The Hunger Strike
from No Compromise Issue 6

Another Tool for the Activist

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.

A Little Background

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 Politics

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.

How It Feels

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.

Weight Loss

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!

What about Fluids?

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 plenty.

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 It's Time to Eat

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.

Things to Remember

When starting a hunger strike, remember a few key things in order to stay healthy and continue fighting for the animals.

  • Don't fast if you have health problems, especially an infection, diabetes, severe asthma, hypoglycemia or other serious illnesses.
  • If you decide to go on a hunger strike, don't eat anything. A little food just makes you stay hungry and protein-only fasting is dangerous.
  • Drink two liters of fluids every day, supplemented with one-quarter to one-half teaspoon of salt if possible.
  • Stay warm and avoid unnecessary physical exertion.
  • If you feel sick after three or four days, insist on seeing a doctor immediately.
  • Even if you feel good, insist on getting medical supervision after fasting for 14 days. It will help unnerve the authorities and ensure you stay healthy.

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.