At age 52-an age when many activists of her generation have moved toward the mainstream-Kathy Kelly has retained her radical ideals. As a pacifist and "war tax refuser," Kelly hasn't paid incomes taxes in 23 years. (To that end, she has tried to keep her income below the taxable level of $3,000 per year.) Her reasoning: "In the face of weapon proliferation, war making and environmental degradation, I think we each face a moral imperative not to collaborate with crimes we don't condone." As an activist, she has been jailed numerous times-including a nine-month stint in maximum-security federal prison in Lexington, Kentucky, and most recently, a three-month stint in federal prison in Illinois. Her heroes are Jesus, Gandhi and activist/pacifists like Barbara Deming, David Dellinger and Karl Meyer.
Kelly was able to do an interview with BW on her way from Israel, where she is protesting the treatment of convicted treasonist Mordechai Vanunu, to the U.S. She talked about her passion and her motivation.
A self-described "late bloomer," Kelly's activism began in earnest in her late twenties. She told BW, "I moved to a poor neighborhood on Chicago's north side and there began to interact with people whose values and actions I deeply admired." Then working as a Catholic school teacher, she eventually quit teaching to devote herself full-time to social activism. Says Kelly, "I've never grown dissatisfied with the lifestyle and commitments that I and others undertook in our uptown neighborhood during the 1980s."
Kelly's life is her activism, and vice versa. "Social justice" was the thrust of her early activism, but since the early '90s, an equally visible cause has been Iraq. Her organization, Voices in the Wilderness, was founded in 1996 "to end economic and military warfare against the Iraqi people" and Kelly herself has been to Iraq 21 times since 1996. She was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times (in 2000 with Denis Halliday, in 2001 and in 2003 with Voices in the Wilderness). She told BW, "I traveled to Iraq, in early January 1991, because I wanted to be part of a pacifist group interposing itself between the warring parties. I remained in Iraq until August 1991. But after returning to the U.S., I began to forget about Iraq. I'd returned to teaching, became a full-time caregiver for my father, and worked on various other human rights, disarmament and peace team campaigns. But by 1995, several of us who had been to Iraq in 1991 finally began to realize that the war had never ended. It had changed into an economic war which directly discriminated against the weakest people in Iraq, especially the children. Several of us decided to develop a campaign to end the U.S.-led U.N. economic sanctions against Iraq. Once we traveled to Iraq, breaking the sanctions by bringing medicines and medical relief supplies, and there met Iraqi women and infants at hospitals which were like death rows for infants, we simply couldn't walk away from those bedsides." The recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have brought increase activist enthusiasm-especially in the up-and-coming generations-on a cause that has become almost de rigueur since Voices began making noise.
Voices faces up to $20,000 in fines for violating U.N. sanctions in Iraq. Of course, Kelly refuses to pay the fine (and would refuse even if Voices could pay it). As much as her activism, her defiance is what gets Kelly into trouble-and garners the desired spotlight. It seems as if Kelly always has the threat of incarceration looming for her activities, but she sees constructive purpose in her time spent behind bars. "Time spent in jail ... constitutes the most significant learning experience I've had since I learned how to read. In prison, I've met interesting women, many of whom befriended me. I learned more about the impact of poverty on people's lives and the ways in which poverty wears people down when they are imprisoned. I began to develop a passionate nonviolent resistance to the prison industrial complex."
As far as regrets go, Kelly doesn't allow many. When asked, she says simply, "I wish that I had worked harder to learn Arabic and still hope I'll have an opportunity to do so."
Kelly's philosophy isn't a lenient one. Her views are strong, deeply held and, one might say, militant. She's as much environmentalist as pacifist and as much social activist as environmentalist. It's all inextricable to Kelly. "It's important to clarify that pacifism isn't simply a refusal to pull a trigger or drop a bomb: it must involve daily choices to share resources, simplify lifestyle, and find ways to be of service to others," she says. "In order to face the complex challenges of living in fair relationships with other people, we must grapple with the reality of our comfortable lives, now, in relation to tremendous need elsewhere in the world. ... In U.S. history, there has been a steady succession of 'hot wars' since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ... [b]ut all along, undergirding these wars, there has been a war of western culture against the biodiversity of the planet. The planet can't sustain us any longer. Does all this warmaking constitute an answer for future generations? It answers the greed of corporations that benefit from producing and using weapons and the recklessness of corporations that refuse to rehabilitate themselves from crimes of ravaging the topsoil, creating acid rain, depleting the ozone layer and contaminating earth's water, ground and air."
Kelly holds herself to particular standards, and means to hold the rest of us to the same-willing or not.
Kathy Kelly will lecture at the Boise State Special Events Center on Friday, April 29, at 7 p.m. Admission is free. She will also lead a workshop about the tradition of nonviolent resistance on Saturday, April 30, at 10 a.m. Suggested donation is $10. For more information about the lecture, call Melissa Wintrow of the Boise State Women's Center at 426-4256, or on the Web, go to womenscenter.boisestate.edu/events/index.cfm. To register for the workshop, call Camille Thom of the Idaho Peace Coalition at 424-8541.