"Fasting is an institution as old as Adam." - Mahatma Gandhi
Hunger strikes have been used to change policy and social wrongs for hundreds of years. In early Ireland, where the tradition originated, hunger strikes were actually encoded in civic law. Fasters publicly denied themselves food on the doorstep of the person committing an injustice, because it was considered shameful for someone to come to harm in your home, especially for a crime you committed. That's why for the Troops Home Fast, we're headed to the offender's doorstep: the White House lawn!
Hunger strikes call attention to a grave issue, force change, and cause shame for wrongdoers and inspire others to take action.
The effectiveness of a hunger strike rests on the seriousness of the issue, and the gravity of putting one's body on the line. People have engaged in hunger strikes for an array of reasons; most notably to gain freedom, political participation, or to call attention to genocide. For our part, we are fasting to end the great suffering of war, bringing home the pain and injury of Iraqi civilians and U.S. soldiers.
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.
Here are some of the most famous, and most effective, hunger strikes:
Mahatma Gandhi engaged in several fasts during his struggle for justice and independence in India. His most famous, a self-declared fast until death to end inter-religious violence, resulted in leaders from Hindu, Muslim and Sikh communities vowing to resolve their differences peacefully. Gandhi also fasted to end British rule of India and to improve the lives of the Dalits (untouchables). The latter resulted in meaningful policy changes after just six days of fasting. In "Gandhi's Letters to a Disciple" he writes, "Under certain circumstances, fasting is the one weapon God has given us for use in times of utter helplessness.” Gandhi felt strongly that fasting is physical abstinence that sets the soul free. His spirituality, fasting and political action were inseparable: “I believe that there is no prayer without fasting, and there is no real fast without prayer.”
In the early 20th century in the U.S., suffragettes engaged in hunger strikes while in prison, following the lead of British suffragettes several years earlier — threatening to martyr themselves unless they were allowed to participate in politics. Alice Paul, one of the American suffragettes, also pressured Woodrow Wilson on his involvement in the war. As in Britain, the government treated them brutally while in prison, in many cases force-feeding them. The latter resulted in a public outcry against treating educated women fasting for political purposes as if they were criminally ill or insane. The public response to this direct action caused Woodrow Wilson to announce his support for the 19th amendment, which was passed three years after the then-famous actions of Alice Paul, Lucy Burns and many others. These suffragettes were later commemorated in the film "Iron-Jawed Angels."
Cesar Chavez, one of the U.S.' most important Latino leaders of the 20th century, led a hunger strike in 1968 to support migrant grape workers who were demanding a raise from the dollar-an-hour they were being paid. The 25-day fast, in conjunction with many other tactics—marches, boycotts, strikes, picketing, and consumer education—caused the workers to achieve not only better pay but health care benefits. In 1989, Chavez engaged in a "Fast for Life" that sought to expose the dangers of pesticide use to farm workers and their children. After 36 days, the 61-year-old Chavez passed the hunger strike to Rev. Jesse Jackson, symbolically handing him the small metal cross he had carried throughout his fast. (Chavez was a devout Catholic, and his hunger strikes, like Gandhi's, were highly spiritual in nature.) He then broke bread with the children he was fasting to protect from pesticide poisoning—a highly publicized event that won hearts nationwide. Over the following months, the rolling fast coursed through celebrities, workers, and communities. These fasts, among other successful campaigns, made the United Farm Workers one of the most powerful labor groups in history.
Rolling hunger strikes like this one are useful because they call attention to an issue based on numbers of participants rather than length of a single person's fast. In China, hundreds of activists and supporters are currently participating in a rolling hunger strike that started in February of 2006. According to Amnesty International, the strike seeks to “draw attention to recent beatings and detentions of human rights activists and lawyers who … defend them.” Hundreds of people continue to participate in 24-hour fasts, passing the fast, relay-style, on to the next participant after completion. In February of 2006, the Chinese government cracked down on the fasters; some were beaten, placed on house arrest, kidnapped or jailed. In response, tens of thousands of supporters in the international community have taken up a solidarity rolling 24-hour hunger strike in Asia, Australia, Europe and North America.
Over the past year, hunger strikers have fasted to protest the militarization of the U.S. border, water privatization and much more.
Read more about hunger strikes on Wikipedia