The Criminalization of the Hunger Strike

Seven years ago, Barack Obama pledged to close down the detention center at Guantánamo Bay, telling the crowds that flocked to his campaign speeches that the United States must “restore habeas corpus” in order to “lead by example.” Though the Department of Defense is still weighing options on how to close the facility before Obama leaves office, the process seems to be going nowhere. Some of this blame rests on Congress, which has repeatedly refused to lift restrictions on moving detainees even though nearly half of them are cleared for transfer.

Despite Obama’s professed concern for civil liberties, his administration is currently challenging the habeas corpus petition of a Guantánamo detainee on hunger strike. Tariq Ba Odah has spent 13 years at Guantánamo and is now on the verge of starvation. The 36-year-old currently weighs 74 pounds. In 2009, the Obama administration cleared Ba Odah for transfer due to lack of evidence that he posed a threat to national security, yet he remains imprisoned due to his Yemeni citizenship.

From the United States to Israel, hunger strikes like Ba Odah’s are often portrayed as crimes rather than as protests of last resort. According to a recent Guardian report, an anonymous US official claims that certain members of the Defense Department believe that hunger strikes are “functionally a method of warfare.”

“We are undeterred, even if we are weaker physically. Our mental determination gets stronger with each day.”

On the South Side of Chicago, 12 parents are currently on a hunger strike to protest the closure of Dyett High School. One of the hunger strikers has been arrested twice for trying to talk to Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who shut down 49 public schools in 2013 alone and whose name has become synonymous with the toxic effects of corporate education reform.

The parents in Chicago, who are midway through the third week of their hunger strike, have received support from Jesse Jackson and the Chicago Teachers Union. Jesse Sharkey, vice president of the teachers union, said that without a solution from Mayor Emanuel in the next month, “someone’s going to die.” Those who are putting their lives on the line to fight school privatization remain steadfast despite headaches, fatigue and at least one hospitalization. “We are undeterred, even if we are weaker physically,” said elementary school teacher and union activist Monique Redeaux-Smith. “Our mental determination gets stronger with each day.”

Meanwhile Will Burns, alderman of Chicago’s Fourth Ward, released a statement in which he insisted he “will not be bullied into submitting to the special interests and scare tactics of one group.” Here we see the same criminalizing logic at play – a mentality that allows government officials to feel “bullied” by ordinary citizens refusing to eat.

Negative portrayals of hunger strikes in the US echo the stance of the Israeli government, which passed a bill in June allowing the force-feeding of hunger strikers regardless of whether it poses a threat to their lives. The “Law to Prevent Harm Caused by Hunger Strikes” has been heavily promoted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu while drawing condemnation from the Israeli Medical Association. In a letter to Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, Israeli Medical Association chairman Dr. Leonid Eidelman wrote that the law “contradicts and is in opposition to the standards of medical ethics accepted in Israel and by the entire world…. Parenteral (intravenous) nutrition administered to a patient capable of judgment against his will isn’t ethical and requires humiliating means bordering on torture.” Erdan was unswayed, claiming, “Security prisoners are interested in turning a hunger strike into a new type of suicide terrorist attack through which they will threaten the State of Israel.”

According to the Council for European Palestinian Relations, an estimated 6,800 Palestinian prisoners are being held in Israeli jails. Palestinians are routinely taken from their homes in the middle of the night and held indefinitely without being charged; as of 2012, 309 prisoners are being held under administrative detention. Each six-month sentence can be renewed without trial.

The power of the hunger strike lies not in its nonviolence but in its militancy.

The most notable recent example of a Palestinian hunger striker is Khader Adnan, a spokesman for Palestinian Islamic Jihad, who has been held under administrative detention (imprisonment without trial) 10 separate times. He has never been charged with attacking Israelis, but is routinely accused of such vague offenses as “activities that threaten regional security.” In April 2012, he was released after being on hunger strike for 66 days.

Adnan has been called the West Bank’s Bobby Sands, and comparisons with the Irish revolutionary are apt. Sands died on the 65th day of his hunger strike, already a hero of the Irish nationalist movement. Both Sands and Adnan were fighting essentially anti-colonial battles, choosing self-starvation over car bombs not for lack of spite but out of a shared conviction that nonviolence was the most effective means of attack.

The power of the hunger strike lies not in its nonviolence (after all, there are plenty of methods of nonviolent resistance that don’t command the same attention) but in its militancy. The underlying aggression is that of liberationist violence turned inward, forcing the state to confront its own inhumanity while short-circuiting any attempts to paint the prisoner as harmful or destructive. The political prisoner who can attract widespread support for his or her struggle is more dangerous to authoritarian regimes than a suicide bomber, who can easily be dismissed as a dangerous ideologue with no real base.

Conservative politicians, by condemning hunger strikes as acts of terrorism, are aligning themselves historically with the cruelty of Winston Churchill. During the Bengal famine of 1943, which killed several million, Secretary of State for India Leopold Amery asked Churchill to release food supplies to stop the wave of deaths. His response – “If food is so scarce, why hasn’t Gandhi died yet?” – was typical of what Amery referred to as Churchill’s “Hitler-like attitude” toward India.

Hunger strikers don’t seek pity; they seek a collective rage strong enough to turn the tide against the Churchills and Netanyahus of the world. The attempt to paint this tactic as an act of violence is transparently absurd. Nonviolence does not necessarily connote a lack of anger; in fact, it is safe to assume that those who undertake hunger strikes harbor a fair degree of anger toward the objects of their protests, Gandhi’s “universal love” doctrine notwithstanding. Those who invent flimsy pretexts for condemning this method of resistance are baring their true aim: compliance.

A hunger strike gives the lie to the idea that reactionary leaders are primarily concerned with preserving peaceful coexistence. It demonstrates that their aim is to preserve the existing hierarchy and to deny fair treatment to those who challenge it; arguments over the validity of a particular tactic are merely incidental. The horror over a car bomb or political assassination (often conveyed by those who approve of such actions in other contexts) cannot be easily transferred to a hunger strike, which is more likely to elicit sympathy than righteous condemnation.