Seasoned activists frequently talk about how movements are successful when they embrace a “diversity of nonviolent tactics,” that take advantage of all kinds of talents and risk levels. Occupiers in DC have embraced this philosophy with particular zeal, engaging in out-of-left-field spectacles like guerilla barn raisings, as well as a much more traditional piece of the agitator’s toolkit, the hunger strike. On December 8, a small group of protesters affiliated with Occupy DC announced they would abstain from consuming any calories until DC was democratized.
This was not the fuzzily-defined, objective-less protests you may have heard about in the ol’ lamestream media. Adrian Parsons, Kelly Mears, Sam Jeweler, and Joe Gray had extremely specific, if ambitious, demands:
Full budget autonomy. Congress is overburdened and often stalemated by its responsibilities to the rest of the country. Yet, the D.C. Government cannot spend its own tax dollars without the approval of Congress. A bill proposed by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) would free DC’s local budget from Congressional control. We urge Congress to pass this bill free of any “riders” restricting how DC spends its own money. Letting D.C. take control of its own budget would free time for Congress to attend to national issues, while giving D.C. the local democracy that is a given to every other American.
Full legislative autonomy. Eliminate the requirement for congressional review of new District laws. This red tape subverts democracy and adds bureaucratic inefficiency to the processes of both Congress and D.C. government. We urge Congress to pass the District of Columbia Legislative Autonomy Act of 2011, H.R. 506.
Full representation and voting rights in Congress. The people of D.C. do not have a vote in the House or in the Senate. This deprives more than 600,000 Americans of an empowered voice in our national legislature. This unjust situation has allowed members of Congress who were not elected by the people of the District of Columbia to impose policies upon the citizens of D.C. that are not supported by the people. We urge Congress to pass H.R. 266, the District of Columbia Equal Representation Act of 2011.
Propelled by the energy of the Occupy movement, the strikers managed to catch a lot of attention. They got sympathetic coverage The Post, survival tips from Dick Gregory, and they convinced Progressive Caucus co-chair Keith Ellison to read their declaration into the House record and engage in a 24-hour solidarity strike. But the strike also took a toll. As the strikers grew increasingly weak they decamped from their tent in McPherson Square to a sympathetic church and were mostly confined to wheel chairs. Doctors threatened serious long-term consequences if they continued, and family members pleaded. Over the weekend, Gray, Jeweler, and Mears all broke their fast, having collectively lost roughly 95 pounds in a week and a half.
Adrian Parsons is still going strong though. As of last night he was lucid and jocular as ever, despite looking increasingly threadbare. On Friday he was arrested for blocking Independence Avenue in front of the Longworth congressional office building. He couldn’t be booked because his blood sugar levels were too low and he refused to take glucose, so he was confined to a hospital bed before he could get his ticket written. But he’s shown no signs of stopping soon, and another occupier has committed to joining the fast for as long as Parsons continues.
I got a chance to talk to Jeweler about a day after he had broken his fast. He was still feeling weak, but he was managing to keep mashed potatoes and hummus down. Despite having fallen short of his (perhaps slightly unrealistic) goal of affecting a constitutional change in the status of the District, he feels good about what was accomplished.
“We’ve definitely woken up the city and brought the issue back to the table” he said. He added that as the strikers patrolled congress over the past week and a half, they encountered staffer and even members who didn’t understand DC’s demi-democracy. So the consciousness raising was important.
“It was a long shot, but sometimes long shots work,” reflects Gray.
Both noted that the strike isn’t over as long as Parsons keeps going. Meanwhile, the former hunger strikers are moving on to new tactics. Recognizing that DC has very little leverage over Congress, they’re circulating a petition around the country in the hopes of collecting 601,000 signatures – one for every resident of the District of Columbia. Meanwhile, more established activists for DC voting rights are re-energized and are planning a more escalative campaign for the coming year.
In a lot of ways, the hunger strike might be a microcosm of the physical occupations themselves. It’s daring and inspiring, but it’s also nearly impossible to sustain and does little to put pressure on the real centers of power. Both are sparks that will be defined by the extent to which the heat and light they initially produce can be channeled into real change.