Vietnam Stories: Violence in our own streets

Monitor columnist
Friday, October 06, 2017

The segment of the Ken Burns-Lynn Novick documentary on the Vietnam War broadcast on Sept. 26 included accounts of the massacre of students by Ohio National Guard troops on May 1, 1970. Featured prominently was William Schroeder, one of those killed. He was not a protester but a ROTC member nearly 400 feet away from the guardsmen when he was shot.

Billy Schroeder was an Eagle Scout from Troop 306 in Lorain, Ohio. So was I. Billy was a few years younger but we both played hoop and his father, Louis Schroeder, was an adult leader happy to help any kid he could and I liked him. As I would later, Louis Schroeder worked at the local steel mill.

Billy’s death was as senseless as the deaths in Vietnam.

I entered Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, less than an hour’s drive from Kent State, in 1965, unsure of whether I should enlist instead. By my sophomore year that had changed. Don Lasky, a high school classmate who lived across the street from me, was drafted and soon killed in Vietnam. One friend came to Reserve after a tour in Vietnam. He was tough but haunted and drank an awful lot. Two friends who dropped or flunked out returned after serving. One came back with a steel plate in his head and a different personality. The other kicked a heroin habit acquired in Vietnam but though brilliant, stayed high on other drugs most of the time. Neither I nor anyone I knew taunted returning veterans. We were angry at the people prosecuting the war, the ones who were killing and wounding our friends and lying about why.

I kept my student deferment, became active in the civil rights and anti-war movement, and avoided the draft after graduation by teaching in an inner city school whose walls bore bullet holes from the riots that swept the nearby Hough neighborhood a few years earlier. I was with friends in the Euclid Tavern when the first draft lottery was held on Dec. 1, 1970. Selective Service officials drew our fates from a big glass jar. My number was 353. I was safe.

I was in the pool room in Reserve’s student union when news of the massacre reached Cleveland. Students and others quickly shut down the school and blocked Euclid Avenue, the main drag through the city. Police arrived almost instantly to open the road and people ran into the poolroom to grab cues and balls to use as weapons against them. I helped Old Jack, who ran the poolroom, lock up the remaining cues and balls and close the poolroom, then joined the protest on the street.

I’d only just joined the crowd when mounted police, their batons on leather thongs so they could swing them, rode through the street literally cracking heads. I grabbed a girl I didn’t know who was in the path of a cop bearing down on us and ducked into a bus stop. He stopped his horse, leaned over and twirled his baton trying to hit us. It whistled by inches from our faces as we pressed against the back wall. He gave up and rode on. My roommate Kevin wasn’t so lucky. He had noticed that the police all had their badges pinned on backwards so their numbers couldn’t be read. He recognized Cleveland’s police chief and yelled “Hey chief, how come your men have their badges turned around?” The chief ignored him. He then yelled “Hey Chief Pig, how come their badges are turned around?” The chief pointed at him and several cops tackled Kevin. We picked him up at the jail in the morning. He was a bloody mess, and Billy Schroeder was dead.

Ralph Jimenez, a Monitor editorial writer, lives in Concord.