Monday, February 3, 2014

HUNGER: When Detainees Turn the Tables On Their Tormentors

On February 6, protesters in London will mark the 1-year anniversary of the Guantanamo hunger strike, and in Chicago, where I live, the Chicago Coalition to Shut Down Guantanamo will do a month of activities focusing on the courageous resistance of the Guantanamo hunger strikers.

Have we fully taken into account the significance of those hunger strikes?

When I was very near the end of my senior year in college, in the spring of 1981, I heard some very peculiar news.  A Irish prisoner in Britain had stood for parliament in his Northern Ireland district, and was thought to have a good chance of being elected. What was more, the prisoner was on hunger strike. That prisoner was named Bobby Sands.

Bobby Sands
I can testify that Bobby Sands demonstrated the power of a prisoner to command the attention of the world and shine a light on the misdeeds of his tormentors, because I can remember as if it was yesterday the way every news report during those days over 30 years ago -- during March, April, and May, 1981 -- started with news of Bobby Sands and his resistance.

I started out knowing nothing about Bobby Sands and his cause, but I quickly learned several things.  I learned that he wanted the world to know that he was a soldier and that his people were fighting against an occupying army, the British. I learned that he had designated his body as the battleground against a seemingly overwhelmingly enemy, and that he intended to fight to the death. And I learned that he was right about his ability to cause the world to listen to his side of the story -- again, in the face of overwhelming resources that the British Empire brought to bear to silence him and his people.

I have a very distinct memory that before the hunger strike of Bobby Sands -- and of his comrades -- the world accepted a view of the conflict in Northern Ireland something along the lines of, "Well, yes, there's some kind of conflict there; the British are civilized people and they'll certainly find a way to iron things out."  If anybody got ideas to the contrary, Margaret Thatcher would express some hard (but probably sensible) words about law and order, and legitimate political processes.  But by the time Bobby Sands entered the second month of his hunger strike -- and been elected to Parliament! -- the whole world was saying, "Something's rotten in Britain," and the British looked like beasts in suits.

Since that time, I've learned more about Bobby Sands and his hunger strike -- in particular from the Steve McQueen film, Hunger. But at some level, I learned the most important lesson of all by being a naive bystander at the time, and experiencing what every other naive bystander experienced.

Sami Al Hajj
A journalist held at Guantanamo for six years, he was
released only after going on a hunger strike lasting 438 days.
Clearly, the situation of dozens of current and former detainees at Guantanamo -- who have used their hunger strikes to fight the torment of the U.S. government -- has multiple parallels to that 1981 hunger strike. The big ideas for me are:
* autonomy -- more than anything else, the hunger strike is about the prisoner's ability to decide for himself, and to resist for himself; to exercise power, to refuse to be an instrument of his own oppression and instead take his liberation into his own hands

* publicity -- a big part of the power of the hunger strike -- though far from the only or even the main one -- is its power to communicate -- articulately and globally.

* solidarity -- another big part of the power of the hunger strike is the way it heightens the striker's recognition of the ways in which others are acting in solidarity with him. This is a spiritual dimension of hunger strikes that have not been emphasized enough, in my opinion.
Those are some of the ideas the Chicago Coalition to Shut Down Guantanamo will be exploring in February.

Bobby Sands died on May 5, 1981.  I remember exactly where I was, and what I was doing, when I heard the news. By that time, he felt like kin, and news of his death left me with that sick, depressed feeling you have when you hear of the death of someone you knew -- a schoolmate perhaps, or a well-known person in town. I am just now beginning, however, to understand the notion that "Bobby Sands lives."

Bobby Sands mural on gable wall of Sinn Fein offices on Falls Road, Belfast.
"Everyone, Republican or otherwise, has their own particular role to play
. . . Our revenge will be the laughter of our children."

Related posts

It will be the work of many years to restore the humanity of the people who have been tortured in our name through their detention at Guantanamo. We must find ways to turn our backs on the propaganda about these men and learn something about them as people.

(See Guantanamo Detainees are Human Beings)

"This act was aimed at suppressing the power of the organisation by demoralising the activists, but turned out to be counter-productive as it undermined the moral authority of the government. The Act was viewed as violating basic human rights, not only of the suffragettes but of other prisoners. The Act's nickname of Cat and Mouse Act, referring to the way the government seemed to play with prisoners as a cat may with a captured mouse, underlined how the cruelty of repeated releases and re-imprisonments turned the suffragettes from targets of scorn to objects of sympathy."

(See Obama: Just the Latest "Cat" in a Cynical and Long-running "Cat and Mouse" Game? )

Even if the current Obama administration approach of releases were to succeed in bringing about the release of everyone at Guantanamo, it would not have begun to address the wrong that has been committed.

(See US to its Humans Rights Violations Victims: "Shut up and take what you're given!" )

What have the hunger strikers taught us? First, that the atrocities of the U.S. government just don't stop. Second, that everyone -- even those most oppressed -- has means at their disposal to resist.

(See Occupy State and Jackson)