Ken Butigan Journeys for Justice

It was February 1990 when Ken Butigan received a phone call. Corrale de Piedra, a village in El Salvador, had been attacked by the Salvadoran Air Force. The country’s military wouldn’t allow anyone into the village to see what had happened; not the media or international human rights groups. A delegation was traveling to the area to see if they could get the word out about what had happened. They requested that Ken go along. The goal was to document what had happened, if allowed in, and the task would likely include nonviolence work – something Ken specializes in.

At this time, El Salvador was in the midst of a civil war that began in 1980 and would not end until 1992. Throughout the 12-year span, in a country half the size of Illinois, 75,000 civilians were killed by government forces. Throughout the civil war, the Salvadoran government received more than $4.5 billion in aid from the United States.

Ken and a group of activists immediately applied for visas. Within days they were in the violence-stricken country, making their way to the village. What should have been a two-hour drive turned into a two-day trip because of military checkpoints.

Minutes from the village, at the final checkpoint, Ken and the other 24 delegation members were not allowed through. With armed soldiers in their way, the group prepared for a long night. They weren’t going to leave until they were allowed into Corrale de Piedra.

A few hours later, the activists noticed a truck on the other side of the line of soldiers, making its way down the hill.  The truck was packed with women and children.

“How wonderful international solidarity is,” a woman said on an old public address system in Spanish. “How wonderful you have come to see how we live. We are here to take you to our village.”

Ken remembers the soldiers gripping their M16s. No one was going to get through, but no one was planning on leaving.

After an hour, nine young girls began to slowly step off of the truck and make their way towards the delegation, squeezing between the soldiers. Each girl approached a different activist.

“I’m taking you to my village,” a young girl said to Ken in Spanish, motioning for him to grab her hand. Despite his concerns, he found himself accepting, placing his hand in hers. He began to follow her towards her village.

Approaching the blockade, a soldier placed his hand on Ken’s chest. He asked where Ken was going.

“I’m sorry, I’ve got to go,” Ken said in broken Spanish, shrugging as he pointed towards the young girl. Sharing a moment of understanding with the soldier, Ken noticed uncertainty in his eyes. The soldier let him through.

The moment didn’t last long. After Ken and eight others made their way past the blockade, the soldiers snapped out of their daze and refused to allow the other 16 activists through.

Making their way up the hill toward the village, a man who worked for the local bishop offered the delegation members a ride. They accepted and traveled to a corn mill where a father and three children had been killed four days before during a helicopter gunship attack.   

“Now we will pray,” a man leading the group said in Spanish. There, Ken had the most intense religious experience of his life.

The delegation was able to get the story of the attack out to the world.

(Image by Patrick Pfohl)

(Image by Patrick Pfohl)

His introduction to nonviolence

Born in Seattle, Ken Butigan is the oldest of eight children. His father worked in sales, so he moved often. Mostly, though, he and his family resided in Washington State. They weren’t a political family, he laughs, so his philosophy of nonviolent resistance, action and social change didn’t come from there.

If anything, he sees his Catholic values as having an impact on the path he took towards nonviolent resistance. However, for a while it seemed he was headed in a different direction.

In high school, Ken wrote a paper on civil disobedience. He was against it.

This was at the height of the Vietnam War, when protests were surfacing around the country. According to 17-year-old Ken, the protests were ruining the country.

Little did he know his life’s work would be built upon nonviolence.

After a summer of contemplation and realizing he could be drafted to fight, Ken’s views on the war shifted. He was no longer in support of the war, but he wasn’t inclined to fight against it.

So the war continued and so did Ken’s academic career. After graduating high school, Ken studied history at the University of San Diego and spent a year in England at Oxford University.

In 1975, as Ken neared the end of his undergraduate career, the Vietnam War ended.  

In order to graduate, Ken was required to take four religious studies courses. Uninterested in the subject, he delayed taking the classes until the end of his undergraduate career. Ken ended up taking all four courses at once, immersing himself within theology. The courses explored the intersection between religion, peace and injustice. It was a perspective Ken had never been exposed to –  a perspective, once Ken grabbed hold, he would never let go of.

These courses, along with his deepening connection with God, pushed him to attend the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, California for graduate school. It was then that nonviolence began to take shape in his life.

One night after traveling, Ken found himself sitting in the Manhattan apartment of a Catholic priest. Father Daniel Berrigan S.J., a powerful activist throughout the 1960s and into the Vietnam War, gave Ken a piece of advice that would enter his being and follow him throughout the rest of his life. After a three-hour conversation about the violent culture of death in the world, Fr. Berrigan asked Ken to decide if he wanted to be a part of the culture of life.

Ken did and asked what he could do for Fr. Berrigan before he went back to his grad school.

“Don’t do anything for me. Find some people you can pray with and march with,” Fr. Berrigan said.

When Ken traveled back to graduate school, that is just what he did.

While taking classes on psychology, feminism and social justice, Ken met a group of people who were involved in nonviolent resistance. They were preparing to do civil disobedience at a U.S. nuclear arsenal in California. A nonviolent training session was being held to prepare activists for what was to come. Intrigued, Ken attended the training session. Halfway through, Ken decided that he would be participating in the nonviolent action.

“And that was just the beginning of my criminal life,” Ken says with a smile. At his first nonviolent action, Ken was arrested and spent a week in county jail. Ken refers to this as his baptism into the world of nonviolence.

This led him from one action to another. Eventually, Ken gave up his graduate career in order to focus on “one strange and beautiful nonviolent action after another.”

Ken had found his people. The people he could pray with and march with.

His eyes glisten.

Nonviolence and faith have always gone hand in hand for Ken (photo courtesy of Ken Butigan)

Nonviolence and faith have always gone hand in hand for Ken (photo courtesy of Ken Butigan)

 The letter

One day, Ken received a letter from Nicaragua. There was no return address. The letter described the destruction U.S policy was supporting in the country. All of which, Ken was already aware of. As he held the letter in his hands, Ken had a surreal experience. Standing before him in the flesh, he saw a man holding a bloody child.

Ken pauses, taking a deep breath. Decades later, the vision still strikes him to his core.

The bottom of the letter read: “We are telling you now so that, 10 years from now, you cannot say you did not know. Do everything you can to end this carnage.” At that moment, Ken felt powerless. What could he do? What could one person do?

“When I was a baby activist, I was the kind of person that would sit in the back of the room and never open my mouth,” Ken says. “I didn’t start with a sense of power.”

After reading an article about 50 people who had committed themselves to engaging in nonviolent action should the U.S. have invaded Nicaragua in 1983, Ken refused to believe the situation was out of his hands. So he thought, he read and he sat down to write a pledge. He called it, “The Commitment to End the Killing in Central America.”

(Image by Patrick Pfohl)

(Image by Patrick Pfohl)

In the summer of 1984, many were organizing around Central America. Ken attended meetings in San Francisco on the issue and presented his pledge: to get a group of people together to commit to civil disobedience should the U.S. invade another country. Hopefully, this would make the U.S. think twice. If the U.S. went ahead, those who pledged would take action.

Nobody liked the idea, but Ken persisted. He continued to present it to different organizations, and continued to receive the same message: No.

One day, Ken received a phone call from David Hartsough at the American Firm Service Committee. He wanted to learn more about Ken’s pledge. After an hour and a half discussion in which Hartsough pointed out every flaw in the pledge, Ken received his first yes.

Before Ken knew it, Hartsough had cleared a spot in his west San Francisco office. With Hartsough’s address book in hand and $50 a week, it was Ken’s job to start a movement.

Ken learned how to organize a movement during his time working on the Pledge of America (photo courtesy of Ken Butigan)

Ken learned how to organize a movement during his time working on the Pledge of America (photo courtesy of Ken Butigan)

The next six years of his life were dedicated organizing around Central America. In 1984, Ken met with Sojourners, a progressive Christian organization and magazine, to finalize the pledge he had written and talk strategy for the movement. Working closely with activists around the country, a movement emerged. Nearly 100,000 people signed the pledge at rallies, demonstrations and trainings around the nation. In 1987, Ken became the national coordinator for the Pledge of Resistance campaign in Washington D.C. This is where Ken learned the process of a movement.

“You’ve got to pull down the pillars of public support for the policies,” Ken says. “I saw this in action.”

Four years later, the U.S. House of Representatives voted cut off aid to “contra rebels” fighting the Nicaraguan government on February 2, 1988. Ken was in the Capitol Building the night the vote took place.

(Image by Patrick Pfohl)

(Image by Patrick Pfohl)

Mainstreaming nonviolence

In 1990, Ken began working at Pace e Bene, a nonviolence training organization. He moved from Washington D.C. back to San Francisco. There, he became extremely involved in organizing around U.S. wars. This included the Persian Gulf War in 1991 and the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq.

In 2008, Ken joined Witness Against Torture, a national organization opposing U.S. policies of torture. When prisoners in Guantanamo Bay were denied due process, Ken and others in the organization dressed in bright orange jumpsuits with black hoods covering their heads. They silently knelt onto the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court. Once arrested, instead of giving their own names, they gave names of prisoners in Guantanamo. Ken gave the name Gul Zaman.

According to Ken, it was the first time Gul Zaman’s name was entered into the American criminal justice system.  

Ken and the other activists were taken to trial, and along with them they took the names of the Guantanamo Bay prisoners. A few weeks after the trial, the Supreme Court ruled that inmates in Guantanamo must be granted due process and can challenge their detention.

At the same time that he’s organizing nonviolent initiatives, Ken is training the next generation of activists. Since 1999, Ken has taught at multiple institutions, integrating the practice and teaching of nonviolence into the classroom. He is currently a professor at DePaul University in the Peace, Justice and Conflict studies program.

Ken also takes the training outside of the classroom into the world. Since joining Pace e Bene, Ken has traveled around the world to conduct nonviolent workshops. He is an organizer for Pace e Bene’s Campaign Nonviolence, as well as a part of the Vatican initiative aimed to reorient the church around Jesus’ teachings of nonviolence.

In 2000, Ken completed his Ph.D in religious studies at the Graduate Theological Union in California, where he studied nonviolence in the world’s religions.

His goal through all of his work is to mainstream nonviolence.

“We will always likely face violence and injustice,” Ken says. “When I think about mainstreaming nonviolence, it is not saying we are going to have a perfect world, but it is equipping ourselves and others with the tools to engage in and transform those forms of violence and injustice in a humane way.”

Header image by Patrick Pfohl.


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