The power of the fast, from Guantánamo to PNC Bank

    When I joined Earth Quaker Action Team’s 40-day fast recently, I had no idea just how diverse the tradition of hunger striking is.
    (Wikimedia Commons/Jean Fortunet)
    (Wikimedia Commons/Jean Fortunet)

    The U.S. military admits that at least 100 prisoners at Guantánamo Bay are now participating in an indefinite hunger strike. It may actually be more. The growing global attention demonstrates that the 166 Guantánamo detainees, who would seem to be among the most disempowered people on earth, have found a means of expressing power after all.

    They join a long tradition of people who have endured the suffering of voluntary fasting for a cause. Just a couple of weeks ago, when I joined Earth Quaker Action Team’s 40-day fast, I had no idea just how diverse that tradition is.

    Members of Earth Quaker Action Team fasted out of concern for the people of Appalachia who continue to suffer the effects of mountaintop removal coal mining. EQAT (pronounced “equate”) encouraged members to fast for a day or a week or a month — whatever made sense to each individual — in such a way as to keep the collective fast going until the time that we confronted PNC Bank’s board of directors at the annual shareholders meeting in Pittsburgh on April 23. PNC is a primary source of financing for the coal companies that do extreme extraction.

    I did a seven-day, water-only fast, during which I cheated a bit by squeezing two lemons to fight a cold that I contracted. During some hungry moments I searched under “Browse Methods: fast” in the Global Nonviolent Action Database to see what company I was keeping.

    I was surprised by the diversity that awaited me: Bolivian tin miners, mothers in Kenya, Bhutanese refugees in Nepal, a social worker in Sicily, prison inmates in Slovakia. South Koreans successfully defended land against U.S. military expansion by fasting, along with other forms of direct action. Eritrean journalists defended freedom of the press against their government’s crackdown. East Germans incorporated fasting into their campaign for democracy.

    Iron-jawed angels

    I’d heard about Alice Paul, the leader of the Woman’s Party that escalated the suffrage fight against President Woodrow Wilson during the First World War. In fact, I’d even met and interviewed her. But I didn’t know until checking with the database that as many as 287 women joined her in the fasting that forced Wilson to release them from jail. (I recommend Hilary Swank’s portrayal of Alice Paul in the close-to-accurate film depicting that struggle, Iron-Jawed Angels.)

    The entries in the database also show class diversity: Salvadoran health professionals fasted to defend socialized medicine against privatization; janitors at the University of Miami used the method to fight for a living wage; environmentalists fasted in California and French peasants used it to fight the expansion of a military base.

    Pashtuns in Afghanistan and Pakistan have used fasting in a nonviolent campaign, and Belarusian Christians were not to be left out; Vietnamese Buddhists proved how non-attached they were to food.

    I even found a national president who fasted as a means of nonviolently defending his policy. (Perhaps this is something we should recommend to President Obama, except that he is already looking very thin!) A Bolivian president once confronted a balky parliament refusing to pass his budget, and he fasted until they passed it.

    It used to be said by detractors of nonviolent struggle that fasting (a) is a U.S. white, middle class thing and (b) is a plot to advance U.S. foreign policy. Tell that to the people in Taiwan, Mexico, Turkey, Ireland, Western Sahara, Djibouti, Cuba, Greece, India, Iceland, Hong Kong and many other places — people who have deprived themselves of food (alongside other nonviolent tactics) in order to struggle for justice.

    The worker and the manager

    My previous experience of a week with only water was much less tiring than this time, and I think it was because I didn’t try to keep up with a job. Back then I was in the D.C. jail; all I did was lie around and read. After a few days the hunger stopped, and I just hung out until release. Also, the prison food was not big competition!

    The hunger went away this time, too, but I found my increasing weakness annoying, since there was a lot I wanted to do. There was plenty of compensation for the weakness, though. I felt more present to the world around me. Like the mystics who quoted the biblical phrase “Behold, I make all things new,” my perception connected me more vividly to things and people. I also felt more connected with my own anxiety, which was no longer covered over with food; each time I went to a public spot where I had announced that people could find me, I worried that no one would show up.

    During the fast I also realized that inside me there is a worker and a manager. The worker loves his work but doesn’t necessarily love going at top speed for indefinite periods. The manager learned long ago that deferred gratification is the secret to high productivity, but that small bits of gratification strategically given can keep the worker happy. For those bits, the manager uses food.

    The worker within me, for instance, might feel okay about staying on task for another hour because the break will come with coffee and an apple with peanut butter slathered on it or tea with toast and marmalade. Or a lunch meeting will be coming soon, so I should speed up to prepare for it with the reward of a stir fry that I don’t have to cook.

    The manager in me has found that food works as positive reinforcement. If I do something well, I stop to congratulate myself with a good meal or tasty snack. No wonder the manager is worried when I’m on a fast. An important reward isn’t available. Where’s that meal to complete a good day?

    All things new

    The low point came in the middle of the week. I stayed home and worked out the low point on the piano, singing and praying and improvising. The piano then turned into a reward, and the rest of the week I played more than I sometimes do in a month.I also found an unexpected bonus: my senses sharpened, and even the spring flowers seemed to me more vivid.

    Another reward came to be watching movies. I watched a new one and an old one. The Sapphires, based on a true story, was still in the theaters; I was deeply moved by the courage of four Australian aboriginal women as they learned Motown songs and went off to entertain the troops in Vietnam. Then I watched the Marlon Brando character’s courage as a longshoreman in On the Waterfront. In both films the protagonists say no to comfort in order to say yes to integrity. Fasting is like that for me.

    EQAT wanted us to create public events during our fast, where we would sit someplace obvious for a few hours and be available for questions and challenge. On the evening of day five, my spot in the busiest building on campus was visited by the Swarthmore College Gospel Choir, which sang for me. I let myself cry in front of my students, which was symbolic of the cleansing that was going on in my body as well. No surprise: High energy greeted me the next morning and I had a bouncy sixth day.

    On day seven, my public event was at the PNC Bank branch across the street from campus. Another professor and some students joined me; a student practiced for the first time relating to the bank manager and police during the confrontation. I so love those moments when activists do something that makes them nervous, and then discover with a delighted laugh that everyone survived after all.

    Whether it’s refusing food or refusing to leave a bank when the manager tells us to, whether it’s saying yes to a gospel song or to the vulnerability of physical weakness, even a small thing like a week’s fasting provokes occasions for growing.

    Gandhi, in his context of imperial India, realized that the British had colonized Indians’ psyches, robbing them of self-confidence. One means of exerting power available to all Indians, he decided, was to say no to something they ordinarily depended on, like alcohol or a soft bed or sugar or sex or food. The “no” could last for a short time or longer; the important lesson was that each of us is stronger than the desires we’ve defined as needs.

    Since Gandhi felt called to stand up to the greatest empire the world had ever known, he experimented his whole life with building his sense of empowerment by giving up what others believed essential. His warrior training regime was of course preparing him for the ultimate renunciation: life itself, since he knew that warriors need to prepare for that, too.

    The Guantánamo prisoners are protesting the force-feeding being imposed right now. They also know that final part of warrior training, the giving up of life. All of us can discover for ourselves, whether in easier ways like my seven-day fast or harder paths of deprivation, that voluntary self-suffering can be a way of building power.

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