She’s been everywhere, all the hot spots, in the last nine years: Bosnia, Haiti, Iraq, Jordan, Nicaragua, not to mention numerous nuclear-missile sites and other off-limits government installations in this country. No one’s asked her to come, no one’s paid her way, and many have advised her not to go. You could almost hear the alarm in Bob Edwards’s voice when he interviewed her on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition in July 1993: “You’re going somewhere where people are mowed down while standing in line for water.” She answered, “Yes, we understand that.” What was she thinking?
But Kathleen Kelly goes where she wants, seemingly oblivious to her personal safety or the public’s reaction, marching into hell for a heavenly cause. She does it because it’s her job, just as Secretary of State Warren Christopher treks around the globe to troubled territories because that’s his job. Kelly, 42 years old and terminally idealistic, has raised consistency between what she believes and what she does to the level of a profession. “One of the reasons we don’t have peace in the world is because so many peacemakers aren’t willing to make the same sacrifices that soldiers have to make in war,” she says. “Soldiers have to be willing to risk their lives, to die. So we have to make a commensurate commitment.”
She appears almost preternaturally gentle–a soft-spoken, unflappable, engaging presence with a mass of curly hair and a contagious smile. And at five foot two and barely 100 pounds she looks vulnerable. It’s difficult to believe she’s a major organizer of nonviolent protest in the post-cold-war era, or that she’s been arrested more than 40 times, or that she’s spent almost a year in federal prison.
Her experience hasn’t hardened her or made her cynical. In fact, she expresses genuine sympathy for those who don’t have the luxury of living as she does. “I’m fortunate that I’ve found a couple of important truths that I can declare with passion and that I have the freedom to act on them. If I didn’t have this I think I’d be leading a life of quiet desperation.”
Kelly shares an apartment with Karl Meyer, a veteran war-tax resister who’s achieved considerable notoriety over the past 35 years by creating a series of “inventions of nonviolence” to arouse an apathetic public and drive the Internal Revenue Service crazy. She and Meyer were married in the mid-1980s but obtained a divorce several years later, largely because Meyer was determined to separate himself from every institution approved by society and regulated by governmental entities. The divorce has apparently had no influence on their relationship or their living arrangement. Meyer remains Kelly’s mentor and emotional support, and the bond of affection between them is quite apparent. “Karl is an amazing thinker,” says Kelly. “He questions everything, makes you reconsider all assumptions. The two of us have always had a marvelous coherence.”
Their modestly furnished apartment, with a selection of worn peace symbols on the wall, is a kind of headquarters for the peace movement in the Chicago area. It’s also a regular shelter for out-of-town activists, refugees from foreign countries passing through the city, and friends from old campaigns. In the dining room is a tiny, ancient computer, a printer, and a fax machine; all are in almost constant use. The telephone rings about every five minutes with news of the forthcoming trial of some pacifist or questions about some new nonviolent project in which Kelly is involved. The well-organized SANE-Freeze movement, which opposed the U.S. arms buildup in the 1980s, is now extinct, but a coterie of smaller organizations persists, including Illinois Peace Action, the Christian Peacemaker Team, and the Catholic Worker movement. Kelly has connections to them all.
“We believe we’re not one iota less in danger of a nuclear attack somewhere or a nuclear accident than we were during the cold war,” she says. “The USSR may have dismantled some missiles and then shipped them or sold them to who knows where. The proliferation continues. This year the United States will spend $290 billion on our military budget–that’s more than the nine next highest spenders put together. All that money is taken away from other needs, and it happens whether we have a cold war or not.”
When she says things like this she doesn’t raise her voice or even look agitated. But there can be no doubt about the degree of her conviction. It’s the teacher in her: she just wants everyone to understand.
“I don’t think there’s a better organizer in the movement today than Kathy,” says Bradford Lyttle, director of the Midwest Pacifist Center, in Hyde Park. “She’s intelligent, committed, and fearless.” Lyttle, himself a peace activist for 50 years, puts the emphasis on “fearless.”
“I’ve seen her do things that I’d think a long time before doing,” he says. “She’ll get into situations that I’d call close to suicide. And she’s always ready to go. She gets a phone call, she packs a bag, and she’s off.”
Lyttle was with Kelly on her two trips to Bosnia, an ambitious venture that began with great expectations and ended in sour disappointment. As such it exhibited both the strengths and the weaknesses of the worldwide peace movement in the 1990s.
In the fall of 1992 Kelly learned that an Italian-based organization known as Beati i Costruttori di Pace (Italian for “blessed are the peacemakers”) planned to send a delegation of some 1,000 persons to Sarajevo, then under intense Serbian shelling, to bring the citizens food and gifts and to call for an end to the hostilities. She saw this as an opportunity to bear witness against a senseless war. Serbian, Bosnian Muslim, and Croatian leaders had reluctantly agreed with an international advance team to allow the group through in December, but there were no assurances of safety.
Kelly and Lyttle quickly joined the expedition. When they arrived at the starting point in Italy they found that only 495 volunteers had shown up, but enthusiasm was nevertheless high. The Beati leader, Don Albino Bizzotto, was a commanding, charismatic figure, a kind of European Jesse Jackson in Kelly’s estimation. The participants received training in nonviolent techniques and were divided into groups of eight to ten so that decisions could be made as democratically as possible. “The whole operation was extremely well organized,” says Kelly. Her backpack loaded with gifts for ten children and enough food for a family of five for three days, Kelly boarded the boat that would take her across the Adriatic to the Croatian port of Split. The 18-hour trip during a fierce December storm left almost everyone seasick.
From Split they took ten buses into Serbian-held Bosnia, and that’s where complications developed. The Serbs at first demanded that the visitors turn back. Then they agreed to let the buses continue in a “tank sandwich,” with United Nations vehicles at the front and rear of the convoy. Kelly and her eight-member group protested; as strict pacifists they opposed any military presence, supportive or antagonistic. But they finally consented to a single UN tank at the front of the line.
Outside Sarajevo the Serbs again stopped the entourage but after many hours relented. The Beati volunteers got their first taste of battle sights and sounds as they traveled the road over Mount Igman, a stretch known as snipers’ alley and the only land entry to the city. “We ducked and hoped for the best when we heard the shells flying over,” says Kelly.
When they finally arrived in Sarajevo a smiling Bosnian Muslim soldier entered Kelly’s bus and said, “Welcome! We all live here with nothing–no water, no electricity, only our ability to survive together. Welcome to hell!” The original plan called for the foreign visitors to stay with individual families, but the delays had left no time to make arrangements. That night they slept on the floor of a high school, but their sleep was fitful, especially from four to seven in the morning, when the shelling was most intense. The next day the peacemakers attended a massive Christian-Muslim service where, to Kelly’s surprise, everyone sang “We Shall Overcome” in nearly perfect English.
On the street group members were hugged by civilians who saw them as sympathetic friends, perhaps as harbingers of peace. One man told Kelly, “It’s a lie that our people hate each other. It’s all propaganda.”
After less than two days in the city the Beati visitors were whisked out of Sarajevo and shipped back to Italy. Kelly viewed the token visit as a modest success, especially after news reports stated that the shelling had been reduced during their stay.
A far more ambitious follow-up was scheduled for the summer of 1993: some 5,000 peacemakers would set up encampments for three weeks or more in three major cities, including Sarajevo. Called Mir Sada (“peace now” in Serbo-Croatian), the project was jointly sponsored by Beati and a well-financed French humanitarian organization called Equi Libre. Kelly organized a U.S. contingent of about 50 volunteers. When she reached Italy she learned that the number of participants was fewer than 3,000, but the organizers thought that was still a substantial delegation and could have an effect: even if the warring parties paid no heed, the international community might be moved to press harder for a negotiated solution.
The ride across the Adriatic was peaceful this time, but once again problems started in Split. The war had grown more intense in five months. A UN official told the volunteers their presence might make matters worse, since “we may have to shoot and kill people to protect you.” Endless discussion and debate ensued, and it only worsened when the Croatians failed to supply enough vehicles for the entire group. After two days some 80 buses and vans were rounded up, and a substantial part of the Mir Sada force, including Kelly and Lyttle, took off for Sarajevo. The idea of going to other cities was abandoned, as was the plan for an extended stay.
The heat was intense and progress exceedingly slow as the convoy inched along winding mountain roads. At the end of the first day the convoy stopped in a field near a lake. The peacemakers laid down their bedrolls among the cow pies and tried to sleep. Lyttle remembers waking the next morning and being moved by the view: “A beautiful lake, pine-clad mountains in the distance, and little houses with red roofs.” Suddenly this bucolic serenity was ruptured. “A terrifying, horrifying noise,” says Lyttle. “It left us in a kind of state of shock.” An account in the National Catholic Reporter described it as “a horrendous noise, alien, ripping as if someone were tearing the guts out of heaven.” The sound, they learned, came from a rocket launcher some miles away dispatching a morning delivery to Sarajevo. During the next few days the Mir Sada volunteers got somewhat accustomed to it, but the group nerve was never quite the same.
They remained in the field for several days, as those who’d been left behind in Split gradually joined them. Another UN official arrived and told the leaders, “The Croatian army is glad to see you coming. They will take your food and your cars. If you go without an escort there will be bloodshed.”
Kelly and other determined pacifists believed an escort would compromise their message. With an increasingly bitter debate raging, Kelly was elected by the group to chair a general assembly. Though she supported continuing immediately to Sarajevo, she tried to give all sides a chance to speak. No agreement was reached, and Kelly admits, “I was not adequate to the task.”
Meanwhile Croatian soldiers milling around the encampment stole two vehicles at gunpoint and molested several women. The French volunteers from Equi Libre finally had had enough, and they headed back to Split. The Beati contingent and the Americans were for going on. A scouting party drove a few miles up the road and quickly returned. They’d found the next village in flames and had been fired on by machine guns. At that point the nearly unanimous agreement was to call off the expedition.
Frustrated, a Catholic Worker member from New England donned the clown costume he’d brought to entertain children in Sarajevo, shouldered his pack, and announced he intended to walk to Sarajevo. Kelly, four other Americans, and three Europeans joined him, and, amid general astonishment, proceeded up the road like Dorothy and her friends on the way to Oz. “I really wasn’t afraid,” says Kelly. “I know that sounds strange, but in a situation like that you kind of catch courage from one another.”
Lyttle, who regarded the move as suicidal, declined to go. Kelly and the others got less than a mile before Croatian soldiers stopped them at gunpoint and forced them back to the camp. The Mir Sada adventure was over. The convoy turned around and headed back toward Split, stopping along the way to distribute leaflets in Mostar. Back in Italy Kelly and about 25 others set up a campsite at the U.S. Air Force base near Ancona, where they fasted and prayed for peace for five days.
“We were mocked in the media for what we tried to do,” says Kelly. “They called it an exercise in futility. And maybe it was.” The group lost its nerve, and “when that happens, maybe it’s time to cancel a project.” Still, she found something to celebrate. She speaks of the warm welcome the group got in Mostar, a village hard hit by the war. “The people cheered us,” she says. “They grabbed our hands–they knew what we were trying to do.” The experience taught her that peaceful intervention in vans and buses is not a very successful strategy, no matter how many are in the party. “Bodies alone don’t count. You’ve got to look people in the eye, one on one. You can’t do that sitting in a bus.”
The Bosnian effort was also criticized by Chicagoan Barry Romo, a national leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. He says Kelly and the others were dupes of the Croatians who allowed them into the country and that they were granted entry because they supported the UN arms embargo against the Bosnian Muslims, “which is like saying it’s OK for the cavalry to have weapons, but the Indians don’t get any.” Kelly retorts that all three governmental entities in the former Yugoslavia had approved their entry and that as a pacifist she’s opposed to all weapons, no matter which side has them.
If the Bosnia campaign was a failure, it didn’t deter Kelly. Less than a year later, in the summer of ’94, she was in Haiti as a nonviolent observer, at a time when the country was racked by internal violence and still struggling economically under a three-year embargo. The observer project, a year-long effort that sent volunteers to several cities in Haiti, was organized by the Christian Peacemaker Team, a national group sponsored by the Mennonites and the Church of the Brethren. Kelly and three other Americans spent nine weeks in a particularly poor neighborhood of Jeremie, a city in southern Haiti, while reports circulated of an imminent U.S. invasion.
The visitors lived in the house of a local priest who’d received death threats because he supported Jean-Bertrand Aristide. They spent their days mingling with the citizens, and Kelly says she was repeatedly told the presence of American citizens helped restrain violence by the paramilitary groups. On one occasion a man quietly invited her to the home of one of his friends and showed her a secret compartment in the ceiling of a bedroom where he’d hidden a large framed portrait of President Aristide. “This is mine,” he beamed. Kelly knew he would have been killed if the authorities had learned of his treasure.
Conditions in the neighborhood were appalling: no electricity, no plumbing, not even candles. Yet life went on. In the afternoon children played soccer with old balls that were coming apart, and in the evening teenagers would sit on the wharf reading their ragged schoolbooks in the light provided by a ferry docked there–the only artificial light in the entire neighborhood.
On National Macoute Day the paramilitary groups marched through the city brandishing their weapons–machetes, pieces of hose, a few firearms–and Kelly and her companions launched a counterdemonstration. They marched through the crowded plaza in front of the cathedral carrying a cross and a sign that said in Creole, “We are fasting for peace, for the defense of life and against violence.” They sat down in the plaza and handed out leaflets explaining their intention to fast there for five days.
Within an hour soldiers ordered them off the premises and took them to the chief of police’s office. He was livid, insisting that words like “peace” and “violence” had political overtones and could not be used by foreigners. Kelly agreed to hold the fast quietly, without signs or leaflets, and to stop talking to people. They returned to the plaza and sat there for a week, taking only water. “Of course everyone understood,” says Kelly. “The people would come and smile, stand around, or sometimes touch us.” One toothless old woman watched for a long time, then began to smile and dance around. “Ah,” she said, “some devils can only be cast out by prayer and fasting.”
Members of the paramilitary groups also came around, and they made threats. But Kelly didn’t think they’d risk attacking foreigners, especially U.S. citizens. “If the officers who questioned us had known of a Haitian who helped us, that person would have been beaten senseless.”
When she returned to the States Kelly believed her efforts and those of the other observers hadn’t been in vain. According to a leader of the Christian Peacemaker Team, the police chief in Jeremie told him after Aristide’s restoration, “I am ashamed and embarrassed that those foreigners . . . have been doing the work of keeping people secure for the past year.”
Most commentators agreed it was the U.S.-initiated embargo of Haiti and the threat of invasion that finally drove out the military dictatorship, and many praised the embargo as an effective nonviolent tactic. But Kelly saw the embargo as anything but nonviolent. “You could not look at the distended bellies, reddened hair, and gleaming eyes of the children–all signs of malnutrition–and call the embargo nonviolent.”
Her distaste for embargoes began with her experiences during and after the gulf war. In January 1991 she grabbed the last plane to Baghdad before the airport was shut down. She was a member of the Gulf Peace Team, a delegation of 72 people from 18 countries who intended to sit in the middle of a likely battlefield and call for an end to hostilities. They succeeded in setting up an encampment in the desert almost exactly on the border between Iraq and Saudi Arabia and not far from a U.S. military camp. But when the shooting started in mid-January Iraqi soldiers arrived and forcibly moved them into Baghdad’s al Rashid Hotel, the site made famous by Peter Arnett’s CNN reports. Arnett took no notice of these witnesses for peace as the city was blistered with bombs and the night sky was alive with futile antiaircraft fire. After a bomb exploded in a lot next door to the hotel the Iraqis hustled the whole Gulf Peace Team into buses and moved them to Amman, Jordan. Kelly stayed there for the duration of the war, helping coordinate the delivery of food and medicine into Baghdad. “Hearing the bombers going over every night was a devastating feeling for me–to know there was a payload being dropped out of every one, and they were going every five minutes. I imagined there would be nothing left of Iraq when we got back.”
She returned to Baghdad several months after the war to find that the city was still there but the citizens were in dire straits. With the city’s infrastructure virtually destroyed, people were contracting serious diseases from drinking contaminated water. The transportation system had been wiped out, so most people couldn’t get to hospitals. The hospitals didn’t have electricity and were barely functioning. Four months after the war Kelly told a reporter, “The Iraqis will be burying their children by the thousands unless some kind of immediate, massive, coordinated relief is shipped in the very near future.” No such relief was offered then, nor has it been in the four years since, because Saddam Hussein has stubbornly refused to comply with the sanctions he agreed to at the end of the conflict.
Kathy Kelly is no apologist for Saddam Hussein, whom she regards as a monster. Her concern is for the innocent Iraqis who are the victims of the international embargo. A recent UN report claims that up to 500,000 Iraqi children have died of malnutrition, gastritis, or other diseases resulting from hardships created by the war and the ongoing embargo. Almost half the population is destitute, selling basic possessions like furniture, clothes, refrigerators, and ovens just to buy food. Yet Baghdad has a new skyscraper called Saddam Tower with a revolving restaurant for the ruling elite.
Kelly has given more than 100 speeches to church, school, and community groups since the war, attempting to raise issues rarely discussed in the mainstream media. She recently spoke at Columbia College to a class on peace studies taught by Louis Silverstein. Silverstein says he’s had Kelly as a guest speaker for six years because “she demonstrates one way for people to achieve happiness–by living consistently with their beliefs. You know, she wasn’t born this way. She’s made choices. She’s decided to live this way. I want students to see they too have choices.”
Kelly talked to the class about the role of peacemakers in a war like the one with Iraq, which was portrayed by the government and media as a fully justified defense of Kuwait. “What you can do is just be there to witness, to observe, to tell the truth. I think our presence in Iraq was one of the most valuable projects I’ve ever been in.” She told of visiting the neighborhood in Baghdad where in February 1991 a U.S. smart missile had entered the ventilation shaft of a building that sheltered hundreds of Iraqi women and children. All but 17 were killed in the explosion and fire. “I began to cry staring at the scene, when I felt a tiny hand tugging at my skirt. A beautiful Iraqi child was smiling at me. “Wel-kom,’ she said. Two women dressed in black crossed the street. I thought sure they were coming to grab the child and scream at me. I spoke the few words in Arabic I knew: ‘Ana Amerika, ana safa’–‘I’m an American, and I’m sorry.’ But they said, ‘La, la, la’–‘No, no, no’–and they explained, ‘We know you are not your government and that your people would never do this to us.’ Both the women had lost family members in the explosion.”
Kelly said she’s glad those women didn’t hear the militant cries of Americans during the war–“Rock Iraq!” “Slam Saddam!”–or the jubilant celebrations at the end. “When I tell people what I saw nobody says, ‘Boy, they deserved it.’ When they see the full picture they say, ‘We didn’t know.’ The war is over for us. For them it just goes on and on.”
Kelly encountered no opposing viewpoints from the class at Columbia, and when she ended her presentation there was a hushed silence. Then one female student said, “I just want to say thank God for people like you who go out of your way to right a wrong. I really mean that.”
The reaction isn’t always so positive. When Kelly was a guest on a call-in radio show on Wisconsin Public Radio a political science teacher from Marquette University took her to task for claiming the one-sided slaughter of Iraqi soldiers during the last stages of the war was like “a 16-year-old beating up on a 4-year-old on the playground.” He said, “What are we supposed to do? Send in only a limited number of troops so the sides and the casualties would be more even? This wasn’t some kind of a game. You fight to win a war!”
She’s also been called a communist and a traitor. She says she never wants to antagonize people. “I try to throw a ball other people can catch, yet sometimes there’s no way we can see eye to eye.”
Her harshest critics say she can’t show measurable results for all her life-risking activities. Kelly, who never seems to get flustered in debates, is apt to reply, “Yes, I do wish we could achieve more. But after thousands of years of learning to make war, the human race is just now beginning to learn how to make peace–like a two-year-old learning to walk.”
Kelly wasn’t always like this. She grew up in the Garfield Ridge neighborhood of Chicago’s south side, the third of six children. Her father, Frank, was a high school teacher, and her mother, Catherine, born in Ireland, was a full-time homemaker. In the late 1960s Kelly attended the Saint Paul-Kennedy High School, “a short-lived experiment in which students went to the now-defunct Saint Paul Catholic school for morning classes, then walked to racially integrated Kennedy later in the day. The neighborhood, she says, was “a crucible” of racial fears and resentment: “We had mass in the morning and riots in the afternoon.”
She was shocked by the violence Martin Luther King Jr. met during his south-side march and saw parallels between white hatred of blacks and the German attitude toward Jews that preceded the Holocaust. She thought she might become a nun, then, while majoring in history and theology at Loyola University, decided that “you don’t have to join a religious order to be religious.”
In those days Kelly was neither a pacifist nor a war resister. “I had enough sense to weep over what I read in the papers once in a while, but that’s about all,” she says. After earning a master’s degree at Chicago Theological Seminary in 1979, she taught briefly at two Catholic girls’ schools, then moved to Saint Ignatius College Prep for six years. In 1979 she also moved to Uptown and began volunteering at a soup kitchen sponsored by the Catholic Worker, the radically pacifist movement founded by Dorothy Day in the 1930s. It was there that she met Karl Meyer. Her education as a full-time peacemaker had begun.
She read Gandhi and Day and Thomas Merton and was especially influenced by the writings of journalist Oriana Fallaci, who’d interviewed many of the world’s leaders, including Henry Kissinger and the Ayatollah Khomeini, in the 1960s and ’70s. In her often lacerating analyses Fallaci saw power as an “inhuman and hateful phenomenon” and regarded resistance to power and refusal to conform as humanity’s most noble activities. Fallaci touched a nerve that would permanently alter Kelly’s lifestyle.
In 1986, with the conflict between U.S.-supported contras and the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua in full swing, Kelly decided she could no longer continue her comfortable existence as an educator. In a letter to her Saint Ignatius students she said, “As many of you know, I spent seven weeks in Nicaragua this summer. . . . As a result of all that I have seen and heard, I have reached a strong conviction that the United States is doing a terrible and evil thing in financing Contra attacks against Nicaragua. I have concluded that my country . . . is guilty of war crimes against humanity.” Both she and Meyer, she explained, were quitting their jobs to devote their time to opposing contra aid. “We ourselves have finally found it intolerable to be comfortably at liberty in a country where . . . people will stand by or accede to crimes against the life of another people.”
Several weeks later Meyer, Kelly, and five others associated with the Pledge of Resistance, a national anticontra group, walked into the courtrooms of 11 judges at the Dirksen Federal Building, presented an “open letter” to the judges, and declared that an “emergency situation” had developed. They wanted an “immediate injunction” against further aid to the contras. The judges were not amused. Most threw them out of the courtrooms, though several took the uninvited guests into their chambers and suggested they file a formal, legal complaint if they expected to get a hearing. Soon Kelly, Meyer, and company returned with a formal complaint and attempted to deliver it to all 26 judges in the building.
After Judge Henry Leinenweber flatly rejected their complaint that July, Kelly and 18 Pledge of Resistance supporters tried to stage a protest and were forcibly removed from the judge’s courtroom. “You’re supposed to behave according to the rules of decorum,” said an angry Leinenweber. “This is a country of laws, not of people!”
Five members of the group came back later and attempted to address the judge during a trial. Kelly and Meyer were charged with criminal contempt and spent four days in jail rather than make bail. At a hearing in August Leinenweber, trying to be compassionate, ordered the two to perform 40 hours of community service at the Catholic Worker house where they were already volunteers. But Kelly and Meyer insisted they’d chosen a different form of service: collecting signatures opposing contra aid outside the Dirksen building. Both indicated they were prepared to go to jail again if necessary. Their case was continued and dragged on for months.
Shortly before Christmas that year, Kelly was among 50 Pledge of Resistance protesters arrested outside Water Tower Place, where they were singing anticontra parodies of Christmas carols, including Kelly’s “Away in Honduras,” set to the tune of “Away in a Manger.” She was released and was back singing the next day.
The audacity of these actions, widely reported in the local media, probably aroused more opposition than support for the cause. But Kelly believed she had to speak out. “Over and over again, I pray that my country will stop beating up on this tiny . . . country,” she wrote in a passionate op-ed piece for the National Catholic Reporter. “I pray that Nicaragua will export revolution–a revolution of Christians and people of good will everywhere against this unjust aggression.”
Kelly’s most militant expression of pacifism occurred in 1988, when she repeatedly trespassed at nuclear-missile sites in Missouri. She was part of a coalition of peace groups that planned and executed the Missouri Peace Planting, one of the largest nonviolent direct actions ever attempted in the United States. It involved some 150 people and was orchestrated by a coalition including the Wisconsin peace organization Nukewatch, several Catholic Worker affiliates, and Plowshares, a peace group active on the east coast.
On August 15, 1988, 14 of the protesters entered ten nuclear missile sites near the Whiteman Air Force base in Missouri, while others remained outside as observers. Alone, Kelly climbed the fence, carefully maneuvering over the barbed wire, around a Minuteman installation that looked like a power substation in the middle of a deserted field. Once inside she planted corn and flower seeds, then sat down on the concrete cover of the underground silo, which housed a missile with a 1.2-megaton warhead, a hundred times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb, and listened to the electrical hum coming from the silo’s depths.
The purpose of the demonstration, according to the literature Kelly and the others carried, was to “declare independence” from U.S. policies “inimical to the well-being of earth’s inhabitants.” These included continuing “to use nuclear weapons as an integral part of all military strategies . . . concentrating power and decision making authority in a secretive and largely unaccountable military-industrial oligarchy . . . and causing needless suffering by the immoral allocation of scarce fiscal resources to . . . weapons research while millions of our sisters and brothers live in poverty.”
Kelly waited for almost an hour before a military vehicle arrived. Soldiers armed with M1 rifles got out, approached the site with great caution, unlocked the gate, and ordered her to stand up with her hands in the air. “I mean you no harm,” said Kelly. “I respect you doing your job just as I am doing mine.”
Michael Bremer, an observer from Chicago, says he was amazed at how quickly Kelly’s attitude disarmed the soldiers: they were soon chatting with her while waiting for a vehicle to carry her to military headquarters. At one point she persuaded a soldier holding a gun on her to recite the Lord’s Prayer with her. “I’ve seen it a number of times,” says Bremer. “She has this uncanny ability to reach common ground with an adversary–and it’s mostly because she’s really not threatened herself in a situation like that.”
Kelly and the other intruders were held for several hours, handed “ban and bar” letters threatening prison sentences of up to five years if they returned, then released. The next day she and five other protesters trespassed on a site in another section of the missile field. They were again arrested, questioned, and released with another set of ban-and-bar letters. Six protesters, including Kelly, were back on the third day, and the same procedure occurred. The Associated Press and local newspapers gave the action considerable notice.
At this point most of the protesters, worn down by the gentle reaction they’d gotten, were inclined to let up. Not Kelly. She was one of five who entered nuclear sites five times over a ten-day period and who were finally charged with criminal trespass. All were found guilty and offered probation, but all refused. “Accepting probation would have been like admitting we’d done something wrong,” she says. “We did not want to give that impression.”
The sentences ranged from six months to two years. Kelly got one year. At her sentencing she put her own spin on the protest activities: “Who owns this land?” she asked. “We say that it is God and nature that own the land. . . . The Air Force has seized this land from all other beings. They have scraped these sites with bulldozers and covered them with gravel in a vain attempt to prevent all other living things from using them in any way. . . . How interesting that several officers testified that sometimes the unauthorized intrusion of birds, small animals, even mice sets off the electronic alarm. . . . So the prosecutor and witnesses disclosed that the Air Force has not been able to compel God or nature to accept their jurisdiction over this land. . . . We are little animals too. But we are little animals who have been told we have a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. . . . Yes, we entered this land, claimed exclusively by the Air Force, but belonging actually to us, as stewards for God and nature. We entered our land to petition for the redress of our grievances.”
During her time at the maximum-security women’s prison in Lexington, Kentucky, Kelly learned Spanish from her Colombian cell mate, worked in the library, and was assigned to pick up cigarette butts after she refused to pay a fine she considered undeserved. The prison experience left her contemptuous of the prison system and what it does to women. “I would say 90 percent are there for drug-related offenses. What they need is training, what they need are jobs. Locking them up changes no one for the better. It only creates the raw material for judges and lawyers to have further employment.”
In an article she wrote for Insight Features during her confinement, Kelly said she heard the insistent call “Flushing, flushing, flushing!” from women in the washrooms. “It is a warning to others who are taking showers, so they won’t get scalded when the flushing toilets take the cold water and turn the showers burning hot.” Flushing, she wrote, has become an “insistent metaphor for what our society is doing to women who fall victim to cultural disorganization and drugs.”
Mike Bremer says that Kelly’s carefully controlled exterior cracks only when she visits someone in prison. “I’ve seen her yell and scream and kick the car when we come out. She can’t stand to see someone confined and brutalized.”
Kelly isn’t sure she can still call herself a Catholic. She doesn’t believe in the kind of God who doles out wealth and privilege to some and poverty and misery to the majority. “I don’t do what I do in hopes of an afterlife or in wanting to please a personal God. When we think that way I think we forget our responsibilities.” She says she simply doesn’t accept the idea that humans can turn to a divine being and expect that being to solve their problems.
Nevertheless, she sees value in such quintessentially Catholic doctrines as the Mystical Body of Christ, the idea that all humanity is an inextricable whole and that what we do to one we do to all. She also clings to resurrection, at least in the sense that great leaders like Martin Luther King and Oscar Romero, the martyred archbishop of San Salvador, cannot be annihilated: “My spirit will rise up again in the people,” she says, paraphrasing Romero. And she’s found a Catholic community where the table’s big enough to accommodate her unconventional convictions, the Harold Washington Catholic Community, better known as Saint Harold’s. The parishioners, mostly Catholic Workers and other social-service and community-organization types who don’t easily fit into traditional parishes, meet for mass every Sunday in the offices of the Uptown Lutheran Ministries.
Father Bob Bossie, an organizer of the community and a longtime activist (in fact, a major planner of the Missouri Peace Planting), calls Kelly a central figure in the group. “When you look at her you see a diminutive, attractive woman, nothing more. And then you get to know her, and there’s this energy and conviction and vision that belie anything you can see. I don’t know where it comes from, but she embodies the spirit of the Catholic Worker.”
Saint Harold’s is important to her, says Kelly. “I feel a continual need for a community that supports and believes in the things I believe.” Those things are remarkably few: that nonviolence and pacifism can change the world, that the poor should be society’s highest priority, that people should love their enemies, that actions should follow conviction regardless of inconvenience.
One result is that she and Meyer refuse to pay taxes, since a hefty portion of every tax dollar goes to support the military. This has created problems in the mostly part-time jobs Kelly has held as a teacher since resigning from Saint Ignatius. Whenever the Internal Revenue Service gets on her case and starts garnishing wages, she quits and goes to work somewhere else. She now teaches English as a second language several hours a week at a north-side factory. She’s never made much money, but then she doesn’t spend much either.
Last summer Kelly was absorbed in organizing and taking part in something called the March to ELF, a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan. ELF is shorthand for the Extremely Low Frequency project, a navy radio transmitter housed at Clam Lake in the Chequamegon woods of Wisconsin, some 435 miles north of Chicago. Since the 1960s ELF has been a target of peace activists because its announced purpose is to send coded messages via low-frequency waves to Trident submarines lurking so deep in the ocean that conventional radio waves can’t get to them. Because ELF waves travel slowly, everyone acknowledges that the project’s only use can be as a “starter pistol” for a first-strike nuclear attack. If the United States were retaliating, land-based or air-based missiles, which can be signaled at a moment’s notice, would be the most likely weapons. Since 1991 nonviolent occupations of the site have occurred regularly, resulting in more than 250 arrests. The anti-ELF campaign has also attracted environmentalists, who claim the low-frequency waves are associated with leukemia and brain cancer, as well as legislators, including Wisconsin’s senators, who for several years have argued for a cutoff of ELF funds.
Kelly has been at numerous ELF protests, including trips there on Mother’s Day. She says that until Mother’s Day was “taken over by the Hallmark folks” it was a day for mothers to urge sons and daughters to stay home from war–at least that’s what the day’s initiator, Julia Ward Howe, had in mind when she issued the original proclamation in 1907: “Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, patience, concern.”
In December 1994 Kelly was among 15 defendants found guilty of trespassing on ELF property the previous summer. Their trial turned into an almost Kafkaesque affair, in which the trespassers were forbidden to tell or even hint to the jury why they’d stepped on government property. Yet in the end the judge refused to send anyone to jail; instead he suspended their driver’s licenses in Wisconsin for up to five years.
Kelly and the others, most of them from Chicago, felt jail would have been more acceptable. They wanted to be at ELF on August 6, 1995, for the 50th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, and one evening last spring, as a group of them discussed their travel options, Kelly said almost facetiously, “If we can’t drive why don’t we walk?” Thus was born the March to ELF, an event that probably generated more publicity than all the previous ELF-related activities together.
On July 1 some 25 people wearing light clothing and walking shoes gathered at the Henry Moore sculpture in Hyde Park that commemorates the first controlled nuclear reaction. Carrying signs–Make Wisconsin Nuclear Free, Nonviolence or Nonexistence–they started up Cottage Grove, walked through downtown Chicago, and ended their first day in Uptown. Drivers and pedestrians were almost universally friendly, honking, waving, and giving thumbs-up signals, though some hostility was encountered in Lincoln Park, where people yelled “Get a job!”
They walked through the entire month of July and into early August at the rate of about 15 miles a day. They traveled through Lake Forest and Zion and Milwaukee on less than major thoroughfares, with Meyer’s panel truck (decorated with peace banners) providing supplies and running side trips. Only six were slated to make the entire trip on foot. Others, including Kelly, trekked most of the way but left at various points and rejoined the marchers later.
They paused for demonstrations at a Baraboo munitions plant, visited veteran activist Sam Day, who was serving time in the federal prison in Oxford, performed an improvised peace play on the steps of the state capitol in Madison, and occasionally went Dumpster diving behind supermarkets. On August 6, as planned, they got to the ELF site, a small brick bungalow in a wooded area. They climbed the wire fence, poured ashes on the ground as a sign of penance for past wrongs, chanted peace slogans accompanied by a Japanese Buddhist drummer, and waited.
Eventually deputy sheriff Ed Schlottke, accompanied by a squad of officers, arrived to arrest everyone. But the encounter resembled a reunion rather than a confrontation. Schlottke, who’s been doing this job for years, was warmly greeted with cries of “Hi Ed!” as he and his men handcuffed the trespassers and hauled them off to jail. One of the local lawmen confided to Kelly that he plans to retire in a couple of years and may then join the demonstrators when they go over the fence again.
All were charged with trespassing and some, including Kelly, with obstruction of justice after they gave the names of civilians killed at Hiroshima when asked by the judge to identify themselves. Kelly pleaded no contest. She still faces up to 35 days in jail and a $5,000 fine. This fall the U.S. Senate passed a bill halting all funds for ELF, and similar legislation is pending in the House of Representatives.
Kelly’s activism since has been somewhat restricted because her father is ailing and has moved in with her and Meyer. But in September she was among a dozen people arrested at the French consulate on North Michigan Avenue while protesting France’s renewal of underground nuclear tests in Tahiti. The consul general, Gerard Dumont, met briefly with the group when they entered his office and assured them the Tahitians love France and approve the action. But the protesters refused to depart without assurances that France would cease testing. After several hours nine Chicago Police arrived. “When one of the policemen said we were creating a problem I tried to explain that nuclear testing is the problem his children and the children of the world are going to have to face.” All were arrested. Kelly was among those released on recognizance bonds at four the next morning.
Several weeks later she was at Northwestern University with another group protesting the presence of several high-ranking school officials on the boards of corporations that support the totalitarian regime in Burma. And plans are under way for demonstrations in January against severe prison-sentencing policies that condemn young people to “unending years under horrendous conditions.”
When President Clinton sought congressional approval for sending a U.S. peacekeeping force to Bosnia, Kelly reacted with uncharacteristic hesitancy. “Given the conditions over there, I can’t put down his proposal. But I’m not applauding either.” Mostly she’s disappointed at the failure of the peace movement to come up with more “feasible alternatives.” Wouldn’t it be intriguing, she asks, if the money allocated for a quasi-military presence were spent on rebuilding roads and hospitals and on teaching mediation and conflict-resolution skills? “What if the nations of the world made such an offer, with the understanding that the support would stop immediately if the hostilities resume? I do not believe the vast majority of those people want this terrible conflict to continue.” But no such proposal has come from the international community, and no such proposal is likely to.
Aren’t there days when she gets down, when she wishes for something else in her life–a little more security, a regular job, maybe even children of her own? She looks surprised. “Oh no,” she says. “I feel good about my life, like a teacher who intuitively senses she’s creating some good in the world. When I see what so many people my age are going through and the compromises they have to make in business and in their personal lives, I know I am fortunate. I don’t want something else. And I feel a kind of relief when I think how I could have ended up.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos/Kathy Richland.