Above photo: New York City taxi drivers celebrate their successful hunger strike outside City Hall. Amba Guerguerian.
‘We Are Made of Hope.’
Grinding hunger, spiritual epiphanies and, often, victory.
The huelga de hambre has been used for thousands of years. It has won many struggles,” said Ana Ramirez, 42, who fasted for 24 days this spring to demand that undocumented people and other excluded workers in New York receive stimulus and unemployment money. “Esther the reina won a battle with the hunger strike.”
Ramirez is referring to Queen Esther of the Old Testament’s Book of Esther. The queen and her supporters fasted for three days in advance of going to ask her husband, Persian King Ahasuerus, for permission to have her enemies — who were trying to wipe out all Jews in the empire — killed. She prevailed. Mahatma Gandhi used the hunger strike. So too Cesar Chavez. South African political prisoners hastened the end of the apartheid era with their hunger strike. “The battle of empty stomachs” has been ubiquitous with Palestinian protest for decades. In Gaza, thousands of prisoners have been known to stage fasts at once.
The hunger strike is a political tool that protesters resort to when they have no other recourse. Sometimes this means they have tried all other means and failed. But more often, it means that those starving themselves are prisoners.
Since March of 2020, the political use of fasting in the New York City area has escalated in the face of the intense hardship some communities have experienced during the pandemic.
A healthy body can go without food for up to eight weeks but it will likely incur some serious and/or long-term damage along the way. In October, five young activists (ages 18 to 25) with the Sunrise Movement, which advocates for sweeping climate action, went on hunger strike at the height of congressional negotiations over dueling infrastructure plans. But Sunrise Movement activists stopped their strike after 14 days because doctors monitoring the action said that if a person is 25 or under, irreversible brain damage can occur after two weeks of starvation.
Julia Paramo, 24, was one of the five hunger strikers who responded to a nationwide call to go on hunger strike at the White House in October to push for the “fullest possible federal legislative effort to combat the climate emergency” in the infrastructure bill. Although they stopped the strike before a deal was reached, she says the strike brought climate change provisions back into the negotiations that had previously been sidelined.
“I remember my friend Paul’s heart rate kept going really low. It was constantly going low. I touched his hands and they were just so cold. That’s when he went to the ER, that was towards the end,” she says. Another friend and fellow striker, Kidus, was also hospitalized. “Kidus went to the ER on day four. Everyone would tell us we looked like we were dying,” she said.
Since her fast, one of Paramo’s friends mentioned wanting to do the same. “I was just like, ‘You can’t do that.’ I care about her,” said Paramo. “It’s a tactic that you have to be very strategic with. You have to consider the consequences. I would talk to people who are considering it. I see its value in bringing moral clarity to human rights, but I want to live and want others to live.”
While the young climate activists were not willing to risk their lives or long-term health, some hunger strikers have been desperate enough to do so.
“Do you wanna die fighting or live life on your knees? I made the decision. Get released alive or dead,” said Marcial Morales, a father of three school-age children, who has led hunger strikes protesting Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s detention of immigrants in unsafe, cruel conditions from behind bars and on the outside.
Morales went on his first hunger strike in March of 2020 with 200 others at Essex County Jail in New Jersey, a facility which had a financial agreement with ICE to house immigrant detainees in addition to people incarcerated by the county. The jail staff, infamous for abuse, successfully broke that strike within the first few days.
“The whole group of guards came in and beat everybody up and then said it was a fight between the [other inmates] and the detainees,” Morales recalls. “One guy was on the ground unconscious for three hours after. When he stopped breathing, they came to see him and called a nurse and they took him away and we never saw him again.” In another brutal incident, he says “they came to our unit and accused the tier rep of provoking disorder and they kept him 60 days in the hole [solitary] … He almost died. He had it pretty bad.”
All of the handful of hunger striking detainees The Indypendent has interviewed, were put into solitary confinement or suicide watch — where one is stripped naked — as retribution within the first few days of a strike.
After the initial failure, Morales took it upon himself to learn more about hunger strikes and the rights that a detained immigrant has while fasting. “If you stand up for yourself, [jail staff] back[s] off. Because they know that you didn’t know they were violating your rights. So once I knew my rights — I read the whole jail book — I was like ‘hell, yeah!’”
Morales was released from ICE detention on hunger strike in November 2020 after nine days of rapid health deterioration exacerbated by his diabetes. He has since inspired and mentored many hunger strikes among people in ICE detention.
Depriving oneself of food has mental effects, especially in the already stressful jail environment. Towards the end of his strike, “something was in the wall and I saw it and drew it. Jesus was there in the wall with bread in his hands,” said Morales.
Julia Paramo, too, found strength within. “During the hunger strike, I wrote messages on my forehead. Something [else] that got me through was thinking about home in Dallas and Guanajuato, Mexico.”
Ana Ramirez said that the strength to go on strike was born from her identity as an immigrant. “This comes from a lot of discrimination, from seeing the work of the undocumented person undervalued. We’ve worked harder, cleaned dirtier things. We are made of corn. We are made of hope. I came crossing the frontera at Piedras Negras,” she told The Indy.
Ramirez, who was determined to win or to die, spent two months preparing her body to fast. She was not prepared, though, for the identity-changing, spiritual experience she would have during the 24 days of hunger strike. “By the time I finished, the Ana Ramirez who started the huelga left. She came back with a different way of thinking, of being. I discovered things, attributes I didn’t know I have. It completely changed my life, la huelga de hambre de 24 días,” she said. “I remembered a lot of memories from my childhood. I really wanted to cry and run away from this place. Lots of emotional pain.”
In October, a group of taxi drivers — mostly men over the age of 55 — with the New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA) went on hunger strike to demand relief from crushing debts that began to incur when the city inflated the value of taxi medallions a decade ago and then caused the value of those medallions to plummet by allowing ride share companies such as Uber and Lyft to flood the streets with their cars. After camping out unsuccessfully for 46 days on the sidewalk outside City Hall with no results, the drivers stopped eating.
Saddled with an average debt of $550,000 after a lifetime of work, many of the drivers told The Indy they saw the hunger strike as a fight for their lives. Since 2017, nine indebted drivers have died by suicide. One of those nine, Kenny Chow, is survived by his brother, Richard Chow, a 63-year-old cabbie who has been driving for 16 years. “I love my brother Kenny. My heart is broken,” said Chow.
“That’s why we started [the strike]. We lost everything. After I lost my brother — and there are 6,000 medallions like me and all my friends facing the same crisis — I don’t want to lose my friends,” Chow said.
Chow, despite having diabetes, low blood pressure and a heart condition, joined the fast and refused food for all 15 days of the strike.
The union rented a hotel room for him near their 24/7 protest encampment at City Hall because he lives in Staten Island and was ordered not to drive while fasting. Balkar Singh, a 62-year-old with high blood pressure, spent a few nights in the room with Chow as they both struggled through low points with their health.
“Mr. Balkar has high blood pressure. We are the opposite. We took care of each other,” said Chow, who had to drink chicken broth to keep his blood pressure up while Singh drank Insure to keep his down. Both men were overjoyed when, on the 15th day of fasting, New York City came up with a debt relief plan.
Those hunger strikers who are willing to risk their lives and are confronting an image-conscious adversary are often able to prevail.
“‘If we had not resisted through mass hunger strikes, we would have remained like the slaves from the Middle Ages,’ my father, Ismail, told me during a Skype call after I forced him to revisit his memories from the 33-day legendary Nafha prison hunger strike that he joined 37 years ago,” wrote Palestinian reporter Shahd Abusalama for Al Jazeera in 2017.
Marvin Reyes, who started a fast in Bergen County (NJ) Jail, was transferred to another facility in Miami in retaliation. He was released earlier this month after a four-month hunger strike that he was able to prolong with a few intermittent snacks.
“Over 16 guys that I’ve been in contact with have been released on hunger strike. It’s totally unprecedented,” says Marcial Morales of the recent hunger strikes by ICE detainees. When asked about when to execute a strike, he said, “Do the right thing first. Put your hunger strike as plan C. If whatever legal proceeding doesn’t work, okay, let’s do it the hard way. People don’t deserve this punishment for their freedom, but it takes what it takes.”
Interviews with Ana Ramirez and Bonilla were translated from Spanish by the author.