Interview by Terry Messman
Street Spirit: You just returned from Afghanistan last month where you were living with the Afghan Peace Volunteers. Many people, even in activist circles, are no longer focusing on that war-torn nation. Why does Afghanistan remain such a critical focus of your work?
Kathy Kelly: I have a friend, Milan Rai, who had coordinated Voices in the Wilderness in the U.K. and is now the editor of Peace News. Mil once said, “One of the ways to stop the next war is to continue to tell the truth about this war.”
So how do we tell the truth about our wars? I think if the U.S. public understood the choices that are being made in their name — and if the public understood those choices outside the filter of the forces that are marketing those wars — eventually there might be a hope of noncooperation with the wars.
So Afghanistan is still very, very important in terms of the choices confronting the people of the United States. But also, just on the purely ethical matter of not turning away from people who are dying, we owe reparations to the people of Afghanistan for the suffering that has been caused.
Spirit: You wrote recently that thousands of Afghan children have no home and are forced to live on the streets or in squalid refugee camps, and that poverty and hunger are widespread. For those who have not been to Afghanistan, can you give us a picture of the conditions faced by civilians after all these years of war?
Kelly: On a recent trip during the winter when it’s very cold in Kabul, a youngster came in the door. The child’s name was Safar and he was shaking so convulsively, I put my arm around him, just trying to calm him down. When he turned towards me, I could see that he had a welt across his cheek. He was a shoeshine boy. He was wearing plastic slippers with no socks. He had no earmuffs. He had thin pants, and was completely inadequately dressed for this weather.
Because he’s a shoeshine boy, he has to thaw his hands out because it’s so cold. So he had gone to a barbecue spot and started warming his hands over the fire. I think, understandably, the owner of the shop who was making the kabob thought he was trying to steal something. But, unacceptably, the man hit him over the face with a hot skewer and that’s what had caused this bright-red welt.
Safar is one of 60,000 children who are relied upon to support their families. The families do not want to send their kids out into the streets to shine shoes or sell chewing gum, but they have no choice.
And they don’t really want to come and live in Kabul when they’ve been living in the provinces. But if a United States drone is flying over your area, you’re at risk even if the drone doesn’t shoot a missile, because the Taliban might say, “Somebody in your compound must have given information to the United States.”
And maybe it’s not the Taliban. Maybe it’s another armed group, another armed militia. The United States has been pouring weapons into Afghanistan and other countries have been pouring weapons in. So a tribe will say, “We’re not safe here.” And they’ll pick up and run, and the overcrowded cities can’t accommodate them.
Spirit: There have been news reports about civilian deaths caused by all the rockets, shells and grenades the U.S. has left on the ground, undetonated.
Kelly: Recently in the Washington Post, Kevin Sieff wrote very movingly about how people who normally would go out and graze their animals in the fields, can’t go because they might get blown up by the unexploded ordinance that the United States has dropped on the firing ranges where they’re just practicing, and the shells and explosives just fall on the grounds. It’s made the land unusable.
Their farming lands are not any longer usable, so the people can’t plant crops, and they can’t graze their sheep and their goats, so what are they going to eat? They come into the already overcrowded cities that have never been structured to accommodate them and they live in the most squalid, awful refugee camps. It just gets worse and worse there. There’s even a chance of a reoccurrence of polio now. There’s no way health care workers can follow nomadic refugees being bounced around from camp to camp.
Spirit: You have charged that, while Afghan civilians live in terrible poverty, the U.S. is spending $2.1 million per year for every soldier stationed in Afghanistan, according to a 2014 report by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
Kelly: On this last trip, I was in a camp where fire had broken out. Mercifully, the women just kept repeating, “No one was killed, no one was killed.” But all of their belongings, what little they had, were destroyed, and they’re freezing out in the cold with nobody to come and help them.
Nearby, there’s a U.S. military base that is huge and sprawling. You could drive for 20 minutes and not reach the end of the base. The trucks are going all day long, bringing food and fuel and water and supplies. Now, of course, you can’t leave the troops hungry, but how can it be that U.S. troops are in a situation where it costs 2.1 million dollars to keep one solider in Afghanistan for one year?
Spirit: The obvious question is why the U.S. continues to spend that amount on the military instead of trying to create a lasting peace by helping the people of Afghanistan rebuild their country.
Kelly: We could have, over all these years, said to people in Afghanistan, “We are sorry for what the soldiers did. They should never have destroyed your orchards. Let us help you plant saplings. Let us help clean your irrigation ditches. Let us help you plant crops so you won’t have to import food. This is something we, as a people, want to do.” We could have said, “We’re sorry that your land got ruined by planting poppies for opium, and we want to help you plant other crops.”
Instead, 93 percent of the world’s opium is now coming from Afghanistan. You’d think that the drones flying overhead might happen to notice convoys carrying many truckloads of opium. The roads are controlled by Taliban drug lords and warlords, and even with U.S. drones flying overhead 24-7, 93 percent of the world’s opium comes from Afghanistan.
[Editor’s note: The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has reported that 93 percent of the world’s opium comes from Afghanistan, and the money is funding Taliban military operations.]
Spirit: You stay with the Afghan Peace Volunteers during your trips to the region. What is the nature of their work?
Kelly: Part of their work involves living together inter-ethnically. These are youngsters who have every reason to feel high levels of retaliation and to feel a high desire for revenge. Reasons like: “My father was killed by the Taliban.” Or, “While our family fled the Taliban, your family looted our household.” Or, “My brother was killed right before my eyes by members of your family.”
It cuts that close. So they have been struggling to learn one another’s languages and cultures and live together inter-ethnically, and it’s difficult. They also want to say to people who live in countries — like my country — that are part of the warmaking: “We would like to be in touch with you. We want to have a dialogue with you.” So they welcome us right into their homes and we live together.
They also try to channel to others whatever resources have been made available to them. So the Duvet Project has been very, very important — the making of heavy blankets by groups of women.
The women of the sewing cooperative are paid as well by the project, and that has been very important to them. This last year, they made 2,000 duvets and those are distributed free of charge to the neediest people, because these kids are like little social workers.
They bring these duvets to the women who are the least cared for, who are neglected because they don’t have anyone to get an income for them. Especially the young women have been brilliant in organizing this. It’s been so edifying to see.
Spirit: You’ve described harsh conditions facing women in Afghanistan, yet Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright claim that the U.S. has created better conditions for women and children there. From what you’ve seen, is that true?
Kelly: One out of every 11 women in Afghanistan dies in childbirth, a torturous way to die. The lifespan for an Afghan woman is between 42 and 47 years of age, on average. And then they talk about how they’re educating girls! Only six percent of Afghan young women are in a school by the end of the year. What kind of a track record is it when you can say that six percent of girls were in school by the end of the year?
The U.S. subsidized the Taliban and the U.S. exacerbated the war just by its very presence. There doesn’t seem to be a limit to the availability of new recruits, both within Afghanistan and, quite likely, from Pakistan. Even General McChrystal, former head of the International Security Assistance Forces, said that the arrogance of the drone attacks jeopardizes the security of people in the U.S. because it increases the likelihood that people will fight back.
[Editor’s note: General Stanley McChrystal, the former commander of International Security Assistance Forces and U.S. Forces Afghanistan, said, “What scares me about drone strikes is how they are perceived around the world. The resentment created by American use of unmanned strikes is much greater than the average American appreciates. They are hated on a visceral level, even by people who have never seen one.”]
So when they want to fight back, they can join the Taliban or any of the other fighting groups. But it doesn’t secure food or water or warm clothes for women and children in Afghanistan. If anything, the breadwinners are off and running and possibly coming back maimed or killed — and then there is no breadwinner.
But you can get U.S. soldiers stationed over in Kandahar, Afghanistan, having these Skype phone calls with sixth-grade girls in Baltimore, Maryland, covered by local newspapers in their Military Life sections, and these guys can make the claim that at least we’ve made things better for girls in Afghanistan.
Well, the sixth-graders in Baltimore aren’t going to be able to confront them on that. And the people in the United States who are making money because they’re creating helicopters for combat brigade units flying over the mountainside with their protruding weapons killing people in cold blood — they’re not going to contest that claim.
Spirit: Who is going to contest it?
Kelly: We try. And the Afghan Peace Volunteers are, because they get on our Skype phone calls and they put out their videos and they host internationals and they really do their best to keep on trying to put things out that the world might not otherwise understand.
Spirit: They’re finding that computer technologies are an effective way to make their voices heard around the world?
Kelly: Yes, they are using Skype and the Internet and Facebook. I find it all kind of an annoyance, to be honest, because there’s so much sports and entertainment and distractions available, but I find that on what limited Internet usage time they have, they do try to use that effectively. I guess you have to keep up.
Spirit: Can you describe how Afghan Peace Volunteers are helping children attend classes by providing oil, rice and clothing to their families, so the kids can reduce their working hours on the street?
Kelly: It’s so heartwarming to see little boys, as proud as can be, wearing a blue shirt with a crease in it because it has just come out of a new package. It’s also very heartwarming to see kids like Safar, who is shivering from the cold, wearing socks and a jacket and gloves.
It’s good to see the young kids come over and get a huge can of oil and a big bag of rice for their families to make up for what the children might have earned out on the streets selling, and it’s good to see them starting to learn two times two is four and starting to catch up because they all need remedial help with studies in order to be able to enter school.
So it’s a whole new life of hope and dignity for the entire family, really.
Spirit: How did the Afghan Peace Volunteers respond to the Martin Luther King Center’s “Choose Nonviolence” campaign? The King Center recently asked people to ring a bell to show their resistance to poverty and discrimination.
Kelly: Seamstresses and students and Afghan Peace Volunteers and some of the young women that were coordinating the various projects all thought together about why this call was issued. They know about Dr. King and they care about him.
So we got a lot of paper and markers and started to write down the circumstances of killing that had just gone on in the past week. It was across the board. There were Afghan policemen that had been killed, there were U.S. civilians that had been killed, there were Europeans killed, there were Taliban fighters killed and there were Afghan civilians killed. It was just a bloody, bloody week.
So they assembled that list. They didn’t have a bell and it really would be too expensive to go out and buy a bell, so Zekerullah got an old paint bucket and managed to bore a hole in the lid of it, and then he suspended a piece of rope with the heaviest spoon he could find so it sort of made a “thud” rather than the peal of a bell. We formed a circle. With each clunk of the spoon in this makeshift bell, the names of those who had died were read.
Spirit: You said that the young people you work with in Afghanistan know and care about Martin Luther King. How were they influenced by Dr. King?
Kelly: The first time I ever got the hang of who these kids really were was in January 2010 when we were fasting in Washington, D.C., with the Witness Against Torture. Bob Cooke, who is prominent in Pax Christi, asked us if we realized that there were young people fasting with us in Afghanistan, living on a mountainside in a tent in the cold, and they wanted very much to be in touch with us.
So we all sat down to a Skype phone call and it was a wonderful call. We reached them on their cell phone. Carmen Trotta of the New York Catholic Worker asked me, “It’s Martin Luther King’s birthday on January 15. Do you think I should tell these kids about King?”
I said, “Yeah, go ahead.” So as Carmen starts to tell these kids about Martin Luther King, there was a commotion because they had been trying to decide which one of them would deliver a memorized quote from Dr. King’s speeches — by candlelight in the dark in the little tent. I thought then that I really wanted to meet these young people.
Spirit: That’s an amazing demonstration that the words and example of Martin Luther King still have such an impact on young people in Afghanistan today.
Kelly: Well, in 2014, they now have an entire shelf of their library in their home dedicated to King, Gandhi, Noam Chomsky, Barbara Deming and Dorothy Day. They get it right away that people were taking significant risks in order to stand up to people that were abusing their basic human rights.
So they’ve watched videos on the civil rights movement and they’ve benefited from the “A Force More Powerful” videos on nonviolent social change that David Hartsough and others have sent over. They’ve had discussions and tried to share the knowledge that they have gained with other groups, and, of course, they’re able to make the connection with the Muslim Gandhi, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan.
So it’s a very exciting time in that regard because the Skype technology allows them to connect with young people at Jeju Island [off the coast of South Korea], who are having demonstrations every morning trying to prevent construction of a U.S. military base.
Spirit: Do you feel that the insights and strategies of nonviolent movements are being replicated all around the globe, maybe more than ever before in history?
Kelly: It’s a very interesting time because, I think, as people begin to connect and unite their various struggles, the idea of the 99 percent and the 1 percent becomes more tantalizing. As people start to see that if we only focus on our part, which is only a tiny fraction of the 99, then we aren’t the 99. But if we really find ways to link ourselves, there could actually be some greatly needed change in the distribution of resources and the socioeconomic disparity.
Those who have lived under the bomb, those who have cowered while they hear the gunshots and the battles raging, when people in that situation can say, “I don’t want retaliation and I don’t want revenge,” then we start to see nonviolence teaching the rest of us because of the courage people are catching from one another.
Spirit: We’ve been told that the U.S. military plans to leave Afghanistan at the end of this year, in December 2014. Should we believe that is going to happen or do you think that the U.S. military will remain entrenched?
Kelly: Well, I think we have to begin to learn about the 21st century military, and let go of the idea of reliance on big sprawling bases. With the kind of retooling that involves combining the drone surveillance and the Joint Special Operations commandos — these are the Navy Seals, the Green Berets, the Army Rangers and Marine commandos — then, that grouping can, with the drone surveillance, achieve the kind of control that the United States wants in order to have geopolitical influence in the region and, if they are able to accomplish it, build pipelines and railways and roadways that would function for the extraction of resources.
This would mean that the U.S. would then control the pricing, and control very precious resources. Underneath the Hindu Kush mountains in Afghanistan are lithium and rare earth elements used in our cell phones and our computers. And surrounding the Caspian Sea basin is a very rich supply of natural gas and fossil fuel.
Whoever controls the pricing and flow of those resources gets an economic edge. The United States does not want China or Russia to have that economic edge. So think about the Lawrence of Arabia stories. If somebody is trying to build a pipeline, and somebody comes out and blows it up, then that’s a problem.
But if you’ve got drone surveillance, and if you’ve got people giving you information about who might be moving where with a weapon or with an intent to blow up what you’re trying to construct, then you can get that upper hand. And I believe the United States is remaining in Afghanistan with nine bases, three major airfields, several big prisons, interrogations, night raids, assassinations, and death squads.
They can do that with mercenaries. And the former Blackwater, now called Academi, is building a huge camp called Camp Integrity just outside of Kabul. So they won’t need the big bases. Almost certainly, whoever wins the runoff in the election will sign the bilateral security agreement and there are elites from Afghanistan, Europe and the United States who will benefit handsomely, and the warlike situation will go on. It’s preposterous to think that the warlords and the drug lords are saying, “We’re done with our control over Afghanistan’s resources and people.
Spirit: When you go to Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine, why is it important for you to live with people in the war zones?
Kelly: The truism we’ve been taught is that where you stand determines what you see. I could point specifically to Gaza. I was there in 2009 during Operation Cast Lead. [Editor’s note: Operation Cast Lead was a three-week battle between Israeli and Palestinian forces in the Gaza Strip from Dec. 27, 2008, to Jan. 18, 2009.]
A bomb was exploding once every 11 minutes, from 11:00 at night to 1:00 in the morning and again from 3:00 until 6:00. Once every 11 minutes, a big explosion.
Now, I know nothing about ballistics. Zero. But I started to recognize when it was a Hellfire missile fired from an Apache helicopter or when it was a 500-pound bomb dropped from an F-16. The way I learned that was because the children taught it to me. Children — they weren’t even teenagers yet — taught me how to identify the bombs falling over our heads.
Then, after the ceasefire was declared, I was in the hospital with a doctor whose hands are shaking while he’s taking a call from a farmer who is saying, “Our oranges are covered with some white, sticky substance, and we don’t know what it is, but it makes our hands itch.”
The doctor is trying to calmly tell him, “Don’t touch those oranges again. Wash your hands. And don’t sell the oranges.”
Then he takes me to visit a woman whose arms are bandaged up, and she has actually been hit by a tank-fired missile that was firing white phosphorous into her home. It was so nightmarish I didn’t quite believe it, but I asked a taxi driver to take me to her home and I could see the horrific damage. I got my notes to someone at the L.A. Times and they wrote a brilliant article on their front page.
So it is important to go and try to learn what you can. The disproportionate use of force against the civilian population is a war crime, a crime against humanity, and I think it should be reported.
Spirit: You helped organize delegations that brought medicine to civilians in Iraq as a way of nonviolently resisting U.S. economic sanctions. How did you become involved in organizing that campaign in defiance of the sanctions?
Kelly: George Lakey was doing a peace training in Chicago in 1995 at Christmas time. Most of us at that training had been to Iraq in 1991 as part of a Gulf Peace Team. So we knew a lot, compared to most Americans. We also knew that Sister Anne Montgomery and Sister Eileen Storey and Jim Douglass had been going over to Iraq and coming back and saying that it was really bad over there. They were telling people about the consequences of the economic sanctions.
I’m not proud of this at all, but sometimes Sister Anne or Sister Eileen would call me and I would be afraid to answer the phone because I knew they were going to tell me about Iraq when I was taking care of my aging Dad and I was supposed to be a part of these actions about nuclear disarmament. And I’m not keeping my head above water about anything, so how could I take on more?
At this time, we also had the George Lakey workshop asking us to record ourselves talking about what we would do if we took action about a serious problem in the world. So Anne Montgomery and I and a few others took on the issue of the sanctions against Iraq.
On January 15, 1996, 12 of us wrote to the Office of Foreign Assets Control of the U.S. Treasury Department saying our plan was to break the economic sanctions as often as we could, and that we would do this openly and publicly, and that we would bring medicine and medical relief supplies to Iraq. By that time, we had 300 additional signers.
Boy, we got a letter back right away from the Office of Foreign Assets Control saying, “You keep this up, and you will risk 12 years in prison, a million-dollar fine, and a $250,000 administrative penalty.”
So then, we sent that letter out to our 300 signers and asked them to let us know if they were still on board, and 80 people were still on board. So those 80 people were the beginning, really, of Voices in the Wilderness. We gave ourselves that name, and we opened a bank account.
In March 1996, the first five-member Voices in the Wilderness delegation traveled to Iraq. We stuffed in our duffel bags whatever medicine, antibiotics, vitamins and medical relief supplies that people would donate to us.
Spirit: Since you had told the U.S. government in advance that you were going to take medicine to Iraq, did they try to prevent you from going?
Kelly: No. We went to Jordan by plane and nobody’s going to stop you from going to Jordan because you’re not violating any laws. We held a press conference before we left every time we went and we held a press conference when we came back. We were always open and public. They can’t stop you from going to Jordan. Then we traveled by vehicle to Iraq.
At that time, it was always a very, very difficult kind of interaction. We didn’t want to be at all subservient to the aims of a cruel and brutal dictatorship. But at the same time, we couldn’t walk away from the bedsides of dying children, and say, “Well, it’s really too complicated. We can’t do anything.” So we did our best. If you wait until you’re perfect, you’ll wait a very long time. It was always a campaign with an inherent flaw.
Spirit: The stated purpose of the economic sanctions against Iraq was to weaken Saddam Hussein’s hold on power. Since you refer to Hussein as a cruel and brutal dictator, why were you acting in resistance to the sanctions?
Kelly: We could see clearly that the sanctions actually strengthened the government of Saddam Hussein. That was true. If you want to isolate a cruel and abusive dictator, then strengthen the country’s social services, strengthen its education, and strengthen the possibility of civil society staying in touch with people outside the country.
But the sanctions isolated civil society, ended education for all practical purposes, and cut off any kind of social services so that people became more dependent on the cruel and brutal dictator.
So we could see all that. We didn’t come out and say publicly, “Saddam Hussein is a cruel and brutal dictator.” We would never have been allowed into the country and anybody that helped us would have been killed.
Spirit: Did the U.S. government ever press charges against Voices in the Wilderness for violating the sanctions?
Kelly: They would bring us into court with some regularity. It was curious because at one point there was a $50,000 fine. I thought, “What are you going to take — my contact lenses?” I just had to laugh. I mean, I haven’t paid a dime of taxes to the U.S. government as a war tax refuser since 1980. So there is nothing they could take from me. The people that would go over were in the same boat. So good luck collecting from them!
Spirit: But as it turned out, they did fine your group $20,000, didn’t they?
Kelly: Yeah, they finally took us into court. And I think Condoleezza Rice inadvertently might have saved us. This is speculation on my part, but this much is true. Chevron settled out of court, acknowledging that they had paid money under the table to Saddam Hussein in order to get very lucrative contracts for Iraqi oil.
Condoleezza Rice was the international liaison for Chevron while it was paying money under the table to get these lucrative contracts. So when we finally had our day in court, Sen. Carl Levin’s staffers were still digging up this information and it was beginning to become public evidence that Chevron, Odin Marine Inc., Mobil and Coastal Oil had all been paying money for these oil contracts under the table to Saddam Hussein.
So there were big fish in the pond that broke the sanctions and there were little fish in the pond that broke the sanctions. I think some of the big fish said, “That is one hot potato. You drop that hot potato as fast as you can, and don’t make a big deal because those people are little fish but they’re mouthy little fish.”
So they never tried to collect a dime from us. The money was sitting there.
Spirit: Well, what exactly did happen to you when the U.S. government took you to court for violating the sanctions?
Kelly: We were found guilty and fined $20,000. Federal Judge John Bates wrote in his legal opinion that those who disobey an unjust law should accept the penalty willingly and lovingly.
Spirit: Unbelievable! A federal judge lectures you about lovingly accepting this unjust fine using the words of Martin Luther King?
Kelly: Yes. We said to Judge Bates, “If you want to send us to prison, we will go, willingly and lovingly. We’ve done that before already. But if you think we will pay a fine to the U.S. government, then we ask you to imagine that Martin Luther King would have ever said, ‘Coretta get the checkbook.’ We are not going to pay one dime to the U.S. government which continues to wage warfare.” At that time, supplemental spending bills appeared every year, sometimes two or three times a year, and congressional representatives and senators continued to vote yes on those spending bills for the military. So we said, “No, we won’t pay a dime of that fine.”
Spirit: Why did you change your name from Voices in the Wilderness to Voices for Creative Nonviolence?
Kelly: We were Voices in the Wilderness and we had not ended the economic sanctions. That was the greatest disappointment of my adult life. We tried hard but we didn’t succeed. So we began to question continuing to use the name of a campaign that didn’t succeed.
Voices in the Wilderness was a campaign to end military and economic warfare against Iraq. We had begun doing other work for peace in other countries, and we started to think that maybe we should think about a name change.
Spirit: A name chosen to reflect your broader focus?
Kelly: Yes, there was a lot of discussion of a lot of factors and we came up with a new name: Voices for Creative Nonviolence. And people decided to go ahead with it.
Spirit: Now, many years later, there is also a Voices for Creative Nonviolence UK and they say they were inspired by your example.
Kelly: Maya Evans has been a good friend for many years. She came as an 18-year-old intern to work with us one summer. She and I have lived every December for the past three years with the Afghan Peace Volunteers. They’re a wonderful group. There are wonderful activists over in England.
Spirit: How does it feel to know that you helped plant the seeds that inspired peace work in England?
Kelly: It’s all mutual. It was nice of Maya to say that we encouraged them, but it’s all mutual.
Spirit: Long before you ever formed Voices for Creative Nonviolence, you did a creative nonviolent action in 1988 when you were arrested for planting corn at a U.S. nuclear missile silo, as a symbol of converting swords into plowshares.
Kelly: Well, 150 Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles [Minuteman ICBMs] surrounded Kansas City and there were 1,000 buried in the Midwest, the heartland where grains are grown. A number of people from Milwaukee, Madison, Chicago and Kansas City got together over the course of a year, very much guided by a very talented facilitator, Brother Bob Bossie and his brother Paul. We felt that we couldn’t any longer watch what was happening to Plowshares activists who would get very long prison sentences, and not try to take some accompanying action, so we decided to try planting corn at the missile silos.
Spirit: It was a great symbol. The earth can be used to plant corn to feed people or plant missiles to threaten massive death.
Kelly: It was a great symbol. And as soon as they let us go, we’d go right back out and do it again.
Spirit: Would you climb over the fences surrounding the missile silos and then wait for arrest?
Kelly: Sometimes we’d go over the fences and sometimes we’d pick a lock for elderly people who couldn’t make it over. We would always tell the media, “Meet us at Hardee’s restaurant and we’ll tell you where to go next.” But we always told Whiteman Air Force Base that we’re definitely going to keep doing actions.
We’d go into the silos and wait for arrest. We’d sing songs and say to the soldiers, “We’re not going to cooperate with this arrest, but we certainly mean you no harm.” They were very polite and they’d handcuff us and haul us into the vehicle. One time after an arrest, I was left by myself in handcuffs with one young soldier in a jeep. I don’t last very long in silence. So I asked him, “Do you think the corn will grow?” And he said, “I don’t know, ma’am, but I sure hope so.”
Spirit: Did you get much jail time for these actions?
Kelly: I was sentenced to one year in prison but I only served nine months of it in a maximum-security prison in Lexington, Kentucky.
Spirit: Nine months is a long time to spend in a prison.
Kelly: It was very educational. I was able to learn Spanish. And it suddenly changed the way I would ever be a teacher. I could never walk into a classroom and say, “I’m the teacher and you’re the students and I hold authority over you like I’m the warden or something.” It took the warden out of me. And it gave me more backbone than I’d had before.
Spirit: Why did it give you more backbone?
Kelly: I think because I felt at times, “I’ve got nothing to lose. I’ll stand up to this warden. What is she going to do, shoot me?” I found myself standing up to authority figures and raising my voice. What are they going to do? I’m already in prison. If they put me in solitary confinement, I’ll be happy. I thought that if I can’t make phone calls or can’t have visitors, or can’t have a pen and a pencil, I’ll read books.
Spirit: You didn’t miss your freedom and your life outside the prison?
Kelly: No, not really. It’s all a matter of your attitude. If you go in saying, “I’ve got nine months ahead of me so I’m going to learn as much as I can, and forget about the outside world.” It’s true that during mail call, your heart can jump sometimes. No matter how hard you try to say, “I’m here where I am,” there’s always the pull of the outside world.
But what I learned from the other women, I could never, never have learned if I had been a chaplain or a social worker inside the jail. What you learn when you’re sitting on the bench next to someone who has a jail number just like you have a number is very, very important, and it helped shape my views for a long time.
Spirit: Could you explain a little about what you learned in prison?
Kelly: Well, I learned that the prison was a world of imprisoned beauty. I was meeting people who could have been my sisters-in-law, my next-door neighbors, my colleagues. I learned that there is no mercy and that people get these lengthy, lengthy sentences and they’re cut off from their families.
The main people that threaten us are in the corporation offices and in the well-appointed salons at parties, and they really threaten us. They make weapons. They make alcohol, firearms and tobacco, and arms for the military. They steal from us, and they rob us. And who goes to jail? A woman who can’t get an economic stake in her community unless she agrees to be the lookout for a two-bit drug transaction. And maybe her life is so out of control that she starts to take some drugs. But the remorse and the desire to make a better world for their children are so palpable.
So you have this world of imprisoned beauty and it is almost as though it’s erased from the mindset of the rest of the country. And what I learned to my great shame is that I forgot too, when I left. I started to forget about the women. You drive past that prison, and you know. But the urgency starts to wear down.
Spirit: When I went to jail the first time, I wished that the judge would be sentenced to serve time in his own jail and the media would report on the conditions so the average person would find out what hellholes exist in their quiet little towns. But it’s all out of sight and out of mind, and people don’t see the suffering.
Kelly: George Fox, the Quaker, would challenge the political authorities and the people who were running religious services. He thought they were contrary to the teachings of love your enemies, and love your neighbor, and care for the poor. So George Fox would stand on the bench in the court, and he would challenge it, and he’d start screaming and writhing. That’s why they called them Quakers.
I thought that, one of these days, I want to get on the bench inside a courtroom and raise my voice like George Fox, and say, “Could we look at what color the people are that are making money off of this prison every day? And what color the people are that are going to jail? God, could you help us understand this?”
Spirit: In 2004, you were arrested for trespassing at Fort Benning at what used to be called the School of the Americas, but activists called it the School of Assassins. What is it called now?
Kelly: The Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.
Spirit: An innocuous name for an “Institute” that trained death squads and torturers. What led you to trespass at this Army training base?
Kelly: Graduates of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security have been indicted and convicted of death-squad massacres and assassinations, including assassinations of figures we’ve known including Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, the six Jesuit priests whose brains were blown out, and four missionaries, including three religious women who were tortured, raped and buried in a shallow grave.
These killings were a way of saying to people all across Central and South America: “If you mess with us, look at what we’ll do to your Archbishop. Look what we’ll do to your women missionaries. Look what we’ll do to your Jesuit priests. You think you have a chance?”
The rivers were running red with blood from the various massacres that have been carried out by the people who have graduated from this school. And that just begins to touch the surface of all the ways that the U.S. military and State Department have said to people in Central America: “You are to subordinate yourselves to serve our national interests or we will torture you and eliminate you.”
We can’t look the other way!
Spirit: Recently, you’ve acted in resistance to drone warfare in Nevada, New York State and Whiteman AFB in Missouri. Why has it become so important for you to protest drone warfare?
Kelly: It’s important because the 21st century military is morphing and changing. I think the combination of using drone surveillance, drone attacks, and having advanced special operations commandos in place allows the United States to get the upper hand in critical areas that the U.S. wants to continue controlling. It means that they’re not going to try to emphasize negotiations and diplomacy. They’re not going to try to use words. And they’re going to keep pouring money into military solutions and not put that money into what we really need.
So the drones are a means of gathering so-called intelligence. But, the drones are not sending the intelligence we really need, because the drones will never tell you what it’s like to be a widow in Afghanistan trying to make your way up that mountainside carrying water. The drones will never tell you what it’s like to be a mother carrying a bundle that is the dead body of your starved child. The drones have no way to tell us that. They just give us this cartoonish notion of those bad boys. And somehow, the bad guys, the high-value targets, are surmised to be people that might pose a threat, but there aren’t any questions asked.
The mother of a son killed in Iraq said to me, “They do not ask ‘Who is this? Who is that?’” She knew you’re at least supposed to ask questions before bombing people. She said, “They killed my son, and now I am an old poor woman. Who will bring bread into this house?”
Spirit: Can you describe the protest against drone warfare at Hancock Field Air National Guard Base in DeWitt, New York, in April 2011?
Kelly: I went out to Hancock Field and met with a wonderful group of people — so active, so much singing, so much camaraderie and good will. They’d already done long marches and they had done their homework. We walked from a park to Hancock Field and we crossed the line and laid down as part of a die-in. People put white sheets and roses on those that were lying down. Then we were arrested and taken to the DeWitt County Jail. The arrests at these actions have now caused the entire DeWitt County jail and court system to say that this has got to stop because it’s costing a great deal of money.
It so rattled the military people that the commander of the Air National Guard Base has taken out an order of protection saying that he is at risk — if any of these protesters come anywhere near the base, it’s a personal threat to his safety. So Cynthia Banas, who is 79 years old, said, “But I don’t even know what he looks like!” [prolonged laughter]
Spirit: Voices for Creative Nonviolence organized the Occupation Protest in 2007. Activists from 25 states were arrested for occupying congressional offices. Why did you take the protest to Washington, D.C.?
Kelly: We were very respectful of the many vigils that people engaged in across the country to protest congressional funding of the war in Iraq. But we thought, what if we take those vigils right inside the congressional offices and said, “We’re not going to leave until you assure us that you’re not going to continue to exacerbate the war in Iraq, and put your boss on the phone with us.”
So people across the country did that and it was a very, very good thing. The U.S. Constitution says that Congress shall make no law to abridge the right of people to assemble peacefully for a redress of grievances. So we assembled peacefully for a redress of grievances inside the place where the grievance is being perpetuated. There were many arrests, and of those who changed their votes in the U.S. Congress and Senate, every single one of them was from a place where these nonviolent activists had peacefully assembled. It was a good experiment.
Spirit: You have also been a war tax resister for a long time.
Kelly: I’m a war tax refuser. I don’t give them anything.
Spirit: Oh, you’re not a 50 percent withholder, like many war tax resisters. You’re a 100 percent withholder?
Kelly: Yes, I’m a 100 percent withholder. I think war tax resistance is important but I happen to be a refuser. They haven’t got one dime of federal income tax from me since 1980.
Spirit: Why did you begin refusing to pay federal taxes entirely?
Kelly: I won’t give them any money. I can’t and I won’t. I won’t pay for guns. I don’t believe in killing people. I also don’t want to pay for the CIA, the FBI, the corporate bail-outs or the prison system. But particularly, I began as a war tax refuser. I wouldn’t give money to the Mafia if they came to my door and said, “We’d like you to help pay for our operations.” I’m certainly not going to pay for wars when I’ve tried throughout my adult life to educate people to resist nonviolently.
Spirit: How have you gotten away with not paying federal taxes since 1980? Do you keep your income low?
Kelly: Many years I have lived below the taxable income. But in 1998, someone from the IRS came to my home. I had in some years claimed extra allowances on the W-4 form. And I just don’t file. I haven’t filed since 1980. Now, that’s a criminal offense and they could put me in jail for a long time for that. If I was earning over the taxable income, I would just calculate how many allowances I have to claim so that no money is taken out of my paycheck. It says in the small print on the W-2 form to put down the correct number of allowances so that the correct amount of tax is taken out. Well, that’s easy. The correct amount of tax to take from me is zero, so I just do the math.
Spirit: Why do you think they haven’t come after you?
Kelly: Well, they have come to collect taxes. But I don’t have a savings account, and I don’t own anything. The IRS is like my spiritual director [laughs]. I don’t know how to drive a car, and I’ve never owned any place that I’ve lived in. I just don’t have anything to take.
Spirit: So has the IRS given up on even trying to collect?
Kelly: Once they came out to collect in 1998 when I was taking care of my dear Dad, who was wheelchair-bound, and a bit slumped over in the chair. Dad liked to listen to opera and I had a really awful old record player playing a scratchy record. I had been in the back of the house and I didn’t know she was coming, so I ran down to answer the door while the record player was making such a horrible noise. The apartment was fine but it only had a few sticks of furniture.
The woman asked me if I was going to get a job, and I told her I couldn’t leave my father. Then she asked if I had a bank account, and I said no. She said, “And you don’t own a car?” And I told her I didn’t even know how to drive. Then she just kind of leaned toward me and said, “You know what? I’m just going to write you up as uncollectable.” And I said, “That’s a very good idea.” [laughs] They’ve never tried to collect since. There was just nothing to take! Zero. Nothing.
Spirit: You were the keynote speaker on Good Friday at Livermore Laboratory this year. Why was it important for you to join in resisting Livermore Lab’s role in escalating the nuclear arms race?
Kelly: I greatly admire the people who have never swerved from drawing attention to Livermore Lab. They have given unstintingly of their time, and many are part of a faith-based perspective. I think that we crucify the poorest and neediest among us on the cross of military spending. We care more about our bombs and our bullets and our capacity to have more nuclear weapons than anybody else. We care more about that than we care about people’s ability to have housing and food and education. We will pursue our attacks against enemies, even though we say we’re a Christian nation, and that’s the dominant religion.
But I think the real religion in this country is shopping, and the ability to keep acquiring goods at cut-rate prices. One of the ways we can do that is by aiming our nuclear weapons at other countries and saying, “Look what we’ve got. You think you can stand up to us. You think we won’t use our weapons against you.”
We have a right, and a responsibility, to claim our right not to kill. So I go to Livermore to study the scriptures, and listen to the hymns, and be in solidarity with people who claim their right not to kill.
Spirit: Some see nonviolence as a political tactic or strategy, while others see it as a way of life. What does nonviolence mean to you?
Kelly: I think it means every day, trying to do your best to live more simply, to share the earth’s resources, to find ways to be of service rather than to be part of dominance, and always to either be in support of, or active with, campaigns of nonviolent resistance to evil and injustice. Sometimes it means going to court and jail, sometimes it entails going into a war zone. But there are many, many ways to engage in nonviolent direct action.
Spirit: You’ve been involved in delivering medical supplies to Iraq, planting corn on a nuclear missile silo, doing war tax resistance, caring for your ailing father, and living in war zones in the Middle East. How did your understanding of nonviolence lead you to be involved in these very diverse kinds of actions?
Kelly: I think the first question we must ask is something Gandhi pointed us to: How does our action affect the most impoverished person in the world? If that is our rudder or guideline, it becomes much easier to make decisions about how to act in solidarity.
Spirit: I agree that Gandhi’s question about how our actions affect the poorest person is the very heart of it all. How did it guide your decisions in taking stands?
Kelly: If you’re wondering what you’re going to do, and you’re asking about people who are hungry and cold or at risk of being tortured, imprisoned, bombed, marginalized, then it will really affect how you decide to act and use whatever resources you may have. That is so important. Also, to whatever extent we can choose service over dominance — especially coming from the privileged place that we come from — this can help us nonviolently interact with our world.
And we need to have, as sort of the spiritual tone of our movement, a delight in not letting inconvenience get in the way of acting in accord with our deepest beliefs. I think most people deeply believe that killing is wrong. And most people deeply believe in caring for children, including their own grandchildren. So how can we make sure that inconvenience won’t get in the way of acting in accord with our deepest beliefs? If people deeply believe in caring for their grandchildren, and they’d like their grandchildren to have a planet to inhabit, they may be inconvenienced as a grandma or grandpa being involved in peace movement activism. It might even take away from some of the time they can be with their grandchildren. But it makes sense in that longer vision of creating a better world.
Spirit: In looking back now at a lifetime of activism, who were your inspirations? Who helped get you involved in working for peace and justice?
Kelly: Karl Meyer was certainly crucial for me as a mentor. He was the love of my life who I married. We were married from 1982 to 1994, but we are still very close. Karl was someone who would put his life in line with his deepest beliefs and unhesitatingly practice what he believed in. He radicalized a whole generation of us in his small neighborhood in Chicago and also had a more widespread influence on activists.
Spirit: Who else was an inspiration or formative influence?
Kelly: All the Catholic Workers that I’ve been privileged to be close to have made a big difference in my life. The Catholic Workers are willing to find gentle ways to live simply, to share their resources and to work very hard to embrace the teachings of peace and justice.
I’ve been very fortunate to know people for many years, from the Gulf Peace Team and up to the present, who have been part of peace team experiments. David Hartsough has certainly been a lifelong exemplar of experimenting with the possibilities of developing nonviolent peace teams.
I’ve also been very impressed by the women I’ve met in prison because they’re facing the remainder of the long days and years of imprisonment. And even though they’re isolated and have a stigma that they’re coping with, many of them, they have a kind of courage that I’m not sure I have. They’ve shown that to me.
I have great thanks for Amy Goodman. She is like a national heroine to me because she has never stopped trying to educate the U.S. public and she has done it in a way that has been very life-giving for movements all around the world.
I am quite grateful for the medical doctor who is the mentor for the Afghan Peace Volunteers. We call him by the name that was given to him by villagers in Afghanistan — Hakim. He has certainly practiced Gandhian nonviolence by living simply under Spartan circumstances, and he has a belief that nonviolence can change the world. He has been dedicated and rugged in upholding that.
Spirit: Are there any books on nonviolence that have impressed you lately?
Kelly: I’m very, very impressed by The Lizard Cage by Karen Connolly, a novel about circumstances inside a prison in Myanmar (formerly Burma). I just finished Moshin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia and Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh. I’ve been reading Amitav Ghosh all my life.
Spirit: What about books that were formative when you first began your work for peace and justice?
Kellly: David Dellinger’s From Yale to Jail: The Life Story of a Moral Dissenter. That was one of the most important books I’ve ever read because he told about his personal life without dodging some of the questions that are bound to rise up in a person’s life choices if you want to make a commitment to nonviolence and activism.
Spirit: You attended the Chicago Theological Seminary. How important are your spiritual values in guiding this work for peace and justice?
Kelly: I like Thomas Paine’s line: “My country is the world. My religion is to do good.” And I’m very grateful for the two extra years to grow up that I had in keeping myself out of commission by being a student at the Chicago Theological Seminary. I was very grateful for the excellent scripture scholars at the Jesuit School of Theology.
But probably the best thing was that I finally started to realize that I talk a great line about the preferential option for the poor. But I’m in Hyde Park in Chicago and I’m not seeing any poor people. So I finally said that to a very close friend of mine, a professor. As he walked away from me, he said over his shoulder, “Kathleen, why don’t you go to that soup kitchen on the north side?” And I said, “Oh, why don’t I?” So I did. And that made a huge difference.
Spirit: How would you characterize the relationship between spirituality and political engagement in your life?
Kelly: I do think falling in love helps. It’s what sustains you for the long haul. There are many different ways of falling in love. I’ve fallen in love with the Afghan Peace Volunteers, and before that I fell in love with a group of Iraqi children. I fall in love easily and I think that’s really important for the long haul.
I think we can become kindred spirits with people who have made altruistic choices and who have learned to make those choices very attractive and very valuable. You can have a passion and believe it, and then find ways to put your life in line with it. It’s really a huge gift.