Alex Blaze

Diet activism

Filed By Alex Blaze | June 06, 2010 11:30 AM | comments

Filed in: The Movement
Tags: Dan Choi, fasting, Gandhi, hunger strike, pietrangelo

I was going to write about Dan Choi and James Pietrangelo's hunger strike last Thursday, but they ended it before I could get a post up. But since we've moved from discussions of violence in the LGBT movement a few months ago to suicide as a political tactic, it would be silly to let this milestone go by without discussion.

force-fed.jpgFirst, just so we're clear, political suicide is a bad idea here, and I in no way support it. I don't want any of these people to die, and their dying won't accomplish anything other than to remove voices and activists from the process.

But the question is neither here nor there, since it seems like even people who participate in actions that gain their cache through their use of suicide aren't committed to following through in the first place. Choi and Pietrangelo released a statement after they started eating again a week later, calling their action a success. I disagree - it didn't get Obama to stop DADT discharges, it failed to garner any attention outside LGBT media, and I doubt anyone's mind was changed. Not that a lack of success means that it shouldn't have been tried - just that we should be willing to discuss why it failed and how it could be improved.

A hunger strike works because of the old saying: if it bleeds, it ledes. If a person is willing to starve themselves to death for a cause, take their own life in a painful and gruesome way for the whole world to see, journalists show up and cover it. Others see their commitment to a cause, and authorities, either out of embarrassment, guilt, or to simply prevent a martyr from being created, cave.

There's a reason this tactic is more common to liberation, peace, and democracy movements than it is to liberal equality movement - fighting for the right to come out and keep one's job usually isn't enough to convince people to put their lives on the line. And considering how Choi is promising multiple future hunger strikes, he isn't committed to see an actual hunger strike through. Which makes these actions easy to ignore.

But let's take a look at a few hunger strike campaigns in history that were successful, either because they got what they set out to get or they at least got media attention or public sympathy.

A long history of hunger striking

Mohandas Gandhi engaged in several successful hunger strikes. One was a five-day hunger strike he undertook in prison for policy changes towards India, which he won. But that doesn't mean that the British government wasn't seriously considering letting him die:

Some British officials initially took a hardline stance on the prospect of a hunger strike, with Lord Linlithgow, the colony's viceroy, sending ministers a telegram stating he was "strongly in favour of letting (Gandhi) starve to death".

However, senior figures in London feared the repercussions would be too great. Lord Halifax, the ambassador to Washington and former foreign secretary, told the cabinet: "Whatever the disadvantages of letting him out, his death in detention would be worse."

Ministers eventually decided in January 1943 -- after Gandhi had warned that he intended to begin a fast -- that they would be willing to release him on compassionate grounds if he was likely to die.

Sir Stafford Cripps, minister for aircraft production, said: "He is such a semi-religious figure that his death in our hands would be a great blow and embarrassment to us."

Churchill, however, was clearly incensed by the prospect of handing Gandhi a moral victory. "I wd keep him there and let him do as he likes," says the document.

"But if you are going to let him out because he strikes, then let him out now," it continues.

Churchill insisted that any move should be portrayed as a victory for the authorities.

"Cab(inet) feel v strongly on principle of release because of strike. Wd prefer to release as act of grace because det(ained) 6 (months) and we've beaten him."

Gandhi was finally freed in 1944, because of fears about his generally failing health.

Gandhi also engaged in successful hunger strikes for peace between Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh leaders and for the status of lower-class Indians. Each time, several important factors were at play - someone with massive popular support threatens their own life to advance a just cause. Note the blithe assumption in the above blockquote that Gandhi would die if the Empire did nothing - can the same be said about us? Should it?

The practice also has a long history in Ireland, dating back to the 8th century when fasting on the doorstep of a lord shamed him into changing his ways. The tactic even made an appearance in the early Irish legal system.

In 1980 and 1981, imprisoned members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) undertook hunger strikes for several reasons, including the fact that the British no longer treated them as prisoners of war but as common prisoners and that several other protests failed (including a "dirty strike" where IRA prisoners threw their bodily waste on the walls). Ten people died in this hunger strike, the first of which was the strike's leader, Bobby Sands (click the link for a great mini-history of the IRA hunger strikes):

After 66 days on hunger strike Bobby Sands (26), then a member of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and a Member of Parliament, died in the Maze Prison. The announcement of his death sparked riots in many areas of Northern Ireland but also in the Republic of Ireland. The Irish Republican Army (IRA) also stepped up its attacks on members of the security services. Following the death of Sands the British government faced extensive international condemnation for the way in which it had handled the hunger strike. The relationship between the British and Irish government was also very strained.


Nine more hunger strikers died in the protest, lasting between 46 and 73 days before their bodies failed, and a dozen others were still on hunger strike by the time it was called off in October 1981. The British met most of the hunger strikers' demands, Irish nationalism was increased in the region which led to an up-tick of IRA recruitment and violence, and it garnered international sympathy.

Tamil liberationists also engaged in hunger strikes, and they knew exactly how and why it works as a tactic. Just last year two Tamil students in London, Sivatharsan Sivakumaraval and Prarameswaran Subramaniam, engaged in a hunger strike in front of British Parliament in London for food and medical aid to the Tamil region of Sri Lanka and for the British to urge a cease-fire:

And Mr Subramaniam, who says he is not an LTTE member, says others may follow.
"It's bad if people go on hunger strike after me, but I can't stop them," he says.

"Doing a hunger strike is hard, it's painful, but when no-one is listening to us we can't do anything else.

"Now you are here. Before, we did demonstrations and you didn't come and report our opinions. But now you are here - after I started the hunger strike."

I ask Mr Subramaniam whether he is afraid of dying.

He says: "No, no, no, I'm not worried - because I saw many thousands of deaths of friends of mine. That means livers, kidneys and stomachs coming out, people dying, right in front of my eyes.

"When I was in Sri Lanka I was always close to death, every day."

Still, at 28 years old, he is a young man.

"But others, younger, are also dying: even children in their mother's stomachs. No-one can imagine these things," he says.


The hunger strike led to a 100,000 person protest in London and stopped traffic in the area for weeks. Sivakumaraval ended his hunger strike after the UN Security Council stated discussing, and Subramaniam continued on for almost a month until he was was near comatose and hospitalized.

alice-paul1.jpgNot all hunger strikes end in death or victory. Governments sometimes force-feed prisoners in what should be described as torture. Feminist Alice Paul, while imprisoned for her protests, led a hunger strike against poor prison conditions, including the terrible food they were receiving in prison. Here's a bit from a NY Times article that quotes her threat to starve to death:



If you can't read it, Alice Paul says that dying of hunger quickly is better than dying of the prison's conditions' slowly.

When no one cares about the hunger striker

Much more recently, several Guantanamo Bay prisoners, who were (and are still) being held without charges, refused to eat. Sami Haj, a Sudanese journalist for al-Jazeera who was arrested in Pakistan covering the war and held in Guantanamo for six years without charges on the assumption by the US that al-Jazeera was a front for al-Qaeda, was one of the better-known hunger strikers.

He started in 2007 to protest being tortured and sexual assault, defilement of the Qu'ran, and the fact that he was being held in prison without any charges. Here's his lawyer:

restraint-chair.jpgI had a morning meeting scheduled with Sami Haj, the Al Jazeera journalist, no more a terrorist than my grandmother. Sami's original arrest in Pakistan in late 2001 was perhaps understandable because the U.S. military thought he had filmed an interview with Osama bin Laden. To track down the criminal behind 9/11, many people would accept a little trampled due process. Unfortunately, as has often been the case, the intelligence turned out to be wrong. Yet Sami remained in custody. On the fifth anniversary of his detention without trial, his patience wore thin and he went on a hunger strike, the age-old peaceful protest against injustice.

After crossing the bay on the 8 a.m. ferry, an escort drove me down Recreation Road, past the golf course. I noticed a yellow sign. The soldiers were admonished that their value of the week should be "Compassion."

Sami's strike began 271 days ago. Medical ethics tell us that you cannot force-feed a mentally competent hunger striker, as he has the right to complain about his mistreatment, even unto death. But the Pentagon knows that a prisoner starving himself to death would be abysmal PR, so they force-feed Sami. As if that were not enough, when Gen. Bantz J. Craddock headed up the U.S. Southern Command, he announced that soldiers had started making hunger strikes less "convenient." Rather than leave a feeding tube in place, they insert and remove it twice a day. Have you ever pushed a 43-inch tube up your nostril and down into your throat? Tonight, Sami will suffer that for the 479th time.

It is sometimes a minor rule change, imposed from far above, that inflames me. I always carry lozenges, and some months back, a hunger-striking client agreed to take one to soothe his sore throat. By my next visit, the list of "contraband" had expanded to bar this insignificant salve.

He was eventually released and is planning legal action.

This, if anything, should prove the inefficacy of protesting the US government with a hunger strike. The attorney says it would have been "abysmal PR" for the military to let Haj die of a hunger strike, but I'm not so sure. Detainees were murdered and others committed suicide and the prison camp is still there (with plans of doing the same thing in Afghanistan).

The reason the hunger strikes were easily ignored is that people didn't care already about the person who may have died. And since this is the US we're talking about, the only people famous enough to get people to care about their hunger strikes would never actually do it. There is a poverty of care right now as America recovers (I'm optimistic) from decades of movement conservatism based on the simple message that people who need help are just greedy, lazy slobs who should be marginalized.

On the other side, there are hunger strikes like the Code Pink hunger strikes, with a defined end date. Here's what they have to say on their site about hunger strikes:

Fasting until an injustice is corrected is a nonviolent tactic; like all tactics, its success isn't always guaranteed. Sometimes hunger strikes are ignored by the press and those in power. Sometimes, though, they achieve their goals, and can be one of the most visible and profound ways to draw attention to an issue and force change.

As we embark on our own hunger strikes to end this illegal, unjust, deadly war, we must also honor those who have come before us: the past and present hunger strikers who have had the strength and will to sacrifice for peace and social justice. We are joining a long tradition of strikes, some profoundly successful, others tragic, and almost all rooted in deep spirituality.

On Democracy Now in 2006, Madea Benjamin, Code Pink's founder, couldn't say any reason to believe that their hunger strikes accomplished anything other than getting on Canadian TV once. Four years later, we're still in Iraq.

I don't think there's as much luck involved as the Code Pink website implies when it comes to making a hunger strike effective. They had a defined end-date and journalists were already used to ignoring anti-war protestors (and specifically Code Pink). It wasn't the right time, the right issue, and the tactic didn't have enough bleed to lede.

Diet activism

When I was originally going to post about Choi and Petriangelo's hunger strike (which they called a fast, although a fast is about introspection and meditation and building solidarity, not getting an authority figure to bow to a series of demands), I wanted to know what their out was. How long were they planning on lasting?

Because a hunger strike ends one of three ways:

  1. The protestors die
  2. Some or all of their demands are met
  3. The protestors are imprisoned and force-fed

That's how these things work when they work - someone in a position of power is afraid the hunger striker will actually die and protests and riots will start. It's also a more media-friendly form of political suicide, considering all the interviews that can be held in the process, than, say, self-immolation.

When that threat isn't in place, a hunger strike can't be effective. Not that that should be surprising; there's been a proliferation of "diet activism" over the past decade, protest tactics watered down so that they pose no risk to the participants and have no chance of succeeding.

civil-rights-rosa-parks1.JPGInstead of an actual, organized, population-wide boycott, individual people just "stop" buying something they don't agree with that they probably weren't buying in the first place. Did you know that the Montgomery bus boycott resulted in two firebombed homes, 156 people arrested for car-pooling and hindering the bus system, and countless boycotters attacked by the White Citizens' Council, besides being really inconvenient to the boycotters themselves?

Instead of marches, there are Facebook groups to join. Instead of extravagant and defiant Prides, there are corporate-sponsored parties. Instead of lobbying politicians, there are online petitions.

Even the act of knocking on doors to talk with people has been replaced by the email-forward. (Oh, and don't say anything to a prolific email-forwarder about their politics; they'll tell you they don't have time to talk because they have so much "work" to get to.)

And now we have hunger strikes that last about a week.

That's not to say that forms of protest that require work and/or risk are dead, or that Choi and Pietrangelo haven't engaged in other protests that have actually worked. There are plenty of examples of people today protesting in ways that could be effective, including queer protestors. But now they have to compete with diet activism - same flavor without the substance - in terms of getting people to think that they're involved in something that could actually help.

Because even the man cited by contemporary Americans constantly for his hunger striking was worried people were using the tactic too often without proper preparation:

Gandhi considers a fast a spiritual weapon, at once an appeal to moral forces and a self-searching of his own motives and failings, not to be undertaken unless the person fasting is certain of his moral ground. Thus on Aug. 19, 1939 Gandhi wrote in his newspaper, Harijan:

"The hunger strike has positively become a plague. On the slightest pretext some people want to resort to a hunger strike. It is well, therefore, that the Working Committee [of the Congress party] has condemned the practice in unequivocal terms, so far at least as a hunger strike for a discharge from imprisonment is concerned."

I'd love to read the full column, because it seems like India had its own rash of hunger strikers who didn't really know what they were getting into either.

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I didn't realise that Choi was promising multiple hunger strikes - that, right there, is a sign of how childish and petulant his "activism" appears. At this point, he's behaving more like a spoilt child who really, really wants his candy - or else. But given how dissociated he seems to be from the realities of this war economy, I'm not surprised that his perceptions of how to go about a hunger strike are so skewed. Your examples of other hunger strikers rightly show how different the stakes have been for them.

I hope Choi reads this - and stops comparing himself to Gandhi (whose death he mysteriously ascribed to hemlock - history is not the man's forte) and King.

About force-feeding: I heard an interesting interview on NPR about how some doctors feel about the ethics of that. Here's the link (transcript included):

That's actually part of the weirdness of posting about Sami Haj as an example for Dan Choi and other DADT protesters to understand, considering that they want to come out in the organization that was responsible for torturing Haj. Everyone talks about these Arabic translators, which Choi is, as if they're just translating phone messages from The Terrorists, but Choi has talked about his work in the military and he actually went out and arrested people and would translate in those situations. Maybe some people he arrested, or will arrest, ended up in Guantanamo? Life's little ironies...

Anyway, good info at the link there. That doctor makes an interesting point about force-feeding in the IRA, where if a hunger striker lost consciousness his family could go to court to have him force-fed. At Guantanamo, they don't have any contact with their families, so I guess the military officials there just have to decide when to force-feed themselves.

Given how we as a society could give a crap as to whether people we don't know live or die or are tortured, I think that any hunger strike, even one resulting in death, is doomed to failure. Most Americans would just blame the idiot who didn't eat. Most Americans only care about what Lindsey Lohan had or didn't have for lunch, or whether President Obama has or doesn't have a vacation. Most of us don't actually give a damn about the people affected by the BP oil spill, except to say oh how horrible as we watch the evening news. President Obama won't even stop the ongoing oil rigs that pose just as much danger. Most people don't give a shit about the Iraqi and Afghani civilians we killed, and war protesters have given up because most Americans love the war. If there were a draft that affected most people, oh then you'd see mass demonstrations. If there were a "war tax" that specifically tracked the cost of the war, oh then you'd see antiwar protests.

We have become a society of moral degenerates, masquerading as the moral police of the world.

I'm no better. I've pretty much given up on any protests affecting our government's outrageous policies. Let GetEqual do it. Now what's for lunch?

I agree about Americans not caring, although it's not just Americans. Plus there's the fact that the American people care much more than their elites do, which means that even a lower-than-appropriate level of care gets reduced to nothingness.

I should point out for clarity that this action wasn't sponsored by GetEqual, even though Dan Choi works with them a lot. And I don't blame them for that one.

thanks for this article, alex. i'm glad to see some history brought to light around activism.

A hunger strike means you don't get to stop and start it as you get hungry.

@Dr. Jillian - I agree wholeheartedly with your statements about society not seeming to give a rat's ass about anyone who doesn't earn bazillions of dollars.

Demanding - even if coupled with suicide - is not effective. It 2010 and the World has changed, we should, too.

Demanding, without and real threat, is just complaining and it makes participants looks stupid or childish.

The whole damn thing was stupid on Choi's behalf and not only dangerous, but right up to the line of offensive.