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Fasting For Justice

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.

Moral 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.

Call the mayor’s office: (415) 554-6141. Write his office. Show up in solidarity. March, speak, yell. Tell your friends. Don’t let them die for justice.

The Violence from Below

Last night, I left work and headed home on the train just as the Ferguson Grand Jury announcement was wrapping up. My loved ones were already in downtown Oakland joining the mass protests. I sat on the train staring at the live reports and feeds, full of horror, fury, shame, and sickness at the predictable refusal of justice. Being on crutches still, I had let my loved ones persuade me that I couldn’t safely or effectively join the protests, but as the horror surged through me it was hard to keep myself from going there. Going home as if it were just another evening felt terribly wrong.

The night was full of outrage. As it must be when violent injustice by the state is being perpetuated. And some of that outrage expressed itself violently. Yes: along with the peaceful protests, there was some looting, property destruction, burning of cars and buildings. That happened.

So let’s talk about looting. I want, particularly, to talk to my white friends who think of themselves as allies and supporters of people of color, or even as activists, who want to support the “protesters” but who wish to distance themselves from the “looters”; who passionately cheer for “protests” but write disparaging tweets against those protests being allowed to turn into “riots”.

Here’s the thing. Communities of color are living under violent oppression every day. Sorry; let me correct that: People of color are DYING under violent oppression every day. This is not a metaphor. This is a people being gunned down in the street by their own state, while also being constantly demonized, marginalized, disenfranchised, silenced, and incarcerated. The Ferguson case is just ONE microcosm manifestation of the police violence that visits communities of color every single day.

And you say, of course you don’t agree with that violence. Of course you want that to change. But you want it to change peacefully. You want to see inspiring peaceful protests that overcome injustice through the power and beauty of love and commitment to peaceful action.  You know, like in the movies about Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

In short, you expect the oppressed, struggling, grieving, violated people to behave like saints and martyrs while fighting to survive. Resistance against violent oppression is grand and inspiring – so long as it’s genteel.

But it doesn’t work that way. Ferguson has been in the streets every single day since Mike Brown was slaughtered, protesting peacefully with virtually zero violence. Did they get justice? You say, burning cop cars and looting convenience stores isn’t justice. No, of course it isn’t, and the people who are doing it know that it isn’t. It is resistance against the continuing pressure of injustice – and it’s resistance that, while escalated relative to a peaceful march, is still not escalated to anything approaching the lethal violence being visited against these communities.

“So long as violence from below is condemned while violence from above is ignored, you can bet that the former will continue.”

–Tim Wise

This is the violence from above: The state kills unarmed Black kids every single day. More Black kids have been killed by police within the Ferguson area just in the 109 days since Mike Brown’s death. A Black person is shot to death by police every 28 hours.

That these violated communities still limit themselves to occasional property destruction in attempting to finally, finally have their outrage heard in fact speaks to an incredible degree of patience. That’s not enough for you? You need to see a perfectly measured, contained, and absolutely damage-free resistance to state-sponsored killings of people of color or you’ll withdraw your support? Is that what it means to be an ally?

We also need to talk about property. The value of property vis-a-vis the value of human life. The thing is, property is what this society values above all else. Thus, it’s destruction of property that gets heard. This is why looting happens. It is not just opportunistic greed. It is pushback against the violence from above. It is a specific and targeted form of resistance against the regime of property, which has been used by this society to justify the enslavement and lethal oppression of Black people since day one. The specific history of race in America is the story of property being privileged above humanity, to the extent that human beings were made into property, and though that practice was legally abolished, the cultural mores underpinning it remain rampant now. If this was not still our reality, we would not see people who said nothing about the killing of Black youth getting outraged about destruction of property.

So I want to ask you. Go think about what you’ve said regarding Ferguson and race relations lately. Go look at your tweets and posts. Go look back at your friends’ posts. If the first time you bothered to speak out about Ferguson was to cast judgement on looters, then you have some unexamined racism you need to work on. If your friends have responded in this way, then you have some unexamined racism in your social environment you need to work on. If you want to be an ally, go work on that.

“It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.”

–Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.