On July 25th, three activists were released from a Los
Angeles jail after a 15-day hunger strike. The three women had been convicted
of trespassing for their part in an anti-fur demonstration against a Federated
store the previous December and were sentenced to 90 days in jail after
refusing probation. They began a hunger strike immediately upon incarceration
to protest their unjust imprisonment for fighting for the rights of animals
tortured and murdered for the sake of fashion wear. They give us a shining
example of the effective use of the hunger strike to combat animal abuse
and the legal oppression we endure while fighting on behalf of the animals.
The hunger strike has been used for hundreds of years
as a form of protest and, occasionally, has ended with fatal results. In
1980 and 1981, 33 Irish political objectors survived a hunger strike lasting
for more than two months, but 10 other IRA members fasted from 45 to 61
days to their death in the Maze prison in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Most
protesters not only survive, but seldom suffer serious consequences of
their fasts and almost always achieve their goal of media attention and/or
early release from jail. For the three L.A. prisoners, their hunger strike
almost certainly played a major part in their release after serving only
15 days of their 90-day sentence.
If a person is healthy and well-nourished, prolonged fasting
is generally well tolerated with few and relatively minor complications.
Even though most of us never try it, our bodies are made to routinely go
as long as a month or two without any food, surely because famines in early
history occurred and humans had to survive. A healthy, normal adult has
enough calories stored in his or her body to last more than 80 days, according
to scientific research. Young adults may survive much longer than children
or older persons and women can survive longer than men because of their
greater proportion of body fat which results from the action of female
hormones. One marathon runner fasted for a week prior to a race and still
finished the 26 miles in three and one-half! The human body is truly remarkable
in its ability to endure.
The hunger strike empowers the oppressed individual surrounded
by helplessness during detention by allowing them influence over their
future. This country is not used to the hunger strike as a protest method,
and, therefore, the authorities are not well prepared to deal with it.
Physicians assigned to the facility may know little about the issue, and
no agency wants a starving or sick activist on their hands, especially
a peaceful protester.
Over and over again, the power of the hunger strike has
been shown not only in securing protesters early release, but also publicizing
the plight of the their cause. The media will almost always show an interest
in a hunger strike once underway for awhile and a prepared support team
can capitalize on the hunger strike and its surrounding publicity.
The authorities know that prisoners sharing common cells
are provided with a high level of motivation and mutual support, so they
will go out of their way to separate activists participating in a hunger
strike. This was illustrated in L.A. recently, when the activists were
separated and placed in a lockdown area so they could communicate with
each other for less than an hour each day.
The authorities, theoretically could force an activist
to eat by force-feeding, but this is almost never done, even in places
like South Africa where the hunger strike has been used extensively. In
a treaty signed by doctors from all over the world, known as the Declaration
of Tokyo, Article 5 states: "[a] faster's decision concerning any
treatment, including possible later efforts at resuscitation, are to be
respected." Few countries have ever violated this treaty, and if it
happened here in the U.S., the publicity would surely outweigh any untoward
effects on the hunger strike.
A common misconception about going without food is that
one is constantly hungry, and most people assume the longer they go without
eating, the hungrier they will become. In actuality, after two or three
days, the body adapts to lack of food and all hunger vanishes. The activists
who fasted in L.A. last month reported a complete lack of hunger after
two or three days, and their initial symptoms of light-headedness and upset
stomachs went away as well. There is a commonly described sense of "well-being"
and "clear-headedness" after the initial few days which makes
the hunger strike not at all unpleasant.
After three or four weeks, the feeling of well-being and
normal energy levels may begin to subside and feelings of tiredness or
weakness may begin. This is a normal response as the body continues to
conserve energy. One need not worry about vitamins and minerals, as the
body stores enough for many weeks or months.
The hunger striker may be more susceptible to cold since
the body has a harder time keeping warm and trying to conserve energy at
the same time. The heart rate will slow down, and one may experience light-headedness
when first standing up or when bending over. This is expected, and not
a dangerous condition.
Although most people experience few, if any, side effects
of going without food, there are some that may occur, especially after
periods longer than 30 days. These include: abdominal pains (dyspepsia),
depression, headaches, light-headedness and fainting, weakness, insomnia,
anxiety, vomiting, constipation, diarrhea and nightmares.
Due to the depletion of nutrients and resulting reduced
immunity, those who fast for more than two weeks are more likely to contract
various illnesses like diarrhea, the flu, tuberculosis and other diseases,
and infections need to be vigorously treated by a doctor. These are rare,
though, and most hunger strikers don't get sick at all.
During the first week, expect to lose anywhere from one
to two pounds per day! Most of this is from the loss of water, as the body
switches gears into energy-conservation mode. After the first week, the
hunger striker will lose about one-half to one pound per day. All of this
weight is easily regained after one starts eating again, so there is no
need to worry.
Some doctors recommend careful medical supervision after
the loss of 10 percent of one's body weight, and in some prisons, hospitalization
is required for fasters after they reach this point. After a 10 to 14 day
fast, it would be unusual if a protester was not being examined regularly
by the jail doctor, who ethically should treat you by your wishes and advocate
your well-being above all. This may not happen, however, and the activist
should then protest to see a physician of his or her own choosing by the
time approximately 10 percent of body weight is lost. However, many studies
have shown a weight loss of 18 to 20 percent is well tolerated by most
people. Long before this, the authorities will be so worried they will
beg you to leave their jail!
Interestingly enough, one may not feel thirsty within
one or two weeks of fasting and may find it difficult to drink adequately
after four or five weeks of fasting. One should try to drink at least two
liters of water per day, even if you don't want it, in order to stay well
hydrated. The body will need less water, though, as the fast continues,
and by two or three weeks, one to one and a half liters per day may be
Sodium supplements are recommended to prevent low levels
in the body as fluids are lost, so try to add one-quarter to one-half teaspoon
of salt to your water every day.
When the hunger striker is released from jail, or otherwise
decides to start eating after a hunger strike, care must be taken to start
slowly with juices and bland soups, and then progress slowly with frequent
small meals to vegetables and finally normal (vegan, of course!) food.
Try to avoid foods known to cause or aggravate diarrhea in the starved
condition, such as fats and fried foods. If you get sick with vomiting,
severe abdominal pain or diarrhea, a doctor should be consulted right away.
When starting a hunger strike, remember a few key things
in order to stay healthy and continue fighting for the animals.
Finally, the hunger strike is a useful tool for the activist,
and can empower him or her while detained as a political prisoner. It is
useful in gaining publicity in our fight for the oppressed animals and
serves to reduce the time we spend in jail. In the majority of instances,
it is a safe way to show our dedication to the animals, who every day endure
conditions a thousand times worse than we do in jail. On top of all that,
it's not nearly as unpleasant as one might think and there is evidence
that repeated fasts make the next one easier and increase the time one
can go without eating. Now that it's no longer the unknown, use the hunger
strike in the fight for animal liberation.
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