What hunger strike means

As the men incarcerated at Pelican Bay Prison, and their supporters around the world near their twentieth day of protest, and media coverage starts to fade, let’s look at what a hunger strike really means.

The best explanation I found was in an issue of the British Medical Journal from 1995:

[…] The power of the hunger strike comes from the striker’s sworn intent to die a slow death in public view unless those in power address the injustice or condition being protested about. Hunger strikers are not suicidal and would greatly prefer responses to their demands. The most intractable hunger strikes, from a human rights and medical perspective, are those carried out by people in custody of the state.

“Intractable,” from a doctor’s perspective, because it’s against the law to force feed hunger strikers in most countries. But not so in the U.S. A prisoner has the right to refuse food or drink, and “can issue a directive to a doctor not to force-feed him even if he later becomes delirious from starvation.” But if the prisoner doesn’t issue a directive, it’s the doctor’s call from there.

As Wilbert Rideau wrote in a New York Times op-ed last week, starvation is one of the only tools of protest universally available.

There aren’t many protests in prison. In a world where authorities exercise absolute power and demand abject obedience, prisoners are almost always going to be on the losing side, and they know it.

Let’s remember the history of hunger striking at Pelican Bay Prison. Two years ago, six thousand prisoners at Pelican Bay and other California prisons went on hunger strike. And as Michael Ratner at the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York and the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights in Berlin explains:

California agreed to make certain changes. The main change–and this is really important to understand why people are on hunger strike in California–is to solitary confinement. People have been in solitary confinement in Pelican Bay from 11 to 28 years. And they have no real way of getting out. And solitary confinement past something like 15 days is to be considered–is considered by most authorities and legal authorities to be cruel and unusual treatment, and here it is going on in hundreds of cases for 11 to 28 years. The state of California promised to remedy that three years ago after the last hunger strike or two years ago. They didn’t do anything. And just this week the hunger strikes again began. The demands are to end that solitary confinement contrary to the U.S. Constitution as well as international law.

You can watch the video that introduced the hunger strike this year, here.

And you can read the protesters’ five demands here.

And here’s a report from PBS today on the background of the Pelican Bay strike, and the policies the protesters are taking on.

Photo: World Can't Wait

Photo: World Can’t Wait

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