He has chosen death:
Refusing to eat or drink, that he may bring
Disgrace upon me; for there is a custom,
An old and foolish custom, that if a man
Be wronged, or think that he is wronged, and starve
Upon another’s threshold till he die,
The Common People, for all time to come,
Will raise a heavy cry against that threshold,
Even though it be the King’s.
The King’s Threshold, by W.B. Yeats
I’ve been taking a sabbatical from blog writing to focus on other things, but the thing I am writing about today will not let me rest without speaking. Since April 21st, five protesters have been fasting in a hunger strike against police brutality in San Francisco. Fifteen days into that fast, the hunger strikers are rapidly facing the life-threatening stage of their strike. I need you to look at this with me.
Hunger for Justice SF
The hunger strikers are a group of five San Francisco residents of color: Sellassie, Ike Pinkston, Equipto, Edwin Lindo, and Maria Cristina Gutierrez. They are being called the Frisco 5, and you can find info about their strike here, and under the hashtag #hungerforjusticesf. In a city where extrajudicial police killings have become a norm and where brutality and racism characterize the institutional culture of the police, the hunger strikers have vowed they will fast at the doors of the Mission police station until Police Chief Greg Suhr steps down or is removed from office.
In the five years since Greg Suhr has taken control of the SFPD it has become a para military organization that is on the front lines of genocide at the behest of our occupiers. The people of San Francisco can no longer stand by as our citizens are being brutally murdered by those that have taken an oath to protect and serve. – Hunger for Justice SF community statement
On Tuesday the 3rd, now moving in wheelchairs due to fasting weakness, the hunger strikers led a march of 700 people from the Mission police station to City Hall, to command the attention of city government, asking Mayor Ed Lee to meet with them and discuss the issue. Mayor Lee refused to meet, leaving a locked office with a police guard.
Finally, following mounting community pressure, Mayor Lee agreed to speak to the hunger strikers by phone today. You can read the hunger strikers’ report on the conversation here. In brief, the mayor refused their demand and instead stated that he stood by Chief Suhr.
When told by the Frisco5 that they were committed to strike until their demands were met, the mayor’s response was “this is your choice… and whatever you do I hope you take care of yourself”.
I’ll translate that code for you. What Mayor Lee communicated to the hunger strikers was, “You go ahead and starve yourself. I will not take responsibility and I do not care if you die.”
Fasting Against the Powerful
I am sure all my readers know that in their fast, the Frisco 5 are acting in a tradition of political hunger striking with a long history. Hunger strikes were undertaken by Irish rebels throughout the 20th century, most famously by the 10 who died at Long Kesh in 1981, but also many others between 1913-1922. The practice was also used by Mahatma Gandhi and others of his movement. There have, of course, been thousands of hunger strikes undertaken by all kinds of people, and I am not here to present a comprehensive history. I point out these Irish and Indian examples because in both cases, these 20th century protests called upon ancient cultural traditions of fasting for justice.
The custom of “fasting for justice” goes back to at least early medieval times in Ireland, documented by the Brehon Laws. “Under the Brehon laws this form of distress was called Troscud which means ‘fasting’. It had legal support and sought to empower a weaker party in bringing a stronger party to justice.” (From the Brehon Law Academy site.) Troscud allowed a person of lower social status who had been wronged, but who had little wealth or power and thus no other recourse for justice, to bind a powerful person to addressing their claim for justice. It was a means for a powerless person to enforce the moral imperative of justice upon a more powerful person.
The act of troscud was undertaken sitting outside the door of the wrongdoer, fasting from sunrise to sundown, daily until the demand for justice was met. In Ireland, this fast for justice presented an absolute moral and legal imperative binding the accused to address the transgression that caused the fast. For a person to ignore or refuse justice to someone fasting against them, even so much as to eat while the plaintiff was still fasting, was a violation of law and a profound moral violation. It would lead to the doubling of the original claim for restitution. At the extreme, someone resisting the obligation of troscud could be stripped of their honor, their status, and their right to the protection of law. There were spiritual repercussions, too: Irish saints used fasting to call down spiritual retribution from the Otherworld against transgressors.
A similar tradition has existed for centuries in India and Nepal. A form of protest called “sitting dharna“, it had a similar moral and legal force as the Irish tradition. Of the Indian practice of dharna, Joseph Lennon wrote: “Their power is derived from the sanctity of their character and their desperate resolution.” This could also be said of the Irish custom – or of hunger striking in general, including contemporary cases.
Brehon and Indian laws are not our laws, you might say, so all of this isn’t relevant. But I would argue that the moral and spiritual force of the practice of hunger striking does not rest on its legal basis. The examples I point to here are useful simply in how clearly those societies chose to articulate the mandate of justice toward the powerless in their legal systems’ treatment of hunger striking.
To me, these traditions illustrate with deadly seriousness the moral and spiritual imperative of the hunger strike. The act of a plaintiff putting their very body and life in the balance to demand redress places a dire and profound moral obligation, a binding operating with the force of life and death upon the transgressor: they must right the wrong. A person who is willing to die at your doorstep for justice cannot be ignored without incurring a terrible moral and spiritual debt.
Their fast for justice against Chief Suhr having been ignored and then refused, the Frisco 5 have added a demand for Mayor Lee to step down as well. His doubling down on the refusal to recognize the legitimacy of their claim has now placed him under the moral distraint of the hunger strike. It is bitterly, savagely ironic that in response to a hunger strike based on the complaint that the city and police force slaughter people of color with impunity, not caring if their own constituents live or die, the mayor’s reply is essentially, “I don’t care if you live or die.”
What happens when the powerful refuse to acknowledge the moral imperative of the hunger strike? What happens when our political leaders tell us they don’t care if we live or die? I argue that in any valid system of governance, the first responsibility of a leader, governing body, or sovereign is the safeguarding of their people from threat to life and limb. A leader who will not do this, who refuses even to recognize that responsibility, surrenders their mandate and incurs a deep moral and spiritual debt. It falls on the society as a whole to redress the balance – to strip from those people their status and power.
That is you and me, folks. Chief Suhr and Mayor Lee have refused their obligation to their people. That means the moral obligation devolves to us to redress the issue by removing them from power. We should ALL be demanding their removal.
There is a death watch ticking on Valencia Street. It is Day 15 today, the beginning of the third week. At the end of three weeks, the body begins to devour its own tissues. A hydrated, otherwise healthy person might live another 30 or 40 days, but every day presents permanent damage to the body and health. Every day represents a terrible moral violation against the lives of these people. Every day we allow this to continue in silence, we partake in it in some small way. I do not wish to wait until there are deaths on our heads.