Kathy Kelly is constantly on the frontlines. Whether in her Chicago neighborhood, where she lives in a tight-knit community, or in the Middle East, Kelly is determined to document firsthand the plight of people whose countries have been torn apart by war. As founder of the Nobel prize–nominated anti-war group Voices for Creative Nonviolence—and before that Voices in the Wilderness—Kelly travels extensively to war-torn countries to see the effects of US foreign policy in order to better tell the stories of those who suffer from it. Though her actions have resulted in numerous arrests and heinous government fines, nothing seems to stop her.
I caught up with Kelly at her home in Chicago this fall, before she left on a trip to Pakistan. [She is currently with a delegation in Afghanistan]. The packed house, with both residents and strangers coming and going, was emblematic of the activist’s constantly bustling world. In our conversation, she discussed her influences, the ever-changing neighborhood in which she lives and its impact on her, surviving prison life, and the meaning of tax refusal.
James M. Russell: What kindled your activism?
Kathy Kelly: I was an impressionable child and I can think of two things that impressed me the most. When I was a child, hands down, it was the nuns. Most of the ones assigned to my South Side Chicago parish were young and cheerful; we didn’t have mean nuns that were wrapping our knuckles. The ones I grew up with shared everything in common and lived a simple life. There wasn’t a question in my mind that I would become one of them. And then things changed radically. Then everything changed in the Catholic Church and nuns were living independently and driving cars.
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Watching the film “Night and Fog” in high school, about the remains of the Nazi death camps, was a very transformative moment for me. Seeing it evoked a sense of never ever being a passive bystander … but nevertheless, I went through the Vietnam War like Brigadoon in the mist. I never got involved in the anti-war activism at that point in my life. Later in life, what changed me was coming up to the soup kitchen in this neighborhood and realizing that there was tremendous poverty in my city. I think that when people are directly in touch with impoverishment, there’s a conversion that almost has to happen.
JMR: How have you continued to change?
KK: I didn’t grow up with a very strong sense of personal courage. But in my adult life because of very wonderful mentors and some situations that kind of demanded the jump, I now understand it: that courage is the ability to control your fears. So in evolving, I’ve been able to identify some fears and learn about controlling them so that I wouldn’t be governed by it. And that was mainly though watching people who I admired very much and realizing, “well I would rather have what they’ve achieved in their lives.” And I learned that they had achieved by governing life through their values.
So there’s that and there’s also the joy of dropping out of consumer culture. I haven’t dropped out completely, but in the ways I have, I’m very happy. There’s just a lot of time that gets consumed in consuming and owning. If you don’t have to do it, there’s a certain sense of release.
JMR: Why did you decide to become a war-tax refuser?
KK: When it dawned on me that my neighbors didn’t have food, that the youngsters would be remarkable if they made it though their teenage years, and that people in my neighborhood were sleeping in abandoned buildings. There’s no way I was going to go to a teaching job and spend much of my teaching day trying to teach youngsters about opposition, radical opposition to nuclear weaponry and then take a third of my income and then pay for nuclear weapons and the rest of it. It wasn’t even a question once I realized, and I thought “Of course! What a relief! I don’t have to pay those taxes.” I never will pay those taxes and since the day that I first made that determination, there hasn’t been a doubt in my mind. I will never pay federal income tax.
JMR: Do you identify not just as a war-tax refuser but as someone who ultimately exists to refuse, or in better terms, resist the oppressive systems under which we live?
KK: I do not want to be too speculative but refusal affects one’s personality. I can say when I went to maximum-security prison for one year I didn’t refuse to work. I worked. I got fired from just about every job I had until I ended up picking up cigarette butts in the middle of the prison. I somehow emerged from that situation with a little more backbone in terms of readiness to refuse, almost with a kind of an edge to it. You know, the edge that would say, “Are you gonna make me?” I don’t want that to be my approach so I get opportunities to work on that when I’m in public settings and people disagree with me. I think that’s one opportunity to really try to reach out a friendly hand. And also when we get hate mail to try and answer it in a respectful way without, you know, communicating that you’re buckling. So it’s a skill, maybe almost an art form to learn how to engage in refusal and resistance without creating enmity… or deepening enmity.
JMR: I’ve noticed that a lot of people don’t speak out of fear of seeming to blame the perpetrator, not just the action. How do you resolve vilifying the action while not offending the people who are engaged in it? You know, the soldiers themselves?
KK: What I would like to see happen more is that when we might be tempted to think, “well of course these well-trained warrior teams, who are trained in groups, are going to feel revenge and retaliation when one of their own are killed, this is understandable,” that instead we remind ourselves that there are other potential options. I think the Iraq Veterans Against War have been exemplary in coming to terms with their feelings of revenge and retaliation and saying, “that’s not who I want to be.” But if we say, you know, don’t say anything to the returning soldiers because of what they’ve been through, and then we kind of accommodate that formation and training and orientation and perspective, we may lose the reality of the other options.
JMR: With the other options being …?
KK: I think it’s very, very important to encourage people to learn the language of another country—to understand the culture as much as possible, to be asking from other people, “What do you want for your country?” To really ask military people to consider that the question is not “What does the United States want for Iraq?” or “What does the United States want for Afghanistan?” but that it is “What do Afghan and Iraqi people want?” And we have to remind them: you have no legal right to invade a sovereign country and occupy it. You are part of something illegal. And I think it’s a good time in life for us to really seriously revisit the trials that established the Nuremberg precedents. And you know, Eichmann all the other people that were accused said, “I am not responsible, I am not responsible.” And then ask the question—who then is responsible?
JMR: I would think that the most difficult part of what you do is witnessing the pain caused by warfare. How do you say, “I can only do so much”?
KK: I’ve had to tell myself in situations where there’s overwhelming need and want, “if you spread the peanut butter too thin the bread rips” or “I’m just one drop in the ocean and I’m responsible for my drop’s worth of impact.” We don’t really want a world where one person is assuming responsibility for a whole lot more than their one drop’s worth of impact.
JMR: So what do you feel is your responsibility?
KK: Because there’s a tremendous disparity in access to communication and access to education, and the ability to reach people through alternative education, our responsibility at Voices for Creative Nonviolence is educating people. For instance, many people in this country simply don’t know details about people who are bearing the brunt of our wars—people who are afflicted and persecuted directly because we’re at war. I think of Pakistan right now. Most people don’t even know we’re bombing Pakistan every single day and using drone warfare to do it. But you can’t say to that 7 year old in Pakistan who is living in fear of death, “Well exercise your right to free speech and speak up about it.” That’s not possible. However, I believe those who do know have that responsibility.
JMR: What do you think prevents more people from doing the work you do?
KK: I think that for most people who have seen terrific suffering and been unable to do very much about it, other than kind of raise a hue and a cry, there is a conundrum: they are troubled by the idea of making a name for one’s self out of the misery of other people. And that’s a reality. Sometimes being heard requires being known and then you ask, “How do you become a voice that people will listen to?” And so it’s troubling because everybody has ego but everybody also wants to feel like they’re doing their fair share.
JMR: How do you resolve that conundrum?
KK: I think the most important facet of achieving that is the creation of community. As much, we need to step back and look at ourselves and realize that the greatest need is to expand the circle of the people who are doing the grassroots, very practical, hands-on tasks of education. You know, booking the room, writing the press release, inviting people to come together, organizing the demonstration, passing out the fliers. This is the circle that we have to expand. I would say action is educative and education should lead to action and not to kind of a passive consumption, where the educator is dispensing some information and other people are absorbing it and that’s the end of the story.
JMR: You said your neighbors played a big part in helping you to decide to become a war tax refuser. What else have they — and this community — taught you?
KK: When I first moved up to this area in 1979 it was the poorest area on the north side of Chicago and arguably the poorest area in Chicago. This was the area new immigrant would come to because the rents were the lowest. It was an area where there was a lot of gang warfare and quite difficult for youngsters to grow up in. The needs of people were very, very high in this neighborhood. See, we were really in a neighborhood where our neighbors were helping us better understand the need to rearrange the resources. And on top of that, wave after wave of new immigrants were coming from other countries, particularly Central American people who were fleeing death squads and massacres and assassinations in their country. And you know, we had to ask why are you coming to our neighborhood? This neighborhood’s a mess! And we started to understand; well, they’re fleeing for their lives because of what we’re doing to their neighborhoods. So it was a very vital area. Education was immediately accessible about impoverishment. And many of us went to prison and got another education by doing that, because of our opposition to the cruelties and the warfare, the war against the poor and the war against other countries. Now that the neighborhood has been gentrified, I do realize that we are no longer in an area where our neighbors are the people who can teach us about wrongfulness of wars.
JMR: How can we use our communities as foundations for peace?
KK: We need communities to ask, “are we simplifying our lifestyle more and more every day?” Because if people in other areas can’t meet their very basic needs while ours are being met and then some, this can only lead toward eventual violence. It’s violent in and of itself if people can’t feed their children. So that question, “are we living more simply?” pertains to many, many details within a community: Are we practicing basics of conservation? And then, are we sharing our resources more radically? Are we trying to share income and share work and do that as internationally as we possibly can? And, do we prefer service to dominance? We live in this dominant culture where we have access to much more electricity than people in Pakistan, people in Iraq, people in so many parts of the world and so are we trying to serve the needs of other people rather than be dominant? So those are some questions that have been important to us here at “Voices.”
JMR: What have you learned in prison?
KK: The one thing I learned when I spent 9 months in a maximum security prison and a couple of months in a county jail was that I never wanted to be the warden. This changed my teaching style and some ways of interaction. If being in charge means frisking people or pointing at people and saying “you’re here, you’re there,” I just don’t have that in me. I used to! But I don’t even know if I could manage being a high school study hall conductor. I have an aversion to being the warden in any context, I guess. I don’t think it’s possible to get a closer sense of educational identification with impoverishment than to be in a prison or in a war zone where people kind of are imprisoned and can’t get their basic needs.
Prison taught me a great deal about how the war against the poor in this country is waged. I felt the tremendous loss of people who are separated from their loved ones, children, community, and cannot get to them in spite of marker events or sickness or death. And you know, the aching sense of despair and loss and regret and remorse. There’s no forgiveness. Nothing, not even a hint of it. And the last time that I was in prison, the thing that certainly educated and sort of stunned me was the onerous length of sentencing. In the prison next door to where I was, young men would get off the bus, shackled, and go into the prison where the median length of sentencing was 27 years. Many of them would not leave until 35, 40, or 50 years. What have we done?! We’ve recreated slavery and we’re tipping toward fascism with this vast network of prisons. It’s this hideous scar and so wrong. And when I stop to think about it, I’ve emerged with an education that I have not put to use. I should be working everyday of my life to try to dismantle that system. And I feel a great deal of sadness over that.
JMR: Could you illustrate a circumstance that has challenged your pacifism?
KK: For a moment, I was one relieved pacifist as the Marines arrived when I was in Baghdad. We were in a hotel with our stuff when we heard that looters were close to us. While the team was hiding our stuff, I was in the lobby talking to the person at the desk, saying, “Whatever you do, don’t pull out a gun, even if they take us hostage, we’ll sign documents.” It was all very fraught. And minutes into the frenzy, one of the young kids came running down the hallway saying, “Soldiers! Soldiers!” When we looked outside, there was every kind of military vehicle processing down the street as far as the eye could see. They parked right in front of where we were and next thing we knew we’d gotten into formation with our banners “Courage for peace, not for war.” But truthfully, we were pretty worried that there was the possibility of great violence against people in the hotel.
And something very interesting happened then. A fellow emerged out of the hatch of an armored personnel carrier and pulled out an army-issued novel and opened it up and started to read. That action cast kind of a calming effect. And while I’m hardly saying that illegal invasion that has destroyed lives and those countries was a good idea, in the immediacy of that moment, the big guns silenced what could have been smaller weapon use.
Clearly, I don’t believe that you can be an absolute pacifist, because we don’t know how we’re going to respond in given situations that we can’t predict. But we can try to be biographical pacifists, or pacifists within our boundaries, culled from our individual experiences. And I have tried to do that. But nonetheless the answer always in these contradictory situations is to look for the humanity in the person that is considered to be the opponent and to look for our own humanity when we’re struggling with our inner demons. It’s humbling to be in touch with them and to realize that’s always something to work on.