Monday, April 12, 2004

Kathy Kelly's farewell address

Kathy Kelly is an inspiration. This letter is self-explanatory.

Kathy Kelly's Prison Mailing Address:
Kathy Kelly #04971-045
FPC Pekin
PO Box 5000
Pekin, IL 61555-5000

Crossing Lines
By Kathy Kelly
March 26, 2004

This weekend, I'm preparing for an April 6, 2004 entry into the Pekin
FCI (Federal Correctional Institute) in Peoria. I'm one of several
dozen people who, on November 22, 2003, crossed the line at the US
Army's military combat training school in Fort Benning, GA. With
caring friends, I've shared gentle and sometimes nervous laughter as
we try to make the best of a difficult reality. "Will you write a
book?" asks a sweet sister-in-law. My brother can't resist
chortling, "Yeah! A pop-up book!" and then we're off on a string of
imagined pop-ups over which to giggle. Yesterday, a friend joked
about a cartoon he'd seen that showed "the boss" in jail and the
unnerved assistants asking, "How long can we say, 'Sorry, he's away
from his desk.'"

I could be harmed in prison, but that certainly could have happened
to me while in Baghdad or several other places I've traveled to by
choice. I don't feel anxiety beyond normal fear of the unknown.

The cruelty of prison rests in locking up people who are often
already feeling remorse and low self-esteem because of past actions
and then heaping upon them more reasons to feel badly about
themselves and allowing almost no means to improve their situation.
Parents separated from their children, feeling that they've screwed
up their lives, are often snarled at by counselors and guards who say
they should have thought about their loved ones before they started
causing trouble. People who've committed crimes, often nonviolent
crimes which they honestly regret, (mainly related to drug use and
drug trade), shouldn't be free to continue harming themselves or
others through drug traffic. But why take away every other freedom,
and why employ other human beings to act as "human zookeepers?"

I've felt somewhat insulated from attacks on self-esteem while in
prison. I'm proud of line-crossings that protest pouring money into
the Project ELF nuclear weapon facility in northern Wisconsin that
fast tracks Tomahawk Cruise missiles to maim and kill people in Iraq.
Likewise, it's good to be part of the growing group who've crossed
the line at a military combat training school in Fort Benning, GA.
Graduates of the school have been responsible for massacres,
assassinations and tortures. People should be crossing these lines
every day of the week. No shame, no stigma here.

But I do feel troubled because I've been so distanced, in recent
years, from some of the poorest people in our country. I need to
better understand what's happening to them. Am I right when I guess
that the media successfully pressures young people in inner cities to
consume, to buy, to have brand name this and that? Does this
corporate push to buy certain lines of clothing, cosmetics, and cars
push people further into an underground economy because they can't
get a stake in the above ground economies after our education system
has badly failed them? Thinking of how George Fox, who helped found
the Quaker faith, would stand on church pews during sermons and urge
people to trod gently over the earth, seeing that of god in everyone,
I've nurtured a fantasy related to court rooms. Suppose one were to
stand up on a courtroom bench, risk contempt of court, and
ask, "Could we just take a minute to analyze our setting here with a
live graph? How many in this court room are making money in the
criminal justice system and how many are "the raw material" feeding
this system? I'll bet that the people making money would be,
primarily, white and well educated. They're the lawyers, the judges,
the courtroom personnel. And I'll bet that the people feeding the
system, keeping the well paid criminal justice system employees in
business, would be African American, Hispanic, and Asian. If
convicted, the "criminals" could find themselves earning 18 cents per
hour laboring, within the prison industrial complex, for major US
corporations who can hire prison labor without ever having to worry
about paid vacations, benefits, overtime, hiring supervisors, or
renting workspace. The prison industrial complex resembles
enslavement and might be a precursor to fascism.

I want to nonviolently defy this system.

In 1988, upon entering the Cass County jail in Harrison, MO, my heart
sank as I realized how intensely the other 12 women in the cell, a
dingy area called "the bullpen," didn't want to see a new person
encroach on the minimal space allotted to them. Most had already been
there for many weeks. The bullpen was meant to be a small holding
cell area, but because the jail was so overcrowded, the six bunk
beds, exposed toilet, metal table and spray-mist shower with a ripped
curtain became housing for women prisoners awaiting transport. I had
just been released from the hospital following major surgery after a
lung collapse caused by a congenital abnormality. Friends said that
in my prison uniform I could have posed for a Soviet Union poster
charging the US with abusing prisoners. The women prisoners glaring
at me were seeing a 90 pound woman with pink eye, a runny nose,
tangled hair, an obnoxious cough, and a facial rash. Eyeing the top
bunk assigned to me, I wondered how I'd heave myself up there without
stepping on another woman's bed. And how could I stuff the lumpy
mattress I carried into the prison issue casing when I could barely
bend down to tie my shoes? At that point, the most intimidating woman
in "the bullpen" laughed, rolled her eyes, and said, "I don't know
what I did so wrong to be locked up with this white motherfucker with
AIDS!" My heart sank.

I managed to occupy the top bunk and, over the next hours, women
closest to me were curious and then kindly, asking me how I'd ended
up in the bullpen. We found small ways to be helpful to one another.
For instance, I had my "week-at-a-glance" address book with me which
included a small map of the US. Together, other inmates and I found
the various federal prisons to which each of us could be sent. I
started to feel better. Within three days, all of the women treated
me with affection, calling me "Missiles" for short. (I made a mental
note not to trivialize our action in planting corn at nuclear missile
silo sites but decided not to argue with the nickname.) "Missiles,"
said the woman who had first erupted upon seeing me, "I tried my
hardest not to like you, but I just can't help myself --I like you."

Major Nick and Sargeant Roy, the officers responsible to run the Cass
County jail, were stingy beyond belief when it came to spending the
federal money sent to them as reimbursement for housing federal
prisoners awaiting transport. We never had adequate supplies of
toilet paper, paper towel, cleaning supplies, or eating utensils. In
the two months I spent there, only once was a guard "free" to take us
outside for fresh air. Painted battleship grey, with bars on three
sides of the enclosure, and flourescent lights that were never turned
off, the "bullpen" was one of the worst places the prison system in
the US maintained.

One day a woman came into the cell who had been charged with a DUI,
driving unde the influence. Her lawyer came to bail her out the next
day. As she left, I asked if she could leave behind her
newspaper. "Oh honey," she said, "you all shouldn't have to read
yesterday's news. I'll get them to send in today's paper." I politely
said that we'd rather have the old one because when we ran out of
toilet paper we used newspaper. As soon as she was outside, she
slapped a lawsuit against the prison for failing to respect human
rights. As soon as Major Nick learned of it, he stormed into "the
bullpen." "Which one of you all bitches in this here bullpen had the
nerve to say that we do not GIVE you toilet paper?" he bellowed. I
expected a chorus of angry responses, but instead heard, "Musta' been
Missiles. She thinks she's living in some kind of hotel!" I was
stunned. I felt like a general leading the charge who looks behind,
asking, "Where are the troops?" Major Nick polled each woman in the
cell. "Have you EVER had an experience in this bullpen where your
needs were not met?!" Each woman avowed that Major Nick and Sargeant
Roy took good care of them. When my turn came, I listed the items
they didn't supply, told him how awful the slop they fed us had been,
complained about the miasmic cloud of cigarette smoke hovering over
us, and assured Major Nick that he shouldn't run a kennel for dogs
much less a place where human beings lived.

Hours later, after a glass of kool-aid was spilled on the metal table
and we had no paper towel to clean it up, women began
shouting, "Guard! Guard! We need paper towels." No paper towels
arrived. A sticky puddle trickled onto the floor.

Months later, at the Lexington, KY maximum-security prison where I
served the remainder of my sentence, I asked one of the women to help
me understand what had happened that day. She helped me see how much
power Major Nick and Sargeant Roy had over each of the women. These
jailers could interfere with their chances to get "good time," to see
their children before they were transported to a faraway prison, to
see or talk with a lawyer, to meet with a clergy person, to purchase
commissary items, or to get a box sent into the prison with tube
socks and an undershirt. I had plenty of "connections" on the outside
and had nothing to lose, with a relatively short (one year) sentence
and a statement on record that I wouldn't pay any fines. Of all of us
in that cell, I was the most privileged in terms of education and
financial security.

The story has become a metaphor for me. Who had the biggest
responsibility, in "the bullpen," to raise her voice? To whom much is
given, much is required. When we witness, first hand, serious abuses
of fellow human beings, and when we have a chance to raise our voices
and perhaps alleviate their afflictions, how can we keep quiet?

In our world, many of us who live in the US are perched, quite by
accident, amidst inordinately luxurious surroundings, relative to the
rest of the world. We're the luckiest. We're the most blest. And we
have the greatest responsibility to build a better world.

My own logic tells me that when US troops "crossed the line," in
March 2003, they trespassed into a sovereign country, Iraq, based on
the theory and argument that Iraq's weapons of mass destruction posed
an imminent threat to people in the US. Now it's clear that Iraq
didn't pose even a distant threat to people here.

At Fort Benning, GA, we crossed a line onto two feet of government
grass at a place where it's beyond dispute that graduates of the
military combat training school have participated in torture,
maiming, disappearance, massacre and assassination when they returned
to their own countries.

The time-honored method of nonviolent civil disobedience has helped
swell the numbers of people who clamor for closure of the SOA. In
November 2003, 14,000 people processed to the gates of Fort Benning,
solemnly carrying crosses in remembrance of the hundreds of thousands
of people who were brutally and lethally punished by SOA graduates.
New disclosures implicate recent graduates of this military combat
training school in actions that have threatened innocent people in
Central and South America. I remember joining (Rev.) Roy Bourgeois,
MM, and a dozen others for four weeks of a water-only fast, at the
gates of Fort Benning, in 1990. It's been a relief, then and now, to
feel that we're trying our best to prevent any furtherance of a
school that teaches people to terrify and subjugate brothers and
sisters who live in the impoverished countries south of the United

On Monday, March 29, I'll go to Madison, WI to face a one-month jail
sentence for refusing to pay a $150 fine after twelve of us walked
two feet across the line onto the Navy's ELF/Trident transmitter site
located in the northern woods of Wisconsin. ELF (extremely low-
frequency waves) is used to trigger nuclear missiles. The ELF system
is also used to trigger Cruise missiles. Cruise missiles were the
weapon of choice among war planners as the Shock and Awe campaign
against Iraq was developed. On January 26, 2003, the Sun-Herald of
Sydney, Austraila reported, "The US intends to shatter
Iraq 'physically, emotionally and psychologically' by raining down on
its people as many as 800 cruise missiles in two days." "There will
not be a safe place in Baghdad," a Pentagon official told CBS News
Feb. 8, 2003. "We want them to quit, not to fight," said Harlan
Ullman, author of the "shock and awe" attack plan, "so that you have
this simultaneous effect—rather like the nuclear weapons at
Hiroshima - not taking days or weeks but minutes." Mr. Ullman told
the Sun Herald, "You take the city down. By that I mean you get rid
of their power and water. In two, three, four, five days they are
physically, emotionally and psychologically exhausted."

I felt deep dismay, in Baghdad, during that war, as the bombs
thundered down on the city, morning, noon and night. I also promised
myself a nonviolently defiant visit to a military facility that
helped launch those bombs, at the earliest opportunity, upon return
to the US. "Don't do the crime if you can't do the time," is a line
we often hear. I'm ready.

Almost every time I've crossed the border to leave Iraq, I've felt as
though I'm leaving an enormous prison. It takes me about eight
seconds to readjust to having electricity; I nearly genuflected in
front of the thermostat when I returned home after a chilly stretch
of weeks in Iraq last winter. At home, I never worry about bombs
exploding nearby, nor do I wonder how to pay for food, clothing and
rent. People in Iraq and in many of our neighboring southern
countries must constantly preoccupy themselves with ways to survive
circumstances over which they have very little control. Their lives
are directly afflicted by our desires to be "better off" than the
rest of the world, taking other people's resources at cut-rate prices.

In his riveting autobiography, From Yale to Jail, (Rose Hill Books,
1993), David Dellinger concludes a chapter entitled "Prison Again"
with an editorial he published in 1947, after his release from
Lewisburg maximum-security penitentiary. Deploring the bombings of
Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Dellinger wrote "Without any semblance of a
democratic decision—without even advance notice of what was taking
place—the American people waked up one morning to discover that the
United States government had committed one of the worst atrocities in
history…The sudden murder of 300,000 Japanese is consistent with the
ethics of a society which is bringing up millions of its own children
in city slums."

From previous imprisonment, I recall a world of imprisoned beauty,
and yet most of the women I met landed there because of ugly
circumstances which they had tried to escape through drug use, drug
sales, or both.

Not all peace activists can be part of civil disobedience actions
resulting in prison sentences. But for those who can, entering the
prisons offers an opportunity to better understand how the once
lauded war on poverty has become a war against the poor.

Those of us who 'do time' for crossing lines at Fort Benning and at
Project ELF will be away from our desks, but we won't be away from
our work.

Kathy Kelly is a co-coordinator of Voices in the Wilderness. 773-784-
To learn more about how to become part of efforts to close the SOA,
Kathy will also spend time in prison for crossing the line at Project
ELF, a US Navy nuclear weapon facility in northern WI which helped
fast-track Tomahawk Cruise missiles that attacked Iraq during the
Shock and Awe campaign. To learn more about the campaign to shut down
Project ELF, visit

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