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Peace of mind: Kathy Kelly.

Photo: Alicia Solsman

Voice From the Wilderness

Nobel Peace Prize nominee asks Bethlehem crowd what it really means to counter terror

 

The crowd of about 150 that packed Bethlehem’s Town Hall Saturday night seemed to hold its collective breath as two-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee Kathy Kelly gave her firsthand account of the United States military’s infamous Shock and Awe campaign in Iraq—as witnessed from a Baghdad hotel room.

“I’ve never seen so many adults trying to maintain a poker face,” laughed the 51-year-old peacemaker as she brushed back graying curls from bright eyes and a face that looked far younger than its years.

According to Kelly, the battle raging outside shook the building’s foundation and the courage of its inhabitants, as she and fellow Iraqi Peace Team members tried to calm the Iraqi families holed up with them. When the dull ‘thud’ of explosions faded and the first group of U.S. Marines arrived in the city, said Kelly, “this was one relieved pacifist—that’s for sure.”

Kelly explained that her presence in Iraq—when so many people there were doing whatever possible to get out—was intended to show the Iraqis and the rest of the world that, despite the momentum behind America’s rush to war, “there is always an alternative.” Acting in the name of peace, she said, requires just as much courage as acting in the name of war.

And, admitted the longtime Catholic Worker and graduate of the Chicago Theological Seminary, the decision to act in the name of peace isn’t always an easy one—even for someone who has received as many national and international humanitarian awards as she has over the last decade.

“We’re simply not wired to always be kind and caring,” said Kelly, who asked her audience earlier in the night to think about “what it really means to counter terror.”

“I would suggest that I’m looking at a room full of counterterror experts,” she added.

And the cost of her actions—whether measured in dollars or time—hasn’t been cheap. During the 90-minute speech and the half-hour question-and-answer session that followed, Kelly shifted from one life’s lesson to the next, describing the lessons learned through prison-time served, bombings weathered and financial standoffs still pending. The process of accumulating those lessons, said Kelly, gave birth to Voices in the Wilderness, an international campaign she helped create to encourage nations to direct more of their resources toward life-affirming goals rather than life-ending practices.

Changing America’s direction could change America’s image around the world, said Kelly. And that, she reasoned, is the best way to make America safe.

It was during a visit to the West Bank’s Jenin camp in 2002, just after Israeli forces leveled several blocks of homes as part of Operation Defensive Shield, that Kelly said she was made painfully aware of the ubiquitous perception of America.

“One of the two sisters I was walking through the rubble with . . . she found a piece of her computer,” said Kelly. “She held it up and pointed to it. Then she said, ‘See? We’re just like you!’”

“I only wish they could connect with a Westerner over something other than a machine,” she sighed. “But for so many people, that’s all Americans are about.”

Recently, while being arrested for participation in a nonviolent protest at a military training school in Fort Benning, Georgia, Kelly found that the experience provided a unique insight into the causes of some problems abroad.

According to Kelly, several soldiers seemed to take particular pleasure in throwing a “107-pound, graying peace activist” to the ground—nearly choking her—while other soldiers offered her comforting words or a squeeze on the shoulder during the arrest procedure. Much like her experiences in Baghdad, where she met both kind, good-natured soldiers and some who went out of their way to interfere with peace efforts, soldiers’ confusion about their roles can create undesirable situations for everyone involved.

This type of scenario, reasoned Kelly, is what made events like the notorious abuse at Abu Ghraib Prison possible.

“If this is how soldiers act here in the United States,” she said, “just imagine what those soldiers will do in a faraway country where they’re afraid and no one’s watching them.”

According to Kelly, such actions pose a particular threat in Iraq, where the people remember a time not too long ago when home invasions, curfews and aggressive police procedures were part of the daily routine.

“When soldiers burst into people’s homes, tie up the parents and hold back the children while their father is interrogated, it’s just like the old days under Saddam,” she sighed. “We’re creating terrorists faster than they can be killed.”

But Kelly insisted that the blame for America’s fascination with war—and the general no-questions-asked military mindset many Americans currently possess—should not be placed solely upon the shoulders of soldiers. According to Kelly, accepting bloated military spending practices and inefficient management of our taxes ensures that things will never change.

“How dare we call our young people ‘Generation Kill’ when we allow ourselves to pay for the largest arsenal in the world year after year?” asked Kelly.

And that, said Kelly, is the reason why she has refused to pay federal income tax for the last 23 years. While she doesn’t normally advocate for others to do the same, she said that the current trend toward preemptive military action has forced her to encourage others to take a more active role in determining the purpose their money serves.

“You can never reach political maturity until you’re willing to take a long, hard look in the mirror,” said Kelly.

—Rick Marshall

rmarshall@metroland.net


Overheard

“No one belongs in a prison, not even corporate criminals.”

—Kathy Kelly, founder of Voices in the Wilderness



What a Week

Something’s Stinky in Ohio

For all the worry about Diebold, the latest worrisome news out of Ohio actually involved Triad Systems, makers of the systems that read punch-card ballots. Truthout.org has reported that, according to sworn affidavits from election workers, Triad representatives have apparently showed up at at least one election office and mysteriously tinkered with the computers involved in recounting, and also suggested posting a “cheat sheet” to make sure workers could say that the machine and recount totals matched, even if they didn’t, in order to stave off a full hand recount.

Oh Yeah, We’re Tech Valley

Researchers from UAlbany and the New York State Department of Health have made international news by having four people, two of whom are partially paralyzed, move a computer cursor with their brainwaves. The subjects wore a cap with 64 electrodes, and didn’t require any invasive procedures. Maybe such a cap could help the partially paralyzed state government.

File Under Shameless

Three weeks after the election, the Office of Government Ethics relaxed the prohibitions that kept departing senior Cabinet officials from lobbying their former colleagues for one year. The office found the issue to be so “urgent” that it waived the usual requirements for notice, public comment, and a 30-day wait. But this couldn’t have anything to do with all the folks leaving Bush’s Cabinet could it? How could you think such a thing?

Timing, Man, Timing

In the abstract, it seems quite fair that Schenectady’s mayor and city council should be paid roughly what other upstate mayors and city council members are getting paid, and that the mayor should make more than the police commissioner. But it doesn’t take a representatively compensated political consultant to point out that for a city in the financial straits of Schenectady, having a handpicked task force suggesting that the mayor should get a $44,500 raise, as Mayor Brian Stratton’s task force did this week, is just not going to make people very happy. Did you really have that much extra political capital to spend?



Old School vs. New School

The performance and proliferation of charter schools stirs passions in Albany and Schenectady

It was an educational week here in the Capital Region, but not all of the lessons learned were the sort you want your kids to absorb.

On Monday, representatives from various state and local governments joined with members of Albany’s parent-teacher organizations and the school board to ask the State University of New York Board of Trustees to deny the applications of two new charter schools until the performance of the current schools can be better evaluated.

“[Charter schools are] a giant experiment being funded with taxpayer dollars,” announced Albany School Superintendent Eva Joseph at Monday’s press conference, held in Phillip J. Schuyler Achievement Academy.

Charter schools, which receive a per- student portion of local school-district funds but operate independent of local school boards and certain state regulations, have been the target of heated criticism since New Covenant, the only one of Albany’s four charter schools that has operated long enough for evaluation, was forced to cancel its seventh- and eighth-grade classes due to poor performance and return students to the public-school system. In addition to questioning the educational effectiveness of charter schools, critics contend that the schools’ use of local school-district funds absent of oversight from a

locally elected school board amounts to “taxation without representation.” Advocates, however, insist that the schools offer parents more choice about their children’s education.

While discussing the financial impact of charter schools upon local public-school funding, Joseph equated the cost of one teacher’s salary to that of sending five or six students to a charter school at $8,000 each. However, Joseph argued that since the students accepted by charter schools tend to come from several different classes rather than just a single class, the loss of funding cannot be handled by simply eliminating one teaching position.

But the lessons to be learned from Monday’s conference weren’t only of the raw-data variety, as a representative from the New York Charter School Resource Center made his presence known after the assembled state and local groups made their speeches to the media.

Peter Murphy, vice president of the NYCSRC and a member of the board of trustees for Albany charter school Brighter Choice, told reporters that in charter schools, “the money follows the children,” and that local taxpayers have already shown their support for the charter-school system by choosing to take their children out of the public-school system and place them in charter schools. Murphy once served as vice president of the Charter School Institute, the SUNY Board of Trustees’ advisory body on charter-school application approval, and also helped draft the 1998 legislation that opened the door for charter schools in the state.

What could have been a lesson on civil discourse turned rowdy, however, when members of the school board and Murphy began arguing loudly about the accuracy of studies each side commissioned on the financial and educational impacts of charter schools. The impromptu point-and- counterpoint discussion quickly degraded into each side lobbing harsh accusations—of the lies, bribery and partisan political sort—at the other. At one point, Albany School Board President Scott Wexler angrily asked Murphy if he would send his own children to school at New Covenant.

“I would send my children to any of this city’s charter schools,” replied Murphy.

Shaking his head, Wexler asked, “but you’ll be walking right out of this city right after all this, won’t you? You don’t have any stake in this besides the money, do you?”

The charter school controversy isn’t confined to the Albany School District’s borders, either. Just a few hours after opposing sides of the charter-school debate gave a lesson on how not to handle a public debate, parents, teachers and even some students from the International Charter School of Schenectady arrived en masse at a meeting of the Schenectady City Council to voice their support for the city’s sole charter school. ICSS is in the last year of its initial five-year charter, but since it opened two years late, the school falls short of the five years of operation necessary for evaluation. Student performance at ICSS apparently has been on par with the school’s public counterparts, and ICSS is currently hoping for a new, short-term charter so that both the school district and the school’s parent corporation, SABIS Educational Systems, can have enough information to adequately judge the school’s performance before making a longer-term decision.

“It’s not that we believe the council is opposed to the school,” said Lillian Turner, director of the ICSS, about Monday night’s assembly. According to Turner, those who attended the council meeting simply wanted to remind council members how important the schools are for those involved with them.

And that’s exactly what they did, as speaker after speaker became a real-life example of public participation in government. The speakers also illustrated one of the aspects of this controversial issue that is often lost among the facts and figures: Many of the parents involved with charter schools genuinely believe that the schools have had a positive effect upon their children.

Despite the protestations of Albany’s government representatives and public-school parents, the SUNY Board of Trustees appeared to side with the charter schools on Tuesday (Dec. 15), approving plans for a fifth charter school to be built in the city school district. The new school, Albany Preparatory, is expected to draw 300 students—and the equivalent amount of taxpayer funding—from the city school district, a condition that a spokesman from the Charter School Institute said could be remedied by cutting staff and expenses, as well as renting out space to nearby charter schools.

Yet a question remains, pointed out Bill Ritchie, president of the Albany Public Schools Teachers Association: Are charter schools, with their ability to pick and choose their students and draw funds away from their public school counterparts, allowing some students to benefit at the expense of others?

—Rick Marshall

rmarshall@metroland.net


Hey, Hillary, What’s Up?

As Sen. Hillary Clinton breakfasted with the League of Conservation Voters at Albany’s Desmond Hotel yesterday morning (Wednesday, Dec. 15), about a dozen members of Women Against War gathered outside to let her know that they wanted her to take stand against the ongoing occupation of Iraq. Clinton is a member of the Senate Armed Services committee.

 



Loose Ends

CDTA’s board of directors has approved its proposed fare-restructuring plan, which keeps the base fare at $1, eliminates zone and express surcharges, reduces the Swiper discount from 15 to 10 percent, and replaces transfers with a $3 day pass [“Restructured for Your Convenience,” Newsfront, Oct. 7]. The new fare structure goes into effect April 4, 2005. . . . Sebba Rockaway Ltd., the owner of the Wellington Hotel in downtown Albany, has been dealt $480,000 in fines for unfixed code violations [“On First Thought, No,” Newsfront, Nov. 25]. The city is also hoping to recover $490,000 that it spent in emergency repairs. Sebba’s lawyers are claiming that the code inspections were illegally done. . . . Saratoga Springs held its final public forum last night regarding whether the city should turn to the Saratoga Lake or the Hudson River (through a proposed countywide system) when its current water source runs out [“To the Last Drop,” Dec. 2]. Opinion is still sharply divided in the city, but Mayor Michael Lenz is pushing for a decision on the issue by the end of the year. . . . Former NYPD commissioner Bernard Kerik has withdrawn from the nomination for secretary of the Department of Homeland Security [What a Week, Dec. 9], saying he “discovered” that he’d once employed an undocumented immigrant as a nanny and “forgotten” to pay taxes for her. (DHS oversees immigration enforcement.) But according to multiple news sources, the White House also appears to have missed a wide range of conflicts of interest, unreported gifts from potentially mob-connected companies, and other indiscretions on Kerik’s part that make the nanny admission seem like the least of anyone’s worries.



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