Occupy Wall Street Hunger Strikers

Diego Ibanez turned 23 in jail. “It was wonderful. It was for a Times Square march. Going to jail with a lot of comrades and mic checking and singing in jail was probably the best birthday I ever had.”

As I reported for Citizen Radio, three Wall Street occupiers, including Diego, began a hunger strike Saturday, demanding that Trinity Church lend a vacant lot it owns to Occupy Wall Street. The protest, recently dispossessed of Zuccotti Park, which had been its home for nearly two months, wants a temporary plot elsewhere, and is petitioning Trinity to let it use its land on Canal Street and 6th Avenue at Duarte Square.

Trinity, which has lent its facilities to the occupation for meetings, is also the third-largest real estate company in New York City and has been deaf to the pleas of Diego and his partners. A high-rise apartment building is slated for construction on the lot in question, but that is at least a year off, and the lot has been vacant for years. The occupiers made their announcement Saturday morning surrounded by supportive clergy, including Bishop George Packard, chief chaplain of the Episcopal Church, which is Trinity's denomination.

Born in La Paz, Bolivia, Diego came to Utah as a small child. Though from a Catholic family, Diego was baptized as a Mormon upon arrival in the US. “You come to Utah, so you have to be a good Mormon to fit in.” Because of his troubled early teens (“Latino males get a lot of pressure,” he explains), Diego “got sent to a military school to set me straight.” Instead, it radicalized him.

About his two years in Bolivia, “I got to see the power of the people there … I saw the people getting together and blocking freeways and the miners coming down from their mines. Riot police and everything … I was completely changed by those experiences.” When he returned stateside, Diego got involved in immigration rights, even doing actions in Alabama. “That was really close to my heart, because I have loved ones who are affected by being undocumented.”

“I have seen how economic injustice and inequality goes down in Bolivia. Latin countries are so beautiful, and so many resources are available. But yet, we're forced to migrate. It's so sad. I like this place, but why can't my family and my people live in my country? Why is it so hard?”

His activist work led him to the conclusion that “it has everything to do with corporate exploitation,” So, when Occupy Wall Street started up, “It was a no-brainer.” He picked up and shipped East, never looking back. “It's been so inspiring, it's been such a beautiful thing.”

Shortly after announcing their hunger strike, Diego and his friends went to Duarte. Trinity called the cops and asked for the guys to be removed. They were arrested, held for a few hours and released. Returning to the site, they found their bench taped off, and they were arrested again, this time booked and held for 26 hours and eventually arraigned and charged with trespassing and blocking a fire lane, which they were not aware they had been doing.

Returning to the site after release again, they found a fence had been rapidly constructed. So, they moved the operation to Broadway, just across from the entrance to Wall Street, the block in front of Trinity, where they've been kicked off the sidewalk by cops who claimed they were blocking the sidewalk. When it was pointed out that they were not blocking the sidewalk, the cops argued that they would be blocking it if circumstances changed and the streets filled. Among those skeptical of the legitimacy of this police action is defense attorney Paul Mills, who is representing the hunger strikers.

Shae Willes, 22, grew up in Provo, Utah, the son of an accountant and a city employee who have “been separated most of my life.” Shae (pronounced “Shay”) lost his job driving a delivery truck – raw luck and revulsion at wealth inequality in America drawing him to Occupy Provo. But that occupation got busted, and so he came to Liberty Plaza Park, which promptly got busted.

Shae completed a year of college, but decided to leave because the fit didn't seem right. “Everybody else was specializing in a field,” he tells me, “in order to grow up and have a house and a car, and I didn't really feel like that was the life for me. I want to travel the world and see different cultures. I'm living out of a backpack here, and that suits me fine.” Back in Utah, Shae was a snowboarder until “it got too expensive, so I sort of stopped doing that.”

He's now an outdoorsman of a different sort, standing under a canopy set up on the front lawn of Trinity Church. It's cold out, and Diego and Shae's buddy Brian Udall, 18, has gone to a comrade's house to warm up, but traveling is difficult to do when one hasn't eaten for days. Brian is also from Utah, and with him inside warming up, the team feels incomplete, a trio reduced to a duet.

Luckily, the other boys have joined forces with Mallory Butler, 19, of Florida. She began her hunger strike at Occupy Lincoln Center and so has a day and a half on her companions.

Mallory started training in ballet in first grade and, in order to maintain schedule flexibility, began home schooling in her “sheltered suburban life.” As a teen, she began acquiring scholarships to train, moving on her own to Pennsylvania at age 15. Upon graduation, Mallory “spent the last year at home, because I couldn't afford to live away from home anymore.” Having saved up money and coming to New York, the North American capital of high ballet, in pursuit her dream, Mallory was driven to protest by the threat austerity posed to her future, specifically by way of funding for the arts.

“In February, after they'd been saying the recession was over, the funding was cut again,” she says. “That was in the middle of audition season, and it was just heart-wrenching. It was like, 'Here you go. Now you have absolutely no hope of getting a career, and you're only 19 years old.'”

Doing ballet is difficult after six and a half days without food, but so are activities much less rigorous, says Mallory. “It's really hard to be active right now … Yesterday I felt awesome, today I feel pretty nauseous. I get winded just walking a block.”

Mallory suppressed her sense that something was terribly wrong in our country for years, because the only available political voice, voting, seemed useless. “Like they say, 'If voting were going to change anything, it would be illegal,'” she says. “And then this happened. It was my cue … I can't imagine just sitting and watching from the sidelines. I want to be a part of history. Even if I'm not having a huge part in it, I just want to be here and experience it.”

They're all hungry. Says Diego, “You know inside how peaceful you're willing to be, and you know how much thought it takes to actually commit to a hunger strike. It's really hard. I feel like, other people should respect that more. Especially Trinity. They're going to wait for us to just fall over and not wake up and get us hospitalized. That really affects the whole 'humanity' aspect. They don't care. It's kind of frustrating.”

“I feel really fatigued,” he continues. “But I'm sitting down. I feel really at peace. You think of food, and the idea of food comes and you can taste it, and you know how it feels to have that, and you just release it. It's a really great feeling. It's so empowering to say, 'I don't need that.'”

Well, eventually everyone needs food, and if Trinity Church wants to make sure these young people get fed, all it has to do is offer them space it's not using.