Seeking Peace in a World of Imprisoned Beauty

Kathy Kelly's vision of a world of imprisoned beauty reveals the countless lives caged behind bars, cast off into refugee camps, banished in homeless shelters, or left to die on remote battlefields.

Kathy Kelly (third from left) and her fellow protesters re-enact the stations of the cross at Livermore Laboratory on Good Friday. Photo by Judith W. Sandoval

by Terry Messman

While serving nine months in federal prison after her arrest for an anti-nuclear protest where she planted corn on a nuclear missile silo in Missouri, peace activist Kathy Kelly had a vivid awakening that she was living in “a world of imprisoned beauty.”

In prison, Kelly met women who were captives in this world of imprisoned beauty, women who could just as easily have been her sisters-in-law or her next-door neighbors. To this day, she cites the courage of the women she met in prison as a guiding light in her work for peace and justice.

Kelly was stunned to realize that there was no mercy for women who were cut off from their families for many years, often for very minor economic crimes. Yet, it was life-changing for her to witness at first hand the courage demonstrated by these women in facing years of imprisonment.

It was nothing less than a revelation of the beauty of the human spirit — a world of beauty buried in the prison system. The women were separated from their children, branded with a heavy social stigma, yet they found a way to carry on despite these crushing burdens.

In an interview with Street Spirit, Kelly said, “So you have this world of imprisoned beauty and it is almost as though it’s erased from the mindset of the rest of the country.”

This jailhouse epiphany opened her eyes to the countless precious and irreplaceable lives that our society has caged behind prison walls, cast off into refugee camps, banished in homeless shelters, or left to die on remote battlefields.

It changes everything, this revelation that all around us, in the poorest neighborhoods nearby, in the almost forgotten jail cells of our cities, and in the far reaches of the world’s refugee camps and war zones, beauty has been put on trial, imprisoned, erased and extinguished.

Kathy Kelly is one of the most respected peace activists in the nation. She has lived in solidarity with people in war zones, and returned home to launch protests on their behalf in the halls of Congress.

Kelly and her fellow activists in Voices in the Wilderness also organized 70 delegations to deliver medical supplies to civilians in Iraq, in violation of U.S. economic sanctions.

She has spent her life trying to open the eyes of a nation to see the beauty of innocent people targeted by U.S. bombs in war zones, and the sacred lives desecrated by poverty.

She has been arrested dozens of times for acts of resistance to the high-ranking officials and corporate executives responsible for war crimes and economic deprivation — the pillars of society who are almost never jailed for their crimes against humanity.

Kelly said, “The main people that threaten us are in the corporation offices and in the well-appointed salons at parties, and they really threaten us. They make weapons. They make alcohol, firearms and tobacco, and arms for the military. They steal from us, and they rob us. And who goes to jail? A woman who can’t get an economic stake in her community unless she agrees to be the lookout for a two-bit drug transaction.”

Reclaiming The Radical History Of Nonviolence

Two of the most meaningful aspects of Kathy Kelly’s lifelong experiments with nonviolence are the passionate commitment that gives rise to her solidarity with victims of war and poverty, and the diverse dimensions of her resistance. Passionate and multidimensional.

The daringly radical and imaginative history of nonviolence has been forgotten to such an extent that our present-day concept of civil disobedience often consists of the staging of a strangely passive and bloodless drama. Activists politely submit to arrest, and then the powers that be carry on business — and warfare — as usual.

Yet, the history of nonviolence is filled with unforgettable images of rebels and agitators who passionately resisted injustice as though their lives were at stake. If we are to build a movement that fights for a better world — a world where beauty is no longer imprisoned — it is imperative to reclaim this legacy of truly radical resistance.

Our heritage of resistance was passed down to us through the breathtakingly brave acts of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, Alice Paul and her sister suffragists staging hunger strikes in jail, and the women of Greenham Common peace camp in their never-say-die protests of U.S. cruise missiles in England.

Our guiding lights are housing activists who defied the police and put evicted families back into their homes, anti-nuclear activists who sailed their boats directly into the path of nuclear submarines, and the Black schoolchildren in Birmingham, Alabama, who found the courage to march for freedom and refused to turn back, even when confronted with attack dogs and police clubs.

Our reckless blueprint for action was drawn up by the Catonsville 9 who burned hundreds of draft records during the Vietnam War and Plowshares activists who hammered nuclear warheads.

And our course ahead into a more humane future was navigated by Kathy Kelly and Voices in the Wilderness when they delivered medical supplies to the children of Iraq, in fearless defiance of U.S. economic sanctions.

Kathy Kelly comforts Shoba, a young child who had just been rescued by her uncle from a deadly fire in an Afghan refugee camp.

Full Spectrum of Nonviolence

At its heart, nonviolence arises from a deep reverence for life that leads us to confront the masters of war and the architects of poverty, and also provide food, housing and healthcare to the poor.

That is one of the most striking things about Kelly’s lifelong journey into nonviolence. Along with passionate acts of anti-war protest that were often costly on a personal level, she has constantly tried to reach out personally to assist the victims of war and poverty. That has often meant living in war zones with people in Iraq and Afghanistan targeted by U.S. bombs.

Her activism reveals the full, multidimensional spectrum of nonviolence, ranging from war-tax refusal, to planting corn in nuclear missile silos, to protesting drone surveillance, to delivering medical supplies to Iraq, to working with Afghan Peace Volunteers in an effort to help poor people survive economically.

Yet, even in light of all of her outwardly more dramatic acts of resistance, one of Kathy Kelly’s nonviolent vigils that matters the most to me was her decision to become a full-time caregiver for her wheelchair-bound father for several years until his death in 2000. This quiet vigil reminds us that compassion on a personal level is at the very heart of nonviolence.

In August 1988, Kelly was arrested and imprisoned for climbing the fence around a nuclear missile silo and planting corn as part of the Missouri Peace Planting to demonstrate how the earth should rightfully be used to serve life. It speaks volumes about her long-lasting commitment to peace that this year, fully 25 years after the Missouri Peace Planting, Kelly was the keynote speaker at the anti-nuclear vigil at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory on Good Friday, April 18, 2014.

At the Gates of Livermore

At the gates of the holocaust laboratory at Livermore, Kelly urged on the faithful activists, such as Carolyn Scarr and the Ecumenical Peace Institute, who have kept the Livermore protests alive for over 30 years. Kelly spoke passionately about the urgent need to “stop the menacing, horrible message that the nuclear weapons spread all over the world: If you do not  subordinate yourselves to serve U.S. national interests, we are prepared to eliminate you, to slaughter you.”

In 2003, Kelly was arrested for trespassing at Fort Benning in Georgia at an army training center originally called the School of the Americas. She spent three months in prison for protesting a “school” where the U.S. taught military officials how to utilize torture, assassinations and death-squad massacres of unarmed civilians to prop up right-wing Latin American dictatorships.

Kelly reminded her fellow protesters at Livermore Laboratory this year that Father Roy Bourgeois had once been jailed after climbing a tree at Fort Benning and using a loudspeaker to broadcast Archbishop Oscar Romero’s impassioned plea for the soldiers of El Salvador to lay down their arms and stop slaughtering their own people.

Then Kelly delivered the exact same message to the weapons designers at Livermore who are designing the U.S. arsenal of nuclear warheads. She said, “Invoking the words of Oscar Romero, in the name of God, I order you, I beg you: stop the slaughter, stop the repression!”

Her Good Friday address was indelibly colored by the years she spent in solidarity with people targeted by war in the Middle East. She said, “I’ve been carrying with me the sense of horror of remembering all the little lives snuffed out in Iraq, those children that we witnessed dying in hospital beds because of economic sanctions against Iraq. They should have been teenagers now. We’ve lost all of their lives.”

Keeping the Faith

There was a sense that she was keeping faith with the children she learned to care about in Afghanistan and Iraq. Keeping faith with the anti-nuclear activists she was arrested with 25 years ago at a missile silo in the American heartland. Keeping faith with Father Roy Bourgeois who was arrested at Fort Benning for keeping faith with Archbishop Romero, assassinated while saying Mass after asking the soldiers to lay down their arms.

Keeping Romero’s words alive, Kathy Kelly asked the weapons designers at Livermore to lay down their nuclear arms. Her presentation was, above all, passionate, as befits an observance of the Passion Play that is Good Friday. Nonviolence means passionate resistance because too many innocent lives have already been lost, and too much blood has been shed.

The Abolition of War

In inviting people to step across the line into civil disobedience at Livermore, Kelly expressed a hope that may sound utopian in the present moment, but may someday turn out to be essential to survival itself. “We want to abolish war,” she said, “and we’ll hang onto that claim for dear life. Yes, we want to abolish war. We want to stop the wars!”

Where does one even begin on such a far-off journey as the abolition of warfare? For 40 activists who were arrested at Good Friday this year, only the next step was certain — a single step across a white line.

“So we gather together,” Kelly said, “shoulder to shoulder, arm in arm, believing in nonviolence, believing that, yes, we shall overcome. And so we gather together, ready to say that we will not let inconvenience get in the way of acting in accord with the deep, profound desire to end war. Let us step across the line. Let us get arrested today. Let us say together, ‘We shall overcome.’”

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