Those who have been incarcerated for their participation or presence in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, have been called everything from patriots to insurrectionists. But of all the Jan. 6 prisoners currently being held in any number of detention facilities across the country, the one who seems to stir the most controversy is a 33-year-old Hammond, Indiana, man named Kash Kelly.
So, who is Kash Kelly?
As The Epoch Times reported May 6, Kelly was sentenced in February 2021 to four years of incarceration and three years of supervised release for a 2017 drug charge—conspiracy with intent to distribute cocaine and marijuana—dating to when he was a Latin King gang member in Chicago.
For years, Kelly had been trying to get his life back on track. He was active in his church. He was active in the lives of his children and was a father figure to other kids in the community. Through his social media channel, Kash Kelly The Streetlight, which is still active, Kelly provides guidance to those who are struggling to escape gang life or to turn their own lives around. Kelly became an internet sensation when his June 3, 2020 video—”When do Black Lives Matter to us Black PPL??? Tough Discussion”—went viral on social media.
However, all of his progress was derailed when he traveled to Washington to protest against the certification of the 2020 election.
As a condition of Kelly’s pretrial release, court documents state he was allowed to travel throughout the country as long as prosecutors approved the trip, knew where he was going and how long he would be there. While Kelly said he received permission from his attorney to go to the Capitol for the protest, federal investigators claim they gave no such permission and that Kelly misled them by saying he would be going to Texas, not Washington.
According to Kelly, the severity of the sentence had more to do with the judge’s prejudice regarding the Jan. 6 protest in 2021 than the 2017 conspiracy drug charge. Statements made by the judge and prosecuting attorney during the course of Kelly’s sentencing hearing appear to support his claim. Because of his charges related to Jan. 6, 2021—knowingly entering or remaining in any restricted building or grounds without lawful authority and violent entry and disorderly conduct on Capitol grounds—Kelly is being held in the Correctional Treatment Facility in Washington, where he has been now for over a year. Kelly insists Capitol Hill Police invited him into the Capitol Building and he did not participate in any violent activity.
He is appealing his sentence.
Ultimately, it was Kelly who made the decision to go to Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, and that choice had serious consequences. Still, there are people who have known Kelly through it all, and they are choosing to support him. Jose Burgos is one of them.
Burgos, a police officer in the Hammond Police Department for the past 28 years, met Kelly when he was in the fifth grade. Burgos was teaching D.A.R.E classes at the elementary school Kelly attended.
According to its website, the D.A.R.E. program—Drug Abuse Resistance Education—is “a police officer-led series of classroom lessons that teaches children from kindergarten through 12th grade how to resist peer pressure and live productive drug and violence-free lives.” Burgos said what made D.A.R.E. so unique was that police officers were trained to teach the curriculum, “thereby putting a local, ‘human face’ on drug prevention in schools.”
“It was awesome,” Burgos told The Epoch Times. “Essentially, I went to different elementary schools every day and I spent an hour in each of the fifth-grade classes teaching a lesson. There was a 17-week curriculum, which took me through the whole semester. I’d have fifth-grade students for an hour at a time for a whole semester, which gave me 17 hours with them.”
Burgos would teach these lessons in a set of three or four elementary schools each semester. The following semester, he would move to a different set of schools and begin the program again. At the time, there were 15,000 students in Hammond’s schools, including 24 public elementary schools and four parochial schools.
Asked what Kelly was like when he first met the youth, Burgos said, “awesome.”
“He was one of those kids,” Burgos recalled, first noting the uniqueness of his name, Kash Kelly. “I’ve only met one Kash Kelly in my entire life. When I met him, he was in the fifth grade. He was charismatic, outgoing, fun-loving, and had a great sense of humor. He had charisma. You were not going to miss him in a room full of kids. He stood out. He had a big personality.”
Burgos said he wasn’t sure how Kelly got caught up in the gang life.
After the fifth grade D.A.R.E. program, Burgos taught the sixth grade G.R.E.A.T. program, which he said is “a gang program,” structured similarly to the D.A.R.E. program. According to its website, G.R.E.A.T.—Gang Resistance Education and Training—”is an evidence-based and effective gang and violence prevention program built around school-based, law enforcement officer-instructed classroom curricula.”
“I had Kash for fifth and sixth grade,” Burgos explained. “Statistics show it’s in the middle schools, sixth, seventh and eighth grade is where we lose them. I was in the sixth-grade program the year they moved sixth grade out of the elementary schools and into middle schools. To this day, I think that was a mistake. I think they should leave sixth graders in elementary school. Statistics show that’s where we lose them.”
According to Burgos, kids become susceptible to gang and peer pressure because “gangs meet a very real need.” Despite popular belief that kids are violently recruited into gangs, Burgos explained that gangs draw kids in by providing “a sense of belonging, of caring, and a sense of respect.”
“Gangs don’t work the way people think they do,” Burgos explained. “People think they come into your space, and they threaten to beat you up or threaten to harm you if you don’t join their gang. That’s not how it works. Gangs befriend you. They come along side you, they put their arm around you, and they buy you things. They meet your physical and your emotional needs, and when they begin to do that, you will want to hang around them. Then, eventually, you’re indoctrinated. Then you’re initiated, and that’s how it happens. While I don’t know exactly what happened to Kash, I can bet you his situation was very similar.”
Burgos is correct.
Kelly was born in East Chicago, Indiana. He grew up in Hammond, Indiana, in an area they called Little Waco, where as far back as he can remember there were always gangs. They protected him and gave him money and candy. A particular gang member took a liking to him. Some said they looked alike, so they called Kelly “Little Joe.”
His father was murdered when he was three years old. His mother was a drug addict. His step father beat him. So Kelly avoided home. It was normal to see houses burning and people getting beaten. At the age of six, he witnessed his first shooting. When the police came, Kelly refused to talk to them. After that, the gangs gave him respect. They taught him how to fight, and how to shoot a gun. He watched his grandfather die of an overdose in the car while driving him to school. His grandfather was his safe space, he said.
After that, everything changed. By 14, Kelly was on his own, and by 16, he was a member of the Latin Kings.
“I had to be tough. I had to be ready for anything,” Kelly told The Epoch Times in a phone interview from jail. “If you’re anything like me and you joined a gang, it was because you felt like you didn’t have any other option. You didn’t have family. The gang was your family. That’s the case sometimes when you grow up on the wrong side of the tracks.”
But then there was this church in his neighborhood, about a block and a half from his house. Because there was little else to do in his neighborhood, Kelly used to go there for after school programs. It was his “get away” while growing up in chaos. The kids he met there were from the better parts of town.
“I could see their parents come pick them up. They were happy. They were nice,” Kelly reminisced. “They just had a different vibe about them. That was my first introduction to normal life. My ‘normal’ was different from their ‘normal.’ I wanted their kind of normal.”
Kelly began reading his Bible. He began doing what the pastor said, and he began praying—lots of praying. Back then, the church was called The First Assembly of God. Today, it’s known as The Gate. That was there Kelly met “Pastor J,” known to others as J. Calaway.
According to his website, Calaway has been the lead pastor of The Gate in Hammond, Indiana, for over 32 years. Described as “a multi-site, multi-ethnic church with five campuses” with locations “in both urban/inner-city and suburban areas,” The Gate provides “a wide range of missional and attractional programming.” They have “planted four churches and over 20 house churches,” over the past 30 years and have even started a nonprofit company and multiple businesses “to help people gain jobs and additional sources of revenue.”
“It was probably around 1995 or 1996 we established a new program in our community called Adopt a Block,” Calaway recalled for The Epoch Times. “It’s where we could go in and build relationships with the neighborhood. We would have different teams that would go out and clean up the blocks. We did kids programs and kid ministries. Kash lived on one of those blocks. He was eight to 10 years old, and started joining in with us. He became part of our church and our faith community and our kids programs.”
It was sometime in his mid teens that Calaway saw the change in Kelly.
“Like it is in so many times, he got caught up in the gangs,” Calaway recalled, adding that he knew Kelly’s family was unstable. “So we kind of lost touch. It was later he got caught up in the drug trafficking and got arrested. He wasn’t violent or part of the trafficking. He was holding the drugs in his house. He was out on bail and they kept deferring his court date, so that was hanging over his head.”
It was sometime in 2016 or 2017 that Calaway said Kelly started his return to the church and gaining a “real understanding” of what was going on in the world.
“He began talking about race and doing a lot of research about it and one day he went live on social media and just goes off and it exploded from there,” Calaway said. “People started following him and listening to him. So he went on again. The one day my wife asked, ‘Hey, have you seen what’s going on with Kash?’ and I said no. That’s when she pulled up Facebook and showed me.”
About a week later, Kelly called Calaway saying he needed to talk to him. He needed guidance. His following on social media was growing at rate that made him nervous. He wasn’t sure what to do or what to make of it. He said it “was crazy.”
“That’s when we really started talking and he really came back around,” Calaway reflected. “He was saying he now understood what I had been telling him all his life. It was real. It was true, and he was giving his life back to God and getting his life back into a value-based way of living. Through the course of that we really started connecting. He said he really needed a pastor and a mentor in his life if he was going to go through his ‘viralness,’ if that’s what you want to call it. As we got closer to election time he started getting out there more and more and he started traveling and every time he was going to travel he would call and say, ‘Pastor, you’ve got to pray form me.’ So we would pray together.”
Kelly also called to tell him when he was going to Washington on Jan. 6, 2021.
“He called me that day and shared with me what was going on,” Calaway shared, “and when they found out about his background and that he had those charges. We knew he was getting ready to be sentenced for the convictions he had. It just hadn’t happened yet. Those charges were old. But when it was indicated he was part of Jan. 6 and he was in the Capitol, they pulled him in and put him [in jail] in Washington.”
Not all of those who know Kelly have favorable opinions. According to the transcript of his sentencing, the mother of Erica Conklin, Kelly’s girlfriend of two and a half years, wrote a letter to the judge expressing things the judge described as “a little bit troubling.” Judge Philip Simon told Kelly there were “a couple of others” that viewed him as “a sort of charlatan.” But there are many others who have spoken of how Kelly has changed his life for the better.
“Our relationship was all the way through,” Calaway said of Kelly. “It was from him being a kid and growing up and him having kids. But there was always this one thing he couldn’t get away from. Now he’s in jail. But even now, he’s like this light on the street. He knows a lot of what has happened to him is because he didn’t have anybody and because he walked away. Now he’s saying he wants to be the roadblock for others so they don’t walk away. He wants to be the light shining in the street, shining the way for others through the drugs and the gangs. He really has had a transformation. It’s not just a thing he’s doing because he’s in jail. He’s even doing it while he’s in jail while paying the price.”
Calaway then shared a passage from the Bible, Romans 12:1-2, “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the power of God.”
“I believe that part of this in his life is that there was a transformation in the idea of not conforming to the crowd and doing what everyone else was doing,” Calaway said. “He was transformed and was able to stand up and that’s what he’s doing now. He’s standing up, answering for his previous mistakes, and we are standing with him.”