Over the past few months, an amazing number of people have been fasting or on hunger strike for peace and justice all over the world, earning relatively sparse media coverage, and winning few demands. But this current wave of hunger strikes has expanded the traditional approach to these tactics and offers a look at some new techniques — as well as challenges for those who are currently fasting or thinking about using their hunger as a path to justice.
At its zenith this summer, 30,000 hunger-strikers in the California prison system fasted for adequate and nutritious food, constructive programming and an end to torturous solitary confinement. In July, approximately 100 detainees in Guantánamo were on hunger strike demanding due process and release from illegal imprisonment.
Solidarity fasts of sympathetic community members across the United States and the world swelled those numbers. Code Pink and CloseGitmo.net put out calls asking people to participate in a rolling fast, with individuals each fasting for a minimum of 24 hours. Several long-term solidarity strikers joined, including Diane Wilson, who also attempted to speak directly with Obama on the 57th day of her fast by climbing over the White House fence, and Andres Conteris, who has fasted for over 75 days. On September 6, in front of the White House, he was “force-fed” to publicly display the nasogastric feeding procedure that is being used on Guantánamo prisoners. But the event did not receive much national media coverage.
It has been several weeks since the hunger-strikers in the California prisons suspended their historic strike after two state lawmakers pledged to hold public hearings addressing some of the prisoners’ demands. Although this only signals the end of one phase of their movement — this was the third hunger strike since 2011 — there is hope and a reprieve for starving prisoners.
At Guantánamo Bay Prison, the Obama administration is still attempting to force-feed its way out of a humanitarian crisis. Only two inmates have been transferred out of the prison in more than a year, and even the 84 prisoners who were cleared for release years ago remain locked up. Hunger strikes have been happening at Guantánamo since 2002. One strike in 2005 forced an agreement to bring the camp into compliance with the Geneva Conventions. That strike was suspended, only to start again a week later because nothing changed at the camp. According to those tracking the current hunger strike, as of September 19, there are 19 participants, with 18 being force-fed.
Unfortunately, the sheer numbers of people involved doesn’t indicate success. This raises several questions: Are fasts and hunger strikes effective actions in the United States today. Do they help activists reach their goals, or individuals meet their personal needs? Moreover, can the physical harm or even death as a result of these tactics still be meaningful?
A brief history
Hunger strikes and fasting have very distinct characteristics — although both are based on voluntarily not eating or drinking. Fasting is often thought of as a personal religious or spiritual practice. Add a political or activist context and fasts become hunger strikes — embodied petitions, protests and interventions to policies and actions of the authorities.
Fasts have been embraced by almost every religion for countless reasons — from seeking atonement, purification and enhancement of concentration/consciousness to teaching control of mind/body, petitioning God, experiencing solidarity with the poor/hungry and reaching spiritual clarity. There is also an understanding that intention can even power us through deprivation of our own basic needs. The value of fasting to teach control over one’s own desires or habits might be the one thing Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and Christians all agree on.
These deep ancient spiritual roots led to traditions in several countries that extended fasting from an intensely personal act to one of nonviolent coercion or cultural pressure. Over time a wide diversity of fasting and hunger-striking methods have been used by activists in many campaigns.
In pre-Christian Ireland, commoners could hold a claim against someone of higher status by “fasting-on” the doorstep of the debtor. In the culture at that time it was considered disgraceful not to pay up. If the person died while “fasting-on,” the debtor was the responsible party.
This cultural tradition led to widespread use of hunger strikes by imprisoned Irish nationalists in their fight against the British, including the well-known deaths of Bobby Sands and nine others demanding political prisoner status in 1981. Strategically, they had staggered the starting dates of their water and salt fasting to increase the window of impact, but the fast was called off after these 10 men died and no concessions were forthcoming from the Crown. This action not only created martyrs for the movement, but the deaths were also followed by a period of increased recruitment for the IRA. International media became much more supportive of their cause.
In India, Mohandas Gandhi used fasting as his nonviolent weapon of choice on 17 different occasions, fighting for striking workers, Hindu-Muslim unity and against British rule. He also fasted for atonement of violence perpetrated by movement members in a spiritual context. Although all his hunger strikes were relatively short — lasting 21 days or less — they had great impact.
In 1917 the U.S. suffragist movement followed in the radical footsteps of their British counterparts who started using hunger strikes in 1909 when they were denied political prisoner status. Force-feeding followed quickly as payback for women politicizing not only their actions, but their bodies as well. The exposure of the cruel techniques of force-feeding imposed on middle class women in a prison close to the White House helped turn the tide of sentiment in favor of women’s suffrage, more than imprisonment alone would have.
Other U.S. campaigns for farmworker rights and homeless advocacy have made strategic use of hunger strikes and fasting. In the 1960s, Cesar Chavez fasted to spiritually prepare for civil disobedience, as well as to promote nonviolence as a guiding principle for farmworker struggles.
In the 1970s, to support Washington, D.C.’s Community of Creative Nonviolenceshelter, Mitch Snyder engaged in many creative nonviolent tactics: holding public funerals for people who froze to death on the street, setting up “Reaganville” in the park in front of the White House, occupying public buildings to call for additional shelter creation and, of course, fasting. Through several well-publicized fasts that made demands on President Reagan, homelessness became a national issue. In fact, Snyder’s first fast resulted in an election night promise to give the occupied federal building to the Community of Creative Nonviolence for use as a shelter. However, promised money for renovations did not materialize — prompting other actions, including two more hunger strikes in a four-year-long fight.
Beyond salt and water
Gandhi’s daily intake included water, salt and some lemon juice. Today’s hunger-strikers have used a wide variety of sustenance, from water only, to water and coconut water, vitamins, salt and even “low calorie” fasts. Andres Conteris is considering submitting himself to twice daily feedings in solidarity with the Guantánamo inmates. This is a new frontier of solidarity hunger strikes — the “spectacle force-feeding” event. Smart management of intake can allow the political faster to be more involved with the ongoing strategic work, as well as be able-bodied enough to attend public events, speak to media and do self-care for a longer haul.
Alternatives to indeterminate fasts to the death include “rolling fasts,” a process by which individuals share the hardship of fasting on a continuous schedule. Like the supporting fasts happening around Guantánamo Bay and the California prisoners, China experienced a series of “rolling hunger strikes” in 2006. Recurrent fasts are another way to participate on a regular schedule — for example, selecting one day per week to join a group engaged in a symbolic fast. Global Vision sponsors international “timed famines,” where on a designated date, people pledge to fast for 24 to 40 hours in an event dedicated to education and fundraising on global hunger.
Guidelines for success
There are some common threads that support the successful use of fasting and hunger strikes in campaigns, especially in the United States, and offer parameters for strategic planning.
First, having a cultural lineage that facilitates the mainstream understanding of the power of fasting and therefore conveys gravity to it as a tactic is critical. In the United States today, we have a relatively secularized society where most people do not have a personal or religious connection to fasting on the level of India or Ireland in the previous centuries. If the goal of the fast is to achieve spiritual preparation for an action, or to model leadership for a specific community that recognizes fasts as legitimate expression — think Cesar Chavez or Gandhi’s fasts for penance or preparation — then there is a higher likelihood of success. Fasts have increased group and individual readiness for action, compelled members of groups targeted by fasts to behave differently, and garnered reparations. Showing up on the doorstep of a CEO or elected official who has no connection to fasting will likely only land you in jail (or dead) with no win.
Second, the hunger strikes that have been most effective at reaching their goals were or are within a context of well planned, long-term active campaigns, with individuals willing to fast to the death and a wide network of people supporting the strikers. It is critical to play a top notch media game, at the same time that you are supporting the strikers medically and building out your base. Sometimes fasts are proposed because they seem easy to do, but in fact there are significant health concerns that need to be taken into consideration. Supporting hunger-strikers is difficult work. Even in the United States, when Reagan met Mitch Snyder’s demands twice, many other tactics were used in conjunction with an overall established campaign — and it helped that Reagan was of Irish descent.
Third, time spent figuring out the medical and logistical needs for the purpose of the hunger strike will help develop a strong strategic framework. Will it work better to take some nutrition, vitamins or supplements so that the striker remains clear-headed and able-bodied as long as possible for media and outreach work? What kind of people and financial resources are needed? What are the closing scenario options (beyond death)?
Finally, hunger strikes that occur in the place of the wrongdoing, at the point of injury — a prison, for example — derive strength from the resistance itself. Prisoners have a limited number of options available for protest to begin with. Refusing to eat, non-cooperation with force-feeding, or even dying, becomes a prefigurative solution. There is only one small problem with this: You might end up dead, unable to continue to fight. And that could really leave you starved for justice.