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What Good is a Hunger Strike Today?
by Grace Chen
As I child, I sometimes refused to eat in response to some disagreement between myself and my parents, threatening my well-being to gain attention and possibly force their hand. I can’t say any of my reasons were very noble, and I certainly do not mean to belittle the causes and efforts of more serious, more selfless hunger strikers–such as the Suffragettes and the Silent Sentinels, two historical women’s-suffrage groups, and today’s Guantanamo Bay and California inmates.
British Suffragettes Hunger Strike
Hunger striking has played a role in numerous movements, and has been used mainly to embarrass an oppressive institution into reform. During the late 19th- and early 20th centuries, about 1,000 Suffragettes–members of British women’s-suffrage groups–were imprisoned in total. In response to harsh prison conditions, many women went on hunger strikes, threatening to fuel public anti-government sentiment by becoming martyrs. They were eventually force-fed, but the painfulness of force-feeding and the popular notion at the time of force-feeding being appropriate only for mental asylum patients, and not for educated women, outraged the public.
The flustered government passed the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill Health) Act in 1913, which allowed Suffragettes to be released temporarily if their health became seriously compromised. Upon regaining health, they would then be returned to jail to serve the remainder of their terms. Suffragist activity was suspended during WWI, but after the war and a period of peaceful lobbying, women over the age of 21 gained suffrage through the 1928 Representation of the People Act.
U.S. Suffrage Activists
The Silent Sentinels, an American group of women’s-suffrage activists, picketed in front of the White House gates from January 1917 to June 1919 every day of the week except on Sundays, in a group roughly 1,000 strong. Some Sentinels were imprisoned in the Occoquan Workhouse for their suffragist activities. Guards were ordered to handle Suffragettes extremely roughly and to neglect health problems, including one woman’s unconscious state after she was thrown into her cell and another woman’s heart attack. A number of women began hunger strikes, and were force-fed as well. Counseling was denied. And as they were in a workhouse, these women were also forced to work.
News coverage of these abuses caused scandal, outrage, and increased support for women’s suffrage. Imprisoned women were released about a month after the strikes began, and the second attempt to push the Nineteenth Amendment through Congress succeeded on August 26, 1920, when the amendment was signed into law after state ratifications.
Guantanamo Bay and California Prisoners
In recent months, a new cast of hunger strikers has stepped onstage. Around 30,000 California inmates were initially on hunger strikes to protest prison conditions (300 of whom remain on strike today), and about 75 Guantanamo Bay inmates are on hunger strikes mainly to protest unjustified detainment. Some Guantanamo Bay inmates on hunger strikes are being force-fed daily, and a federal judge has just recently approved the force-feeding of California inmates.
The break in historical pattern is that while officials were seemingly cowed into granting suffrage in the Suffragette and Sentinel cases, today’s California and Guantanamo Bay hunger strikers are being met with prolonged government efforts to suppress their strikes. California hunger strikers are threatened with denial of already-scant privileges, such as family visiting time, comfortably-warm cells, and communal time. Guantanamo Bay hunger strikers are threatened with isolation and discipline. Both groups are being threatened with sanctioned force-feeding, under open public scrutiny. The Obama administration has recently announced plans to repatriate two inmates to Algeria, but this announcement is after four months of hunger striking. The obvious intent of the government is to discourage, not to negotiate.
Perhaps this has to do with gender. Suffragists were educated ladies; today’s California and Guantanamo Bay inmates are mostly non-white men who have been imprisoned for certain crimes. The Suffragettes were known for committing reckless acts; one woman was trampled to death by the King’s horse while attempting to throw a banner over the horse, and another woman slashed at a Velazquez painting of the Rokeby Venus with an axe. Thus, governments bending their backs to suffragists may have had more to do with some warped vision of what the nature of woman is (stubborn and dramatic, becoming tractable and reasonable only when appeased) than with the gravity of the suffragist cause. Additionally, suffragists were victims of heavy physical abuse in addition to force-feeding, while California and Guantanamo Bay hunger strikers are not necessarily unified under such a claim as of now.
Perhaps it has to do with a desensitization to the idea of starving oneself for a cause. Mass hunger striking is against California law, which implies the government’s refusal to recognize hunger striking as a legitimate means of protest. The California Corrections Department has made it clear, however, that they believe a death resulting from a hunger strike to spark undesirable publicity.
While Guantanamo Bay inmates are seeing the beginnings of their demands being met, this may have more to do with foreign interests than American ideals; California hunger strikers, although much larger in number than their Guantanamo Bay counterparts, have received nothing but a meeting between their advocates (not themselves) and some state prison officials, such as Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard. And, in light of California state law banning mass hunger striking, as well as the recent decision of a federal judge to allow for force-feeding inmates on hunger strikes, the question becomes: Have U.S. prisoners with no international connections lost one of the most effective ways of fighting back?
Grace Chen is a DDF summer intern. She is a rising sophmore at Duke University.