KENT — Shiloh Whitmore pointed toward the men carrying rifles Saturday afternoon and said “guitar.”

The 1½-year-old toddler smiling in his stroller must have mistaken the slings holding the firearms as guitar straps, said his mom, Christa Whitmore, 27.

They were standing on the edge of about 150 gun-rights activists who had assembled in a parking lot before an open-carry walk onto Kent State University’s campus.

About twice as many protesters and nearly as many law enforcement officers — many in riot gear — waited to greet them in what would turn out to be a tense but largely peaceful day.

Christa Whitmore said she once would have been among the protesters. She was a member of the Occupy movement for economic and social inequality, she said.

But Whitmore was naive about guns and her safety then, she said.

Now she has a concealed carry permit and she brought Shiloh to campus to learn more about Kaitlin Bennett’s push to allow students, faculty and staff to carry guns on Ohio public university campuses.

Bennett, a recent KSU graduate, has tried to position herself as the foil to David Hogg, a Florida student who survived the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in February. Hogg quickly became the youthful face for gun-control advocacy on television, social media and events.

Bennett — known for her long, blond, curly hair and provocative pictures with guns — has ended up on Fox News and in national media representing the opposite view.

“I’m a very small girl,” Bennett told the crowd Saturday, urging them in an equally small voice to gather closer, reaching out specifically to her mom and family.

“Our rights don't end because we step on their property,” she told the crowd, which cheered.

About 2:35 p.m. — after reminding people to keep their handguns holstered and their rifles in slings — Bennett began leading her group toward Summit Street and the campus.

Protesters — some hiding their faces behind scarves and hoodies — who had gathered on Risman Plaza, meanwhile, began heading toward Summit Street.

“Go home, you Commies!” one of the gun advocates shouted as protesters approached.

Protesters — a diverse group that represented Antifa, Black Lives Matter, other groups and people without affiliation — shouted back as drones and a police helicopter whirred overhead, looking for flash points of trouble.

Hundreds of law enforcement personnel tried to build a wall of officers between the groups then and throughout the afternoon.

Laura and David Hill were part of the opposition.

“I’m terrified of open carry on campus,” Laura Hill said.

Last week, she saw a man walking a German shepherd through their Kent neighborhood with a handgun holstered on his hip.

He was wearing a neon-green Kent State T-shirt, and she though he might be a police officer but wasn’t sure.

“I called 911,” she said.

The dispatcher told her openly carrying guns is legal in Ohio, but said officers would check it out.

Hill — carrying a large sign that said, “Disarm Hate” — doesn’t know what happened to the man, but she keeps a picture of him on her phone in case law enforcement ever needs it.

May 4 shootings

Tension crested between the gun advocates and protesters at Bowman Hall and the Lefton Esplanade.

Kent State issued a campus alert advising people to avoid the area, which is about a two-minute walk from the site of the university’s May 4, 1970, Ohio National Guard shooting that killed four and wounded nine.

That happened during another cultural divide, when the country was split over the Vietnam War instead of domestic firearms and their regulation.

Given that historical scar, some opposed to Saturday’s gun walk said they were particularly upset that Bennett chose to advocate for guns on Kent’s campus.

Bennett last week told a Beacon Journal reporter that Kent State’s campus was the perfect location to talk about gun rights, calling the shootings “government tyranny.”

If students and protesters would have had firearms, the shootings would have never happened, she said.

Alan Canfora, one of the nine shot in 1970, said Bennett has it backward.

"The primary lesson of the 1970 Kent State tragedy is nonviolent conflict resolution should be maximized to prevent bloodshed,” he said.

“It's outrageous for her to mention the Kent State massacre,” Canfora said, “while she now seems to advocate armed confrontations on campuses — especially at Kent State where tragedy resulted from gun violence now opposed by the vast majority of citizens.”

Security high

Kent State President Beverly Warren on Saturday praised law enforcement — which included hundreds of officers from area police departments, campus police from across the state and the State Highway Patrol — for keeping the peace.

No one was seriously injured, the campus wasn’t damaged and only four people were arrested. Each faces charges of disorderly conduct, and one faces an additional charge of assaulting a police officer.

Early reports indicated that all were protesting the gun walk and none of those arrested was a student, Kent State officials said.

About 3:30 p.m., officers carried a limp protester with a scrape on his head out of the crowd and to the sidewalk in front of Olson Hall.

He was among the protesters hiding their faces. A woman — entirely covered, save for her huge blue eyes — began screaming hysterically that he was unresponsive.

Officers assured her he was fine.

Bennett, meanwhile, had enough. She blamed protesters for preventing any meaningful dialogue and led her group back to the parking lot where it first gathered.

Some protesters followed, and police ringed the lot as both groups slowly cleared out.

At 3:40 p.m., a University Hospitals cart motored through campus and stopped in front of Olson Hall to pick up the injured man.

A few students had gathered to watch the drama. Some said the man was clearly faking being hurt, as was his friend screaming hysterically.

It turned out the protester did only have a scrape, university officials said. But he was one of the four arrested.

Before the hospital cart wheeled the protester away, someone in Olson Hall turned some speakers outside and made a musical plea for detente with classic rock.

“I seen ya around for a long, long time; I really remember you when you drank my wine,” War’s 1975 hit washed across what remained of the gun walk and protest.

“Why can’t we be friends? Why can’t we be friends? Why can’t we be friends?”

 

Amanda Garrett can be reached at 330-996-3725 or agarrett@thebeaconjournal.com. The Record-Courier contributed to this report.