More information about the Love and Courage podcast, other episodes, and sign-up for e-newsletter at www.loveandcourage.org
Kathy Kelly is a renowned U.S peace activist, author, a founder member of Voices in the Wilderness and now Coordinator for Voices for Creative Non Violence. Kathy is a long-time resident Chicago where she is heavily involved in community organizing. She has travelled to Iraq over twenty five times, including during the early days of the Iraq war and she has spent time in war torn Afghanistan and Palestine.
In the course of her activism Kathy has been arrested over 60 times for her non-violent actions and has served several prison sentences. Now in her mid sixties she continues to travel the world as a courageous voice for peace and a justice.
More information about the Love and Courage podcast, other episodes, and sign-up for e-newsletter at www.loveandcourage.org
The Love and Courage podcast
The Love and Courage podcast features interviews with inspirational people who are making a real difference in the world today. Guests are typically people passionate about social justice, and who have demonstrated courage and conviction in their lives.
Host Ruairí McKiernan is leading Irish social innovator, campaigner, writer and public speaker. He is the founder of the pioneering SpunOut.ie youth organization, and helped set-up the Uplift and the A Lust For Life non-profits. In 2012 the President of Ireland Michael D Higgins appointed Ruairí to the Council of State, a national constitutional advisory body whose members include all current and former leaders of the country. Ruairí is the recipient of numerous awards, including a Fulbright fellowship, and he contributes regularly to the media on youth, health, community and social justice issues.
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[00:00:38] KK: Well, I suppose courage is the ability to control your fear. And that’s… So, I think when you can control it – and that doesn’t mean that that comes easily, that takes a lot of practice. And where do we get that practice? It’s in the most unlikely of spots. It might be when you fall in love and you’re afraid, or when you are in high school and trying to figure out what table to sit at, or will you be rejected? The first phone call, that kind of thing. But we do learn, in various ways, to control our fears, and not be pushed around by our fears. And I think, once people get into that sense of wanting to have a grip, and be in control, there’s less likelihood that someone would say: “And what I really want to do is kill another human being.”
[00:01:29] RM: My guest in this episode is Kathy Kelly, a renowned US peace activist, author, a founder-member of Voices in the Wilderness, and now coordinator for Voice for Creative Non-Violence. Kathy is a long-time resident of Chicago, where she’s heavily involved in community organizing. She has travelled to Iraq over 25 times, including during the early days of the Iraq War, and she has spent time in war-torn Afghanistan and Palestine. In the course of her activism, Kathy has been arrested over 60 times for her non-violent actions, and has served several prison sentences. Now in her mid-60s, she continues to travel the world as a courageous voice for peace and justice. She’s a truly remarkable woman, and I know you’re going to enjoy hearing from her.
[00:02:18] RM: Kathy: an absolute pleasure to have this opportunity to interview you. You’re not long in the country, and we’ve just met up – and you’ve already told me that you’ve quite the famous family legacy, in Ireland. Can you tell us more about that?
[00:02:31] KK: [Laughter]. Oh, no, I don’t think I should claim fame – but it was… My brother, back in the United States, when he learned what I had learned from having met my Irish second cousin – who is a senator in your country – said: “You hit the motherlode.” Because we learned so much more about our family background after that conversation. My mother was an indentured servant at the Presentation Sisters in Listowel. Perhaps they were doing one of the kindest things they could do for children whose mother had died in childbirth. The dad wasn’t able to take care of the children, and so my mother was sent to wash floors, eventually in a monastery, and ended in England at a boarding school – as a servant. And I suppose, for women in her generation who escaped the workforce, as I have learned today – we visited a workhouse, here in Dublin – working in a boarding school might have seemed like a bit of a dead end. Not the worst – but then World War II happened, and for some women, like my mom, it meant a way to, perhaps, find work that was maybe a bit more interesting, because the men were off to war. And so, my mother met my dad, who was a soldier, and then my first sister was born here. And the rest of us were born in the United States.
[00:04:00] RM: Wow, that’s quite the story. And so, did you grow up with a very clear consciousness about your mother’s story? Or did you find out about that later?
[00:04:09] KK: No, it took a long time to squeeze out of her that she had been engaged to a Royal Air Force pilot. And he was declared missing in action. And then she married my dad, and she gave birth to my sister – and then the Royal Air Force pilot came back! He wasn’t missing at all. And he, apparently, said: “Kathryn, I’m home!” And there she is with child in arms. So, there was a lot of drama, I think, in her young life. And she would probably, were she alive now, have a great deal of sympathy and empathy for people who became refugees. Because, in a sense, she herself had to seek refuge from a home that couldn’t sustain her.
[00:04:51] RM: As did many Irish people, over the years – and sadly still do.
[00:04:55] KK: You know, I was with a group of high schoolers this morning – such lovely youngsters. And it had to seem like a sort of strange day, to them. We, first, went to a workhouse outside of Dublin, and then on to the graveyard for many of the people who didn’t survive at all in the workhouse. At young ages, 120 were buried under the leafy ground that we stood on. And it was, for Joe Murray of AFRI, a way to help the youngsters connect with the fact that, just one generation, two generations ago, in their own families, people were fleeing Ireland, and fleeing famine, and understood hunger all too well – and starvation, and disease, and death. And so, might we have extra affinity for, and sympathy with, those who are in those plights today?
[00:05:52] RM: And just bring me back, as well, to the relative, the particular senator. I think you mentioned an O’Sullivan?
[00:06:00] KK: Ned O’Sullivan. He’s close to retirement – I think this, in fact, is his last year. And I didn’t realize we were second cousins. But Listowel is an amazing little town. I, from my brother, had gotten one line about the street where my mother grew up, and one line about the graveyard. And so, I walked into a place where I knew I could get Wi-Fi in the morning, and it happened to be a bar in Listowel – and a woman there said: “Oh, well, it’s the mail person you’ll need to talk to. He’ll know about who lived on Carmody Street…on [inaudible 00:06:34] Street.” Well, that was Vincent Carmody, the mail person. But he was not doing his mail duties that day, so I asked the other mailman, and he said: “Oh, Vincent Carmody, he’s in Chicago right now – he’ll be back on Wednesday at 10 o’clock.” [Laughter].
[00:06:49] RM: Of course, you live in Chicago.
[00:06:51] KK: Yes – but I quickly realized that everybody knew everybody in that town. So, in no time, Damien Stock had put me together with Patrick Weylan, who put me on the phone with my cousin who was the senator. And that’s when I started to learn more about the family history. And, apparently, our grandfather, from our generation – my mom’s dad – was a tailor. But he and the other tailors were also planning ambushes, and very much a part of IRA battles. I’m curious – I myself grew up persuaded by pacifism, after I turned 25 and really thought about it. And yet, I do believe that people want their lives to be aligned with their deepest beliefs. And for those who deeply believe in killing in order to get what they want, it doesn’t surprise me that that’s how they would live their lives. It makes me very, very, very sad.
[00:07:59] RM: I mean, you’ve been in war zones all over the world. And wars and violence is a difficult thing to come to terms with, in any way, when we believe in the goodness of humanity. And then, you take context, like the Civil War, or the War of Independence – this is, presumably, 100 years ago, your grandfather was active. And I sometimes think: “What would I do, if I was there, and it was my family under attack? Or my wife, and my children, under attack?” There may be, I don’t know, more of a male inclination to go out and protect the family, or not – and I don’t mean to gender it in that way. But I certainly would like to think that I wouldn’t, as well. I just don’t know.
[00:08:47] KK: It is… Well, it seems to me that there are a variety of options for finding and expressing courage. I think everybody feels fear. There’s no doubt about that in my mind – everybody feels fear. And sometimes, when I’m fearful, I can become very reactionary, and just react. And I think that, sometimes, the reaction that’s favored in our societies is to pick up a gun, and then react, or have a bigger weapon. But I think that what I’ve learned is mostly from an older generation than me, people I sort of adopted as grandfathers. And they were pacifists who said to me: “Well, I suppose courage is the ability to control your fear.” And that’s… So, I think when you can control it – and that doesn’t mean that that comes easily, that takes a lot of practice. And where do we get that practice? It’s in the most unlikely of spots. It might come when you fall in love and you’re afraid, or when you are in high school and trying to figure out what table to sit at, or will you be rejected? The first phone call, that kind of thing. But we do learn, in various ways, to control our fears, and not be pushed around by our fears. And I think, once people get into that sense of wanting to have a grip, and be in control, there’s less likelihood that someone would say: “And what I really want to do is kill another human being.”
[00:10:29] RM: Yes – I think… I like what you’re saying, there. It’s almost like the more connected with themselves that they are… I often wonder about that, and the concept of non-violence – that it’s not really a ‘non,’ at all. It’s actually an active.
[00:10:45] KK: Well, you know, it’s interesting when you think about people who are refugees, who choose to run. In a way, they’re choosing one of the most – let me use that word – non-violent options. Because if a person stays in a situation where you might be killed, and then your family might feel like they’re obliged to try to fight back, or you might be maimed and then you feel like you have to fight back. If you choose to stay in the situation where attacks are being made, there will be a set of options that many people would say are the best options, or the only options. And they can be very, very violent. But if you run away – and some would say: “Well, that’s cowardice.” But I don’t know about that.
[00:11:29] RM: Yes, I’m not sure it’s too cowardly to try and get across the Mediterranean.
[00:11:34] KK: Exactly. On a boat that is very, very dicey.
[00:11:38] RM: I think there’s an estimated – I’ve seen different figures – but in and around 5,000 deaths, last year. So it’s a graveyard in itself, the Mediterranean. And, in a way, there’s a lot of talk – obviously for good reason – about the US, now, and Mexico, and refugees. But Europe has a lot to contend with, ourselves. We have no, necessarily, right to go shaming other countries for their inaction.
[00:12:04] KK: And one of the methods of warfare that has been the cruelest, I think, is economic warfare. When we… I was part of a group that went over to Iraq in 1991 – and that warfare was called Desert Storm. And it was terrible. Every electrical facility all across Iraq was wiped out. But, over time – always too late to have made the necessary difference – we started to realize: “Wait a minute – the economic sanctions are more brutal, more punishing, more punishing towards civilians, especially children, than even the worst of the bombing.” And I think that that kind of economic warfare – maybe when it’s not as dramatic as economic sanctions comprehensively imposed by the UN and the US and every other nation – nevertheless, is… When people are squeezed out, and they can’t get work, and their economy is dominated by warlords, and invading forces have helped the warlords gain more control – then how are they going to feed their families? And who wouldn’t make the choice to try and get away?
[00:13:18] RM: For sure. I think, sometimes, that we think of terrorism or war happening by men, almost in uniform, with guns. But, quite often, those men might be wearing suits, with pens and laptops.
[00:13:32] KK: It’s so interesting. I do go around to a fair number of high schools. And once they hear that you’ve been to prison – “Ahh, a year in prison!”
[00:13:43] RM: Is it a year, in total? Over several times?
[00:13:44] KK: No, no, no. I did a year in maximum security.
[00:13:47] RM: You did a full year.
[00:13:48] KK: And then I did three months here, three months there, and another couple of weeks.
[00:13:53] RM: I can see why they put you in maximum security.
[00:13:56] KK: [Laughter]. I see you shivering right there, across from me. I look like a cross between Mary Poppins and…
[00:14:02] RM: And you’ve had… You’ve been in prison several times?
[00:14:05] KK: Yes, yes. But people think: “Oh, that’s where you meet the bad sisters. That’s where you meet the really, really dangerous people.” And I always think to myself: “Well, no. I think if I was in the salon of a very well-endowed military contracting company, those would be really, really dangerous people.” They’re making nuclear weapons, or these factories manufacturing acid rain, or the people in charge of the tobacco industry. There’s a lot more killing that goes on because of their output, their product, if you will, that does look so very civilized. The mask looks civilized.
[00:14:39] RM: It does, yes. I talked to – I had the privilege of meeting Aaron Schwartz in Boston, a few years ago, who is sadly now not with us anymore. But Aaron talked about the idea of moral mazes – that, in today’s society, A is not necessarily next to B, in terms of the production line, or in terms of how everything is organized. So, what tends to happen – in terms of climate change, or in terms of pollution in a river, or the Gulf Oil disaster, outside the Gulf of Mexico, oil spill – nobody’s ever to blame for anything, because: “I was just the guy who was doing the report.” Or: “I was the guy who was in charge of the rig.” And there’s a moral maze – because nobody’s ever responsible, but yet, we are all complicit, to some extent, if we are helping grease the wheels of those machines.
[00:15:32] KK: And it, then, gets even more confusing, I think, because Exxon – which was presided over by a Mr. Tillerson, who is now the Secretary of State for the United States – was one of the companies that knew, early on, just how horrible climate change was going to be. It was something like those in the tobacco industry, who knew just how much illness and death tobacco smoking was causing, and yet continued to obfuscate the reports, or deep-six the reports, or get somebody else to make a…pay some scientists to make a dissenting report. But they knew. And Exxon has known for years just what to expect because of global warming – and they’ve covered it over, papered it up. So now, Exxon has the leasing rights to vast, vast acreage of oil fields within Russia. And with the sanctions, they couldn’t really enact it, they couldn’t make the billions that they stood to make. So now, it’s the perfect bow – Vladimir Putin can go back to earning money on his oil, Exxon is going to make billions and billions of dollars, Donald Trump gets to be the deal-maker. And so, you lift those sanctions, and you’ve got your perfect bow.
[00:16:55] RM: So, the Game of Thrones becomes clear, now.
[00:16:57] KK: And then you look back to Iraq – and if you imposed the sanctions, you had the perfect bow, because you got Saddam out of the picture, and you could control the pricing and flow of oil. And, of course, so along the line, 500,000 children under age five are sacrificed. Killed. These sanctions killed those children – the UN said so. And it seems, to me, that the mask is so difficult, as you say, to identify. Who’s accountable for the killing, when they can put on such an acceptable mask?
Well, now, with Donald Trump, he doesn’t really have much of a mask, I don’t think. He sounds and he looks like a dangerous, unpredictable character – but actually, when you think about it, in previous administrations within the United States, and I imagine within Ireland too, there were people who were engaged in some pretty sinister actions. But it looked so much more amenable. And so, that’s another task that we have: trying to remove the masks, and also see ourselves as we really are.
[00:18:09] RM: Yes, yes. I was thinking about… I’m kind of intrigued by Trump’s Christian base, and the juxtaposition between what is supposedly the values of Christianity – of love, and justice, and peace – and some of the values that he’s espousing, and some of the behaviors that he’s demonstrating. And how Christians can reconcile that. But then, I was kind of thinking about it on a local level – so, sometimes, when you think globally, it gets too abstract. So, if I think to a small town in Ireland, where… There was endemic abuse going on, all across this country. There were people in that town that knew. There may be many, many people in those towns that knew. And at what point does it take a village to prop up duplicity, almost? And so, is that where the individual human being has the ability to hold both the light and the dark, but to turn a blind eye to the darkness when it suits them? And so I don’t know, I’m still trying to tease this out. Because, in some ways, it’s this sense of complicity – and I think Ireland’s complicit right now, as well. And particularly with this ban on people from seven countries. We have US pre-clearance in two of our airports – and the general consensus within governments seems to be that the so-called “Muslim ban” is wrong, but yet our complicity is fine. But we can just blame you guys – we can blame Donald Trump, but our bit doesn’t really matter, because we’re just down the… You know, so who put the oil and gas in Hitler’s carriages? And who fed the troops?
[00:20:05] KK: My first trips over to Ireland were with the Sisters of St. Brigid of Kildare, saying: “Kathy, you’ll be coming to Ireland.” Because I was in Baghdad, and we were saying we were going to stay there, because we think the war could start any day. And they were so sensitive to what was happening at Shannon, then, when the pit-stops were being made – the US warplanes were making pit-stops to refuel, and get ammo, and drop off and pick up soldiers.
[00:20:33] RM: And still are.
[00:20:35] KK: And still are, yes. And – Ireland being a neutral country – this was a belligerent act, and it clearly seemed to be against the rules. And so I did come and talk about the economic sanctions, about children and families, and what we’d seen and heard. And then five people called themselves the Pit-Stop Ploughshares, and they did $2.5 million of damage to a US Navy warplane parked on the tarmac. And that, then, turned into three years of trial, and I came pretty regularly as one of the defense witnesses. And because you’re allowed the necessity defense in this country, and because they had brilliant lawyers – Mr. Nix, who passed away, is someone who should be studied in every high school or college class on rhetoric – Brendan Nix and the other lawyers succeeded in persuading the jury that these five should be acquitted on all five counts. And I think about the courage that they had, at that moment, to decide that this was something they could do to try to stop the war. Even though there were so many, many people who turned out on the streets and didn’t want to see the war go forward, there was less inclination within the United States for people to say: “OK, not only am I going to turn out on the streets – I’m going to risk arrest and maybe sit down on the streets.” And, maybe, that war could have been avoided if people had been a bit more aware of their responsibility, of their accountability.
[00:22:16] RM: Yes, I think that, to some extent, they held up a mirror to society. And it was a beautiful thing, that they got acquitted in the end.
[00:22:25] KK: And then, it was a beautiful thing that the Irish activists in Derry recognized that Raytheon was making the bunker-buster that had caused a little girl to die in her best friend’s arms, and her mother to say: “Well, who are the terrorists?” Those little girls died because the force of the explosion imploded their internal organs. And I remember, I met the mother in Lebanon during the funeral. And she was wearing a medical hood and a neck brace, and at some considerable pain to herself, she pointed upward – and there was still a drone going ahead to do surveillance. And so she fixed me with a look, and she asked me – I didn’t even know what drones were, at the time – she said: “Didn’t they know? Didn’t they see? My Zahra, she stay at the night-time in that building, and then she comes back to me. I pick her up, I give her breakfast.” Well, these Irish activists got her testimony – and they were so moved, they went into the Raytheon corporations at office time, and opened the windows, and pulled the computers out of the wall and dropped them out of the windows. Crash, crash, crash. And I thought: “Oh, this group’s not going to be acquitted.” And they were – because of the necessity defense.
So, who can take those kind of actions that say: “My responsibility is not fully enacted until I go to the max of what my imagination and my moral principles will allow me to do?” Not everybody in the community can. And there is where, I think, community is so important. Because we can discern with others: “OK, you’re a young mother – maybe this isn’t the time for you to act. But you’re an older activist – someone like myself – and maybe you can go ahead and stand out there, this time.” But then have backup and support, and have it feel as though the whole community is being drawn in. I sense more of this is going to be happening, now that Donald Trump and Trumpism are predominating in the US.
[00:24:29] RM: Yes – it was really around the time of George W Bush that my activism really kicked in, and I started organizing. And I can now see this is going to be a whole new wave. Because the Trump regime – and it’s not really about Trump, it’s about Rex Tillerson and…
[00:24:49] KK: Trumpism.
[00:24:50] RM: Yes, Trumpism. But I’ve started to call it ‘the regime’ – the resistance, and the regime. And not to simplify it, either, but I can see that a whole new generation, now, are potentially going to become active. And well, really, I’m depending on them to become active [laughter].
[00:25:08] KK: My seat-mate who was on the plane, on the way over here, said to me that she had gone to Washington DC. That she never has been in an action, she never has picked up a leaflet before – but she felt she must go to Washington DC.
[00:25:23] RM: That was the Women’s March?
[00:25:25] KK: Yes – and then she said as soon as she got home she found, in her upscale gentrifying neighborhood, a small group that’s committed to anti-war work, and she’s going to start going to regular meetings. And I was with some students, just three nights before, and they said the same thing. They came out to a small meeting. So, I think you’re right: we will see an enlarging and, I hope, a deepening, of movement activism. And I hope that those who are most in need of protection – who are often the poorest among us, or the ones that get shipped off to jails, or the ones who are lonely and economically-disadvantaged – I hope that these are the people whose needs will be put forth as the most important. I think if you do that – if basically the poorest among us become our top priority – then I think a lot of other things are sorted out.
[00:26:24] RM: Yes – is that, at the core, one of the main factors that led to the election of Donald Trump? In that the Democrats failed the poor?
[00:26:35] KK: Well, there’s a very interesting book out, by a woman named Arlie Hochschild. And she was a Berkeley professor who decided: “I’m going to go live in Louisiana (which is one of our Southern, red states, right on the coast) and try to understand, over the course of five years, how people are thinking and feeling.” And I think ‘feeling’ is the word – I think many people felt, and it was true – they felt that they were being ignored, and that their cares and concerns were neglected. And the blame was placed, largely, on the Democrats. Now, what’s difficult to understand is how…
OK, so we have red and blue states, and the red states would be the more conservative, and the people living in those states would tend to be completely against any kind of regulatory laws that would say to investors: “OK, you have to comply with these regulations.” They’d be completely against government intervention. Well, in those states, people live five years less than people in the blue states. They have much higher rates of teenage pregnancies, family break-ups, higher rates of health concerns, and disease, terrible environmental conditions. And so vulnerable – Louisiana, with that long coastline – so vulnerable to flooding. These are the people who need regulations that will say: there are standards for healthcare, there are standards for education, there are standards for environmental protection. But they aren’t being rational, I don’t think, when they say: “We don’t want any kind of regulatory intervention,” and when they see such groups as being inimical to their best hopes for their children.
So, it’s a bit confusing – I don’t think that democracy has really been practiced very well by the Democrats or the Republicans. I think democracy is based on education – and that’s where we’re lacking. People who identify themselves as liberals need more education like the kind that Arlie Hochschild tried to get. We need to understand why people felt neglected, and what would help solve their problems. But a lot of people who – not as a matter of principle, but just as a matter of taste, I suppose – will analyze sports, and engage in all kinds of discussion about entertainment, won’t read the newspaper about foreign policy, about wars, about the ways in which the United States has been manipulating other parts of the world. So they really, really don’t understand very much.
[00:29:26] RM: Is that also about access to media? Because what we’ve seen over the last 20 years is the evolution of the Fox News era. News has become, kind of, a redundant thing, in one way. It’s entertainment, it’s not news – and so you really need to work harder to get news.
[00:29:43] KK: And I think it’s part of the military-industrial-media-congressional complex.
[00:29:47] RM: It’s complete brainwashing. I heard an American woman, or a US lady, interviewed on the radio the other day. She was the chairperson of the local Republicans. But she talked about foreign policy, saying: “Well, we’re sorry – we can’t go around saving all these countries around the world, anymore. It’s costing us too much.” But the basic premise of her argument is so far off reality, that she thought that these were troops going to save Iraq. She actually believed it. It just stunned me, even though it shouldn’t.
[00:30:25] KK: And I come back and talk to college graduates who were my peers, and I’d be coming back from Iraq, and they’d say: “Oh, Kel, how was it over there, in Iran?” And I’d say: “Oh no, I was in Iraq.” And I’d get this kind of puzzled look, like: “Oh, there’s a difference?” So I don’t think we, as US people, can let ourselves off the hook too much, in terms of how much acquiescence there was to sports and entertainment becoming the dominant thing. Children are raised to think soccer is what counts. “Your mom’s a soccer mom, and you go play, and your mom plays with you, and your dad plays with you. Play, play, play, play, and watch TV – and then it’s Christmas, and then it’s time to chase the Easter bunny.” People are getting to be so caught up in the national religion of shopping, and in sports, and in entertainment – there’s no time to try to pick a country, any country, and really learn or understand more about it. And maybe that’ll change because of diversity.
[00:31:27] RM: Look, I can see… I, personally, think there’s a huge role for sport, in that it serves a real community-building function, and it’s a tribal thing. It brings people together, and it prevents people killing each other, in one way – it helps to do it over a ball, or whatever. And these days, so many people have such stressed and pressurized, time-poor lives that sport can be their down time, and their outlet, and a preserve to counter obesity, and all of that. So, I do think an over-religious element of sport can be a problem, in that I lived in Glasgow for a while, and I got involved in this – people actually believed that Celtic and Rangers football clubs, they were like an ideology. So, they got lost, completely, on reality.
But some of this conversation is just making me think, really, as you said, of the value of education, and good education. And I keep thinking about Finland, and how they’ve revolutionized their education system. Because when they had an economic collapse, in the 80s, they realized: “Well, we’re going to have to do everything differently” – and they started with education. And now, at a very minimum, to be a teacher you need a Master’s degree. And teachers are seen and held as some of the most esteemed workers in society. And the way teachers are becoming in Ireland, and, I know, in the US, is that they’re being devalued. So, that’s saying that we don’t care for our kids’ minds, and the nourishment of their minds. But the issue, here, is that this new Education Secretary in the US – she doesn’t give a shit, either, does she?
[00:33:12] KK: [Laughter]. I don’t think she understands very much, either.
[00:33:15] RM: Yes, I don’t mean she doesn’t care – she cares for something. But it looks like it’s a road to privatization and commercialization of education.
[00:33:25] KK: OK, I’m from Chicago – and we had a march down what is called Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, each person carrying a 40-pound cross. They were very heavy – and each cross was dedicated to an African-American or Hispanic youngster who had been killed, coming from three neighborhoods in Chicago. Just three neighborhoods. And there were 762 people killed in one year, 58% more than Los Angeles and New York combined. And the military operates so many junior reserve officer training corps facilities – we call it ROTC – teaching sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth graders to use weapons, and to become inured into the military.
[00:34:16] RM: So, what age is a sixth grader?
[00:34:19] KK: We’re talking about 10, 11, 12, 13.
[00:34:22] RM: So the military gets access to them at 10?
[00:34:23] KK: 9,000 Chicago – by and large Black and Hispanic – youth are enrolled in these military training schools. And that’s the only evidence you can see of big money being put into education. These kids go on parades.
[00:34:43] RM: That’s like Hitler Youth! That’s obscene.
[00:34:45] KK: What I want to say is that the most expensive clothing those children will probably ever wear are those uniforms, as they’re marching down the street. And you can see a sea of faces – maybe one or two white faces in the entire group. So, from three neighborhoods, there’s mass incarceration, all of the stigma, and disenfranchisement, and unemployment, and family breakup that comes with that. And tremendous violence. And the reason it was so important to do this walk down the Magnificent Mile [inaudible 00:35:17] Street was to say that: “This is a Chicago problem.” You can’t say to the people who’ve already been cut off at the knees: “OK, now run. Solve your problems – get with the program.” We’ve had roll-to-jail – meaning these young kids either go to jail or join the military, or become addicted, or die young. And I don’t see this new Secretary of Education waking up in the morning, puzzling over how she’s going to solve that problem [laughter].
And that’s where, I think, if we could make it into a given, that you take the cares and concerns of the poorest and the least protected in your community, and boost those up above everybody else… Even the most exciting aspects of identity politics – I know it’s exciting for people to say: “I identify myself as this, and I’m oppressed or I’m persecuted, and I’m not going to put up with it.” That’s good – people should be asserting themselves. But, I think, if we aren’t at the same time saying: “And what can I do for the person who’s even more oppressed than I feel?” then I think we lose a big opportunity. And that’s what I learned from kids in Afghanistan. I taught high school for about 14 years and I never thought, at age 64, my main mentors in life would be a group of 13- and 14-year-olds. But they teach it to me – they themselves come from this close to destitution, and yet as soon as they get a little bit of security, I see them turn around and reach out, and try to help somebody needier than they are. It’s remarkable.
[00:37:04] RM: When’s the last time you were in Afghanistan?
[00:37:06] KK: I came back in December, and I’ll go back in the middle of March.
[00:37:09] RM: Will that be the same place, or community?
[00:37:13] KK: It’s always been to the same community. I’m so fortunate – there’s good interpretation all the time, and my young friends are starting to learn English, and I’m getting better at Dari, which is a derivative of Farsi. And I always feel welcomed, and humbled, and able to learn. And it’s something I want other people to be literate about, in a sense. I want people to have literacy in the cares of people who bear the brunt of our wars.
[00:37:43] RM: How do you decide which campaigns, or actions, or acts of service to take on next? Is it an inspired call?
[00:37:55] KK: I suppose there’s a lot of intuition. I will say, I do wake up every morning, these days, thinking: “Hmm – what if we moved to Isfahan and the [inaudible 00:38:06]?” And I don’t quite know who ‘we’ are, but if teams of people went to Iran, and moved in, and said: “We know that Isfahan is a city of flowers. We know that people in the [inaudible 00:38:19] have great pride in your cooking – so, we just want to know about your flowers, and your cooking, and your children, and your culture, and your language. And yes, there are also centrifugal machines that would make these cities targets in the crosshairs if the United States were to attack – but I want United States people to know as much as they can about ordinary Iranians interacting with ordinary US people.”
Now, that’s a bit pie in the sky, I get that. I mean, we would have Iranian intelligence following us. You go into somebody’s kitchen and they’ll be there when you go out, asking: “What did they say?” most likely, if it’s like any other country with a strong autocratic or oligarchic surveillance system. But I still think we should be thinking along those lines. So I don’t want to, at all, walk away from Afghanistan, and I think that the prison population in the United States should always be visited, and I should do that by being a prisoner myself. But, I guess, one thing we have to accept is: if you spread the peanut butter too thin, the bread rips. So, we can’t take on everything.
[00:39:32] RM: OK, so how do you deal with that area of self-care, and self-discipline?
[00:39:36] KK: Thank God for novels and well-written books. I think that’s what really sustains me. I can revel in, delight in…
[00:39:48] RM: What kind of books do you like to read?
[00:39:50] KK: I like novels written by authors outside the United States. I’ve learned so much, ever since I was 17 or 18 years old, from international authors. I try to read the New York Review of Books, stodgy and all, as it might be. Because I don’t want to just be an ostrich, you know? I don’t want to just have my head in the sand of what I’m already comfortable with, or know a little bit about – I want to be prodded to know new things. I don’t like to do too much exploration of ideas and thoughts online, because you end up going too fast. It’s important, the research is needed, but you can fill your brain and then not really know what’s in there. And I’m very impatient with Facebook and social media. But I’m sure it’s because I’m not adept at it. I’m a bit suspicious, though.
[00:40:55] RM: No, I think you have a point. I woke up this morning, I checked Facebook, and I saw that several people shared several fascinating articles about Donald Trump. And, instantly, I had the choice to make: am I going to spend the next two hours reading these articles? To what point? It becomes an addiction in itself. But I do also feel I have an obligation to keep up with this – and it’s a phenomenal thing that I’m getting referenced to all these articles. But I also need to be out, in the world, doing something about it, as well.
[00:41:30] KK: Well, I suppose, in a way, if I was a top strategist trying to advise Donald Trump, and I believed in this kind of shock-and-awe approach, I’d say: “Just disorient your opposition. Do an executive order every day.”
[00:41:42] RM: There is analysis that is saying that that’s exactly what’s happening – that Bannon and those folks are engaged in some sort of coup politics, whereby it is shock and awe. And that eventually there’ll be…like, an outrage fatigue will set in. And there’s some theories that eventually they will replace Trump. That’s is a whole other area – but if you look at US foreign policy in Central America, and elsewhere, regime change is in the practice, there. But the US is not this black-and-white place. It’s the same as everywhere else – there are good forces and bad forces, and I think I’m still hopeful.
[00:42:32] KK: I talk about the perfect bow, and how outrageous it is that Exxon could make such a financial killing, if you will, in Russia if these sanctions are lifted. But, on the other hand, if we don’t go to war against Russia, I’m glad. So, it is possible that somebody who is a reckless and a dangerous person – and who is irascible and says misogynist and racist remarks – could do some things that are useful, helpful. Maybe not for the best of reasons.
[00:43:04] RM: It’s quite possible that Hillary would have went to war with Russia.
[00:43:07] KK: Sure, yes. I’m from Illinois, and we haven’t had a budget for higher education or social services for over a year. And yet the Illinois National Guard, air force, was going over to Poland, and doing military exercises on the border as part of NATO deployment, and the European Initiative Resolution, or something. I’m sorry not to have that quite right, but EIR. And loads of money was made available for that. And to bring Polish people over to the States so that they could all learn how to operate drones together.
[00:43:43] RM: Yes – I think we’d rather have educated kids.
[00:43:45] KK: Wouldn’t that be great? [Laughter]. As an alternative to having robots that are going to end up possibly defying their orders, and the proliferation of these robots everywhere.
[00:43:55] RM: So how long are you going to be in Ireland, now? You’re speaking at the AFRI event, obviously – are you taking some more time?
[00:44:03] KK: I am. I’m a bit embarrassed about this, in a way.
[00:44:06] RM: You don’t have to admit it here.
[00:44:08] KK: Because I’m not one who usually sits still for very long.
[00:44:12] RM: You’re not coming on a sun holiday, I know that.
[00:44:14] KK: No, that’s true. I wonder, do you think there’s still a sun out there?
[00:44:18] RM: It’s out there, somewhere.
[00:44:22] KK: It’s not exactly a holiday, but… I’m not like Wendell Berry, I’m not a great essayist. But I have done a lot of writing over the last decade, and I haven’t really tried to sort it or scratch around in it and see: is there something like a book there? Not that I think the world needs another book, necessarily, but it may be that, if I don’t try to put together what I think is the thread that would weave through these various warzones and peace endeavors, they would just be like Pickup Stix, fallen all over the floor. So, I’d like to see what I have, and see if I can’t come up with an outline.
[00:45:07] RM: So, you’re on a writing mission.
[00:45:08] KK: Maybe [laughter].
[00:45:10] RM: I think you are. And, in fact, I’d encourage you to do that – because I agree that the world doesn’t necessarily need another book, but it does need another book by you. Because you have this rich range of experiences and insights. And it’s maybe not my right to say an obligation or a duty, but you have all these stories from others that need to be told.
[00:45:34] KK: Well, that does motivate me, and also…
[00:45:40] RM: I just did that on purpose to try and get an angle [laughter].
[00:45:43] KK: But also being in Listowel, where my mother grew up, and seeing her story – and feeling that, to some extent, I just want that little town to be known. Because although my mother experienced hunger, and privation, and probably a lot of sadness and loss, I could see it had a perfectly beautiful little church, and there was salmon in the river, and it was a lovely town. And I would imagine that most of the families living there, now, had histories that weren’t dissimilar from my mother’s – and they’ve made of their lives something very homey and congenial, it seems. So who knows – maybe after I’m there for 10 days they’ll think: “Get this woman out of our hair!”
[00:46:31] RM: No, tell them you’re writing a book, anyway. That’s a good start. Because do you know about Listowel Writers’ Week?
[00:46:37] KK: Yes, well I’ve known about that. And there’s also this wonderful museum, which was actually curated by my cousin Ned’s spouse, in part. She had a lot to do with the museum, where you walk in the room and it’s set up to look like a famous writer… And then the Blasket Islands writers have really charmed me, a lot.
[00:47:01] RM: No, there’s definitely something about the west of Ireland, in general – there’s still a kind of stillness, more so than a lot of the urban centers.
[00:47:11] KK: Isn’t that true?
[00:47:12] RM: And I think, in one way, that could be an act of activism, these days, is an act of stillness.
[00:47:19] KK: Isn’t that interesting?
[00:47:21] RM: To stop feeding the noise.
[00:47:23] KK: Yes – and to stop talking, for a while.
[00:47:25] RM: Everybody, stop talking! We should stop talking! [Laughter]. Yes, but it’s noisy. And I work, a lot, in youth mental health, and community mental health. And I know for a fact, I can see it, I’ve read the reports, I talk to people all the time… There’s a lot of dis-ease out there, and that is manifesting in anxiety – particularly anxiety. The levels of anxiety are through the roof. Depression, self-harm, eating disorders, addiction, and suicide. And then we have other forms of that, in terms of self-medication, with people coming home from work and drinking a bottle of wine several nights a week. I’m not against any of those things, in terms of having a drink, and so on, but there are a lot of people just hanging on. Not living, necessarily. And I do think it is important to reorganize ourselves, as a species, that we have richer lives – that don’t necessarily require us to be economically richer. But the busyness is a thing that you’ll find – most people seem to have this problem with busyness. Where the hell did this come from? And I do think technology has a role to play in, like you said there – it’s speeding things up, and feeding…
[00:48:59] KK: You know, the first time I went to prison, I went for a year. And I learned a lot – I learned Spanish, I made some good friends. It was a pretty interesting year, actually. The next time, I only went for three months, and it was so hard. And I realized in part it was because, back in the day, when I first went off to prison, there was no cellphone, no internet. There wasn’t anything to withdraw from, in terms of instant gratification. But that next time around, it was very difficult not to have the instant access, and not to feel hooked in, and to let go of that and just grow where you’re planted. And it took about a month before I could really sense that I was settling in to where I actually was. And then, this most recent time, gosh darn it they don’t have internet inside the prison, again. Not again, but again I don’t have access to internet. In a federal prison you can go and put yourself online, and answer all your email.
[00:50:00] RM: So that’s a kind of separate thing I’m trying to figure out – I’m intrigued at how Chelsea Manning has been tweeting, but I think that’s something through the phone line to the lawyers.
[00:50:08] KK: Oh.
[00:50:09] RM: Which is amazing, that we’ve this person – a hero, really, in my eyes – that has been communicating with the world through Twitter, from prison.
[00:50:21] KK: Well, I surely hope that she’ll get a full sense of how much the world… I have to cry – how much the world has appreciated her.
[00:50:32] Yes. I think… Well hopefully, now she’s due out of prison very soon. And there are many other Chelsea Mannings out there, too, that need our solidarity.
[00:50:52] KK: Oh, yes.
[00:50:53] RM: And, often, I just feel strongly about whistle-blowers – and anyone that does take that act of courage, resistance, action – that they’re doing it on our behalf, as well. As so we can give up some of our comforts and luxuries to give them some support.
[00:51:10] I’ve seen that in writing from you, before, I think. And we don’t know what’s coming around the corner, do we? Who would have ever known, who would have guessed, that an Oscar Romero – who was a very conservative bishop who was on the side, pretty much, of the paramilitaries and the landlords – would turn around and become a voice of the poor, in a way that still has him leading people in Central and South America, even though he was assassinated decades ago?
[00:51:40] RM: I’m seeing some unusual actions, in the last week, from corporate America, acting in solidarity with refugees and migrants. I don’t want to name companies, because I don’t want to give them advertising. And sometimes you have to be, maybe, a little bit cautious: is this real, or is this marketing in its own right? But there have been some bold acts by business leaders – and I think that business leaders and church leaders and…not just your usual voices. We need people from such a diverse range, because these issues don’t belong to the left or to the right. They’re issues of humanity.
[00:52:24] KK: And I think the veterans of US wars going down on their knees and begging forgiveness from the native American indigenous people at Standing Rock. That kind of went: “Whoosh” all around the world. So it opens up new possibilities, and idealism, and altruism. My young friends in Afghanistan went out and stood in front of their putrid, horrible, dried-up, polluted trickle of a river – what once was the Kabul River – and they just had a sign saying: “We stand in solidarity with Standing Rock. Don’t let what’s happened to our river happen to your beautiful Missouri.” And they sent that months and months ago - and it actually got to the elders. And you can tell there was a connection there. So, you know, that’s the good thing about our inter-connected world – we really are all part of one another.
[00:53:13] RM: And the internet can help us, in that regard – because it’s one struggle, really.
[00:53:20] KK: And, of course, these kids sort of knew about Chelsea Manning. And there they are, living in the most conservative Muslim country in the world, and we’re trying to tell them about Chelsea Manning [laughter]. So, times can change.
[00:53:35] RM: And I’m particularly hopeful when I think about… The majority of the population of the world is under 40. Actually, under 25, in fact.
[00:53:41] KK: Really?! Well, they’ve got a big chance – and some big decisions.
[00:53:47] RM: Yes – but if you look who voted for certain forces, you’ll find that they weren’t necessarily young. So I am hopeful, when I talk to young people. They know what’s going on, and they need some guidance and eldership to maybe help them a little bit, in terms of their acts of courage.
[00:54:05] KK: And also, if we could not only say: “We’ve got your back – but we also know that you’re being graduated from your universities, for those of you who go that route, like indentured servants, because you’re in debt, sky high.” And so, if we could say: “Our resources aren’t going to be hoarded to be passed on to just one narrow group.” But that we would really try to give people the resources to follow what they really want to do in their lives, and not be hijacked.
[00:54:31] RM: Exactly, anything to try and break down that narrative: that life is short, so we need to get on with it and write our books, and so on. [Laughter].
[00:54:42] KK: And go to AFRI, tomorrow, for [inaudible 00:54:43].
[00:54:45] RM: So thanks very much, Kathy – I really enjoyed the conversation, and look forward to attending your book launch in Listowel in due course.
[00:54:53] KK: Ooh, well! [Laughter].
[00:54:56] RM: Wouldn’t that be some nice poetry?
[00:54:57] KK: Wouldn’t that be? About a decade from now [laughter].
[00:55:00] RM: Thanks again, Kathy.
[00:55:01] KK: Thank you.
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