Adrian Parsons raised a glass of coconut water this evening outside of Mayor Vincent Gray’s home and ended the 25-day fast he had undertaken for voting rights for the District of Columbia. Three other hunger strikers–Sam Jewler, Kelly Mears, and Joe Gray–ended their fasts earlier.
When you go on hunger strike for a cause, you put your body on the line. That’s why a hunger strike, as a nonviolent tactic of protest, can be so compelling. We all know the discomfort of hunger. Fewer of us know the pain and suffering of starvation. But we can imagine. The first, most basic thing we learn to do to survive is scream when we’re hungry. On a visceral level, hunger compels us.
So when a hunger striker overrides the primal command to survive and deprives him or herself of food for days or weeks, we turn and look and wonder: What conviction is so burning that it’s worth suffering or even dying for? At the same time, it brings a crisis to a head. There are only so many days before fasting hunger strikers are in peril for their lives. If they command respect and sympathy, then they may galvanize the public behind their cause and guilt the powerful into action.
On Friday, the hunger strikers and their supporters, known as Occupy the Vote DC, launched an online petition with the goal of getting 600,000 signatures. Along with demanding voting representation in Congress and control over budgetary decisions, they’re also proposing a new 1-cent tax on bottled water to employ a full-time “lobbyist” for the District.
Right now Eleanor Holmes-Norton represents the District in Congress as a non-voting member. All license plates in the nation’s capital sport the slogan “Taxation without Representation.” The District’s budget is also subject to Congress’ approval and often the target of politically motivated riders, such as ones denying funding for needle exchange or abortion-related services.
Hunger strikes sometimes achieve their goals. An Indian reform activist successfully carried out a hunger strike against government corruption earlier this year. As 74-year-old Anna Hazare’s weight plunged, Parliament was forced into a 9-hour debate over adopting a government watchdog. After 12 days, the sought-for reform was in place.
Many hunger strikers end their fasts before their demands are fully met and “pass it on” to others. After a 36-day hunger strike in 1968, César Chavez handed off his “Fast for Life” to Jesse Jackson to continue. Rolling hunger strikes occurred in China in 2006 to call attention to human rights abuses and political detainees. According to Occupy the Vote DC, several dozen people have already taken up the hunger strike, and they want to start “a 51-day series of 24-hour hunger strikes by 51 different people consuming only water, representing their support for the District of Columbia as the 51st state.”
The DC protestors ended their fasts before they came to harm, but some hunger strikes have ended in death. During the 1981 Irish hunger strike, also known as the Blanket Protest, ten imprisoned IRA and Irish National Liberation Army members starved themselves to death.