Fasting every day on water only, as I’ve done since October 3, has led me to research other political fasts, or hunger strikes. There’ve actually been a lot of them.
Mohandus Gandhi is the most well-known person to have fasted. He engaged in 17 of them, the longest for 21 days, between 1913 and 1948. Two were in South Africa; the rest were in India.
Cesar Chavez is the most well-known of those who have engaged in political fasts in the USA. He fasted three times, the longest for 36 days. His most famous fast was for 25 days in 1968 directed in part towards members of the United Farmworkers Union to urge them to remain nonviolent in their multi-year campaign for union recognition from California large growers.
The most dramatic hunger strike was by Irish freedom fighter Bobby Sands and a number of others inside British-run prisons in Northern Ireland in 1981. He and nine others died as a result of this action, for Sands after 66 days consuming only water and salt.
During the Vietnam War African American comedian and anti-war activist Dick Gregory fasted for 40 days on water only in 1967, and he did a very long fast from solid foods, consuming a variety of liquids, for two years. According to an article by Vinay Lal in 2017, “Across the decades, he went on dozens of hunger strikes, over issues including the Vietnam War, the failed Equal Rights Amendment, police brutality, South African apartheid, nuclear power, prison reform, drug abuse and American Indian rights.”
Hunger strikes were a part of the fight to gain the vote for women 100 years ago. The more radical wing of that movement led by Alice Paul went on hunger strikes inside prison for weeks, ultimately being force fed, after arrests outside the White House. As described in the movie, Iron Jawed Angels, those hunger strikes played a major role in finally getting Woodrow Wilson to come out in support of women’s suffrage.
And just this summer, four people in Louisville, Kentucky fasted, two for 25 days, as described in the Louisville Courier: “After going nearly one month without food, the remaining hunger strikers seeking action against the Louisville Metro Police officers who fired their weapons the night Breonna Taylor was killed have ended their protest.”
I was strengthened on my fast to learn about this one in Louisville, for obvious reasons. Others taking similar action on a related issue was great to see. But it’s also significant because I hope that, if Biden/Harris win and especially if the Senate also flips, the tactic of fasting/hunger strikes will become more widespread within the activist, progressive movement. It’s one tactic, similar to nonviolent direct action, that underlines the urgency of an issue and brings added political pressure when there’s a specific target of the fast. I appreciate that fasting is not for everyone, but I have no doubt that during a Biden/Harris administration, more of us will need to use this tactic to get the legislation we need on many different issues.
In the meantime, nine days into this month-long fast, I urge all of us to do everything we can, every day, to generate the massive voter turnout, especially in the battleground states, that is the best defense against Trumpublican efforts to use outrageous tactics to maintain Trump and his accomplices in power.