Hunger Strikes Turn Fasting into a Political Tool

A hunger strike can be an effective nonviolent tool for achieving social change, according to one San Francisco lawyer and community activist.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

In our month-long series on fasting, we've already heard about the spiritual reasons some people choose to go without food and water, but activists also use fasts as tools for social change.

Community leaders have long waged hunger strikes to protest wars and to fight racism. Many activists say it's an invaluable nonviolent strategy for change, but one that can also pose physical danger to those who use it.

Today we hear from a San Francisco community lawyer, whose recent hunger strike drew attention to her fight for immigrants' rights.

Ms. RENEE SAUCEDO (Community Empowerment Coordinator, La Raza Centro Legal): My name is Renee Saucedo, and I'm the community empowerment coordinator at La Raza Centro Legal, which is a nonprofit community empowerment center here in San Francisco's Mission District.

The last hunger strike that I participated in was a few months ago, in front of the San Francisco federal building, with dozens of other activists and members of the immigrant community, to protest and denounce, and to express our outrage over the passage of the Sensenbrenner bill in Congress: which, among other things, would criminalize the undocumented community, adults and children alike.

A hunger strike, in my view, is one tool for us to get our message out to the world, to show that something is happening that's so drastic that we, as people who care about any given issue, will put our bodies on the line to expose how urgent the situation is. And, it's really worked. You know, the urgency really does come out when people see, well, geez, how come these people are willing to go without food for a significant period of time, you know, people get inspired to get involved when they see that people are wiling to sacrifice their bodies for the cause.

I usually am not the one to advocate doing a hunger strike as a tactic, because it is - personally it's difficult. You know, I do - physically I am somewhat small, and when I'm on these hunger strikes, I tend to feel symptoms like nausea and chest pains. I am in a very bad mood, usually, without food. You get very cold.

However, even with the physical discomfort, when you think about why you're doing it, and when you see how people respond to you as a hunger striker, and they come and, you know, they bring me flowers, they brought me candles, you name it. I got gifts all day every day when I was fasting. It's very inspiring. It's very moving. And it's actually somewhat of a spiritual experience. It's a spiritual cleansing because you're doing it for political reasons and you're body is feeling it, but at the same time, you know you're doing it for the right reasons.

Once I start a hunger strike, it's very easy to finish it, because we understand that it's part of a larger struggle. It's part of a larger context. And, you know, you have support. You organize it. It's very well thought out, very well planned.

The other thing is that, you know, we have role models. Hunger strike has been used as a tactic for years in nonviolent struggle. Everyone from Cesar Chavez to Mahatma Gandhi, and here locally, Father Louis Vitale, and others. It's part of a tradition. And I feel very inspired by other people. So the physical pain and the emotional discomfort that I feel, I have the luxury of saying it's temporary, because there are people in our world who suffer every day, and really can't see the end.

CHIDEYA: Renee Saucedo is the community empowerment coordinator for the San Francisco activist group, La Raza Centro Legal. You can learn about Renee's group, and about the previous voices in our fasting series, at npr.org.

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