‘I hope that in Ohio, at least, Kent State remains as a deterrent’

Comics creator Derf Backderf, author of the graphic novel ‘Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio,’ on the echoes of 1970 he sees in the protest movement currently taking place on college campuses.
An image from Derf Backderf's "Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio"
An image from Derf Backderf's "Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio"Courtesy the artist

Comics creator Derf Backderf always intended his graphic novel Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio as a warning, past actions serving notice as to where we could again end up as a society. What he didn’t realize was how quickly we might arrive there.

Centered on the events of May 4, 1970, when members of the Ohio National Guard fired into a crowd of anti-war protesters at Kent State, killing four students and injuring nine, the book was initially scheduled to land in the spring of 2020. But with the arrival of Covid, the release got pushed back to the fall. “And then the Black lives matter protests blew up,” Backderf said from his home in Cleveland. “And there were armed troops in cities, and you know that some of those politicians really wanted to shoot those guys. And now, here we are again. It’s just rinse and repeat.”

The “now” to which Backderf referred is the growing anti-war/pro-Palestine movement that has taken root on college campuses stretching from UCLA to Columbia University in New York City. In Columbus last week, a group of protesters held court for nearly six hours on the South Oval at Ohio State University – Backderf’s alma mater – before Ohio State Highway Patrol troopers cracked down, arresting 36 people. This just days after an OSU spokesman was quoted in the Columbus Dispatch hailing the university’s “unwavering commitment to freedom of speech.” 

“I’m pretty pissed off with the Ohio State situation, being an alum,” Backderf said. “I think it’s really disgraceful how they’ve handled it, having police snipers on the roof and then lying about it. … As I email the president [of Ohio State], ‘That’s a great optic for your school, Ted. Right above the Welcome to Ohio Union sign, here are a couple of guys with guns.’ Really nice.”

On social media, some have drawn parallels between what happened at Kent State in 1970 and the unfolding campus movement – including a handful of viral posts on X (formerly Twitter) that included pages and panels lifted directly from Backderf’s graphic novel. 

Kent State provides a vivid account of the tragedy, unfolding over the course of just four days but still managing to place events in historical context. The book is exhaustively researched in its narrative thrust, but also in its visual appearance, with Backderf obsessively homing in on the look and feel of a fast-evolving campus that has gone through innumerable changes since 1970.

“Kent State has a strip called Water Street that’s a lot like High Street” in how rapidly development and business turnover can take place, Backderf said. “And then they were also constructing things. The main library was only half finished, and the student center was only 75 percent finished, so I couldn’t draw them as complete. I had to figure out what was being built and what was not. And I got one roofline wrong, that I know of, and boy that bugs me. But otherwise, I think I did pretty well.”

Despite the connections being drawn to Kent State, Backderf said the current environment reminds him more of the events surrounding Ohio State’s “Six-Hour War,” a less-publicized standoff between students and police that stretched over three days and, in many ways, set the table for what occurred at Kent State. “It’s important because it was the precursor, and it was the motivation as far as [Gov. James] Rhodes was concerned, because he was fighting for his political life and looking for a way to save face,” Backderf said. “It was all crass politics. And we’re getting that today, too. All of these colleges are responding because they’re terrified of getting dragged in front of Elise Stefanik to get yelled at in Congress.”

Backderf said he first learned of the OSU uprising as a student at the school in 1980, when he was walking on the oval and noticed workers chipping away a section of the asphalt path, revealing the beautiful brick pavers laid underneath. “And I went into my journalism class that day, and I was complaining out loud, as we all did, and I brought this up. And the professor, who was an older guy, said, ‘Oh, yeah. That’s because of the 1970 riots,’” said Backderf, whose professor went on to explain that the school’s intent was to cover up the bricks to prevent them from being pulled up and used as projectiles in the event of any further campus unrest. “And that led me to this whole incredible story with 3,000 Guardsmen and riots that spilled out into the surrounding neighborhoods and clouds of gas that stretched all the way to Clintonville.”

While the conflicts that inspired the protest movements then and now are different, both are rooted in a call for an end to violence. But the similarities don’t end there. As university administrators called on police to put an end to the encampments over the last week, the brutality on display has been cheered by a subsection of Republican politicians and right-wing pundits, in addition to the blue check crowd on X. Similarly, polls taken in 1970 approved of the deadly actions taken by the National Guard at Kent State – a view that has since shifted given the lens of history. 

“Right after Kent State, 60 percent of Americans thought that was the right thing to do, to shoot students,” Backderf said. “And it’s hard to fathom, but that’s always been the knee-jerk reaction in this country: Call up some violence and that will solve everything. And it solves nothing.”

Back then, Ohio State authorities were also quick to place the blame for the riots on “outside agitators,” as Backderf wrote in a 2015 blog post, and in particular those associated with an emerging Black Power movement, which maintained an active campus presence at the time. Recently, Ohio State officials again set the stage for charges of outsider interference when a spokesman for the school released a statement last week saying that of the three-dozen people arrested, 20 were “not associated with the school,” while providing no additional information.

“And you’re seeing that all over the place. ‘It’s somebody from outside,’” Backderf said. “And it was bullshit in 1970. And it’s bullshit now. These are college kids and [authorities] just can’t tolerate that reality. Or else it’s an easy out for them to bring in the muscle. And they used that at Kent State, too. It was all of these Weathermen who were bused in from Detroit and were combat trained in Cuba – all of this bonkers bullshit they used to justify their overwhelming force. And here we are. And I hope that in Ohio, at least, Kent State remains as a deterrent. 

“[Gov. Mike] DeWine, as big a weasel as he is, I don’t think he wants to be buried next to James Rhodes as the two guys who ordered the on-campus slaughter of unarmed protesters. I mean, there are probably some in the Statehouse who do want that, especially the wackier downstate morons, but I don’t think DeWine will go that route. But, you know, when you get armed snipers on a roof, anything can happen.”

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