This year, the Islamic fast of Ramadan (which began Monday night and will last until August 7) will serendipitously coincide with the Jewish fast of Tisha B’Av (Monday night July 15 to Tuesday, July 16). Given this harmonic interfaith convergence, I’ve been thinking more about the function of fasting as a time honored tactic of sacred protest – and in particular as a powerful act of civil disobedience. And so in honor of both of these sacred fasting festivals, I’d like to spotlight several ongoing fasts/hunger strikes that I believe are profoundly worthy of our attention and solidarity:
At Guantanamo Bay, many prisoners have been engaged in a longtime hunger strike to protest their conditions and their indefinite confinement. Lawyers for prisoners say the most recent strike began in February; according to the military, 106 of the 166 detainees met criteria to be declared hunger strikers (a definition that includes missing nine consecutive meals):
Prison medical officials have determined that 45 of the prisoners have lost enough weight that they can be fed liquid nutrients, by force if necessary, with a nasogastric tube to prevent them from starving themselves to death. The U.S. military intends to feed all prisoners, including those on hunger strike, before dawn and after sunset during the Muslim holy period of Ramadan to accommodate the men’s religious practices. Military officials have said the feeding process is not painful and only done to prevent any of the men from dying, not as punishment.
A recently released video (above) certainly belies the military’s claims. In an act of what can only be called deeply courageous solidarity, rapper/actor/activist Yasiin Bey (aka Mos Def) subjected himself to the force-feeding to demonstrate the grievous nature of this procedure. I will warn you that it’s not at all easy to watch. I’ll let you judge for yourself as to whether this act constitutes torture or cruel/unusual punishment, but as far as I’m concerned, this video is worth a thousand words. On this point, it’s worth nothing that a US federal judge ruled yesterday the practice appears to violate international law – and that President Obama can resolve the issue.
Click here to sign a petition that condemns the use of force-feeding, and demand that President Obama help end the hunger strike by addressing the legitimate grievances of detainees.
Here at home, 30,000 prisoners in California prisons began a hunger strike yesterday in what has been described as possibly “the largest prison protest in state history.” The protest, organized by a group of inmates held in segregation at Pelican Bay State Prison demands an end to state policies that allow inmates to be held in isolation indefinitely, in some cases for decades. While the UN has determined solitary confinement for longer that 15 days constitutes torture, many prisoners in California state prisons have languished in solitary for 10 to 40 years.
In California, there are nearly 12,000 prisoners who spend 23 of 24 hours living in a concrete cell smaller than a large bathroom. The cells have no windows, no access to fresh air or sunlight. People in solitary confinement exercise an hour a day in a cage the size of a dog run. They are not allowed to make any phone calls to their loved ones or talk to other prisoners. They are denied all educational programs, and their reading materials are censored.
Yesterday, the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition released a lengthy statement that details the history of this issue and explains why the decision was made to begin a hunger strike:
Family members, advocates, and lawyers will announce their support for the peaceful hunger strike and job actions beginning today throughout the California prisons starting on Monday July 8. Prisoners have been clear since January that they are willing to starve themselves unless the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) agrees to negotiate honestly about their demands.
Click here to support the California prison hunger strikers and to sign a personal “Pledge of Resistance.”
I’ve also written extensively in the past about Palestinian prison hunger strikers who have long been engaged in nonviolent resistance to Israel’s illegal practice of administrative detention. While these protests consistently and egregiously fly under the radar of the mainstream media, they demand our attention – particularly as a response to the chronic question “where are the Palestinian Ghandis?”
Click here to learn more about the most current Palestinian hunger strikers. This link also includes the names/addresses of Israeli government, military and legal authorities to whom you can write to protest the prisoners’ treatment and demand their release.
May our respective fasts bring us closer to empathy and solidarity. As we say in my spiritual tradition: Baruch matir asurim – Blessed is the One who liberates the imprisoned.