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 States.
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. To learn more about how to become part of efforts to close the SOA, visit <www.soaw.org> 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 www.nukewatch.com. She can be reached at: Kathy@vitw.org.