Radical Action as Performance Art
Karl Meyer first became a peace activist in the 1950s through his participation in the Catholic Worker movement. For decades, he lived and worked in Chicago, running a homeless shelter and participating in nonviolent radical direct action for peace. Many of his activist efforts use performative, humorous, and creative tactics that blur the boundaries between radical action and performance art. In 1961, he participated in the Peace March to Moscow, walking with a group of activists across the US and then across Europe into the Soviet Union. In 1965, he opposed the death penalty by walking from Chicago to Springfield, Illinois, dragging a mock electric chair on a cart. He has been arrested many times and is a longtime tax resister. In the 1990s, he drove around the country in the Peace House, a truck fitted out as a living space and educational center. In 1997 he founded and currently resides in Nashville Greenlands, a Catholic Worker-affiliated community in an inner-city neighborhood of Nashville whose purpose, according to its mission statement, is “to explore and demonstrate an ecologically sustainable way of life within a city, based on agricultural use of open land, and a simple common life to minimize our consumption of world resources.” He was interviewed there in March of 2012 by Rebecca Zorach and Mike Phillips.
Rebecca Zorach (RZ): Would you talk about how the idea came up to do the walk to Springfield with the electric chair on the cart?
Karl Meyer (KM): Very interesting story. I had been on the San Francisco to Moscow walk in 1961, a year-long walk from San Francisco across the United States and then across Europe, and I came back in 1961 and I was somewhat already known in the media in Chicago because of different nonviolent actions I had done. It was a lot more interesting then, nonviolent action, than it is now, because there was a lot less of it being done. So, in 1965 I began going to meetings of the Illinois Committee to Abolish Capital Punishment, which was led by two wonderful guys, Reverend James Jones, an Episcopal priest who had founded Saint Leonard’s House, a halfway house for prisoners, and Hans Mattick, a wonderful professor from the University of Chicago who had served as the Deputy Warden of Cook County Jail for a while, a wonderful man. So we’re sitting in a meeting and we’re talking about what they’re going to do in 1965, and Father James Jones—Jim Jones—was a wonderful lobbyist. He could go down to Springfield and he could talk to the legislators and so on. And they were mainly doing lobbying, which was probably the most effective thing to do. In the Catholic Worker Movement, we weren’t into politics—I wasn’t even registered to vote at the time. I never did any lobbying. You know, I wanted some kind of direct action or protest. And Father Jones said to me, “Well, Karl, you can’t walk to Moscow on this issue.”
And when I went home, I thought about it and I thought, “Why not?” And so I conceived of this idea of walking during Lent. I was an active practicing Catholic at the time, had a Catholic Worker shelter for the homeless in Chicago, and I conceived this idea of walking to Springfield. I hoped to get together a group of people to do it, but I couldn’t get anyone else to go with me. So I bought this two-wheeled cart, with classic wagon wheels, from a friend, a resident at my house of hospitality who was retiring from the business of collecting metal. And I made a rather crude replica of an electric chair that I mounted on top of that cart, and I put a sleeping bag and a raincoat in the cart, on top of literature and so on. It had two handles. And I set out, I believe on Ash Wednesday in Lent of 1965, on this walk from Chicago to Springfield. It was snowing the day that I set out in Chicago and it was actually a brilliant project because as I toiled across the prairie, I had to get off the main highways and walk on all these little side roads. Some of them on the map were described as “improved roads.” On the highway I thought, “Well, that would be a good one to go on, ‘improved road,’” until I found out the improved roads were the dirt roads that had been improved by having gravel put down! Illinois is divided into these 40-acre sections, and every mile there’s a road; it’s a grid layout like Chicago. In all these small towns all the small town newspapers and television were coming out to interview me about the abolition of capital punishment. And I tied it around the fact that Jesus and eleven of his apostles were victims of capital punishment, in brutal ways, crucifixion and fire and so on. So I arrived in Springfield, Illinois, the state capital, on Good Friday, 1965. There are people still in Chicago, 47 years later, who still remember that project.
RZ: And did you find hospitality along the way—were people eager take you in? Or did you end up sleeping in the fields, or a little of both?
KM: People thought I was crazy down there. In a town called Herscher, Illinois, I think it was, I did take a room at a house. This woman had a rooming house; her hobby was making American flags out of seashells, painted seashells. But she took me in. I’d ask if there was a rooming house or a hotel in these little towns—there wasn’t. Were people taking me in? No way. They thought I was perhaps insane, you know? It was completely out of their ken. But they all knew about me because they’d be driving along the road in their pickup trucks going home and they’d see me toiling across the prairie hauling this cart with a chair on the back that said “NO,” just one word painted on this black chair, painted white on the back of this black chair, “NO.” And all their local newspapers and radio stations and television stations were covering it, it was a tremendous thing in terms of publicity.
And I feel it made a contribution. We had the abolition of the death penalty by the Illinois State Legislature that year, and then it was brought back (and then abolished again, I think it was last year). And, in this town it was raining cats and dogs and I had taken my room and I decided to go out and talk to some pastors and so on in the town that evening about the abolition of capital punishment. I went to the Catholic rectory and I rang the doorbell, and the priest came to the door and I was standing in pouring rain, I had an old style raincoat, and rain hat and so on, I was standing in pouring rain outside of this priest’s screen porch. And I explained to him through the screen—he kept the screen door latched—so I explained to him through the screen door what I was there about, the abolition of capital punishment and so on. And when I told him that, he said, “We shoot rats, don’t we?” And he didn’t invite me in.
In rural Illinois—now, in Champaign-Urbana or something, yes, I had some contacts. And in Calumet, Kankakee, and Champaign-Urbana and so on I had some contacts from liberal friends in Chicago where I did stay overnight.
RZ: And you got coverage from all those small towns?
KM: Well, sometimes. One night, I slept in the middle of a corn crib. One night I slept in a barn out in the field, an old barn building, and I slept in the hay. It was cold! Sometimes freezing at night, snow and rain. One time I had been fighting the wind all the way across the prairie all day and I was really tired, and I didn’t know where I was going to sleep and it was cold and I went into this barn and I got under the hay. And I parked the wagon by the roadside and I had a chain that I could chain one of the wagon wheels, and when I came out in the morning, beside the wagon, up against the wheel, there was a brown paper bag, just printed in a child’s handwriting, “Breakfast.” And I opened that and there was a thing of orange juice and a sweetroll in it. And I was sitting with my back up against the wheel of the wagon. And this was the prairie. And this young twelve-year-old boy, Chris was his name, and his sister who was a little older, came riding out on their bicycles from a farmhouse to talk to me. They had put out the bag for my breakfast. That was the most hospitable thing that ever happened to me alone in the prairie in the villages of Illinois.
RZ: And did they know who you were and what you were doing, or did they just know you were a stranger who had taken refuge in the barn?
KM: No, they had to know what I was doing. Because it was in the newspapers and the television.
RZ: And so it was on TV, on all the local news?
KM: Oh, it was one of the most unusual things that had ever happened in a lot of those small towns. And I made the friendship of Bill Witherspoon, one of the loveliest people I’ve ever known, one of the sweetest, gentlest, loveliest people I’ve ever known, who was on death row for the killing of a Chicago policeman. His death penalty was overturned by the US Supreme Court, in a case where he had done the research and written the brief and then Elmer Gertz, who was a great civil liberties lawyer in Chicago, took the case. The appeals court read Bill Witherspoon’s brief, with many issues, and some appeals judge said “This is a significant issue,” and then they gave Elmer Gertz the opportunity to take it. It created a precedent: you cannot exclude from death penalty juries everybody who has scruples about the death penalty! So his sentence was set aside, but the wardens and so on thought so highly of Bill, he eventually made parole. And he came and stayed at my house overnight, and I went to Detroit. But when we smuggled the Nicaraguan coffee from across the border at Windsor I stayed overnight at Bill’s house. And there was a woman from Colombia, Angela, who had corresponded with Bill on death row in prison, and when he was released on parole she came over from Colombia and married him. Oh, she was a sweetheart too. This man that had been on death row was one of the loveliest of the many lovely people that I have known in my life. He died of cancer. And after he died of cancer, prematurely, maybe 60 years old or whatever, his wife sent me a tape of the funeral service.
My friend Joe Mulligan, a Jesuit priest that I was in prison with for tax and draft resistance during the Vietnam War, was in Detroit. He’s in Nicaragua now, for the last 20 years, but he became a friend of Bill’s in Detroit. Bill left Chicago and went back to Detroit because he was afraid that the Chicago police might frame him because it had been a Chicago policeman he had killed. And Angela sent me a tape of his memorial service. And she also sent me the newsletter of the hospital where he had died of cancer. And in the newsletter there was an article about him, the nurses talking about Bill Witherspoon, and what a fine uncomplaining patient he had been as he was in pain and dying of cancer. Bill had his final appointment with death, you know, but he had had ten or twelve execution dates, appointment dates before in his life, so he had come to terms with dealing with death.
RZ: I wanted to ask you a little bit more about the walk to Springfield. One of the things that I notice in a lot of your actions over the years is the clever ways of getting the attention of the media that you used. How did you learn those kinds of skills, of getting attention in these very visual ways? Was it something that was always part of your activism, or were particular moments where you realized, “oh, this is a good way to get attention that will lead to more people hearing about this action and learning about our message”?
KM: When I first got started in nonviolent action and so-called “civil disobedience”—I tend not to call it civil disobedience, I don’t like that term, I call it “direct action” or “nonviolent action,” because usually it’s in defense of the First Amendment freedoms, and it’s the police who are engaged in civil disobedience! But, when we first got started in the fifties, there was hardly any of it. So just walking, and there wasn’t much walking around with a picket sign and handing out leaflets except labor unions. And when we started doing it and doing marches from Great Lakes Naval Station and Fort Sheridan to downtown Chicago, with posters and signs against the atomic bomb in 1957, it was enough to walk down the street in a parade with posters about peace to get some attention. But as we came into the sixties, and the anti-Vietnam War movement and the anti-nuclear movement and the civil rights movement, to just be arrested was no longer sufficient to get public attention. And just to walk with a picket sign somewhere and hand out leaflets definitely wasn’t. You get attention from the people passing by if they would take a leaflet, but sometimes you’d get negative attention like, “Go back to Russia you fucking Communists,” or whatever. But I came to understand—it was something like the San Francisco to Moscow Walk, where you had to have a hook, you had to have a tag. If you did something unusual, and of course this is Gandhian too, the idea that you are really willing to put some risk and some sacrifice behind it—a fast, a long walk. An ordeal of some kind that puts some determination, some meaning behind what you were doing and made people think, “Gee, I would never do that. What is he doing this about?” And then also, as television became much more important, of course the newspapers always wanted pictures too, you know, dramatic pictures or interesting pictures or unusual pictures. They just didn’t want a picture of somebody standing with a picket sign.
RZ: If you had just walked to Springfield, without dragging the cart, the pictures wouldn’t have been as good.
KM: There would have been pictures of a guy walking with a sign saying “No To Capital Punishment.” But the cart and the electric chair—the reporters sometimes complained when they came out, that the chair was just a simple straight-backed chair, all painted black with a few chains and leather belts, straps on it. The reporters sometimes complained, “well, this wasn’t authentic enough as an electric chair, it didn’t look enough like a real electric chair.”
RZ: But I think in the photos it looks good enough, you know!
KM: But maybe it looked more like the kind of cart that had big wagon wheels that they might take someone to the guillotine in the French Revolution.
RZ: Could you talk about the Vietnam Forum on Wells Street?
KM: That one really was about education during the Vietnam War. It was about getting out there, talking about my experience of being in Vietnam, a project in which six of us went to Saigon and staged a demonstration, made contact with peace movement people, people who wanted a third way of nonviolence and peace in Vietnam, taking up on the Buddhist struggle movement and other people who wanted a third way of peace in Vietnam. And then conducting a demonstration outside the US Embassy. This was a time, and that was in 1966, April of 1966, when there were a lot of demonstrations on the street in the United States. But we realized that if we went to Saigon and demonstrated for peace outside the US Embassy, it would go all over the world! And it did. And it was very dramatic because we had a press conference in Saigon and the Vietnamese government organized students to come and throw eggs and tomatoes at us at our press conference and tell us to leave Vietnam. But as we were being hustled out of the room, some of the students came up and talked to us and told us that they had been recruited and organized to do this, and they actually agreed with us!
And as I was picked up on the street and being driven on the tailgate of a Vietnamese police Jeep, with a Vietnamese policeman standing or sitting on each side of me, and I’m sitting on the tailgate on the back of this Jeep, that picture of me being hustled to the airport in Vietnam by Vietnamese police was a full-page picture on the front page of Chicago’s American, one of the newspapers in Chicago. So there were pictures all over the world of what we were doing. And stories, I mean NBC, I think it was Bernard Kalb, one of their top reporters at the Caravelle Hotel, he came to me. I stayed in the apartment while the other five went out to talk to the press in the hotel, because we needed to keep someone in the apartment in case the security people came in and tried to take our stuff or whatever. He came to me and wanted me to go upstairs to their apartment up above us to do a filming. And I told him I can’t leave the apartment, maybe you can lower your camera on a rope through the window. Because the police were there at the door of our apartment, and weren’t letting him come in with his equipment. So that, the press was that eager to get video interviews and footage of us, you know. And so, once again, it was the dramatic action of going to Saigon and doing demonstrations outside the US Embassy that got the attention. And we understood that these dramatic actions and these very visual actions, were important to getting the message across.
RZ: And when you were doing those kinds of things, I wonder what you thought of the Yippies when they came along and did these high-profile media actions?
KM: I loved what Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin did with the stuff with the pig and throwing the money down on the floor of the stock exchange. Actually, the FBI put me on their official Agitator’s Index in ’68 in preparation for the Democratic Convention, and then a year later they took me off what they in some places call the Rabble Rouser Index. They have a printed card, the Rabble Rouser Index, and a check off of about 20 or 30 organizations. The Black Panthers, RAM (Revolutionary Action Movement), Communist Party, SWP (the Trotskyist party), and so on. They had me down there, I was chairman of the Chicago Peace Council. And they took me off! And they said I no longer qualified to be on the Rabble Rouser Index because they had not seen me involved very much in the preparations for the Democratic National Convention demonstrations. And I just thought that’s the incompetence of the FBI because there was no year that I did more illegal damage to the War in Vietnam than in 1968! Because I was writing about war tax refusal, and thousands of people became war tax refusers as a result of my writings about not paying taxes for the Vietnam War, and how to do it! So, I was offended when I got my FBI files a couple of years later that they had taken me off of the Rabble Rouser Index. But, you were saying, the Vietnam Forum. So, in 1966 we had this project and we were expelled from Vietnam, and then summer of ’67, first we had this march in April. The first time when Martin Luther King came out publicly, marched against the Vietnam War, along with a number of other Black activists and political activists in Chicago, and spoke at our rally—although he’s better known for the speech that he gave against the War in Vietnam at Riverside Church in New York a few weeks later. And we marched with him, and at the front of the march, I and a couple of other Catholic Workers carried the banner that the students had made for us in Vietnam, “Men are not our enemies, if we kill them with whom shall we live?” in Vietnamese and English. And I brought that banner back from Vietnam and carried it at the head of the march, with Martin Luther King marching under it. And I believe it was the next year or a couple years later, Martin Luther King nominated Thich Nhat Hanh, this Vietnamese Buddhist monk, for the Nobel Peace Prize. So, that was in March and April, and I conceived this idea of the Vietnam Forum up on Wells St. I found people who had been to Vietnam, soldiers, and one of them had came and spoken, and so we did soapboxing every Friday night and Saturday night, up at Goethe and Wells St., this was as North Wells St. that was developing as the new trendy nightclub area, with little restaurants and nightclubs and gift shops and all that business. And there were large crowds of people on the street up there for nightlife. It was an extension of the Gold Coast in Chicago, Rush Street and so on, moving up Wells and Lincoln Ave.
So there were hundreds or people on the street there and we tried to get a permit, but we actually did it on the sidewalk of a school—there was a schoolyard there between Schiller and Goethe. And we set up card tables and leaflets with the cooperation of North Side Women for Peace, a chapter of Women for Peace in Chicago, there were a couple of artists involved in that, Mona Cunningham was the key person in that. With Veterans for Peace and Women for Peace, we started this Vietnam Forum, and every Friday night, Saturday night, from say 8 o’clock till almost midnight, we would have soapboxing there. And we would get speakers who had been to Vietnam, veterans who had understood that they had been doing the wrong thing in Vietnam. In fact, one of the speakers that came to me at a meeting of the Chicago Peace Council insisted on showing me his Coast Guard ID, and I told him, “I don’t need any ID!” But he insisted in pulling out his Coast Guard ID and proving to me that he had actually been in the Coast Guard and wanted to talk about his experience delivering supplies and so on to Vietnam. And right away the very fact that he kept pressing on me identification to prove that he was who he said he was, I immediately got the idea, “I bet that this guy is an infiltrator.” He was in Veterans for Peace and this is the way the police department—because a lot of the police officers were veterans and they infiltrated them into the Chicago Peace Council coalition through Veterans for Peace. And they were all clean-cut and so on. And you could pick them out because you could see they didn’t really understand our culture. They didn’t understand the developing culture of feminism, they made inappropriate jokes about women, and so on and so forth, and sometimes they tried to sort of incite us toward violent actions and things like that.
But this guy, I think he introduced himself to me as Marty Franklin, or something like that. A few years later he showed up as one of the witnesses, one of the police witnesses, in the Chicago Seven trial. But I intuited that he was a police infiltrator—he came and spoke at the Vietnam Forum! We welcomed these people. It was better to know who the police infiltrators were than to send them away and then not know who their replacement was!
RZ: He also testified against the radical University of Chicago sociologist who was fired, Marlene Dixon. The case that caused the sit-in, the big takeover of the administration building in 1969.
KM: Then there were a couple women that showed up as witnesses against the Chicago Seven, like one who had been an active volunteer. And she shows up in my FBI files because she was a very active volunteer at the Peace Council, gave many hours, but she was a very gentle, mild-spoken, hard-working woman and you wouldn’t suspect her of being an FBI or police infiltrator. And she raised money and she shows up in my [Chicago Police] Red Squad file index cards over and over again because I was in prison and they were going to have a fundraising dinner to honor me when I got out of prison for refusing taxes for the Vietnam War. And so the repeated citations that Joyce Stover asks for help with the Karl Meyer Dinner, so every time my name is mentioned, there’s a citation in there, index for my Red Squad files. We never suspected her! We never thought that she was an informant.
Mike Phillips (MP): You wonder if she did more good for the Peace Movement in volunteering…
KM: Well that was it! These were nice people who worked with us. Double dippers, you know? And they may even sometimes have agreed with us or they may have come to agree with us or they may have come to understand that we were decent honest idealistic people. And Kathy Kelly and I, any of us who have a Gandhian base for our views, say, “Yes! Bring them in! Bring them close to yourself, talk to them!” This is the process, you know? This is nonviolence. You bring your adversaries as close to you as you can in a personal way. The further away they are, the less they can know you. And this is the problem we have with drone attacks and so on, that you can kill people from thousands of miles away.
RZ: So the Vietnam Forum, you ended up getting arrested because of that, right?
KM: Yeah, that’s what my lawyer, Marshall Patner called the “Heckler’s Veto.” Sergeant O’Malley, a plainclothes officer, was apparently head of the so-called Red Squad in the Chicago Police Department. And earlier that summer he was in charge of the squad that arrested me at the Lions Club Convention, where I also unfurled the Vietnam banner. Later that summer, I unfurled that banner at the Lions Club, and they confiscated it as evidence (I never got it back) against me for standing up at the Lions Club International Convention and confronting Dean Rusk, the Secretary of State. But Sergeant O’Malley, it was a Friday in maybe June of 1967, I’m not sure of the date or the time. Now, a number of us had been up at say, 6 am. We got up and went down to the induction station of the Selective Service where young draftees were going to be inducted, and we were picketing and leafleting outside the Selective Service induction station. And Sergeant O’Malley was there, now, we’re talking 6 or 7 in the morning. And actually, I think it was at that picket line that I recruited two of the people that were picketing there to go in with me to the Lions Club Convention, International Lions Club at the Chicago Stadium. But, now, that evening, we’re having the Vietnam Forum on Wells St. And Sergeant O’Malley is there! Also there was Ken Sain, who was a scion of a very politically connected family, he was the son of some alderman or something in Chicago. He was a young lawyer, he was in the Corporation Counsel’s office, and one of his responsibilities was to prosecute protestors. So Ken Sain was there! Both of them showed up as witnesses at my trial. Ken Sain was also a prosecutor at my trial. I should have called attention to that—you can’t be both a witness and a prosecutor—but I wasn’t sophisticated enough at the time. And they’re around there and there are crowds around there, and three soldiers, three sailors from Great Lakes Naval Training Station, down there on Friday night leave, they were drunk, they were intoxicated. I was talking about the Vietnamese Buddhist struggle, monks that were struggling for peace in Vietnam, some of whom had set themselves on fire. And one of these sailors gets out his cigarette lighter and he lights it, and he’s threatening there. He sets some of my leaflets on fire and I’m up on the soapbox and he threatens to set me on fire. And at my trial they claimed that this is why they busted up the meeting. Well, I talked to the soldiers, we resolved it peacefully, and they left. The sailors, and they left, and the meeting went on. And later on the crowd dwindled, but it was around probably 10:30, 11 o’clock, and we were still there! Talking to people who were there, only a few people gathered around and listening, there was no riot, no threat, whatever. But Sergeant O’Malley was ready to go home and go to bed, for crying in a bucket, you know? He’d been with us at 7 am and again with us at 11 pm, so he brings a police squad there and arrests me for disorderly conduct! They ordered me to leave and I declined, and the people, my associates who were with me packed up our leaflets and so on and left, but I stayed on the soapbox and they arrested me. And I was charged with disorderly conduct and disobeying a police officer in the performance of his duty. And the Illinois Supreme Court eventually overturned the disorderly conduct because when the police officers testified, “What did he do when you told him he was under arrest?” “He got down quietly from the soapbox and walked procession-like to the car,” the Supreme Court said, “This isn’t disorderly conduct.” And they claimed they had to bust it up because of this threatening riot, potential riot. But that had been a couple hours earlier! The whole thing was bogus. Marshall took it to the US Supreme Court on the “disobeying a police officer in the performance of his duty” charge, because he said, “If there’s a threat of violence, you arrest the person who’s threatening the violence, not the person who is being threatened!” Because if you arrest the person who’s being threatened, that gives the violent heckler a license to cancel the First Amendment, the freedom of press, public assembly, freedom of speech. The Supreme Court refused to take the case. Marshall was completely right on the issues. It was the Chicago Tribune, I think it was the Tribune, it might have been the Sun Times, their story on the first night of the Vietnam Forum was “New Left Leader Fails In Hope of Arrest.” That was the headline on that story. I didn’t hope to be arrested that night, the first night we did it. It was several weeks into it before this arrest occurred. But that’s the way they saw it, because the reporter had talked to me and I’ve always said, I wasn’t hoping for an arrest at that time but I’m always ready to be arrested if necessary to defend the freedoms guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, that are said to be inalienable rights: The right of the people peaceably to assemble, to petition for redress of grievances, the freedom of speech, the freedom of the press. If the police are going to engage in civil disobedience and try to take those rights away from their employers, the people, I’m prepared to be arrested to defend them. I’ve run off the police often, many, many times.
RZ: Did you think of yourself as being in the New Left?
KM: I was in between the New Left and the Old Left! I got started with the old Left, the Left of Jack Spiegel (President of the Shoe Workers in Chicago), Sidney Lens, activists from the 1930s, the unemployed movements and the putting tenants back in their homes after evictions, activists of the 1930s. Dorothy Day, Catholic Worker. A. J. Muste goes back to WWI. I got started with people who were activists against WWI and WWII and the Korean War, but then I was about 10 years older than the generation of draftees to the Vietnam War, and was a mentor to many of them, because of unconditional willingness to defy military conscription and the conscription of money for the Vietnam War, the war taxes.
RZ: Maybe I could jump ahead—I mean, you have so many actions in the 80s, but maybe you could talk about the coffee action.
KM: The coffee action. Again, we did a lot of vigils in the Federal Plaza and once again Kathy Kelly and I and our associates from the Catholic Worker and from Synapses, this Mennonite based nonviolent action group in Chicago, that Gene Stoltzfus was the founder of, Dorothy Friesen and Gene Stoltzfus, and with the Interreligious Task Force on Central America, the American Friends Service Committee. We did many actions in the early 1980s to oppose the Contra war in Nicaragua and the US support for the death squad government in El Salvador. And in Guatemala too. We did many creative and interesting actions. But a friend of ours from the Vietnam War draft resistance movement, CADRE, Lenny Cizewski, was up in Madison, Wisconsin, a good friend of mine, one of the founders of a second Catholic Worker House in Uptown, Francis of Assisi House. But he had moved up to Madison, Wisconsin, and then he started a little group just to bring in, actually, just to bring in art from Nicaragua in violation of the trade embargo. And he was importing some paintings and other things, and some stamps and so on. He wanted to bring some coffee in from Nicaragua, to openly violate the embargo. But he was having the coffee mailed across the border in individual packages, and he would have liked to get more coffee in, but there was nobody to bring it in.
So Kathy Kelly and I conceived the idea, conspired with him, and he got a bag of about a hundred and fifty pounds of Nicaraguan coffee beans in a burlap bag, in a burlap sack of about a hundred and fifty pounds, and he got it sent to Windsor, Canada, across the river from Detroit. So Kathy Kelly and I drove to Detroit, we stayed overnight with Bill Witherspoon and Angie, and we went across the border in Windsor, put the bag of coffee in our trunk, and drove across the bridge to Detroit. And you’re stopped by an immigration person who asks if you have anything to declare. I said, no, I had nothing to declare. I don’t lie, but I don’t tell everything. It was something that he thought I should declare, but I had nothing to declare to him. So, we brought this bag across and we took it to a coffee shop, you know, New Wave Coffee on Broadway, and we had it all ground and packaged in one pound bags with a label that we had designed, that it was Nicaraguan coffee. And we sent half of it up to Lenny in Madison for his project—he was later raided by the customs people, and had a legal case up there. Then we took the coffee, 60 or 70 of these one pound bags of ground coffee. And we distributed it to churches around Chicago, that were participating in Central America solidarity actions, and we conceived with Gene Stoltzfus and so on this coffee party and liturgy, and we got a permit for the Dirksen, Federal Court Building in Chicago, to set up a table in the morning, and we had a coffee party and liturgy. Sort of like a Catholic Mass liturgy in which bread was blessed and the Nicaraguan coffee was blessed, and the Nicaraguan coffee and the bread was served around as communion. Gene Stoltzfus had written a doxology for this liturgy: (sings) “Coffee, coffee, coffee, Nicaraguan coffee,” using the conventional melody of the doxology [Holy, holy, holy, Lord God almighty…]
Mike Phillips (MP): And was this open to anyone?
KM: Oh yeah! It was in the lobby of the building, we had a bunch of ministers, Catholic priests, Protestant ministers, lawyers from the immigration movement who were supporters, and we had a press conference and the ministers, some of the ministers and priests explained what was wrong with the Contra war and the war in El Salvador, and the lawyers explained what was illegal about the embargo, because the declaration of danger to American foreign policy posed by the Nicaraguan government was fraudulent! It was a fraud by the Ronald Reagan government to Congress certifying that this embargo was necessary because of the threat that Nicaragua posed. It’s like the Iranian embargo now, you know? Does Iran pose a threat to the United States? The United States poses a much greater threat to Iran than vice versa. Nicaragua posed no threat at all to the United States. And so it was a fraudulent declaration.
And we wanted to expose this, we wanted to make a point of this. And in this case we wanted to go to trial, we wanted to be indicted for violation of the embargo, so that we could bring this issue into court. And we had the support of lawyers who would represent us and defend us and so on, and as part of this, I called up Anton Valukas, the US Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, I talked to him, he returned my call, “Hi, Karl, this is Tony, Tony Valukas, what’s up?” and I said, “We’d like to bring this Nicaraguan coffee in and we’d like to meet with you,” and he said he was going to be out of town but he’d have his Assistant US Attorney meet with me and several other top Assistant US Attorneys met with us, but they said only five of us could come upstairs. So Kathy Kelly and several others, Dorothy Friesen and I, we went upstairs and we had thermoses of this Nicaraguan coffee and we had the empty burlap sack with the stencil on it, “Nicaragua Libre,” Free Nicaragua. And we presented the burlap sack to them as evidence, we confessed to smuggling it across the border in violation of the embargo, we offered them coffee, they drank the coffee—and of course we had reporters there—and later the reporter for In These Times called up Tony Valukas and asked him, “What are you going to do about this?” And he told her, “Tell Karl that he shouldn’t hold his breath until such time as we decide to indict him.” And that was sort of their response. They were not going to take the bait. Because they didn’t want this issue litigated in court! So that again, it is a kind of performance art.
RZ: Well, yeah!
KM: And I’m saying that because you’re interested in art, but it’s a different, broader concept of art.
RZ: But it’s interesting to me that you were doing things that are very much like what artists do.
KM: Now, performance art! I went to the museum a couple years ago. I was up in Chicago, my Turkish friend was visiting and we went to the Museum of Contemporary Art, and they were having some anniversary exhibit of some kind, and it was a great exhibit. But one of their exhibits was reproductions of, what is it, whose sculpture of The Kiss is it, Rodin?
KM: And what they had was students recruited there to recline in similar positions on the floor of MCA and kiss! So every half hour or something they’d kiss for ten minutes and hold this pose. A broader concept of what art is and how you bring ideas to people in the form of something creative.
RZ: I think one of the ways that people who talk about the history of art and activism often talk about ACT UP and the AIDS and HIV activism from the 80s and 90s as really being a key moment when art and activism came together because there were so many artists who were affected, either because of themselves or their friends, by HIV, and there were a lot of really creative actions that they did. But I wonder if they were learning from you, from anti-war activists…
KM: Or if we were learning from them? The first time I was arrested in 1957 in New York, refusing to participate in these absolutely insane nuclear air raid drills that involved crawling under a table or a desk to protect yourself from a Russian multi-warhead nuclear bomb attack on Manhattan, and schooling children that this was the way to protect themselves from the threat, from the possibility of nuclear war. And we said, this is crazy, this is insane. And we will not do it! I didn’t say it—Dorothy Day and Ammon Hennacy said it. They had a protest, I went down there, got in a cab and raced down there to do it with them. I was only 20 years old. I spent 30 days at Riker’s Island, the juvenile prison. Dorothy Day and Ammon Hennacy, they had just met me, a couple hours, ten minutes before the action! And they were worried about me! But two of the people we were with in that action were Julian Beck and Judith Malina. And these were the founders of the Living Theater. They were anarchists, they were great activists, but they were theater artists. Innovative. The Living Theater was a theater that engaged the audience, got beyond just people standing on the stage declaiming. And they left the United States at the peak of the Vietnam War and went to Italy. Later they got a little into film, Julian Beck played an accountant in The Cotton Club, and Judith Molina had a role in the film Reds, but they were really great radical theater artists.
RZ: And were you aware of theater artists in Chicago, when you were doing things in Chicago that were kind of theatrical forms of activism? You weren’t thinking about it as art.
KM: As I told you before, when I look back there were very few people who saw themselves as artists and defined themselves as artists and had a career or a great hobby in terms of creating visual art or even musical art or performance art, who I remember being active in the peace movement in Chicago. There was not a whole lot of interaction between the arts and cultural community and the peace movement in Chicago, that I remember. I didn’t know them. Carlos Cortez, an anarchist IWW poet and artist, was always an activist, and there were some singers like Kristen Lems, folk singers who wrote and sang songs. And Steve Goodman, Bonnie Koloc, and who’s the other guy, John Prine. Steve Goodman, Bonnie Koloc and John Prime came all the way up to Sandstone, Minnesota when I was in prison, and there were a number of other conscientious objectors and war resisters, about a dozen of us in prison at the Federal Correctional Institution in Sandstone, Minnesota in 1971. And they came up there to give a concert and sang for us at Sandstone Prison. So there were some artists who would do things like that.
RZ: What about Franklin and Penelope Rosemont?
KM: Yes, but I didn’t know them well. Franklin Rosemont, who was a Surrealist writer and poet and Penelope Rosemont who’s a Surrealist artist, and they were also the owners of Charles Kerr Publishing. They bought up the backlist and continued Charles Kerr Publishing, the classic, historic socialist publishing house of the late nineteenth century, which had gone out of business, and they bought the backlist that was in a warehouse and started it up again to publish Surrealist literature and anarchist literature and IWW stuff. But that’s when I got to know them more, in the 90s. And Franklin Rosemont and Tor Faegre and a third guy, Bernie something, had an anarchist bookshop called Solidarity Bookshop, on Armitage. And that was in like ’68, ’69, and so on. And I met them there, but I didn’t know them well. And they may have been, you know, there’s much more political activity than you can be involved in, political activity and protest activity in Chicago and actually not know some other people that are involved in a different group, but we were really at the core of that kind of stuff. The Chicago Peace Council was a coalition of many organizations. So I did not know them well in that period.
RZ: The thing that I know Tor Faegre for is building shelters for homeless people with the Mad Housers.
KM: Yeah, he had some involvement with the Catholic Worker and he did beautiful twig furniture, stick furniture. Fine artist. And he had a history, we went back with Tor. I knew Tor Faegre but I didn’t see a whole lot of him, because he became less involved in activism. But, I reconnected with Franklin and probably met Penelope for the first time in the very late 80s or early 90s. And when I started traveling with the Peace House. But Tor Faegre had been involved in Polaris Action, a Committee for Nonviolent Action protest in New London, Connecticut, in which the Committee for Nonviolent Action—which sponsored the project in Saigon, the San Francisco to Moscow walk, Omaha Action, where I did 6 months in prison for trespassing at an intercontinental ballistics missile site in Nebraska, and they also sponsored this Polaris Action in New London, Connecticut in 1960, that I was not involved in. But Tor Faegre was one of the people, they swam out, or went out in canoes into the bay at New London as these Polaris Missile submarines that were built to carry nuclear missiles underneath the ocean and launch them from the ocean at Russia. He was involved in that. But his widow, Sue Sommers, has told me that Tor was a lot more threatened or intimidated by the idea of imprisonment, so he backed away from that nonviolent direct action, although he remained committed to the philosophy and the ideas.
RZ: Maybe you could talk about the postering action a little bit.
KM: Yeah. That was in either in 1986 or 1988. Witness for Peace delegations had gone down to northern Nicaragua. The Contras, reactionary rebels against the Nicaraguan revolution, the Nicaraguan government, were totally supported by the United States—financed and trained by the United States. And probably, I’m sure that one of the functions of the CIA in Nicaragua and other US intelligence in Nicaragua was to pinpoint on a map the location of every US North American that was in Nicaragua, and to provide that information to the Contra leadership in Honduras. It’s obvious to me that there was an objective that no US citizens be killed by the Contras in Nicaragua. So don’t launch any attacks where any of these people are. The reason I’m firmly convinced of this is because there was only one US citizen that was killed by the Contras in Northern Nicaragua, Ben Lindner, and it became a big problem, and a big case. Congress was skeptical of what the Reagan Administration was doing in Nicaragua, with the Contras, and any time a US citizen got killed it was going to get in the news and it was going to create more political opposition.
So Witness for Peace was going down there, organizing delegations of progressive supporters of Nicaragua, opponents of the Contra war, and they were being present with people, with villagers in northern Nicaragua and with the people and they were walking the roads. The roads and so on were mined with landmines by the Contras, and so walking the roads and so on and driving was taking a risk. When there were Contra attacks on villages in northern Nicaragua, the Witness for Peace people would go there and they would document with photographs and interviews what had happened there. And they put out a pamphlet, “What We Have Seen and Heard.” And they also sent some photographs. And we were focusing on trying to get the World Court decision against the United Sates aggression in Nicaragua enforced or even known about by getting it into the US press. And so I had the idea to take these images of children and families and victims of Contra attacks, victims of landmines in northern Nicaragua and I found out that there was a type of paper stock available that was called StripTak Plus. It had an adhesive backing that you could peel the backing off and this stuff would stick. It’s like address label stickers, but it was on big sheets and you could buy it in sheets of various sizes and strip the backing off. So I took those sheets, many of them, several hundred of them to a copy shop and enlarged these photographs that Witness for Peace had brought back and reproduced them on the StripTak Plus.
And then a group of us that Kathy Kelly and I organized, of young Catholic Workers and people from Synapses, about a dozen of us went. To initiate the process we went down in the middle of the night, when there wasn’t much security around the Federal Buildings and we were going to put these images, stick them to the glass windows all the way around the Federal Buildings, the Dirksen and Kluczynski Buildings, and put these, putting a face on the Contras, on the Contra war. And then we began that, doing it in the middle of the night several times, and there were Federal Protective Service officers on duty, one or two, at night in those buildings, and they came out rather quickly and arrested us, but when we went to court we either were convicted and fined $25 by the federal magistrates and judges in Chicago—you know, it was a Democratic machine city so a lot of them were Democrat connected, in northern Illinois, and they were sympathetic with what we were doing. They were personally critical of what Reagan and his administration were doing in Nicaragua, and we made civil liberties arguments and so on—and sometimes the judges acquitted us or sometimes the police didn’t have their stories straight or sometimes they made the wrong charges against us that didn’t fit the alleged crime. The judges were happy to find a technicality to dismiss the charges or acquit us and sometimes we were acquitted on First Amendment issues. We weren’t sent to jail, we were fined $25 or $50, Kathy and I never paid federal fines, we just didn’t pay them, that’s all. And it’s a civil judgment, so you can’t be put in jail for not paying under federal law. And so when the Pledge of Resistance, which was a broader coalition of religious and political groups that had pledged to use nonviolent civil disobedience to oppose the US Contra war and this funding of dictators and oppressive governments in El Salvador and Guatemala.
When that coalition saw the consequences, how mild the consequences were, and what if 400 people did it instead of a dozen, we organized a Pledge of Resistance demonstration in the morning, just around 8am we’d do them, so if people were working in the Loop they could participate and then go on to work. And we had about three or four hundred people around the Federal Building, with these images and we postered, we plastered every single window on the Kluczynski and Dirksen Buildings’ first floor lobbies, with these images. However, it was March or April, I think, and the glass was cold and the adhesive didn’t stick very well, and it was fairly easy for the janitorial people to come out and strip them off. But the idea is, we were putting a face on the terrorism and the atrocities of the US government-backed Contras in Nicaragua. And these were the buildings where the members of Congress had their offices, where all the judges were working, all the prosecutors, a lot of the lawyers, a lot of the elite of the town was working in these two buildings. And a lot of the rest of the elite was passing by that Jackson and Dearborn corner and seeing our displays and seeing the actions that we did there in the plaza, so we were reaching thousands of people and influencing their thinking about what was going on in Latin America.
RZ: Did you hear any reactions from people as they were seeing it, passersby?
KM: Well, particularly when I set up other displays like the flowerpots and El Salvador Human Rights Information Center, set up this little kiosk that I built, with images of what was happening in El Salvador, the death squads, the El Salvadoran death squads, paramilitary death squads cutting off people’s testicles, stuffing them in their mouths, cutting their heads off, leaving their heads lying by the roadside, slitting open pregnant women’s bellies and pulling out the fetus and leaving them by the roadside. And it was estimated that 50,000 people were killed by the death squads in El Salvador, and El Salvador had a population of about 5 million, which was close to the population of Greater Chicago, and El Salvador had a physical territory about equal to the northern half of Illinois, in square miles, the Northern District of Illinois. And so the population of El Salvador was similar to the population of northern Illinois and the territory of northern Illinois. And I made the argument: look at this, What if fifty thousand labor and civil rights and progressive political leftist activists in northern Illinois were murdered, with their heads left by the roadside and all kinds of terroristic murder, to frighten and scare. What if 50,000 of us—I would have been dead! You would have been dead! And some uninvolved innocent people, because the way terrorism works, in order to terrorize people you have to kill some people who have no involvement, so that everybody is afraid. So that you can’t even predict whether you’re going to be killed or not. But most of the movement in Chicago would have been dead. And yet, the Salvadoran people were still resisting and still struggling. And that kind of courage was amazing, because that kind of repression would have wiped out any movement in Chicago at the time. I think—maybe not! Maybe we would have caught courage. But people in Chicago wouldn’t even take the risk of being arrested and going to court and having to spend the night in jail. You know, it was hard to get them to take that risk. The Pledge of Resistance, there were three or four hundred people willing to take that risk. But actually, often, they waited to see what our little Catholic Worker/Synapses group was doing, so they could measure whether the risk was very great or not!
RZ: And then of those three to four hundred people, did any get arrested in that action?
KM: Oh yeah, we used to have a dozen of them arrested or whatever. But they couldn’t arrest all of them. I mean, if we sat in the doorway of the Federal Building they’d come and haul us away. And not all of the people really were ready to be arrested. The other thing is, we kind of won over the Federal Protective police, the squad of federal employees that were in charge of security at those federal buildings. A lot of them were African American; we talked to them on the basis that they themselves were part of an oppressed group of people and when we talked to them about what was going on in Nicaragua and El Salvador, they came to understand it in terms of their own lives and the lives of their own people, the history of their own people, which was a history of oppression. Sergeant Yancey, the last time she arrested me, after a decade of having been involved in arresting me a couple dozen times—she has me in one of their little offices, back rooms on the bottom floor. She’s sitting at a desk getting ready to write a citation for trespassing, or whatever the hell it was, and she took this government-issued pen, from the US Government—she threw it down on the desk. “Karl!” she says, “I’m not gonna waste any more government ink writing tickets on you.” She says, “You always beat the rap anyway.” And she didn’t write the citation! She was the sergeant of the Federal Protective Police, and the people under her supervision were writing these pro forma tickets on the other demonstrators, but she decided, “I’m not writing any more on Karl.” And to this day, a few years ago Kathy Kelly would tell me, “Oh, I was down at the Federal Building protesting and Sergeant Yancey came out and asked after you, “Where’s Karl? How’s Karl doing?” So, we won these people over. Because the first night they arrested us for this posting of the images on the Federal Building, one of them hauled me away by the throat! You know, arm hold around the neck. Because I think we went limp, and sometimes when we went limp they have these holds that they practice for making you comply, these compliance holds and so on.
MP: Isn’t that, the fact that she stopped writing the citations, isn’t that against what you wanted? Didn’t you want to be cited?
KM: Well, we were quite ready to be cited, but what do you want even more? You want to win over everybody and convince people. So it’s a wonderful thing when, I mentioned another Federal Protective Service person who had arrested us in the Post Office in 1980 when we were protesting against the restoration of military draft registration. And a few years later he had been present in court when another one of his colleagues was testifying against Kathy, and she was cross-examining—we were acting pro se, without lawyers. We did better than the ACLU lawyers when they defended us for something, because I had learned how to talk to these judges and how to raise the right issues and so on, and I coached Kathy very carefully. And she had cross-questioned the officer who arrested her in such a way that at the end of his testimony the judge dismissed the case against Kathy. And we’re coming back from the sandwich shop where we had a little lunch after the court hearing, and we’re walking past the Federal Building, and this officer who had arrested and testified against us in 1980, and I kind of bit his head off, to tell you the truth, because we were acquitted in that case too, right after he testified, because of the way I had questioned him.
Now, he saw us walking past, and he came running out from the desk, the security desk where they search people and so on as you go into the Federal Building, up to the federal courts. He came running out from his post on the desk, out onto the sidewalk, ran up to us and he said, “Oh boy, Kathy, you really bit the head off of that hotdog Chennault. He’ll learn not to go hunting bear with a stick!” But honestly it was wonderful to have these officers, their sympathies are with you! Maybe they’re doing what they’re being told to do, but there’s no hostility, there’s no anger. They’ve become your friends, you’ve gained their respect. And that means, and this is how the Pledge of Resistance movement and CSPES (Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador), the leftist movements and the Catholic progressive movements, and the religious movements, how we changed the perception of what was going on in Nicaragua from Ronald Reagan talking about the Nicaraguans invading us, the communists coming across the border at Harlingen, Texas, and that movie, Red Dawn…We changed the perceptions to the point that the United States House of Representatives voted to prohibit the Reagan Administration from providing any form of financial aid to the Contras in Honduras. And that was what led to the illegal Iran-Contra thing where the United States had Israel give missiles to Iran at the time when we wanted Iran and Iraq to be attacking each other, destroying each other, and in exchange, Iran sent weapons to the Contras in Nicaragua.
MP: It involved drug money too.
KM: And then Emir, or the Shah of Brunei, this island republic in the Pacific, sent aid to the Contras, after he had gotten aid from the US. This was the genesis of Iran-Contra! The attempt of the Reagan Administration and Oliver North and Admiral Poindexter, the national security aides, to get around this prohibition of Congress. But it was our movement that led to this. Years of agitating and actions growing larger and lobbying and protests. We went lots of times into the offices of Senator Percy and Senator Al “the Pal” Dixon, a Democratic Senator who supported Reagan on the Central America stuff. And actually our actions contributed to the defeat of Senator Al “the Pal” Dixon, this Republicrat, who got Republican votes in downstate because he was sort of a Republican pretending to be a Democrat. And he was defeated by Carol Moseley Braun in the primary. Well, who do you think it was that voted for Carol Moseley Braun? She was African-American, she was a liberal progressive, with a good reputation in the state. She didn’t turn out very well as a Senator, but she defeated Al “the Pal” in the Democratic primary. Well, who were the progressive Democratic voters who voted for her? They were the Central America solidarity activists, the progressives, the peace people, they were the feminist movement and women’s movements because Al “the Pal” had voted to confirm Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, yeah. And that’s how he got defeated in the primary. So he paid a price for not listening to liberal and progressive movements on issues, and voting with the Reagan Administration.
RZ: So I want to ask you some questions about the Peace House and things leading up to that but before I do that, just a little tangent that relates to what you were talking about with the relationship with the Federal Protective Service officers. I’m curious about this issue of the sort of friendly relations that can develop with security staff, because it’s been an issue in Occupy Chicago—Occupy Chicago has been criticized by some people for being too friendly with the police, and I think a lot of people feel like, there’s all this police brutality, and particularly in African-American neighborhoods, that, like, if Occupy Chicago develops too friendly a relationship with the police, then that’s alienating to some people who might be part of the broader coalition. Because it looks like they’re kind of cozying up to the same police who might be abusing their power in other parts of the city. I wonder if you have any thoughts about that.
KM: You must be strong and firm. But Barbara Deming who was one of the wisest advocates of nonviolence said, “The two hands of nonviolence: one hand calming them, and the other one moving them along.” In other words, one hand pushing them, and the other one calming them while you push them! And this is Gandhianism, and this is the effectiveness of nonviolence—it’s based on the idea of love your enemy. It’s also the message of Jesus. It’s the message of Buddha, it’s the message of all of these spiritual leaders. And it is, never regard people as pigs [or pigs as beneath our sympathy and respect]. And it’s one of the things also that’s one of profound insight.. I’ve always said that my nine months in Sandstone Prison was a more valuable educational experience for me because I got involved in University Without Walls and got books and did a lot of reading in alternative education and psychology. Increased my understanding of the human personality and so on. But, I said it was a more valuable educational experience than the nine-month term at the University of Chicago, one of our great universities! You know, I loved my education at the University of Chicago, but when you live in community with all kinds of offenders, who’ve committed all kinds of antisocial acts and so on, whether they’re corporate executives in the federal prison, or thieves or murderers or people that have assaulted federal officers or people that shot IRS agents or whatever. And you’re in there in a community with them and you don’t ever want to regard people as pigs or call them that, you know. Because you’re always reaching out.
And there’s good in everyone and there’s the potential for violence and hatred in everyone. And you’ve got to reinforce the good part of that person and that’s how Gandhi became a respected associate, a friend of Jan Christiaan Smuts, you know, the Prime Minister of South Africa under apartheid. Doesn’t mean that Gandhi says that Smuts is a great guy or something. And how Kathy Kelly has a positive, mutually respectful relationship with Tarik Aziz, the Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq under Saddam Hussein. Otherwise, how could one have a respectful relationship with Barack Obama, who on the one hand, is a man with a lot of good ideas and good instincts, but he’s also a war criminal! A mass criminal. He’s a former professor of constitutional law at the University of Chicago and he’s holding people without trial at Guantanamo, for a decade. And he promised he wouldn’t do that! But you can’t start calling these people names. You’ve got to tell them, this is what you’re doing, this is a crime. You’ve got to do it in a way that respects the person and also respects that fact that maybe that person believes, sincerely believes, that what they’re doing is right. Probably does.
RZ: So, maybe you could talk, I guess I’d like to ask you to talk about the different projects that led up to the Peace House. You talked before about how you started using vehicles because there are restrictions on protest, and if you had a vehicle that had the message on the outside, that would be a way of…
KM: Well, you wanna do education. Because the mass media are misinforming the public, the voting pubic so badly, and are so aligned with the establishment and the military-industrial-media-congressional complex. And there’s a limited amount of education that you can do on a picket sign. And Brad Lyttle taught me, way back in 1957, and I never forgot it, that you’ve got to make a picket sign where the slogan or the message is large enough and clear enough that people driving by in a car or walking by can read it. But the message also has to be something so that when a person reads it, they can understand what the hell you’re talking about.
But a lot of people go out with these hand-lettered cardboard signs with these long messages on them, and after you’ve read it, you’re not quite sure, what is this demonstration about? My signs that I held up in front of Condoleezza Rice at Vanderbilt University in large 4 inch block letters, easy to read, that are going to show up in the message when they put the photograph on the front page of the Tennessean, the readers are going to be able to read the message from the sign! What’s more, they’re going to know what the hell you’re talking about. “END THE IRAQ WAR NOW!” Now they know why you’re there. But there’s a limited amount of education you can do about that. “NO WAR IN EL SALVADOR!” Well, why? One of the earliest projects I did was the wagon, walking to Springfield, but the message was simple: the electric chair and the word “NO”! What does it mean? You’re against electric chairs! And everybody gets the message. And they get the message that you really mean it, or you wouldn’t be walking in March and April in the snow and the rain through rural Illinois. You must really mean it! And they respect that.
So then when I started reading about the death squads in El Salvador, which was in the early 80s and Archbishop Oscar Romero was murdered at the altar by death squads on March 20, 1980, the four American religious women were murdered by death squads in El Salvador December 2, 1980. Ambassador White, the US Ambassador under Jimmy Carter had been investigating this kind of stuff. But Reagan, elected in 1980 and coming into office in 1981—Carter was beginning to look at ending this, but Reagan escalates his support for the Salvadoran regimes and opposition to the progressive revolution in the Nicaraguan regime. So, I was seeing these images of death squad activity, and Raymond Bonner was writing about the rebels in the hills in the New York Times, so I saw all these images and I wanted to do educational work. So, I took five sheets of plywood, cut them down to about 6 feet high, and I made displays to go, to hang on, photographs with captions and messages. So that when you would walk all around that pentagon, (I hooked these five panels together into a pentagon with a roof on it), and we were going to do a vigil in the Federal Plaza again, in early spring, actually, in 1982. And a place to keep your literature, your knapsacks, a place to go when you’re in rain, when you’re doing a day and night vigil.
It was an Occupy the Federal Building over El Salvador! Occupy the Federal Building Plaza over El Salvador. And thousands of people walking through that plaza on the way to work every morning and so on. And you’re there, it’s a vigil. Once again, it’s kind of an ordeal in March and April in Chicago. It’s cold, you need a place to take shelter. It rains—wind, snow. And I built this pentagon and I hooked these five panels, and the roof panels could be hooked together, and you could keep your literature and belongings out of the rain. And I built it so I could pack it into the back of my station wagon that I use for my carpentry. And I hooked it together. But you needed a permit to set it up in Federal Plaza, very difficult to get a permit, and then I had to drive in there in the morning, hook it all together, take it down at night, I had to have a helper to do it, it was difficult. But it was an effective project and I set it up there a lot of times and thousands of people saw it. It’s more than a slogan. People are coming there, they’re walking around, they’re looking at these photographs on their lunch hour and so on. And they’re reading this and they’re getting a picture of what actually is going on in El Salvador. So that was the first prototype.
And then later I realized, well, wait a minute. And actually, the genesis of this idea goes back to an article that I wrote for the Catholic Worker back in the 60s, “Sanctuary,” in which my opening theme was that if you own an automobile or a truck or whatever, you have the right to 20′ x 6’—say your vehicle’s 6 feet wide and 20 feet long—6′ x 20′, 120 square feet of public space on streets all over the country to park that car. That car has the right to be there, nobody’s going to disturb it, nobody’s going to say it’s trespassing unless you’re in a no parking zone. But there’s plenty of places to park on the public space. And all property in our modern countries is claimed and owned by somebody, there’s no unowned property. But the homeless person, the person who has no property, the person who has not a dime in his pocket, who is mentally ill or retarded or alcoholic or whatever reason, that this person doesn’t have a dime in his pocket, he does not have the right to lie down on the curb and take up six square feet of public space! It’s illegal, he’s trespassing or he’s sleeping on the public sidewalk, whatever. And I quoted Jesus, “The birds have their nests, the foxes have their lairs, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”
And I realized when I went back to that, thinking about the fact that the homeless have nothing, and have no right even to lie down and sleep, they’re sleeping sitting up in a CTA car and then, even then if they’re found sleeping they’re hassled about it. Or they’re sleeping sitting up on a bench, or lying on a park bench, covered with newspapers. But the vehicle has these rights. So instead of having to get a permit, why not put the displays on a vehicle, and then have the right to park the vehicle on the public street. Then you don’t need a permit! And that’s when I did two trailers, one with images about Nicaragua—I rented a trailer, a U-Haul, and made this little cap to fit over it, and we put images about Nicaragua on that, and drove it around the city. And another year I bought a trailer for $500, a four foot by eight foot trailer, for $500, and I built a little house on it, and I put one side a very clear bold message about what was happening in El Salvador, and on the other side what was happening in Nicaragua. And I towed that around, and because it was on a trailer, I could unhook it and park it. And I could park it on a public street! I had a five-gallon drum that I locked under the tongue of the trailer and you could just leave it there in a parking space. And it was educating 24 hours a day if it was in a place where people walked by. And then I could drive away in my station wagon and do my carpentry during the day, my tools were in the back of the station wagon. And I could come back and hook up the trailer and I could take it to a college campus or anywhere. And I could have my literature in the little house, I had a door on the back of the house and put my literature in there, I put sleeping bags, whatever, to accompany a march or a walk. So that was the first trailer.
RZ: What year was that, do you remember?
KM: The trailer would have been, well, the way I know what year that was, it was the year 1985 that the IRS came to seize the trailer. So that would have been ’84, ’85. I think it was 1982 I had done the pentagon, the El Salvador Human Rights Information Center, carrying these panels around. So I had built the El Salvador Human Rights Information Center with five plywood panels and the roof and so on. I experienced the shortcomings of this method of education, although it had many benefits. And my oldest son was 18, my daughter was 15, my younger son was 12 years old. We were coming back from Great America up in Wisconsin or somewhere, driving back to Chicago at night, I had probably taken some caffeine, and my adrenaline was really going because we had been riding on these roller coasters. And I conceived the idea, I knew that when my children were grown up and through college I thought I’d like to travel around and do education about nonviolence and do peace education. And that night was when I conceived of the idea of the Peace House. I thought, well, wait a minute, a trailer attached to a truck, a car, is hard to park! You’ve gotta have at least two parking spaces, which is really hard to come by in Chicago or wherever, many big cities, and you’ve got to be able to back the thing up, and it’s difficult. And I thought, well, what if you build a truck house, or a house and custom designed, because of my carpentry skills, and I conceived of the Peace House and I made a drawing of it in 1982. And Kathy Kelly hated the idea, but she thought, he’ll never do it. She felt she didn’t want to travel that way, in that little house and do that, but she thought I’d never do it.
But in 1990, I did it. My children were in college, my two oldest children, my son Eric was off to Europe, I had saved some money and I took a year out and I designed the Peace House, this custom motor home that was so attractively and appealingly designed, and had the ten display windows with the half-inch tempered laminated glass that would be hard to break with a stone or a brick, the displays, the cabinets of displays behind the glass. Cabinets for a library on nonviolence and all of the features that would be necessary for education, plus storage space. So, I took the time off and I built this house. Took me a month or more to design every detail of it, and make the drawings and figure out. Hardly ever even been in a motor home, I had to figure out the facilities and do all the planning and then I started building it. From start to finish it took me about a year to build. But it was tremendously effective as an educational tool, and it was a lot of fun. It was the most fun I ever had. Just traveling around the country with a very appealing gypsy home. It really appealed—children just loved it. But the adults just loved it too. They maybe weren’t as demonstrative about how much they liked it as the children were. And I traveled with that six winters. And then in the summer I came back to Chicago, but the wonderful thing about it is, whether I was with it or whether I was away from it, I could park it almost anywhere, or lots of places, where there was heavy traffic, I could go to peace fairs, I could go to shopping centers, I could pull it into a shopping center parking lot and leave it there. But I had to pick the right size truck so I could park it easily, drive it easily, park it in a single parking space, but so it would be large enough to live in comfortably and do all the things I wanted with it. I didn’t want to put it on a pickup truck, it would be too small. The Ford F-350 truck weighed 6,000 pounds and the total was about 11,000 pounds but it was a perfect solution. It was a brilliant idea, actually. And, except for one thing. I was educating about nonviolence, and it got 6 miles to the gallon city, and ten miles to the gallon highway. Which I could afford, but the thing is, even when I was building it I knew that excess gasoline usage is the most violent thing we are doing in the world! It’s the source of the need of the United States Government which has so much—our country has so much in resources, energy potential and so on—but this excess gasoline usage is the source of the need of the United States Government, the neo-imperial military complex, to dominate the world and to project military power all over the world, and that military machine is the largest consumer of petroleum in the world. The medium is the message.
RZ: But your overall carbon footprint was very small relative to the average American consumer, I would imagine, when you were traveling in it.
KM: When I was traveling with the Peace House, no, I don’t think so, because if I was traveling with it I was driving a couple hundred miles a day. So, when I thought about that, and then the first Gulf War came along, and then the sanctions, and the Bosnia War and so on and so forth. It was all about oil. And I also came, I knew that I could have an impact on a lot of children and a lot of young people, but the thing was, I was talking to them about nonviolence and peace and peacemaking, but the thing that was really fascinating them was the gypsy motorhome. So if I deeply influenced a lot of children, were they all going to, twenty years from now, build a Peace House and go educate for pacifism and nonviolence? Well, no. They were going to go to northern Indiana and buy a Winnebago.
RZ: So is that what led you to stop traveling with it in the end?
KM: A lot of it was that. But it was also my schizophrenic son, and the need to have a stable place for him to be able to come to and so on.
RZ: So when you ended the run of the Peace House, is that when you moved to Nashville?
KM: Then, yeah, after six years, then I decided, okay. What is right livelihood? What is the right way to live? And I had friends who deeply influenced me, Wally and Juanita Nelson. They were both African American, he was on the first Freedom Ride into the Carolinas, into the South, integrated on the bus, Trailways bus in 1949. Not the 1960 freedom ride or the 1961 freedom ride, the one by CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality, in 1949 I think it was. And they were one of the big influences on my life. He was in prison for draft resistance in WWII, and they had taken a place in Massachusetts somewhere, just living in a cedar cabin without electricity and cultivating the land. They were really morally consistent people. And I didn’t want to do it as radically as they were doing it, first because I didn’t quite want to live that radical a way of life, but also because I’ve said, you’ve got to give a model that’s appealing enough that a substantial number of people are willing to do this. And so I tried to create here a model first of how you could use open land in the city for food. Rather than for grass. And rather than burning gas to mow grass, you could use hand labor to grow food, fruit, berries, vegetables. In your yards. So we created that model here. And how you can share housing. How you can take vacant houses, I deliberately came into a depressed neighborhood and bought vacant houses that were on the way to being demolished, and then the land would sit for years with nothing but brick and weeds on it. We didn’t buy any houses that had people living in them. We bought vacant houses and restored them. These are the elements, and Gandhi’s philosophy is comprehensive, Peter Maurin, the ideological founder of the Catholic Worker movement, has a comprehensive philosophy of how can people live in such a way that you, that the Earth can support the people that it has, because you use the resources well and you share the resources and you have a symbiotic relationship with the biological organism of Earth. You have a symbiotic, we have a symbiotic relationship in that we have more biological diversity on this third of an acre of land, probably, than has ever existed here. With the diversity of fruit trees and nut trees and berry bushes and so on. So we’re fostering vegetation that creates oxygen, we’re walking out the door to get our food, instead of having it shipped by air from Hawaii or something, and the birds want to come and live here, the insects, the snakes want to come and live here, and the rats want to come and live here too, but I trap them and I have Havahart traps, and colonize them in the State of Tennessee. I deport them from Nashville Greenlands, the Republic of Nashville Greenlands and colonize them into the territory of Tennessee. So it’s an attempt to achieve what I would call right livelihood. And it’s a lot less exciting and interesting than the Peace House.
RZ: I think it’s pretty interesting. But I do want to ask you a little bit more about the Peace House, about whether there are any particular moments that stand out for you, in the whole experience where you, you know, had a particularly powerful effect on someone or had just a particularly interesting experience with it?
KM: I might run into someone in Florida who said, “Oh, I saw you in California!” I don’t know. Every once in a while I’ve gotten letters from New Zealand, England, different places where people will write to me and say, “you had a formative influence on my life.” Not as many as Dorothy Day or Kathy Kelly, but I don’t know. We’ll know later on.
RZ: But any moments that you remember just experiencing without, driving around with it or meeting people, is there anything that sticks in your mind as a notable experience with it that you had?
KM: Well, I’d be sleeping in the Peace House and I had opaque cards that I would put in the windows, so that even if I had a light on in the Peace House it’d be just a little bit of light leaking around the cards. But I might be parked on the street in the city—well, sometimes I parked in an industrial neighborhoods—I didn’t want to park in front of people’s houses because they might be annoyed about it or call the police or something. So I often parked overnight in industrial neighborhoods or by vacant land or so on. But I’d be sleeping there in the Peace House and nobody knew I was in there. And I’d be awakened at night and there’d be in the middle of the night, sometimes, I’d look at my watch, it’s 2am all the bars have just closed, or 4am the bars have just closed. And there are people out there reading to each other, reading the captions and reading the messages and talking about it. And then occasionally maybe once a year or so, I’d hear them talking and sometimes I could see that they were shining flashlights on it, and I’d hear a bang, bang, bang on the back door and it’d be a couple policeman who’re asking for my ID. But they never told me to move or leave or anything, after they took my ID and IDed me, maybe they got my record, but whatever, they decided I was all right and didn’t have any driving tickets or citations in that state or whatever. They’d say, “All right, goodnight, have a good night, sorry to interrupt you,” and away they’d go!
RZ: And you did classes for children in it?
KM: Yeah, sometimes 6, 7, 8 groups of children a day, trooping in for a half an hour with their teachers and all sit down in there. I had room on these benches, sometimes children sitting on each other’s laps or crowding in together, I could have a whole class in there, about 25 with their teachers. And one of the ways I talk to small children about nonviolence was to show them how I handled insects in there. I had a transparent plastic tub that you buy whatever, buy salads in or something, and I put that cup over the insect and then slip a card under it and release them. That’s the way I illustrated the idea that you can live with nature and respect it and not kill. Because I’m deeply influenced by Dr. Albert Schweitzer’s philosophy of reverence for life, that even though you’re inevitably involved in killing other animals, it’s biologically unavoidable, still you can respect the fact that they have a drive to be alive also, and kill them as little as possible, and as gently as possible if necessary. And I try not to kill animals, I don’t even like to kill insects. One kindergarten class once, I brought them in and I talked to them and I showed them how I deal with insects in the house. And then their teachers took them back in, it may have even been a day school, it may not have even been kindergarten, it might have been preschool. And we went back in and we all sat down on the floor on rugs that they had there in a circle, and the teacher and the teacher’s aide talked to them and we had a discussion about what they had learned and so on. And we went around the circle, and a number of these children said that at their house what they do when there are insects, wasps or whatever in the house, we put a cup over them and we catch them and we release them outside. The children said that that’s what they did at their houses. And then about half the children were talking about Officer Friendly who had been there they day before and had showed them his pistol and all this business. So at the same time that I was talking to them about reverence for life, Officer Friendly was there the day before teaching them to trust the police. And to be fascinated with guns!
RZ: How did you make the contacts with the teachers? How did you end up in those situations?
KM: Sometimes when I drove into town, a teacher would see it and talk to me. Sometimes, you know, I had lots of contacts in the peace movement, in the Catholic Worker movement, and sometimes they’d talk, and I had an itinerary, so they knew I was coming. So, sometimes it was college classes, my college roommate was a professor of law at Florida State University in Tallahassee, and he was teaching a class in federal civil practice. Well, how can I have my friend do a class on federal civil practice, you know? I had this project where we went into federal court and tried to get an injunction against Ronald Reagan, Defense Secretray Casper Weinberger, Secretary of State George Schultz, prohibiting them from continuing the Contra war, and we had filed a suit, and we had confronted these judges. So into his classroom I went and it was probably the most interesting class on federal civil practice they had ever had!
MP: Did people ever react badly to you and the Peace House?
KM: Very seldom! You know, Brad Lyttle said to me when I was building it, Brad Lyttle has more skills than I have in terms of building and designing, he’s brilliant, and he does all kinds of things with tools, he even built his own fiberglass sailboat. He says to me, “Karl, you’re putting an awful lot of time and energy and money into this, and you’re gonna go down into the South with this,” I was building it in the lead up to the Gulf War. “And in one day this can by trashed and burned to the ground!” Well, and when I was putting copper on the roof, people were warning me, somebody can come along and strip the copper off all those screws that I had to hold it down. But it didn’t happen. During the Gulf War we had displays of conscientious objectors, military that had refused to go, fight in Iraq, or decided they couldn’t go fight in Iraq, or couldn’t go along with the war. In January of 1992, in ’93 or ’92 it was, Kathy Kelly and I in St. Petersburg, Florida we made this display based on calendars from the King Center, about Martin Luther King, and we put that in, and we drove all over the South with that.
I had a couple instances where the glass was broken by people who didn’t know that I was in there. I was sleeping there at night when the skylight was broken in. I was in a poor neighborhood, people were trying to break in and steal, but I never had serious vandalism. Or serious negative confrontation. I’m always willing, I love to talk to people who disagree with me, and try to find the common ground with them. And I can find the ground with these libertarians and right-wingers, because I am a libertarian and an anarchist and I find the common ground with them. And tax resistance is also a common ground with them. They’re impressed with the fact that I defy the Internal Revenue Service so openly, so when I start talking to the Ron Paul type of libertarians, or even the gun-nut type of libertarians about tax refusal, I may get a connection with them. When the Christians, they’re the ones that want to come into the Peace House and talk to me about Jesus Christ, and one of them asked me why I didn’t have photographs of Jesus on there, and I said, “Well, I don’t have any photographs of him. Do you have any?” I had photographs of Dorothy Day, A. J. Muste, the Dalai Lama, other peacemakers, you know. Again, from a calendar. “But why don’t you have Jesus here?” Well, it’s a photographic calendar and they didn’t have any photographs of Jesus. But they talked to me and I’m very familiar with the Gospels, so, I’d begin to ask them questions about Jesus and violence and so on. And they usually, they flee before I’m ready to, because they can’t answer the questions, the right-wing evangelical Christians, they can’t answer the questions. Socratic method, they flee before they convert me. People who’re in denial flee from the truth, or from honesty.
MP: So what’s your normal day down here? What do you normally do?
RZ: When we’re not monopolizing your time!
KM: In this weather, I get up about 8 and I have my breakfast and I read the paper and I take the dogs out for a walk. Because the fact is that after a half century of trying to save the world, my hope of having an impact on the world—oh I thought when I was a teenager that my ideas were so sound, and they haven’t changed, very much. They’re the same reasonable approach to the problems facing the world, that are based on cooperation and nonviolence and talking to people and communicating. I had all these ideas. I read about Gandhi when I was ten years old, the year he was assassinated, and I read Schweitzer as a teenager, Gandhi made sense to me. Very reasonable way that we could all live together peacefully on Earth without harming one another. But the only difference is that, when I was twelve years old, it all seemed so reasonable and sensible to me, it just seemed you needed to go out and tell people. And that’s why my great hero is Joan of Arc, you know. At 17, an illiterate peasant, she left her village and went to see the king! I was going to do the same thing. I tried to go down at 19 to see Eisenhower and Dulles [Secretary of State], and talk some sense into their heads. And my whole life since then—that was 1956—my whole life since then has been learning how irrational people are and how selfish their perspectives are. How unwilling they are to accept reasonable sensible honest solutions to their problems. How unwilling they are to look at the real world and try to figure out how the world really works. And of course what I’ve been learning is how the world really does work. And how the human mind really does work. Because when I was a teenager I thought that basically people were like me. And basically could be led to think the way I think.
RZ: So, knowing what you know now, would you change anything about the way that you proceeded?
KM: Ammon Hennacy, one of my mentors, always said that he was picketing alone against atomic weapons in Phoenix, working in the fields as a laborer in order not to pay taxes, the hecklers would come up to him, “Hennacy, you think you can change the world?” He used to say, “No, but it damn sure can’t change me.” Well, I’ve always corrected for that. I’m willing to be changed by the world and the world will change me. Do I think I can change the world? No. I wasn’t meant to change the world. But if there’s something to be changed, I can try to change myself. Since I don’t intend to coerce other people into changing, the only thing I can do is try to model it and influence them into changing. But you have to be like in Buddhism, you have to be more and more detached from the results of what you’re doing. And it doesn’t do you any good, or anybody any good, for you to be dragged down into depression by what you know. A lot of people won’t look at the horror in the world. I have the ability to look at the horror in the world. I don’t know I’d hold up the way Kathy Kelly does, though. Going to Iraq, going to Afghanistan, going to Gaza, going to Ramallah, going to Bosnia, going to Sarajevo. Talking to these people that are suffering in this way. And managing not to be torn down or destroyed by it. I don’t know what I’d do. I’ve never gone to these areas of conflict and suffering. And I’ve said I’m not like Thomas, when Jesus was resurrected and appeared before the Apostles, doubting Thomas; Jesus said, put your hand into the wounds. And I said, I don’t have to put my hand into the wound to believe that it’s happening. Just tell me that it’s happening, when these people from Witness for Peace come back and tell me that it’s happening, I believe them. I don’t have to see it myself, and I don’t know what would happen to me if I had to see it myself. And that’s why I admire Kathy so much, and I try to talk to Kathy sometimes and try to get her to tell me how she does manage it, psychologically, because you will not find, this is typical Kathy—every time you see her in photographs with children and so on, the children are flocked around her, she’s never looking at the camera, she’s always looking at the children. Children love her! Old people love her, young people love her. So she’s just tremendous in human relations. But how can you see people suffering and dying in these hospitals…I’d end up burning myself, like the Buddhist monks in Vietnam, I think. I was deeply affected by Norman Morrison, a Quaker who burned himself outside the Pentagon during the Vietnam War. Because he didn’t know what to do. Yet I have a happy life, a fulfilled life. How can you explain that? Because you have to be aware of the fact that, in no way on Earth can you correct all the suffering in the world.
[NOTE: If reproducing this interview in written form in some other venue, please contact Karl Meyer to discuss any further edits.]