Hunger strikes are powerful acts of nonviolent protest. Mahatma Gandhi engaged in close to 20 public fasts over his lifetime. In 1917, 32 women suffragists protesting at the White House for the right to vote were arrested and subjected to brutal jail conditions. When some went on hunger strike, they were violently force fed. In 1981, ten Irish Republican political prisoners, among them Bobby Sands, died while protesting their treatment in Northern Ireland’s Maze Prison as well as Britain’s ongoing occupation. Several of the seven Palestinians currently hunger striking in an Israeli prison are reportedly near death. Fasting is a difficult and personally dangerous tactic, denying oneself food to challenge the powerful who deny justice.
Also currently on hunger strike are a group of young people who, like the suffragists of a century ago, are protesting in front of the White House. They are part of the Sunrise Movement, pressuring President Joe Biden to take drastic action on the climate emergency.
“I’m on a hunger strike for my family and my future and the promises that the president made to young people who put him in office,” climate activist Kidus Girma said on the Democracy Now! news hour. He was speaking on day eight of his fast, just days after he was hospitalized with dangerously low blood sugar. “We need the president to put the children of the future, the children of today at the centre of his agenda, and not Exxon officials and the representatives who fight for oil and gas billionaires.”
Sunrise hunger striker Abby Leedy confronted Joe Manchin, the conservative Democratic U.S. Senator from West Virginia, who has single-handedly stripped much of Biden’s renewable energy agenda from the reconciliation bill:
Abby Leedy: I’m going to grow up in a catastrophic climate emergency if you continue to block the Civilian Climate Corps…The methane emissions…
Sen. Joe Manchin: We’re changing the climate. The United States…Can I talk? Can I talk one second? Your name?
Abby Leedy: My name is Abby.
Sen. Joe Manchin: Abby, let me tell you, we’ve done more in the United States of America than any country. All the emissions coming from Asia —
Abby Leedy: Joe Manchin, if the United States of America does not cut our emissions by at least 50%, I have to grow up in a nonstop climate emergency. I have been on a hunger strike for seven days.
Sen. Joe Manchin: Call my office.
Manchin is the single largest Congressional recipient of donations from the oil and gas industry, and has made millions of dollars from a West Virginia coal brokering company he founded, now run by his son. One of his largest donors is Energy Transfer LP, which owns the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline.
Meanwhile, in downtown New York City, another group of hunger strikers are demanding change. Taxi drivers there have mounted a 24/7 protest outside City Hall, demanding relief from crushing debt from buying taxi medallions when the prices for these essential licenses had been artificially inflated by the city. Medallions that once cost as much as $1 million are now valued closer to $100,000, due largely to the flooding of the market with Uber and Lyft cars. Thousands of New York City taxi drivers are now buried in debt, and at least nine have died by suicide.
“I’ve been on hunger strike for the 6,000 families affected by this medallion crisis,” New York cab driver Augustine Tang said on Democracy Now!, on day six of his fast. “These men and women have invested in the city and drove 20, 30, 40 years of their lives, just to have their retirement taken away from them and are about to lose their homes and their jobs, as well.”
The protest was organized by the New York Taxi Workers’ Alliance, which has developed a medallion debt restructuring plan that is backed by just about every elected official in metro New York, including Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortéz and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.
The taxi drivers have been joined in their hunger strike by New York State Assemblymember Zohran Mamdani, who spoke on Democracy Now! about the impacts he’s felt after fasting for eight days:
“Inability to sleep, unrelenting hunger, moments of blurred vision, stress, headaches — the same consequences I heard drivers say are the physical realities of being hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, unable to take care of your family and seeing no way out.”
Before he died in 1981 in Northern Ireland after 66 days on hunger strike, Bobby Sands said, “Our revenge will be the laughter of our children.” Through this difficult act of denying themselves sustenance, activists around the globe are feeding the cause of justice.
This column originally appeared on Democracy Now!