Mohsen Abdelmoumen: In your experience as an activist, what is the most effective way to fight the imperialist wars in the US?
Kathy Kelly: In the buildup to the 2003 U.S. Shock and Awe bombing of Iraq, the world came closer than ever before to stopping a war before it started. A growing level of education, outreach, civil disobedience, and massive street demonstrations developed at the same time that UN weapons inspectors were very close to issuing a conclusive report about whether or not Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. The U.K. government told the U.S. government it would be extremely difficult to ally with the U.S. in attacking Iraq following a UN report which was expected to certify that Iraq didn’t have weapons of mass destruction. Had the massive protest movement remained in the streets, risking massive arrests, it’s possible that the U.S. move toward war could have been delayed. Tragically, the war commenced and the repercussions of U.S. military and economic wars against Iraq continue to afflict Iraqi people. Nevertheless, I believe that vigorous outreach and education efforts, along with creative nonviolent direct actions (for instance, regarding Iraq, organizing and participating in delegations to break the economic sanctions against Iraq) can one day be effective in stopping the U.S. addiction to war.
You have been a great witness to the wars the US has waged and its direct impact on the people of Iraq and Afghanistan. How did you experience the moments when you were in combat zones with these people?
In Iraq, living alongside ordinary families throughout the 2003 Shock and Awe bombing of Baghdad and during the first weeks of the U.S. invasion and occupation, I felt dismay and sorrow. People we grew to know in Iraq meant no harm to the U.S. people. Crippling economic sanctions had gravely diminished their capacity to effect social change under Saddam Hussein’s brutal dictatorship. And yet civilians, especially the most vulnerable, –the poor, the elderly and the children – were collectively punished. In millions of cases, they were punished to death. Sitting at the bedside of a child whose body has been ripped open by U.S. bombs, or who has become orphaned by the U.S. attacks persuaded me, again and again, to work toward abolishing all wars.
In Afghanistan, I’m very moved by young people who say “Blood will not wash away blood.” They have experienced bereavement, displacement, trauma and intense fear. I watch their strong efforts to form community and extend the had of friendship, across borders, and feel privileged to be among them.
Your book “Other Lands Have Dreams: from Baghdad to Pekin Prison“ that reflects your poignant testimony shows us both your commitment and the consequences of it, because you are often imprisoned for your actions.For you, is the denunciation sufficient or should it be accompanied by a concrete action?
Ideally, nonviolent direct action helps stir curiosity and raise questions that will engage people to join in future actions. When I’ve been imprisoned, I’ve tried hard to keep up with correspondence, but it’s impossible. Dozens of people whom I’ve never met before wrote me, each day, during my last imprisonment, often expressing their desire to become more active in building a better world.
I think it’s important to add that there is no hierarchy of actions that rates some actions as better or more serious than other actions. Activists experience seasons, I think, and when a person reaches a season during which it seems best to slow down or take a break, I strongly urge creative recharging.
Has the fact of being incarcerated for your ideas reinforced your conviction to fight for the righteous causes?
During imprisonments, I’ve felt intensely aware of our society’s skewed perception of threats and of fearful criminal behavior. The greatest terror we all face is the terror of what we’re doing to our own environment, generating rising levels of global warming and causing climate change that already afflicts large populations that now lack water and must abandon their land and their flocks because of desertification. Criminal behaviors that most threaten us are engaged in by the CEOs of military contractors, by manufacturers of acid rain, tobacco and firearms, and by people who develop, store, sell and threaten to use nuclear weapons. I don’t want any of these industrial leaders to be imprisoned, but I would like them to be rehabilitated.
Israel enjoys unlimited support of the United States. What does Israel offer to the United States to be supported in this way? What does the American taxpayer gain by giving money to help the war effort of the Zionist entity of Israel against the Palestinian people?
I think American taxpayers would find true security in seeking just and fair relationships with other people. Imagine if the Israelis had to build tunnels that would allow them to transport into Israel the weapons they acquire from the U.S: the Apache helicopters, the D-9 bulldozers, the F-15 bomber planes…those tunnels would be enormous and cavernous. The flow of U.S. weapons isn’t questioned, and I’ve lived in Gaza during Israeli aerial attacks when a bomb exploded once every eleven minutes during the night time. Gazans build tunnels to import needed goods, and the Israelis periodically destroy Gazan homes, infrastructure and roadways, claiming that they must bomb Gaza in self-defense. U.S. taxpayers have helped purchase a cruelly unjust system run by warlords and war profiteers, in Israel.
You lived in Gaza with the Palestinian people under Israeli bombardment during Operation Cast Lead in 2009 and you were part of the Freedom Flotilla II in 2011.What can you tell us about these experiences?
In 2009, when a cease-fire was declared, Gazan children who wanted to help their parents began to collect firewood, hauling it on tarps across the ground, knowing their parents needed fuel to cook and to heat their homes. The children were gleaming with pride as they heaped twigs and pieces of scrap wood on their tarps. An elderly fellow approached me. “You’re probably wondering why I don’t help these children,” he said. He picked up a large stick. Then he glanced upward. “If the drones above see me pick up this stick, they might think I’m holding a gun. They might attack us.”
At the Al Shifa hospital, a surgeon put his head in his hands. “For 22 days, the world watched,” he said, and no country tried to help us.
In the Emergency Room, I met a Palestinian doctor, who had come from Dubai to volunteer in Gaza. It turned out that he was born and raised in a neighborhood very close to my home in Chicago. I asked him what I should tell people back home. He began to talk about consequences of white phosphorous burns and usage of Dense Inert Metal Explosives, but then he paused and said, “No, I am completely wrong. Just go home and tell people that American taxpayers paid for these weapons.”
By writing “Searching for the truth in Jenin“, you wanted the world to know what is happening in Jenin and how the Palestinian people are being crushed by the Zionist entity of Israel. Don’t you think that the Zionist entity of Israel is a criminal and rogue state that must be outlawed by the international community and sanctioned as was the apartheid regime in South Africa?
In Jenin, I remember tying a pillow case to a broomstick, hoping this “prop” would help us cross checkpoints. Much to our surprise, during a 13-mile walk, we were eventually able to persuade soldiers to let our group of five activists continue into the Jenin Camp which was still being attacked. We had many conversations with Israeli Defense Forces and generally could establish common ground. The first morning in the Jenin camp, we encountered a grandmother who was paralyzed and was suffering a severe asthma attack. Her family begged us to carry her to the nearby clinic – it was too unsafe for them to leave their home which had already been attacked. My friends, Jeff and Eric, couldn’t carry the woman because she was too heavy. I ran toward the clinic to get a stretcher. Five Israeli soldiers came toward me aiming their guns. “Put those guns down,“ I said, “and they did. I asked them to point me toward the clinic entrance, and they did. But when I came racing back, carrying a stretcher on my head, I saw Jeff bent over the elderly woman, waving his passport. Soldiers on the second floor of a nearby building were throwing plates, bottles and glasses down on the terrified old woman. War generates cruel behavior. We must work to abolish war.
You also defend the cause of the Yemeni people who are undergoing a completely ignored war that no one talks about. Do not you think that Westerners are guilty of selling weapons to the Saudis? In your opinion, what are the actions to be taken on the Western powers that support Saudi Arabia in its criminal war against Yemen?
After years of U.S. support for dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh, war has wracked Yemen since 2014. Its neighbor Saudi Arabia, itself among the region’s cruelest dictatorships and a staunch U.S. ally, became nervous in 2015 about the outcome and, with support from nine regional allies, began subjecting the country to a punishing barrage of airstrikes, and also imposed a blockade that ended the inflow of food and supplies to Yemen through a major port. This was accomplished with massive, ongoing weapons shipments from the U.S., which has also waged independent airstrikes that have killed dozens of civilians, including women and children.
The UN should call for a permanent cease-fire, name Saudi Arabia as one of the warring parties, and demand that the U.S. stop selling weapons to the Saudi-led coalition and immediately stop midair refueling of Saudi and UAE bombers. The UN should also call for a full investigation into the network of clandestine prisons in Southern Yemen where human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, allege that United Arab Emirates officials are abusing, torturing and disappearing prisoners.
You have a remarkable career as a woman of conviction and courage. I found in your exceptional course the breath of the great leader Martin Luther King. Are you a continuator of the work of this great leader?
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King called on people to confront the triple evils of racism, militarism and poverty. I think it’s important to embrace his call by striving to live simply, share resources radically, and prefer service to dominance. I think it’s important to withdraw any and all support for militarism and to make the most impoverished among us our number one priority. We must try never to let inconvenience interfere with acting in accord with our deepest values.
You do not pay your taxes for not supporting wars, you organize sit-ins in senators’ offices and on military bases,you defy bans by sending medicines and food to countries under sanctions like Iraq, you educate the American public about wars waged by their government, etc. Does this all contribute to raising the awareness of the American people?
I believe actions are educative and education can lead to action. We can never abandon efforts to educate U.S. people about the consequences of U.S. wars.
Is the American public aware of the imperialist wars waged by the United States and the military-industrial complex? Or do the mass media manipulating the information prevent them from seeing the truth?
The military industrialcomplex has a vice like grip on education in the U.S. The peace movement is outspent and outmaneuvered by military contractors that run to the banks with their portfolios stuffed, profiting from war and successfully diverting public attention to endless coverage of sports and entertainment.
Your organization Voices for Creative Nonviolence is involved in a variety of activities ranging from supporting the Palestinian people to the people of Iraq and the Afghan people. What are the main areas of work for your organization?
Voices for Creative Nonviolence believes that where you stand determines what you see. We attempt to stand alongside people trapped in war zones and to help amplify the voices of people who are threatened by U.S. military and economic wars.
With all these profit wars, do not you think that Man has lost his humanity?
I find hope in younger generations.
You are an extraordinary personality. How did you come to defend the cause of the oppressed peoples? What motivated you and what is your message to those who resist oppression?
Keep one foot firmly planted among those who bear the brunt of oppression and one foot planted among people waging nonviolent resistance. Then we’ll find our equilibrium. Find kindred spirits! I like Barbara Deming’s lines: “Locked in winter, summer lies. Gather your bones together, Rise!”
Interview realized by Mohsen Abdelmoumen
Who is Kathy Kelly?
Kathy Kelly is an American peace activist and an author.She has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times since 2000. She is a co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence and a co-founder of Voices in the Wilderness, which sent over 70 delegations to Iraq from 1996 to 2003, in open defiance of deadly U.S./UN economic sanctions. Kathy Kelly remained in Baghdad during the 2003 U.S. bombing and invasion and has shared violence risks with several war-targeted communities as part of a commitment to report back on war from the perspective of those it most endangers. She lived in Gaza for 22 days in 2009 with a Palestinian family during the bombing of Operation Cast Lead led by Israel. She has also been involved in Afghanistan where she has done considerable work with community organizers. In July 2011, she was part of the Freedom Flotilla II to force the blockade of Gaza. In 2012 Kelly worked to initiate the Afghan Peace Volunteers’ “Duvet Project,” using foreign donations to produce duvet comforters for free distribution to Afghans in the winter months. Since 2012, seamstresses in Kabul are used to produce thousands of duvets to distribute. Kelly continues in regular visits to Kabul.Kelly’s nonviolent activism has incurred frequent arrests including several lengthy incarcerations in U.S. prisons against whose conditions she also campaigns. As a war tax refuser, she has refused all forms of federal income tax since 1981.
For her participation in planting corn in the soil above nuclear missile silos, a symbolic act intended to demonstrate the peaceful use of land, she was sentenced to nine months in federal prison.For refusing to pay federal income taxes her teaching salary was garnisheed; for repeated visits to Iraq to distribute toys and medicine to children, she and her associates have incurred thousands of dollars in fines, along with threats of imprisonment. When she trespassed at Fort Benning, Georgia to protest the activities of the School of the Americas/Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation in 2003, she was arrested, physically and verbally abused and sentenced to three months in federal prison. In April 2014 Kelly was arrested protesting drone piloting at Beale Air Force Base in California.In June 2016, Kelly traveled to five cities in the Russian Federation seeking to build activist connections opposing a revitalized cold war, and to report Russian perspectives on increasing NATO military buildup along the country’s borders.In April, 2017, Kelly helped organize and then participated in a 6-day fast across from United Nations headquarters in New York, called “A Fast for Yemen Because Yemen Is Starving.” This interview was conducted while Mrs. Kelly was doing her last action in early January 2018 in front of the White House in Washington for a weeklong fast aimed at closing the Guantanamo prison and abolishing torture forever.
Cathy Kelly has received more than 40 prizes and awards including:Elliott Black Award for 2006 awarded by the American Ethical Union, De Paul Center for Church/State Studies 2007 John Courtney Murray Award, April 2007, Bradford-O’Neill Medallion for Social Justice Recipient, Dominican University, September 2007, The Oscar Romero Award presented by Pax Christi Maine, October 2007, The War Resisters League (WRL) 2010 Peace Award, presented by WRL, May 2, 2010, The Chomsky Award of the Justice Studies Association, 2011, Evanston Friends Meeting Peace Award, 2013.
Kathy Kelly is the author of “Other Lands Have Dreams: Letters From Pekin Prison” (Counterpunch 2005), co-author of “Prisoners on Purpose: A Peacemakers Guide to Jails and Prisons”(Progressive Foundation 1989), and co-editor of War and Peace in the Gulf: Testimonies of the Gulf Peace Team(Spokesman 2001).