An Interview with Kathy Kelly


Earlier this year, the Plymouth Institute for Peace Research (PIPR) interviewed the recently released peace activist, Kathy Kelly.

PIPR: Tell us how you ended up in jail, again.

KELLY: On June 1, 2014, shortly after returning from a visit with young friends in Afghanistan, I decided to join Georgia Walker [a Catholic peace activist] in attempting to deliver a loaf of bread to the commander of Whiteman Air Force Base, located in the Midwest of the U.S. We wanted to give the bread as a symbol of hospitality practiced by Afghan friends who typically engage in discussions after sharing a meal.

We wanted the commander to tell us whether or not operators of weaponized drones had killed any Afghan people that day. We also wanted to know if they had injured or maimed anyone, or destroyed any buildings. Another crucial question pertained to the manual used in training drone operators. How are they prepared to distinguish between civilians and combatants? And what are the consequences if drone operators wish to leave their work or be reassigned? Is there any provision made for personnel suffering from post-traumatic stress because of their involvement in drone warfare?

Georgia and I felt that we shouldn’t leave without holding the conversation we sought, knowing that our questions were entrusted to us by Afghan people who could never enter the U.S. We were arrested that afternoon and, on December 10, 2014, Judge Matt Whitworth found us guilty of criminal trespass to a military installation. Georgia is serving one year of probation, and I was recently released after serving three months in prison.

You’ve been arrested and imprisoned for peace work in the past. Can you tell us more about those occasions?

In 1988, we planted corn on top of nuclear missile silo sites at the same base that Georgia and I visited last spring. A Missouri judge convicted me for multiple charges of criminal trespass. In August 1988, we were arrested and released several times, and as soon as we were released we returned to the missile silos sites to plant more corn.

I was facing 30 months in prison, and the judge decided to sentence me to one year, nine months of which was served in a maximum security prison on the same grounds as the prison that just released me. I’ve also crossed onto a U.S. military base which houses a school that teaches soldiers from various countries to control their populations through methods which include torture, massacres, disappearances, rape, and assassination.

I served three months in prison for peacefully crossing the line at Fort Benning, Georgia. Hundreds of people have joined in these line-crossings during annual gatherings organized by SOAW, the School of the Assassins Watch. Days after my April 21 release date, when I walked out of Lexington’s federal prison, I joined activists at Beale AFB in California for a vigil. Sixteen of us were arrested and charged with criminal trespass, as we held banners portraying children who had been killed by drones in Yemen and Pakistan.

What kind of people did you meet in prison?

I met friendly, kind and interesting women during the three months I was in prison in Lexington, Kentucky. Many of them face lengthy sentences of five or more years, and I sensed a weariness within the prison as women long for release. Most of the guards were male, and I don’t recall feeling threatened or even annoyed by any of them. I think they’d also like to be released from the work they do, imprisoning women who pose no threat to society.

Before I left, women gifted me with a crocheted bag, on which a peace symbol was embroidered, and asked me to be sure to take it with me in subsequent travels, and to send them photos from places I visit. We also hope to keep in touch as we read novels and as our own stories develop.

Reading history, I find that oppression and progress come in waves. What are your thoughts?

I find that people are easily distracted by sports and entertainment, and can also become addictively “lost” in social media. Oppressors can exploit and take advantage of the natural longing for community by drawing people into identification with celebrities and various competitions, perhaps satisfying a need to be part of a larger entity, but the virtual communities may not equip people to engage in creating a better world, a world where people solve the problems we collectively face by thinking and working together.

The Elbit anti-drone protests are significant. What is the way forward?

I’m glad to know that Elbit protesters are planning their next action. Kurt Vonnegut once wrote, “Get yourself a gang.” I like this idea. I think people should acknowledge the potential for legislative action to enable social change but never give up on nonviolent direct action, always aiming to educate onlookers about the grievances caused by war and injustice.

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PIPR is a center for interdisciplinary research groups and grassroots activists dedicated to peace and justice.