Tool for the Activist
On July 25th, three activists were released from
a Los Angeles jail after a 15-day hunger strike. The three women had been convicted
of trespassing for their part in an anti-fur demonstration against a Federated
store the previous December and were sentenced to 90 days in jail after refusing
probation. They began a hunger strike immediately upon incarceration to protest
their unjust imprisonment for fighting for the rights of animals tortured and
murdered for the sake of fashion wear. They give us a shining example of the effective
use of the hunger strike to combat animal abuse and the legal oppression we endure
while fighting on behalf of the animals.
A Little Background
hunger strike has been used for hundreds of years as a form of protest and, occasionally,
has ended with fatal results. In 1980 and 1981, 33 Irish political objectors survived
a hunger strike lasting for more than two months, but 10 other IRA members fasted
from 45 to 61 days to their death in the Maze prison in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Most protesters not only survive, but seldom suffer serious consequences of their
fasts and almost always achieve their goal of media attention and/or early release
from jail. For the three L.A. prisoners, their hunger strike almost certainly
played a major part in their release after serving only 15 days of their 90-day
If a person is healthy and well-nourished, prolonged fasting is
generally well tolerated with few and relatively minor complications. Even though
most of us never try it, our bodies are made to routinely go as long as a month
or two without any food, surely because famines in early history occurred and
humans had to survive. A healthy, normal adult has enough calories stored in his
or her body to last more than 80 days, according to scientific research. Young
adults may survive much longer than children or older persons and women can survive
longer than men because of their greater proportion of body fat which results
from the action of female hormones. One marathon runner fasted for a week prior
to a race and still finished the 26 miles in three and one-half! The human body
is truly remarkable in its ability to endure.
hunger strike empowers the oppressed individual surrounded by helplessness during
detention by allowing them influence over their future. This country is not used
to the hunger strike as a protest method, and, therefore, the authorities are
not well prepared to deal with it. Physicians assigned to the facility may know
little about the issue, and no agency wants a starving or sick activist on their
hands, especially a peaceful protester.
Over and over again, the power of
the hunger strike has been shown not only in securing protesters early release,
but also publicizing the plight of the their cause. The media will almost always
show an interest in a hunger strike once underway for awhile and a prepared support
team can capitalize on the hunger strike and its surrounding publicity.
authorities know that prisoners sharing common cells are provided with a high
level of motivation and mutual support, so they will go out of their way to separate
activists participating in a hunger strike. This was illustrated in L.A. recently,
when the activists were separated and placed in a lockdown area so they could
communicate with each other for less than an hour each day.
theoretically could force an activist to eat by force-feeding, but this is almost
never done, even in places like South Africa where the hunger strike has been
used extensively. In a treaty signed by doctors from all over the world, known
as the Declaration of Tokyo, Article 5 states: "[a] faster's decision concerning
any treatment, including possible later efforts at resuscitation, are to be respected."
Few countries have ever violated this treaty, and if it happened here in the U.S.,
the publicity would surely outweigh any untoward effects on the hunger strike.
A common misconception about going without food is that one
is constantly hungry, and most people assume the longer they go without eating,
the hungrier they will become. In actuality, after two or three days, the body
adapts to lack of food and all hunger vanishes. The activists who fasted in L.A.
last month reported a complete lack of hunger after two or three days, and their
initial symptoms of light-headedness and upset stomachs went away as well. There
is a commonly described sense of "well-being" and "clear-headedness"
after the initial few days which makes the hunger strike not at all unpleasant.
three or four weeks, the feeling of well-being and normal energy levels may begin
to subside and feelings of tiredness or weakness may begin. This is a normal response
as the body continues to conserve energy. One need not worry about vitamins and
minerals, as the body stores enough for many weeks or months.
striker may be more susceptible to cold since the body has a harder time keeping
warm and trying to conserve energy at the same time. The heart rate will slow
down, and one may experience light-headedness when first standing up or when bending
over. This is expected, and not a dangerous condition.
Although most people
experience few, if any, side effects of going without food, there are some that
may occur, especially after periods longer than 30 days. These include: abdominal
pains (dyspepsia), depression, headaches, light-headedness and fainting, weakness,
insomnia, anxiety, vomiting, constipation, diarrhea and nightmares.
to the depletion of nutrients and resulting reduced immunity, those who fast for
more than two weeks are more likely to contract various illnesses like diarrhea,
the flu, tuberculosis and other diseases, and infections need to be vigorously
treated by a doctor. These are rare, though, and most hunger strikers don't get
sick at all.
During the first week, expect to lose
anywhere from one to two pounds per day! Most of this is from the loss of water,
as the body switches gears into energy-conservation mode. After the first week,
the hunger striker will lose about one-half to one pound per day. All of this
weight is easily regained after one starts eating again, so there is no need to
Some doctors recommend careful medical supervision after the loss
of 10 percent of one's body weight, and in some prisons, hospitalization is required
for fasters after they reach this point. After a 10 to 14 day fast, it would be
unusual if a protester was not being examined regularly by the jail doctor, who
ethically should treat you by your wishes and advocate your well-being above all.
This may not happen, however, and the activist should then protest to see a physician
of his or her own choosing by the time approximately 10 percent of body weight
is lost. However, many studies have shown a weight loss of 18 to 20 percent is
well tolerated by most people. Long before this, the authorities will be so worried
they will beg you to leave their jail!
What about Fluids?
enough, one may not feel thirsty within one or two weeks of fasting and may find
it difficult to drink adequately after four or five weeks of fasting. One should
try to drink at least two liters of water per day, even if you don't want it,
in order to stay well hydrated. The body will need less water, though, as the
fast continues, and by two or three weeks, one to one and a half liters per day
may be plenty.
Sodium supplements are recommended to prevent low levels
in the body as fluids are lost, so try to add one-quarter to one-half teaspoon
of salt to your water every day.
When It's Time to Eat
the hunger striker is released from jail, or otherwise decides to start eating
after a hunger strike, care must be taken to start slowly with juices and bland
soups, and then progress slowly with frequent small meals to vegetables and finally
normal (vegan, of course!) food. Try to avoid foods known to cause or aggravate
diarrhea in the starved condition, such as fats and fried foods. If you get sick
with vomiting, severe abdominal pain or diarrhea, a doctor should be consulted
Things to Remember
When starting a hunger strike,
remember a few key things in order to stay healthy and continue fighting for the
- Don't fast if you have health problems, especially an infection,
diabetes, severe asthma, hypoglycemia or other serious illnesses.
you decide to go on a hunger strike, don't eat anything. A little food just makes
you stay hungry and protein-only fasting is dangerous.
- Drink two
liters of fluids every day, supplemented with one-quarter to one-half teaspoon
of salt if possible.
- Stay warm and avoid unnecessary physical exertion.
- If you feel sick after three or four days, insist on seeing a doctor
- Even if you feel good, insist on getting medical supervision
after fasting for 14 days. It will help unnerve the authorities and ensure you
Finally, the hunger strike is a useful tool for the
activist, and can empower him or her while detained as a political prisoner. It
is useful in gaining publicity in our fight for the oppressed animals and serves
to reduce the time we spend in jail. In the majority of instances, it is a safe
way to show our dedication to the animals, who every day endure conditions a thousand
times worse than we do in jail. On top of all that, it's not nearly as unpleasant
as one might think and there is evidence that repeated fasts make the next one
easier and increase the time one can go without eating. Now that it's no longer
the unknown, use the hunger strike in the fight for animal liberation.