My family had never heard of going to jail for something you believe in, and now their loved one was doing it
“I am an Iowa hog Farmer. How do you explain that?” Burling Library Circulation Supervisor of 23 years Chris Gaunt asks me from across the table at Chuong Garden.
This question would be pretty easy to answer, except for the fact that Gaunt has been a vegan for the past five years and is currently forking at bits of tofu. I had been meaning to talk with Gaunt about her seemingly paradoxical life ever since I worked as her assistant last year. What little she said was fascinating: once she mentioned being in jail, another day she mentioned traveling to London to visit an old friend from her activism days. Everyday at work, I wistfully daydreamed about being able to sit down with her and ask all the questions I wanted. Finally, on a sunny afternoon in early March, that is exactly what I did.
Gaunt and her seven siblings grew up on a farm outside Gilman, IA, a small town just twelve miles north of Grinnell with a population of roughly 600.
“My roots are rural Iowa. Mymom and dad’s parents were farmers in this same area,” Gaunt tells me. Growing up, her family’s dinner table conversations were devoid of politics, and this silence carried into her college years.
“I want to Central College in Pella,” Gaunt says. “It still wasn’t a liberal atmosphere.”
When I ask Gaunt what did spark her political awakening, she gives me a surprising answer. “I think I was thirty-seven years old,” she recalls. “I had an experience with my dad right before he died. I felt like we were communicating not with words, just with a spirit connection of some kind.”
Gaunt describes how this experience opened up her eyes up to the possibilities of a spirituality that transcended closed-mindedness. “My God got bigger! Christianity became way too narrow for me when I looked at the way it was being acted out [in].”
As Gaunt’s God got bigger, she began to notice problems with the United Church of Christ she attended in Gilman. “I was on the Open and Affirming Committee of the [United Church of Christ] Iowa Conference, which just means advocating for acceptance of gays in the Church.” The only problem for Gaunt was that each individual congregation decided whether or not to align with the Committee’s values, and her church decided not to. Instead, the church acted discriminatingly, not hiring a new pastor simply because she identified as a lesbian.
“I’d known my brother was gay since college,” Gaunt tells me, “but I kept quiet until I realized this was a life or death matter for my teens at the church.”
Recognizing how helpful a faith-based support system could be for the well-being of LGBT youth, Gaunt encouraged her church to make an open statement pledging their acceptance to the LGBT community. Unfortunately, the church did not respond well. “For most people, I went too fast,” Gaunt admits. “I paused later and realized that they thought this because there were many families in the communities with agay member that was closeted. They were scared that I was going after their child.” This push-back did not stop Gaunt, however.
“I kept doing my thing,” she tells me with a sly smile. “I left my message with the youth I worked with, and they understood it.”
Despite surreptitiously teaching values of acceptance to the teens at Sunday School, Gaunt began feeling more and more like an outcast.
“I walked out of the door of that church trying to follow the non-violent footsteps of Jesus,” Gaunt says.
Although Gaunt parted ways from the church of Gilman, it influenced her life long after she left it. “We [at church] had written to some nuns who had been jailed because of their involvement with the School of Americas Protest. One Sunday this pastor invites anyone at church to go to the protest so I looked at my daughter and she looked at me … and we said yes,” she says. The rest, as they say, is history.
This trip marked the first of thirteen consecutive years Gaunt hasprotested the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, (formerly known as the US Army School of the Americas), which provides United States-sponsored military training to government personnel in Latin American countries.
“I got together with people from all across the country at the protest. We all believed deeply in non-violence, we all wanted to do something about it,” Gaunt says. “We were willing to put our bodies across the line.” The line Gaunt refers to is the line distinguishing between the area the protesters are allowed to inhabit and the boundary to Ft. Benning, the army base that houses the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.
“It is a federal misdemeanor to cross this line,” Gaunt tells me, “and in 2002 that is what I did.” For Gaunt this arrest was just the beginning of a long string of arrests, due mainly to trespassing charges accrued during her efforts to protest war and torture.
“I’d estimate I’ve spent about a year in jail, if you add up every time,”Gaunt says. “Most times it was just overnight, but I’ve served a three month, and six month sentence before.” Gaunt smiles as she tells me this, and I am shocked that she does not seem more torn up. I ask her if spending time in jail ever got hard.
In typical fashion, Gaunt just laughs and identifies the positive in the situation: “When you’re locked up you have to find that sense of humor in order to just survive.” Gaunt found not only humor, but also meaningful relationships while she was behind bars.
“When else would an Iowan farmer get to meet people from all over in jail?” Gaunt exclaims. Gaunt recalls spending time in a single sex county jail in Georgia where she met many women, most of whom were seeking political asylum, who began to open up to her and tell her their stories.
“I spent the whole time listening. My first roommate in that Georgia County Jail was from Haiti, the rest of my roommateswere from Ethiopia, Cameroon, Nigeria, Brazil, and China.”
Gaunt recognizes how incredibly lucky she was while locked up— “I have this white skin privilege and I have much wealth and access. I had people supporting me from the outside the whole time when my cellmates didn’t.”
Gaunt’s smile has completely faded as she recounts injustices these women went through: “In 1986 we started jailing every asylum seeker that came to America. No one gave a shit about their stories.” Gaunt did care about the stories of asylum seekers though, and has even stayed close friends with some of these individuals.“I met my soul sister in jail,” Gaunt recalls, referring to a young woman who was seeking asylum from Ethiopia and who she now visits in London.
Gaunt tells me that in England, asylum seekers aren’t treated like they have committed a crime—“In England my friend wasn’t kept in jail. She was taken to a detention center, but only for one night. They made sure she had a place to live and gave her money for transportation, food and the medicine she needed. She eventually met an Ethiopian man and now they have two British babies.”
Gaunt shakes her head. “When you shut the door behind me in that cell, it is no longer about the School of Americas protest. It is about all the justice issues inside that jail.”
Gaunt identifies the most pressing injustice she noticed while spending time in jail. “There is only one thing that happens when female non-violent offenders are locked up,” Gaunt tells me with conviction. “You separate women from their families.” Gaunt pokes angrily at her broccoli.
“You tell me who wins in that situation. Nobody.”
While lots of Gaunt’s activismhas taken place far from home, she hasn’t shied away from involvement in Iowa politics. “I have gotten to know my senators in Des Moines pretty well,” Gaunt tells me with the mischievous smile that I have come to realize marks the beginning of a good story. I ask her why, and she tells me that over a tenacious period of 15 months she alternated weekly Wednesday “die-in” visits to Senator Grassley and Senator Harkin’s offices.
“I would go in with a sign that says, ‘No More $$$ for War.’ I would sit in a chair for a few minutes and meditate. At the end of the day, I would lay down on the floor,” she says. “I would draw a chalk outline of a dead person around my body, and when the office closed they had to haul me off.”
Gaunt describes how protesting can result in more than just jail time— “Two consecutive weekly sit-ins at Grassley’s office ended up costing me $1,000 in fines and court costs!” Yet instead of giving up, Gaunt learned how to advocate on her own behalf in court to defend herself against these charges.
“I think they had a plan to put me away for good, but the guys started slapping charges on me that they shouldn’t have. I started winning, charges were dismissed, and I started to be found not guilty!”
In recent years, however, Gaunt has turned her attention elsewhere.
“I’ve quieted from activism,” she tells me calmly, seeming neither disappointed or proud of this shift.
“My friends around the country are asking ‘Where is Chris?’ and I am just kind of like, ‘I’m just sitting!’”
Gaunt jokes that “just sitting” is new to her. “I’m an Iowa workaholic, it’s ingrained in my blood to be active! But you know what? I think the other way is better. Let it come to you.”
Gaunt tells me that part of the reason for her change is that she doesnot have as much faith in changing the system as she used to.
“I was undergoing spiritual changes, accepting the fact that change wasn’t going to come, at least the way I was doing it. I am looking for something else. I am not giving up.”
I ask Gaunt what new direction she is taking, and she tells me that she doesn’t know yet.
“I will know when I know,” Gaunt assures me, “just like I knew that the activism I did during those ten years was what I was supposed to be doing at the time. Some call it a calling.”
Grinnell College has been a significant constant in Gaunt’s life through both phases of intense activism and of quieter spiritual searching.
“I’ve been paying attention all these twenty years [at Grinnell],” Gaunt says, “and I see students working on and understanding sustainability issues. It gives me hope, when it could get really devastating sometimes when you think about how awful it all is.”
Gaunt has firsthand experience watching issues of sustainability worsen, as she and her husband own a CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feed Operation). Gaunt is hesitant to tell me she works on a CAFO, making sure I know the full backstory first.
“I married a man who knows pigs in and out–that is what he’s doing since he was twelve years old.”
Whereas Gaunt’s father was a tenant farmer who did not own his own land, her husband Jay’s family did. Gaunt recounts how “in the 1980s the bank began to encourage Jay’s father to buy bigger farm equipment, borrow money. But then it all crashed. Only the year before his dad got a Marshall County Farmer of the Year Award for his conservation practices, the next he loses his farm.” There is an unusual silence in our conversation, and I realize that out of all social causes Gaunt has fought tirelessly for, this issue is clearly one of the most personal.
Gaunt continues, telling me how Jay’s father finally went bankrupt in 1984, the same year Gaunt and Jay were starting out married life with two little girls.
“We were tied to that [bankruptcy],” Gaunt explains.
Gaunt got a teaching degree and her husband took a couple of factory jobs.
“It crushed him. He used to be a self employed farmer,” she says. Yet this freedom to farm independently, as Jay’s father and his father had done, had ended for many Iowans.
“Land values crashed and interest rates at the bank went up 18%,” Gaunt tells me, shaking her head. “How are you supposed to pay your notes and inflated interest when you can’t farm anymore because the bank suddenly refuses to lend you the money to plant the next year’s crop?”
“Some farmers went back behind their shed and shot themselves,” Gaunt says, “and some went in and shot their bankers.”
Despite the blow of the 1980 farming crisis, Gaunt tells me her husband never lost his desire to raise pigs. “We haven’t owned our own pigs since bankruptcy,” Gaunt says. “We feed them now for someone else, on contract. We get paid to do the dirty work, we are a cog in the industrial agricultural machine. But we raised our family on that.”
Gaunt clearly has a complicated relationship with her role in this machine. Yet instead of shying away from the reality of the situation, she is eager to inform me of the disheartening and stinky details— “We have a confinement that houses 1,200 pigs. Their poop falls in an eight-foot pit and gets pumped once a year out on a neighbor’s field. Our pigs are fed antibiotics. I see it as a totally unsustainable way to go.”
I ask Gaunt what she thinks the solution, or at least a starting point for a solution, could be for the problems CAFOs pose to the environment and to humanity. Gaunt tells me that one possibility she has discovered is one so simple she didn’t even think of it at first: “I’ve been arrested probably fifty times, but in the last two years, I’ve been beginning to see that my decision to avoid eating something that has to be killed does something to end violence too–sometimes even more than the protesting does.”
Yet Gaunt acknowledges that there may never be a solution, at least not before the earth itself gives up. “It is very profitable. Farmers who already have lots of money can make a profit, raise the pigs, and use the manure instead of fertilizer. It all makes me sick, but I think the whole thing is going to crash. It is not stable.”
In the meantime, Gaunt does see some hope. “We have little movements like food co-ops. I’m a member of my daughter’s co-op in Northeast Iowa! Little pockets of things are working,” Gaunt says. “You just have to keep trying, like you guys [Grinnellians] coming out with ideas and trying to do things.”
Gaunt has only good things to say about Grinnell students and the community. “From the pastors in town to the faculty that know me so well, I love the Grinnell bubble!”
Gaunt recounts a particularly fond memory of the Grinnell community: “Somebody from the college actually volunteered to do my job while I was locked up in jail, and they [faculty and towns members] actually ended up raising the money to pay my fine and salary for the three months I was gone.”
As Gaunt tells me this story, she seems moved by these acts of kindness even today, comparing this support from the Grinnell community to the support of her marriage. “It is kind of like the love that my spouseJay and I share. It is a base thing, “ Gaunt says. “You just draw resources from this base and it gives you the confidence to keep going.”
Both Gaunt’s husband and Grinnell have been behind her during every step of her journey, even if this full-fledged support did not come right away. “My husband hated my activism at first,” Gaunt recalls with a hearty chortle.
“The fact that I was willing to go to jail, for my beliefs? My family had never heard of going to jail for something you believe in, and now their loved one was doing it!” Gaunt shakes her head as she laughs, and I can tell she understands why this information would be hard to process.
“At one point, I got the Dingman Peace Award [an award distributed by the Catholic Peace Ministry], and my whole family came to the ceremony in Des Moines,” Gaunt says.
I am just beginning to exclaim how humble Chris has been this whole time, never bringing up this award, when she cuts me off: “The story isn’t over!” I smile. I should have known the story never ends where you think it will with her. We pause in our conversation as the waiter hands us the check and I reflect for a moment on how excited I am to watch as Gaunt figures out her next calling in life. Indeed, she has mentioned to me several times she wants to write a book about her experiences.
I am snapped back to the present as the waiter leaves and Gaunt continues, in typical fashion, with a plot twist—“ I got arrested the day before [the awards ceremony], and I barely made it there!”
We both are laughing now, but Gaunt takes on an earnest tone as she wraps up this last story—“Anyway, they were mad at me for that, but at the same time they looked at me that night and said, ‘Oh my god, if that makes her happy, maybe this is what she should be doing.’”