“If a captive mind is unaware of being in prison, it is living in error. If it has recognized the fact, even for the tenth of a second, and then quickly forgotten it in order to avoid suffering, it is living in falsehood. Men of the most brilliant intelligence can be born, live and die in error and falsehood. In them, intelligence is neither a good, nor even an asset. The difference between more or less intelligent men is like the difference between criminals condemned to life imprisonment in smaller or larger cells. The intelligent man who is proud of his intelligence is like a condemned man who is proud of his large cell.” — Simone Weil (who, eventually, died the same death as Bobby Sands.)
One of the first examples of the moral influence of a self-inflicted fast is recorded in the Bible. It’s in the book of Jonah, where God sent a message to the city of Ninevah to say that he would overthrow it.
“So the people of Ninevah believed God, and proclaimed a fast and put on a sackcloth from the greatest of them even to the least of them. And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way, and God repented of the evil that he had said he would do unto them. And he did it not.”
God repented? Yes.
Many centuries later (July 5, 1909), an imprisoned suffragette went on a hunger strike, which led to making English authorities relent respecting their cruel treatment of women prisoners. The passive resistance of her and her female counterparts wound up inspiring scores of Irish hunger strikers in 1920, and — truth be told — stirred the passions of about 10,000 Irish hunger strikers between 1917 and 1920.
The Irish, though, did have their own long relationship with fasting to address injustices. In the late 19th century fasting in Ireland was rediscovered by anthropologists who were investigating Gaelic history. And for those scholars who were trying to revive Irish nationalism there was a great emphasis on the ancient Gaelic laws which underscored institutionalized fasting to rectify an injustice.
Professor Michael Biggs, of the Department of Sociology at Oxford University, has noted that the fasting dynamic became popularized by W. B. Yeats in his revised version of The King’s Threshold. And Terence MacSwiney, Sinn Fein Lord Mayor of Cork who was imprisoned in London’s Brixton Prison, was the inspiration for Yeats’ rewrite and unprecedented fervor respecting hunger striking throughout Ireland as a response to British governmental intransigence.
Fact is, hunger striking has very ancient roots in Irish history. There was even a tradition that if a poet wasn’t paid properly by a rich man for artistic services rendered, he would starve himself to death outside the wealthy patron’s gate. And all that resonated deeply with the revolutionary Fenians of 1867, who were eclipsed by the IRA in the early 20th century.
Gandhi’s passive resistance played into all this, of course. Had a huge impact as per the results he achieved nonviolently.
One of the principles which MacSwiney repeated ad infinitum was the idea that one did not win a war by afflicting the greatest amount of suffering on one’s enemy. Rather, the side which suffered the most on an ongoing basis — to MacSwiney’ mind (and Ho Chi Minh’s down the road) — was destined to prevail.
We can argue about that until Doomsday. But Doomsday appears to be right around the corner. And so I submit that one way to free the incarcerated — the vast majority of those in our prisons — is to organize a massive hunger strike among white citizens in a given state who empathize with the horrid plight of people of color (and others) behind bars.
People of color have suffered enough, and so I’m wanting to recruit white folks. No prisoner, certainly, should have to demonstrate their solidarity at this juncture.
White folks who are capable of seeing that publishing books and reading books and talking about books, and attending lectures and conferences and being featured on the lecture circuit and spotlighted at summits and the like is not cutting the muster for those who are pining away in the cesspools of inhumanity which we have created. Concerned citizens who see that and want to do something about it all.
I know that Troy Davis was innocent of the crime he was charged with, and the petition which was circulated to remove him from Death Row in Georgia didn’t work any more than the articles written about him, or the many rallies which were held on his behalf planting seeds for his freedom. Jimmy Carter, Desmond Tutu, Pope Benedict XVI, Angela Davis and six conservative politicians from the Peach State (including one who held office at the time, and really had something to lose) and I signed the petition. A million signatures were garnered.
I had gone behind the scenes to save his life, offering to make a deal with Governor Nathan Deal, knowing that that petition demanded a supplement. In short, I offered my services and the services of two other very talented professionals for a full year to the Empire of the South, if the Guv would only give Troy renewed consideration. But Deal would not stay the execution. They murdered him on my birthday six years ago.
The suffering behind bars is unrelenting. Worsening with each passing day. Impacting on all of our collective crises from the fires in the forest to the desecration of all Mother Earth’s lovely creatures.
The only way for people of conscience to play the challenge differently is to acknowledge that our attempts at reform have not worked, and that the war we’ve been waging on behalf of the incarcerated begs for a new paradigm of protest to be embraced. Hunger striking and all forms of protest need to evolve, one might say.
Bobby Sands said that he wanted to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.
Perhaps if a quarter of a million of those who put their signatures on that failed petition in Georgia had vowed to hunger strike to the death unless Troy was given more consideration before being executed, he would have had a decent shot at living. Maybe if the well-meaning, highly educated and deeply experienced souls who worked on the McQueen film Hunger had devoted their heartbeats to releasing present day incarcerated in lieu of doing their highly creative dance, there would have been a chance for prisoners to have a second chance. A Second Coming Around.
It takes only a few seconds — truth be told, I can tell you now — for one to decide to give one’s life for the Collective Good. What good is the life anyway if “the odd curlew mourning” goes unnoticed? People have — clearly, if you’re paying attention — given up on the Big Picture. Buried their brains and bodies, the very life that pulses within them to defending the indefensible, dishonoring the sacred fact of existence and connection to all living beings, humans… non-humans… and so-called inanimate life. The whole gestalt that is more than the sum of its parts has been reduced to self-serving silliness propped up by the sadistic treatment of The Other.
But there is no Other. The brother and the sister behind bars — again, no matter what the “crime” — cannot be ignored any longer, cannot be allowed to rot away one more single heartbeat in isolation, removed from this melodramatic misinterpretation of life called civilization.
And that is why, in part, I’ve chosen to recruit people of any color to conduct a hunger strike with me with the cold of the coming winter midst the wretched width of inhumanity somewhere soon — in California or New York, most likely, where the immeasurable asset of ongoing publicity can make the most of our gesture — to the death, if necessary.
As Bobby Sands said, “If I die, God will understand.”
And any atheist — or anyone — who rejects the thrust of that honorable statement does not understand the blood that flows within.
Rachel Oxman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.