Breaking Blockades for Peace

Kathy Kelly hopes for peace as she books passage on a flotilla to Gaza.

Jenny Tomkins

On January 23, Haitians queue to receive assistance at a USAID distribution point in Port-au-Prince following the 7.0-magnitude quake that devastated Haiti. (Photo by: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

Courageous” is not a term that Kathy Kelly would ever use to describe herself, but others might. When the shock and awe campaign was bombarding Baghdad in March 2003, Kelly was not on the streets protesting or at home watching the nightly news. She was in Baghdad with the friends she had made there on 24 previous visits to deliver medical and other supplies during the U.S.-led embargo.

Kelly, a co-coordinator of the antiwar group Voices for Creative Nonviolence, has been living her pacifist philosophy for decades now. It began when she was studying for an M.A. in theology, living in Chicago’s Hyde Park. She was struck, she says, by the fact that she couldn’t just sing pious songs” and never saw or interacted with poor people.” 

So in 1979 she moved to Uptown, a North Side Chicago neighborhood where, she says, she met some of the finest people she knows. Kelly has never looked back. She lives a life of voluntary poverty – not a big stretch, she says, since she was raised by nuns who were never intent on acquiring personal wealth.

In late June, Kelly will travel to Gaza aboard the Audacity of Hope as part of a flotilla challenging the Israeli blockade by delivering aid. Kelly spoke with In These Times about the role of nonviolence in the Middle East, and current U.S. military operations.

Given that human history seems to be a catalog of human violence, can we change?

Ninety percent of our lives are shaped by decisions based on nonviolence. Most people, when they get into a dispute, don’t resort to clobbering the other person or destroying their property. But when it comes to foreign policy I think that many people, not only in the United States but all over the world, tend to step back and say, Well, these are the problems that we have entrusted to our leaders,” or, We can’t possibly influence our country’s foreign policy.” And very often the leaders end up following patterns that are utterly reckless and irrational.

And so I wonder if there might not be a point at which, all around the world, we might begin to grapple with the fact that the weapons in our arsenals and the use of those weapons is crippling humanity at a time when the greatest terror we really face is the threat to our environment.

If our leaders take us into irrational wars, what would it have taken for citizens to prevent the war in Iraq?

Well, for instance, in the 2003 protests against the U.S. war in Iraq, I would have liked to have seen people turn out in Chicago on Michigan Avenue, sit down and refuse to leave and, as soon as they were released – if they were arrested – go right back downtown and do it again. Still, people came closer than ever before to stopping a war before it started. And one of the reasons people turned out in massive numbers is that, in spite of the fact that the mainstream media seldom covered realities in Iraq, activists across the United States had been traveling to Iraq and organizing outreach and education events for years, even though the United States was hauling them into courts for violating the economic sanctions against Iraq.

When you look at our senseless military attacks destabilizing the world and preventing us from seeking solutions to real species-threatening world events, like impending climate collapse from global warming, it’s irrational to feel that we’re too comfortable to clamor for change. When people understand this, and understand the impact our choices will have on their children and grandchildren, maybe we’ll have our own Tahrir Squares.

Is nonviolence affecting the peace process in the Middle East?

Palestinians have held sustained demonstrations at the wall for years. On May 15, Palestinian refugees from Syria, Jordan and Lebanon, as well as residents of Gaza, tried to enter Israel. Israeli troops killed 14 people that day and hundreds of people were wounded. But the nonviolent demonstrations continue. Teams of Israeli and Palestinian activists, who have already lost loved ones because of violence, have traveled together to places all over the world to help influence public opinion on behalf of just and fair solutions. 

What is your goal in the U.S. Boat to Gaza project?

Well, there will be 10 to 13 boats. Passengers on the flotilla intend to enter Gaza, deliver letters and humanitarian relief and hear from Gazans about their experiences living under siege. Egypt has decided to open the Rafah border crossing, and this is good news. But, it doesn’t override the fact that Israel is still imposing collective punishment on a civilian population. We are acting on the belief that the Palestinians must have control over their own passageways and points of contact with the world. 

The flotilla boats will be a way to focus attention on Gaza. The Israeli government would like to erase awareness of how Israel’s sustained and massive attacks, along with the blockade, have affected Gazan people’s lives. 

Do you agree with the Obama administration’s actions in Libya?

We often hear that we are preventing atrocities and later learn that we were deceived. Simply by stopping aid to dictatorial client states around the world, we couldn’t help but do more for democracy than bombing this or that dictator’s people to dust. We are using our wealth and our resources to produce more and more weapons to protect our way of life – an unfair and unjust way of life in relation to the rest of the planet.

I don’t think the United States’ role is to make decisions for people living in Libya about who will govern them or how they will organize their efforts to overthrow their government. 

You have expressed grave concerns about our growing use of drones in warfare.

I suppose in the big picture, one of the most important words to focus on is proliferation. In 1945, one nation had the atomic bomb: the United States. Look at our world today. We have not only created a menacing threat to our world but also, when you think of the trillions and trillions of dollars that went into the building of those weapons systems that could have gone to meeting human needs, this proliferation has been a catastrophe for human beings. 

Now look at the drones. We are seeing a technology that can be replicated so much more easily than the technology needed to develop nuclear weapons, and right now 49 nation-states have the drone technology. There are more than 250 companies developing different versions of drones. This is like the Lady Gaga of the industry. How much security are we really creating by making this drone usage normative for air forces all around the globe? That should be a situation that gives everybody pause because, of course, these drones can all be weaponized, at least the larger ones. The usage of the drones over the Pakistani skies both for surveillance and for combat has caused intense anger for years. There were 16 efforts to kill Baitullah Mehsud, the tribal leader from North Waziristan. The first 15 attempts killed the wrong person. Under the Obama administration, the use of drones has increased dramatically. 

What should President Obama be doing in Afghanistan?

President Obama consistently states that the United States will not tolerate other governments or nonstate entities that violate human rights or invade, attack and occupy other countries, and yet he justifies similar U.S. behavior by saying we must take these actions to protect ourselves. Obama could level with the public and explain that expenditures on the so-called war on terror” have primarily secured corporate interests in the defense industry, rather than bamboozle the public into thinking that the United States is in Afghanistan to eradicate and dismantle the al-Qaeda network. He should admit that the United States wants to protect the oil pipeline to Asia and thereby have greater influence over the flow of energy resources available to China. 

He should acknowledge that the most recent presidential election in Afghanistan was fraudulent and that the United States has been supporting a government in which nearly every ministry is controlled by a warlord with a proven record of human rights abuses. 

And, finally, he should consult with the United Nations to learn how the United States could pay reparations for suffering caused in Afghanistan and develop a plan for swift withdrawal of U.S. troops and security contractors. Immediate plans should be undertaken to close the U.S. bases in Afghanistan, and President Obama should inform President Karzai that he will not sign an agreement to establish permanent bases there.

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Jenny Tomkins, a member of the In These Times Board of Editors, lives in Sycamore, Ill. She has an M.A. in journalism from the University of Wisconsin and currently works as an interim innkeeper. Her abiding passions are politics, her family, and eating, growing and writing about food.
Illustrated cover of Gaza issue. Illustration shows an illustrated representation of Gaza, sohwing crowded buildings surrounded by a wall on three sides. Above the buildings is the sun, with light shining down. Above the sun is a white bird. Text below the city says: All Eyes on Gaza
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