Kathy Kelly: ‘I was hog-tied and a quite large man was kneeling on me’

The US activist, whose protests often landed her in jail, has been arrested over 60 times

Kathy Kelly, who was back in Ireland over the weekend to speak at the Féile Bhríde conference in Kildare. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

Kathy Kelly, who was back in Ireland over the weekend to speak at the Féile Bhríde conference in Kildare. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien


It may have occurred four decades ago, but Kathy Kelly, the US activist of Irish lineage who has been arrested more than 60 time, remembers her first brush with the law like it was yesterday.

“I was a young teacher beginning my career at a Jesuit high-school in 1979, and it was summertime. Young people were being ordered to register for the draft under President Carter, so I and others went inside the post office and we sang songs,” says the Chicago native, whose mother was Irish.

The sing-song ended in acrimony when Kelly was hauled off by police, and the story was splashed all over local papers the following day.

Far from deterring her from participating in further acts of civil disobedience, that experience merely whetted Kelly’s appetite and she has since been instrumental in mobilising movements against nuclear weapons, police brutality and US foreign policy but to name a few.

Indeed, her activities have resulted in a litany of incarcerations.

As well as a recent three-month stint at a federal prison in Kentucky for attempting to deliver a loaf of bread to a military base housing drone operators, Kelly previously served a three-month sentence for an incursion into another military base and spent a year in a maximum security prison after attempting to plant corn on nuclear missile silo sites in 1988.


While one would be forgiven for thinking that the policing of such demonstrations may have mellowed compared to the cold-war climate in which Kelly first began crusading on myriad issues, she says her worst experience of brutality occurred in the mid-2000s.

“I did have an experience at a US military base where, following a very aggressive search with five people shouting orders all at once and hands inside of clothing, I just a little bit above a whisper said, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t co-operate with this any longer’ and I put my arms down at my side,” she recalls.

“I was immediately thrown down on the ground – I had a black eye from that – I was hog-tied and a quite large young man was kneeling on me and was referring to me with an expletive,” adds Kelly, saying the “humiliating” treatment only ended when she became critically short of breath.

The 64-year old has previously lent her support to demonstrations against the US military’s use of Shannon Airport, and was in Ireland again over the weekend to speak at the Féile Bhríde conference in Kildare organised by peace and justice advocacy group Afri.

Anti-Trump campaigns

Asked what has been the main change she has witnessed from the anti-war protests of the 1980s right up to the Black Lives Matter and anti-Trump campaigns she is currently aligned to, Kelly says that while methods of protest have not deviated much the manner of organising them has.

“With the advent of social media and the speed with which people can communicate, it’s much more easy to develop a large protest such as the women’s march that happened in Washington DC than it would have been to develop a civil rights march back in the Sixties,” she says.

“You really did have to work for eight months to turn out that number of people. But you could do something in a month and a half now that could turn out massive numbers of people.”

As regards the current administration and its many controversial orders, Kelly sees Donald Trump’s elevation to president as being symptomatic of an intolerant sentiment prevalent among vast swathes of US society which the Republican politician adroitly channelled to his advantage.

“With or without Trump, we have what you could call Trumpism now. By that I mean people who feel intolerant of people from other countries or other races, people who are intolerant of people from another gender, people who are angry and want to be able to carry guns.

“All of this is not going to go away whether we have Trump for president or not.”