The storied tradition of nonviolent hunger strikes has long drawn public attention to injustices and inaction, and sometimes has eventually contributed to achieving some political results. In India and Ireland, hunger strikes pre-dated Christian times. Legend has it that later on, St. Patrick himself might well have fasted on the Emerald Isle.
In recent years, Earth Fast and some other environmental groups have increasingly started using the tactic, in pure desperation at the continuing stalemate. To dramatize the dire climate emergency and 6th mass extinction now underway, members of Extinction Rebellion staged hunger strikes in at least 27 countries in November 2019, just before the accomplishment-free UN COP 25 meeting took place in Madrid the next month, at which ace teen eco champion and ethical vegan Greta Thunberg candidly castigated attendees for doing virtually nothing. In London, XR hunger-strikers sat outside the offices of the British Tory, Labour, Liberal Democratic, and other parties, demanding among other items a one-hour on-camera meeting with top party officials, and specific plans for the UK to attain net-zero emission levels by 2025.
A multi-day sit-in also took place in the DC office of. US House Speaker Nancy A. Pelosi, who had infamously dismissed the proposed Green New Deal as “the Green Dream or whatever”. In a letter to Pelosi, the dozen or so hunger-strikers wrote, “Every day the evidence piles up at your desk, but you have yet to pass even symbolic legislation recognizing the climate crisis as a national emergency. With all due respect, you have failed”. One young hunger-striker, high school student Sophia Kianni, 17, excoriated the California Democrat for her “cowardly politics” and “worrying about big businesses”. In a speech, Sophia said, “It is deeply saddening and shameful that we must resort to a hunger strike just to get our leaders to care about their children’s futures. Our nation’s leaders would rather watch climate activists starve than give us the time of day.
Meanwhile, in western Germany, defenders of the 12,000-year-old biodiverse Hambach Forest in the Rhine River Valley - trying to stop expanded lignite brown coal strip-mining, by the German firm RWE AG, from destroying the 10-percent remnant of central Europe’s last ancient sylvan enclave - hunger-struck in spring 2020. Greta Thunberg had expressed robust support for those defenders at the Goldene Kamera Awards in Berlin in March 2019, and she later visited them - even being hoisted up by rope into one of their treehouses - in August 2019. In autumn 2020, Extinction Rebellion members in Stockholm went on hunger strike, in relays, for 40 days, each day sitting with climate inaction protest signs outside the Riksdag, Sweden’s 349-seat unicameral parliament.
In January 2021, two British teens - Elijah Mckenzie-Jackson, 17, of London, and Lissy Green, 15, of Windsor - went on hunger strike to oppose the UK’s first new deep coal mine in three decades. The “insane” and “immoral” coal mine, as Ms. Green called it, would scar the western English coast at Whitehaven, Cumbria, under the Irish Sea, and would produce 2.5 million metric tonnes per year for the British and European mainland steel industries. The British government had adamantly refused to block the mine, which by itself would jeopardize the country’s commitment to desperately needed environmental and emissions progress.
Here are five key examples of historic past hunger strikes, and their varying results:
British women’s suffragists
Starting with author and artist Marion Wallace Dunlop (1864-1943) in 1909, and later suffrage cause leader Emmeline Pankhurst’s younger sister Mary Pankhurst Clarke (1862-1910)—who died in prison on Christmas Day 1910, Lady Constance Bulwer-Lytton (1869-1923), and others, began hunger strikes when they were unjustly imprisoned in London for their militant activism to gain voting rights for women in Britain. Authorities responded to the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) hunger-striking tactic by roughly force-feeding hunger strikers. Reacting to an appalled public, the British Parliament passed the cynical so-called 1913 “Cat and Mouse” Act, which briefly released hunger strikers, only to re-imprison them after they had re-stabilized their health. Most women’s suffrage advocates ceased militant tactics and backed UK entry into World War I, with the notable exception of the group led by socialist and pacifist E. Sylvia Pankhurst. The UK Parliament grudgingly granted the vote to propertied and educated women 30 and older in 1918, not equalized to the male standard of 21 and older till 1928.
Quaker women’s suffragist Alice C. Paul
In the USA, the hunger-strike tactic was adopted by Quaker women’s suffragist Alice C. Paul (1885-1977), and her National Woman’s Party co-founder Lucy Burns (1879-1966) and others, at DC’s District Jail and in Virginia’s Occoquan Workhouse women’s prison, after they were arrested in 1917 for peacefully picketing the White House in Washington. Democrat President T. Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) had stubbornly refused to support Congress passing a women’s suffrage amendment to the US Constitution, which would further also need approval by at least three-fourths of the then-48 state legislatures. In addition, Wilson nonchalantly acquiesced as police routinely ignored those regularly harassing peaceful protesters picketing day after day for months in front of the White House.
Police later aggressively started arresting women’s suffrage picketers, with all prisoners subjected to degraded conditions, and hunger strikers to force feedings. Eventually, Wilson, whose own daughter Jessie Woodrow Wilson Sayre (1887-1933) was a suffrage leader, reluctantly came around. On Monday 30 September 1918, Wilson unexpectedly visited and addressed the Senate for 15 minutes, urging its recalcitrant members to pass the women’s suffrage amendment as a WW I “war measure,” just as the House had already done (albeit by exactly the minimum required two-thirds supermajority). Following intervening congressional elections, the Senate finally mustered enough votes to pass the amendment in June 1919. The 19th Amendment, often dubbed the Susan B. Anthony Amendment in her memory, finally achieved adoption certification on Thursday 26 August 1920, just in time for that November’s US presidential and congressional elections.
Mahatma Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869-1948)
The Asian Indian lawyer and India independence advocate, went on 17 hunger strikes from July 1913 to January 1948, two for 21 days each in 1933 and 1943. All but the first two, in the then-British colony of South Africa, and the last two, in newly independent India, took place within British-controlled India. Gandhi, a vegetarian from his late teens, invoked the principles of ahimsa (“nonviolence”) and satyagrahi (“truth power”). In part because of the hunger strikes by Gandhi, Bhagat Singh, and others, plus myriad additional tactics and factors, the British in September 1947 at long last granted independence to the Indian subcontinent, which they had effectively controlled since 1757 (though they had maintained a presence there since circa 1600).
Cesar E. Chavez (1927-1993)
The California-based United Farm Workers Association union organizer of some US migrant farm laborers, - whose compatriots had been vividly profiled in the November 1960 CBS News CBS REPORTS television documentary “Harvest of Shame” - went on weeks-long hunger strikes in 1968, 1972, and 1988. He inspired extended consumer boycotts of grapes and then lettuce as an additional pressure tactic. Chavez, who also was a vegetarian, received some support from a few prominent political leaders, such as US Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-NY), days before RFK announced his candidacy for the Democrat presidential nomination, and three months before his assassination.
Mitch Snyder (1943-1990)
Mitch Snyder had fasted in federal prison in Connecticut with the antiwar Berrigan Brothers, later became a high-profile homeless advocate. In 1984, his 51-day fast succeeded in persuading far-right US President Ronald W. Reagan to lease an abandoned federal building in Washington DC to the Community For Creative Nonviolence for use as a homeless shelter, for $1 per year. Reagan’s concession came two days before Republican was running for re-election, and on the day the highly rated CBS News weekly television magazine 60 MINUTES was set to air a segment on the hunger strike and its compelling reasons
Other noteworthy hunger strikes have taken place from time to time. In Ireland, in pre-Christian times, hunger strikes called Troscadh and Cealachan, often were used to recover debts. In 1917, Irish rebel prisoners seeking independence from Britain went on hunger strikes, with hundreds of Irish prisoners partaking in the early 1920s during the Irish Civil War. In 1981 hunger strikes, 10 IRA rebel prisoners died during lengthy hunger strikes, including Bobby Sands, with their efforts eventually winning limited concessions from British authorities. Cuban dissidents have staged hunger strikes in that island country to oppose severe political oppression by the “communist” dictatorship there. Some of the uncharged kidnapped prisoners illegally and unconstitutionally held and often tortured, year after year, at the US Guantanamo Bay Naval Base enclave in southeastern Cuba have several times gone on hunger-strike protests.
Since January 2002, 779 men and boys have been held there as “suspected terrorists” for varying periods, with none ever tried, and 40 still “detained” there as of late 2020. French socialist Solange Ferrex went on a 40-day hunger strike in Paris in 1984. She sought full nuclear disarmament and an end to deforestation. On Monday 28 July 2008, six Buddhist monks went on a no-food-and-no-water hunger strike in New Delhi, India. They were protesting the 2008 Beijing Olympics Summer Games and the ongoing Chinese draconian occupation of Tibet. Indian police intervened, taking the monks to be force-fed in a hospital. More than 1,600 hunger strikes by asylum-seekers took place at US federal immigrant detention centers since 2015. They protested their confinement, harsh conditions, protracted delays, and ultra-low asylum approval rates.
Written by Alfred Robert Hogan
A longtime science journalist, media historian, ethical vegan, and ardent environmentalist based near Washington DC USA, is researching and writing an in-depth book on ace teen eco champion and ethical vegan Greta Thunberg, Fridays For Future, and the No. 1 world problem of the climate emergency/6th mass extinction. He also has volunteered extensively with FFF and Earth Fast. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.