November 13, 2015

So you want to go on a hunger strike?

You're pissed off! You are so angry you could scream. You want to show your opponent that they are in the wrong and you are going to make the ultimate sacrifice. You plan to go on a hunger strike to get your opponent to change their ways, resign, stop the injustice, accept your demands or whatever you feel is not being addressed.

A hunger strike is one of the most serious nonviolent actions because you are voluntarily putting your life at stake. Have you taken the time to learn about the strategies of nonviolent direct action, how they work and how to use them for maximum effect? Hunger strikes come directly out of the the traditions of nonviolent direct action. There are strict rules and considerations.

Keep in mind, your goal is justice. Your goal is social change. Your goal is NOT to become the next #hashtag.  

First, your courage and depth of commitment to justice is incredible. You are part of a rare 1/10 of 1% people who would even consider a hunger strike. So, I will say right from the start that your movement needs you and needs your leadership. They also need you to be alive to help lead the movement.

Hunger Strikes are a Last Resort.
Mahatma Gandhi was known for using hunger strikes at key moments to maximum effect. He had very strict rules about hunger strikes, one of which was that hunger strikes are a last resort. Nonviolent direct action is about building relationships, especially with your opponent. Martin Luther King, Jr. talked about how the Beloved Community is the end result of nonviolence. Why? Because nonviolence is a conversation with your opponent. It is relationship building at its core. We build relationships with our opponent because nonviolence is love in action. It is deeply rooted in the belief that we are all connected in unity. There is no us/them. There is only us and we take action out of love to dismantle unjust systems and build more just ones. The key here, as King teaches us, is to attack systems of evil, not the people within them.

As Freedom Rider Dr. Bernard Lafayette, Jr. said of his work in the Civil Rights Movement, they weren't trying to beat the enemy. "We had to rush to their aid." Their "opponents" had succumbed to fear, hatred and racism. They had fallen out of the Beloved Community and nonviolent action is what would bring them back in.

Nonviolent action is rooted in love and unity. That love and unity includes you, which is why a hunger strike is the last resort. You matter. Your life matters, even if the unjust system does not seem to recognize it.

But I'm So Angry! 
Yes, the pain is real. The injustice is real. You are ready to give your life. I hear the depth of pain you feel and that you cannot go on living your life as it has been. Perhaps you are a student and the veil has been lifted for you on our society. It is filled with hatred and systemic racism against people of color. The impact of 500 years of white supremacy is now in full focus. Consider for a moment that your thoughts of giving your life in service to justice might be best interpreted to mean that you should give your lifetime to justice, not just to one hunger strike.

How much could you accomplish in 50 years vs. a 50 day hunger strike?   

The Hunger Strike Must Be Carried Out to Its Stated Conclusion.
This was another rule from Gandhi. Hunger strikes are no joke. Death is a very real end result. But when does a hunger strike work and when does it fail? It fails often because those undertaking it do not understand the strategies of nonviolent direct action. 

Gandhi called nonviolent direct action the moral equivalent of war. Why? In war, we make others suffer to coerce them to do what we want. "I will make you suffer until you give up." It is nothing but pain, suffering, death and sadness. 

Nonviolence says, "I will choose suffering on behalf of the greater good. I will suffer so others will not have to." Nonviolent action chooses suffering. A hunger strike is a nonviolent action. However, we must remember that relationships are at the core of nonviolence.

A hunger strike will NOT work if you have a weak relationship or no relationship with the person or entity you are trying to change. 

A hunger strike only works because you are connected to the person or entity you are trying to change. Have you spent months or years building a relationship with the person or entity in real ways? Do they know you personally? Have you spent many hours face-to-face? Have you talked face-to-face about the injustices you experience and the solutions you seek?

If the answer to those questions is no, do not go on a hunger strike. Your chances of success are low. Imagine going on a hunger strike outside the White House to end the war in Afghanistan. Does anyone know you in the White House? Would anyone even notice you were outside? No. You'll just end up a #hashtag and our world will have lost a brave and dedicated justice-seeker who didn't do their nonviolence homework.

The depth of your relationship with your opponent will likely determine the depth of change.

The Goal of the Hunger Strike Must Be Reasonable.  
If you are demanding things that are not possible or not reasonable, you will fail. Imagine a hunger strike to end poverty around the world. Who is in charge of poverty? Who can make the change? What will the change be? If your demands are not specific and fully within the control of your opponent to enact, you will fail.

For example, the Memphis Sit-In movement was not about Civil Rights laws. It was not about equality for all Americans. It was SNCC students building the relationship with one store, in Memphis only. They started by talking with the people at the store and building a relationship. When the store was unwilling to change, the students escalated the conversation into the public realm and dramatized the injustice through sit-ins. They also chose to accept the suffering that came with disobeying the law. The received public beatings. They were arrested. But, their actions awakened the conscious of the store owner and leaders in Memphis. When the first store changed its policy, the students moved on to the next lunch counter and started the conversation over again.  

That said, there are hundreds, even thousands of powerful nonviolent actions you can take with others in your movement that build relationships to create the change you seek. They are equally, if not more powerful than your hunger strike. You just need to focus your energy on a larger strategy to create the change you seek. Good strategy takes time.

Nonviolence Has No Timeline.
Breathe. Nonviolence has no timeline. Rushing into anything is a form of violence. The unjust system will always be waiting for you. The question is, have you done the internal work of peace to create the external change you seek?

Are you acting out of fear and anger or have you found love within you that you can extend to your opponent? Do you want to hurt your opponent or are you rushing to their aid? Are your strategies peaceful or violent? Only peaceful means create peaceful ends. Make sure you are acting from a place of peace, not anger, vengeance, or retribution.

To paraphrase Eknath Easwaran, a mountain climber must intensely train their physical body to make it to the top of a mountain. You must train your inner self in love with the same intensity to reach the mountaintop of justice through nonviolence. Take the time. 

In the meantime, organize, organize, organize! And strategize, strategize, strategize! You don't have to risk your life tomorrow, so build the foundation of your success while you learn and cultivate nonviolence within yourself and others. 

The Hunger Strike Must Be Consistent with the Rest of One's Campaign   
What is the larger campaign you are part of in your community? What is the constructive effort that will take the place of the injustice you are trying to dismantle? Who else supports you and how will a hunger strike take your movement closer to the justice you seek? 

If you don't have a clear movement with clear reasonable demands; if you don't have a larger strategy and a large supportive community around the movement, do not go on a hunger strike.  

We Have Nothing To Lose But Our Chains
 The most important thing you have to dismantle injustice in our world is your life. The longer life you have, the more injustice you can defeat. You are literally being born-again into a lifetime of working for peace and justice. Your courage is needed. Your living energy is needed to build a community of justice. I firmly believe that the more you learn about nonviolent strategy, the more you will see that a hunger strike is not necessary to achieve the goals you seek.

What should you consider instead? Start with these 198 Methods of Nonviolent Action by Gene Sharp. His book "From Dictatorship to Democracy" was the nonviolent action blueprint that led to the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic in the Otpor! movement in Serbia as well as many other social movements.

And if you want to talk to me directly, I am happy to talk more or come to your campus. Call me: 404-386-(eight five)45.

More articles about Hunger Strikes:
Metta Center for Nonviolence  
Waging Nonviolence: "Rules for (hunger-striking) Radicals

Learn more about Nonviolence:
Self-Study through Metta Center for Nonviolence
US Institute of Peace: "Civil Resistance and the Dynamics of Nonviolent Movements"
Coursera: From Freedom Rides to Ferguson: Narratives of Nonviolence in the American Civil Rights Movement

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