Monday, October 17, 2005
Hunger Strike as Political Action
Hunger strikes are a time-honored method of protest. They are particularly effective for prisoners who have few options for making their grievances known outside of the prison. The downside is possible permanent damage to major internal organs in the later stages of starvation and, of course, death. But when there is no other recourse, it remains effective for bringing attention to a particular situation.
In a previous post I mentioned the Irish traditon:
An example is the hunger strike. There has been a long tradition in Ireland of hunger strikes for justice. My understanding is that it was a last resort to attain justice or restitution when you've been wronged. Although we often hear of hunger strikes in prisons due to inhumane conditions, it also used to be a very personal tactic. You went and camped on the doorstep of the person who had wronged you, refusing food (and I think water) until either the person corrected the wrong or you died. Like the albatross around the neck of the ancient mariner, your corpse was the sign to the world of exactly how grievous the injustice done to you by that person. Their honor was forever sullied in that town. Perhaps businesses would no longer allow the person into their shops or do work for them.In the film Iron Jawed Angels about the US women's suffrage movement to gain the vote for women, there are scenes of the hunger striking Alice James (Hilary Swank) being forcefed through a tube inserted through the nose and a funnel. This seems to be the common response by authority to the hunger strike. To prevent the hunger striker from dying on your doorstep/prison, forcing I.V. fluids and nutrition on the striker is the course usually taken. This will usually be rationalized publicly by authorities as "protecting" the striker from the results of her/his actions. It is the assertion of control over the prisoner, denying the prisoner any lingering shred of self-determination and dignity.
A fresh example of this appeared in a Boston Globe reports which says "US military medics have attempted to dissuade Guantanamo Bay detainees from continuing a hunger strike by forcing finger-thick feeding tubes through their noses without painkillers, lawyers for the detainees told a federal judge yesterday."
The powerful impact of hunger strikes is undeniable. Although many people think it is a form of suicide, it is hardly akin to it. A death by hunger strike is so deliberate in intent, so lengthy a process, it cannot be mistaken for any kind of momentary emotional lapse or impulse. And this is what makes it so frightening to authorities. It's not like these people are becoming despondent and losing their will to live. Often, they are actively taking control of the only resource left to them: their own body and life.
Some might dismiss a hunger strike as mere headline grabbing antics, not seriously intended to be carried through to a conclusion of death. The number of strikers at Guantanamo is uncertain. The Department of Defense says 76 prisoners are involved but human rights workers estimate the number at between 150 and 200. That would be approximately one third of the total prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. That is not a blip. That is a major act of collective protest.
Nota Bene: This is PBU42, my contribution to a collective blogging action done weekly by members of the Progressive Blogger Union (PBU). I do it because it's fun. Fun! To find out what other members of PBU are saying about the Guantanamo hunger strike, we are trying a different method this week. del.icio.us is a social bookmark and search engine. It categorizes and links all kinds of things on the web. I'm not completely certain I've got the method down but this del.icio.us link should take you to a page where other PBU member posts are available. Or you can go to this PBU page and click on "PBU42 from all users". You can also plug "PBU42" into the Technorati search engine.