Striking out loud

For the Living Wage Campaign’s hunger strike to be effective, protesters must make their efforts known

Hunger strikes are a potent weapon for political activists. They have occasionally been met with some success, and the Living Wage Campaign here at the University has now seized upon this tactic, declaring a hunger strike last Saturday. As it would happen, the campaign is not the only hunger strike in the world at this very moment. By drawing on examples both distant and contemporary, we can see when such strikes are effective.

To begin with, a hunger strike is not a matter to be taken lightly. Generally, it is reserved as the last-ditch effort of nonviolent activists after all their other alternatives have been exhausted. This certainly describes the case of the campaign. Last week, I wrote about the various resolutions, studies, petitions and endorsements which the campaign has used and shown to the administration time and again. All possible attempts at resolving the issue through less drastic means have been tried. As the administration has continually refused to meet the campaign's humane and reasonable demands, one can see why the campaign would regard this hunger striking as the next logical step. 

But if there is going to be any chance of success from this hunger strike, it will need serious publicity. The most highly publicized hunger strike of the past few months has been that of Khader Adnan. Adnan, a Palestinian prisoner, was recently held by Israel for 10 weeks without being charged with a crime. He began a hunger strike upon his arrest to generate attention for his situation. Adnan succeeded in gaining international media attention and provoking a firestorm of trending messages on Twitter. On Tuesday, he ended his hunger strike which had gone on for 66 days - the same number of days it took for Irish political prisoner Bobby Sands to die of starvation - after reaching a deal with the government guaranteeing his release.

The Israeli government had claimed that Adnan was a threat to civilians. If this could be proven, then the government should have been able to charge him as a criminal. If such accusations could not be proven, then the government's only just choice was to release the man. Surely Israel has the resources to tail him or get a warrant to tap his phones were there probable cause. Instead, it chose to arbitrarily detain Adnan without charges, putting Israel in direct violation of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. Thanks to Adnan's strike, this abusive process which has been used against Palestinians and Israelis alike has been put in the spotlight. In a nation widely touted as "the only democracy in the Middle East," Israel's right-wing government displayed a callous disregard for democratic values, embarrassing itself and its allies in front of the international community.

Similarly, prisoners in the United States are again on hunger strike for better conditions. Sadly, they only ever really get attention when there is a loss of life. Christian Gomez, a 27-year-old convicted murderer, recently died only six days into a hunger strike at a California prison. He was one of thousands of prisoners in the state who have been taking turns going on hunger strikes since protests against torturous use of isolation chambers occurred there in July.

Prisons are one of the darkest, most inhumane areas in modern society, and I am sure prisoners wish they could use less drastic means to spread awareness of their miserable conditions. But the publicity of a hunger strike demands most citizens, who would rather not own up to the poor treatment afforded to society's most vulnerable, acknowledge how the shamed and guilty live. The prisoners' success, like Adnan's, is dependent on forcing such an issue into discussion, contrary to the wishes of many.

I think the question that hunger-strikers must ask themselves when they commit to such a dangerous course of action is whether or not they have the will to see it through. Put another way, is theirs a cause truly worth suffering for?  Christian Gomez and his comrades believed so. Gandhi did, as well. Undoubtedly, there is genuine sentiment among our Living Wage activists - who have tried so long to peacefully attain their just goals - that this is a worthy cause. The community, which would benefit greatly from a living wage victory, has every right to stand behind the campaign and provide the necessary support. The best thing that can be done for activists on a hunger strike is to spread the word of their deeds.

Starving in silence is the exact fate our fellow students in the campaign wish to prevent from falling upon others. If you want to help, announce their actions by all the means you have. As Gandhi's example shows, not even an empire can stand firm against a boldly announced, just cause.

Sam Carrigan's column appears Thursdays in The Cavalier Daily.  He can be reached at s.carrigan@cavalierdaily.com.


Published February 23, 2012 in Opinion




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