Kathy Kelly: An American Voice in the Wilderness

Susan Chenelle Jun 28, 2005

Many of us worry that the Bush administration’s imperial foreign policy is ruining the rest of the world’s perception of Americans. However, there are many U.S. citizens out there who are countering that damage and upholding what’s left of our good name. Kathy Kelly, co-founder of Voices in the Wilderness, has spent almost ten years coordinating food and medicine convoys to Iraq and drawing attention to the devastating effects war and sanctions have had on the Iraqi people.
For bringing “medicine and toys” into Iraq, the U.S. government charged her and other VITW campaign members with violating the U.N./U.S. sanctions, and threatened them with twelve years in prison, and the organization with a penalty of $163,000. A $20,000 fine was eventually levied, but they have refused to pay it. In 1988, Kelly served nine months of a one-year sentence in a Lexington, Kentucky, maximum-security prison for planting corn on nuclear missile silo sites. After seeing Iraqis with limbs blown off in hospitals – a form of “disarmament” she had not previously considered, she says – during her most recent trip to Iraq in January 2004, she decided that she “had a date with a couple military bases” when she returned to the U.S. In the spring of 2004, she spent three months in Pekin Federal Prison for crossing the line during a protest aimed at closing the facility commonly known as the “School of the Americas” or the “School of the Assassins” in Fort Benning, Georgia.

In a June 23 essay she published online, she quoted the line VITW used in a previous statement on why they remained in Baghdad during the 2003 invasion: “Where you stand determines what you see, and how you live.” She and seven others have been doing “plenty of standing” in a two-week effort to make the United Nations Compensation Commission, scheduled to meet in Geneva, Switzerland, June 28-30, see what they have witnessed in Iraq: “people going to bed hungry in deteriorating homes, lacking access to clean water, exasperated and frightened by round after round of violence, and bearing scorching temperatures that won’t let up for another two months.” They are demanding that the Commission “discuss justice for Iraqis” and to not “saddle the poorest Iraqis with billions of dollars of Saddam Hussein’s debt” as well as war reparations.

The Indypendent caught up with her over the phone on day nine of the campaign’s fifteen-day fast. When asked about the values that drive her and how she came by them, she explained that she “grew up in a setting where you didn’t question the good fortune of being American and Catholic.” Yet, she noted, that “some of her main role models in that environment were people who had no outward sign of the drive for the accumulation of wealth: nuns. They seemed happy and they were doing good work.” That example planted “a seed of countercultural understanding” in her.

Back then she “knew very little of U.S. history of being anything other than benevolent.” Now, she says she finds it “difficult to identify with any nation-state, but she feels a strong allegiance with the average, everyday, good-hearted, none-too-arrogant Americans you might meet going across the country. They’re generous; they want to take care of their families; they are not war-like.”

But by and large, she perceives that there isn’t “a big investment among people” in enduring inconvenience in order to make things the way they should be. However, given that, she finds it “stunning that in the United States’ relatively short history, there is the Civil Rights movement, the anti-war movement, the labor movement, all these intense movements that people all over the world identify with American culture. But now there seems to be a disinterest in the exercise of taking freedom, now at the point of being at our peril. I don’t ever recall a time when I expected government leaders to be a help in that discussion.”

She observes that “more comfortable people tend to burrow into themselves” and that many Americans “could take much more responsibility with far less risk than people in Latin American countries for example; it’s just a matter of getting back into shape.”

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