. The Democrats are completely compromised because they’ve been taken over by their own brand of plutocrats, and they are beholden to donors. The media quit doing its job. It’s bought-off and compromised. The students that are being churned out by the education system don’t have any critical-thinking skills. That’s been bred out of them.

What’s happened is just hideous. And now we have COVID-19 to finish it off in an election year. This is a gift to the right that’s 10 times bigger than the 9/11 gift to George W. Bush, where it was like, “OK, now we can really make a surveillance state! Now we can really take away First Amendment rights. TSA? No problem. Patriot Act? Everyone is on board!”

This is much bigger. Now you’re going to see the wholesale shifting of wealth to even fewer of the one percent, and any rights that anyone thought they had, watch what happens in the next year. It’s over for rule of law. It’s over for women’s rights. The racial and ethnic hate will be pumped up beyond belief, and nobody is going to stick up for you. Roe v. Wade will be gone. It’s going to be one ugly right-wing country.