The open carry standoff in October mirrors the state of our nation with steadfast views, uncertainty and distrust .
Words by Megan Ayscue | Photos by Sophia DelCiappo
“Your rights do not end where their feelings begin.”
Ryan Fournier, the national chair of Students for Trump, shares this sentiment with gun rights activists in the parking lot next to Satterfield Hall. The group of roughly 70 stand with posters in hand and many with guns slung over backs.
It’s a bright, autumn Saturday on Sept. 29, minutes before the start of the Open Carry Walk on Kent State’s main campus. At the edge of the lot, with their backs to the Student Center, dozens of police troopers wait for the group to move.
As the walk starts, moving from the lot, across the street and toward the Esplanade, a river of 200 or more counterprotestors — a mix of students, Black Lives Matter members and Antifa — flows from the student center where they had gathered. Shouts begin with “Go home, commies” and “Stop crossing my campus.”
More counterprotestors run alongside those walking, some running farther ahead and in front of the group, followed by even more. “Let’s go!” “Get close!” “Lock arms!” Within mere minutes of the walk beginning, counterprotestors halt the procession between Bowman and Olson Hall.
When the counterprotestors do not give any sign of allowing the walk to continue, police troopers surrounding the walkers don riot gear, pulling their face shields down. The only thing separating the two groups is this line of police. Some counterprotestors stand in their own line with linked arms while others stand farther back around the sides of the walkers. Together, they chant “No Trump, No KKK, No Fascist USA. No Trump. No KKK, No Fascist USA.”
Soon the police begin a chant of their own:
“Move back. Move back. Move back,” as the officers attempt to break the human wall of counter protestors and clear the brick path.
The counter protestors hold their ground. The standoff begins, on campus and in the country.
Before the standoff, before the walk, before there was even mention of a rally, there was Kaitlin Bennett.
Bennett graduated Kent State in May when she also posted her graduation photos online. These photos show her walking across campus, the Kent State water fountain to her left, an AR-10 strapped to her back and a graduation cap in hand reading, “come and take it.”
These photos were captioned with “Now that I graduated from @KentState, I can finally arm myself on campus. I should have been able to do so as a student- especially since 4 unarmed students were shot and killed by the government on this campus. #CampusCarryNow.” They’ve gathered nearly 7,500 comments, 9,000 retweets and 38,000 likes since initially posted, a rise from the 3,000 they originally received. Bennett and these photos gathered attention from the likes of the Washington Post and USA Today, BBC and CBS.
Currently, Bennett works at a gun shop.
Even before the rise in notoriety, Bennett had no problem voicing her views, especially in regards to a students’ right to carry on campus.
“I went to Bowling Green State University my first year as a freshman,” Bennet says. “After I transferred [to Kent State], I started to realize that the conservative voice needed to be heard better on campus.”
Bennet started a chapter of Liberty Hangout, which now has about 20 regular members, at Kent State while she was a student. She also held her first open carry rally before she graduated, before her photos went viral.
“I did the exact same [event] in April with Jeffry Smith from Cincinnati … out there on the K and there was no problem,” she says. “We stood out there for five hours talking to students about gun rights, especially gun rights on campus, and it went perfect. The university didn’t have a problem. It was an unregistered event [and] we had a speaker that day.”
While no guns are allowed inside university buildings, non-students are allowed to open carry on state university grounds — Kent State included. Students, faculty and staff of Kent State, however, cannot have any guns on university property.
When the September rally was planned, it was planned in a similar way to April, with both speakers and open carry of guns. This time around, however, there was a lot more attention, both from the university and the public. Kaitlin shared and promoted the event on Facebook, and people from all over the country responded from all sides.
“Back in April, I didn’t know about the gun rally until the night before it was going to happen,” says Nathaniel Adams, a graduate student at Kent State. He holds the same sign he held then, a list of mass shooting from Columbine to Douglas High School that killed as few as five and as many as 57 people.
A line of Troopers walks beside the pro-gun activists during their walk down the Esplanade.
Despite the September rally being the same kind of event as the one in April, Bennett claims the university “had a problem with it.”
“I think they don’t want Kent State to be a platform for gun rights,” Bennett says.
While it was still a rally, President Beverly Warren said, “the last thing we need is for all of us to be carrying guns, thinking that we will be safer.”
She also said the rally could continue as long as university rules were followed.
The rally had to be sponsored by an on-campus group. Liberty Hangout agreed to sponsor the event, but the group then received a bill of more than $14,000 in security. The group and Bennett found this to be an unfair amount, which is when the rally became the walk.
The university ended up spending $65,000 on security for the event with more than 300 officers present.
Bennett was not the first to hold an open carry event on Kent State’s campus. In 2016, Smith organized open-carry walks at several Ohio campuses including the University of Akron and Ohio State University. This included about 30 participants and the atmosphere was significantly different.
The group carrying that day in 2016 listened to the story of the May 4 shootings and visited the memorial. They walked across campus with little to no confrontation. Those who opposed the walk were few in number, just about 10, and stood to the side. Some held signs saying “’Flowers are Better than Bullets,’” a quote from Allison Krause as well as other May 4th specific signage.
While those opposing this walk did shout sayings such as “not on my campus,” it was peaceful.
Some of the problems people have with open carry demonstrations at Kent State is the college’s history. On May 4, students were shot and killed by those who had guns on campus. Bringing them back seems disrespectful to some.
“Kent is just not the right place to try and make your point knowing Kent’s history,” says Erin Casenhiser, who went to Kent State Stark. “You want to make your point, and you want to believe in something, even if I disagree with, it that’s fine but … I don’t feel like it’s the right place to do it”
Others found the whole situation frightening.
“A lot of people agree [with the counterprotestors] but didn’t want to come because they felt unsafe with [Bennett’s] policies and the kind of people they would bring in with their weapons,” says Annie King, a student at Kent State, before the walk began. “They didn’t think this would be a safe environment for them so they went home or stayed in their rooms. Like, that just shows how uncomfortable people would be if that’s just a normal thing.”
Her sign reads, “You fear we’ll take your guns but we fear you’ll take our lives.”
A pro-gun activist holds their sign above their head during the walk on September 29th.
Bennett’s father wasn’t a gun owner until about a year ago. He says, “People are normally afraid of something they don’t understand.”
“I was not a gun owner … I would have to say that I probably didn’t like guns. Guns are unforgiving,” he says in the parking lot before the walk, Kaitlin’s AR-10 from her graduation photos slug around his shoulders. “Now that I’m knowledgeable and I’m educated on the firearms, I love them.”
For others, however, the walk wasn’t about the guns themselves but the people carrying them. The biggest counterprotest was started on Facebook by Black Lives Matter Cleveland called No Fascists on Campus. This was in response to Joey Gibson, who was originally supposed to speak at the event.
“They banned cigarettes before they banned Nazis and people carrying guns,” says Lydia, a junior at Kent State who did not want to disclose her last name. “This is my school, not the Nazis’ school. I go here, the Nazis don’t go here.”
Casenhiser echoes this sentiment.
“I will not stand for fascists and white supremacists being in our town,” she says.
Allie Bielinski, who came with Casenhiser to the event, feels similarly.
“Her [having this walk] is supporting white supremacists and Nazis because she has that following and she knows that following and she is letting it happen,” Bielinski says.
Bennett does not associate herself with white supremacists or anything near that label.
“They have said that I am lying about what the event is, that it’s not pro second amendment, it’s actually white supremacy and it’s fascism and it’s literally just gun rights,” Bennett says. “I think they’re trying to grab onto the platform I have been given to get attention for themselves.”
While this walk was different than walks in the past, it is also different than protests of the past. Some of the biggest protests in history came from the anti-war movement in the 1960s and 70s.
The movement began, for the most part, on college campuses as organisations hosted teach-ins to talk and discuss their opposition to the Vietnam War. The war continued to progress, and it was then that marches began. This is what lead to the four killed on Kent’s campus, and this is what lead to nationwide strikes that closed many colleges and universities.
In 1989, students in Beijing began a hunger strike in the attempt to get the government to have a dialogue with them. In the 1940s in Germany, a group called the White Rose Society created leaflets to persuade mostly students and professors to resist the Nazi regime. In all of these cases, action started when dialogue failed.
“The goal of the rally was to talk to students about gun rights and especially gun rights on campus,” Bennett says. “When I have the chance to talk to people in person, I don’t think I’ve ever spoken to somebody that wanted a real dialogue that left with their heels more dug into their idea. I think that every person that has wanted meaningful dialogue with me on campus since I took my pictures has left the conversation with an open mind or maybe even a changed mind.”
A counter protestor holds their sign saying “No Fascists on campus” during the counter rally on the “K” on September 29th.
At the walk in September, dialogue was hard to find. While many of those who attended for the walk were peaceful, it was many of the counterprotestors who were brash.
“I feel like [this kind of event] bring out the worst in people, but also the best,” says Ben Sandvick, a sophomore majoring in integrated science. “I saw one sign I really liked that said ‘Arms are for Hugging,’ and so I was a fan of that one. But then you see ones likes ‘Gun Owners Fuck Off’ and things like that just inflaming everything around, making it more unsafe for everyone.”
The protestors were not able to complete their walk. After the standoff, the protestors walked back to the parking lot, the troopers maintaining space between the groups. They were only able to walk a few hundred feet total. In this way, the counter protestors felt they won. Because the counter protestors stopped the event and many focused on yelling about “fascists” and “neo-Nazis,” the protestors also felt they won.
Four people were arrested from the event, none of them students.
Despite everything that happened, Bennett does not plan on going anywhere. In fact, she wants to return to Kent State, hoping for more dialogue than the “walk” was able to give.
“I will come back in November and we’re going to request the Kiva for me to speak and be able to talk to students that way,” Bennett says. She hopes to have an open discussion with students about the message she’s maintained before her photos went viral: campus should be open carry. Because the event will be inside a university building, there will not be any guns allowed.