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The Scarlet & Black

Librarian Chris Gaunt talks political protest, reflects on months spent imprisoned

Michael Cummings, Community Editor

What was your excuse the last time you missed a class or a work shift? Whatever it may be, Library Assistant Chris Gaunt has you beat. During her time at Grinnell, Gaunt has missed work several times in order to serve jail time.

Gaunt told her story at a Political Lives talk hosted by the Political Science SEPC on Tuesday morning in ARH. Since the early 2000s, she explained, she has become an ardent peace activist, knowingly risking arrest to stand up for causes she supported.

“Two of my brothers … enlisted in the Vietnam War, and I didn’t know anything was going on,” Gaunt said, explaining that she was not an activist early in life. “I was completely un-awake. I was ignorant of politics.”

However, Gaunt said that her wake-up call came following the attacks on September 11, 2001.

“I remember kind of sitting back for a year aghast, and watching, and literally feeling a wave of fear sweep across this country and watch my country’s chosen response [which] was basically to seek revenge through the military,” Gaunt said. “And I was like, ‘Oh my god, there has to be a better way.’”

Chris Gaunt’s talk focused on her peaceful protests of government, war and torture policies. Photo by Hannah Hwang
Chris Gaunt’s talk focused on her peaceful protests of government, war and torture policies. Photo by Hannah Hwang.

Her initial entry into the world of activism came through her church.

“I was arrested for the first time in my life — never been arrested even for a speeding ticket — trying to follow what I might call those non-violent footsteps of Jesus, the real teachings of quote, ‘the Church,’” she said.

Gaunt began advocating for anti-war movements across the country. She joined other groups doing things trying to stop National Guard planes from leaving Des Moines to fly to Iraq. Perhaps the climax of Gaunt’s activism came during protests in Georgia in 2003 and 2006.

“I got sentenced to three months in 2003, did the time. In 2006, I crossed again, and I knew I’d get six months because it was the same judge,” Gaunt explained.

During the initial 90-day imprisonment, Gaunt received a letter from the College’s Office of Human Resources informing her that she had been granted a leave of absence to serve her time. She had no such luck in 2006.

“[T]hey initially fired me,” Gaunt said. “Professors knew me pretty well by then, and townspeople knew me well, a lot of pastors, staff, students, so when you guys all came back from winter break and I was in jail, they tactfully approached President [Russell] Osgood … ”

“They put out there that maybe I was doing things that this college, social justice-wise, tries to teach people to do. They encouraged [President Osgood] to take it out of human resources’ hands and take it into his own hands, and he did that, thank you God,” Gaunt said.

Gaunt explained that she entirely understood why she needed to be fired from a Human Resources point of view, but she was really thankful for the College community and for President Osgood for overlooking the public relations perspective.

For Gaunt, one of the greatest benefits of her advocacy work has been the relationships she has formed with people she met during her time. When she spent 90 days in jail in Georgia, she was locked up with eight other women from seven different countries.

“One of those people from that first jail time in ’03, ended up [being] my soul sister in life. She got deported to London, this Ethiopian woman, and this winter break was my fifth trip to London to visit her,” Gaunt said.

While Gaunt has no regrets, she does not encourage students to follow in her footsteps.

“I wouldn’t recommend any of you guys to do the jail thing,” she joked.

However, Gaunt had a few words of wisdom for Grinnellians interested in social justice work.

“I think [my advice] is to tell people to find their way,” Gaunt said. “And Grinnell students are finding their way of doing it. Find where you can put yourself in there, and what works for you, and then not to be afraid to take the stand … and then to buck the trend in this country of letting fear be your decision-maker, instead let freedom and love and confidence, and knowing you’re doing the right thing, be the guide.”

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