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Hunger Striking 4 Democracy

I came to DC yesterday to see a hunger strike. After I saw what I saw, I stayed.

On December 6th, students in Arizona began a “hunger strike for democracy,” demanding that Congress pass the Freedom to Vote Act, the successor to the For the People Act, and the most ambitious democracy restoration package considered by Congress in generations. Four days into their strike, Senator Sinema met with the students to hear their case. She was supportive, if non-committal. They then moved the strike to Washington, DC. Beginning on Sunday, the students have been striking in front of the White House. They gather in the late morning, listening to themselves and others explain the fight and its importance. They carry signs that they’ve made; in unison, they sing chants to the President. They’ve declared their strike is “indefinite,” until Congress acts or the President takes up their challenge to make this the issue he fights for, at least so long as that fight could make sense.

Hunger strikes are not suicide pacts, and this strike is well-regulated by the group that has organized it, Un-PAC.org. The students have a regime of water and water with electrolytes. They take supplements and a doctor checks them twice a day. No one who can’t go on is allowed to go on. The strike is a sacrifice, but not the ultimate sacrifice. No one imagines themselves Gandhi. No one is so naive as to believe they can coerce anyone into anything, let alone a distracted Congress and United States President.

Instead, the strike is a way to make tangible the importance that these students believe their cause holds. The act is difficult. Hunger is pain. Few choose pain freely. But by showing themselves willing to suffer, they show, credibly, how important this issue is —to them, and as they believe, to many others as well.

The Supreme Court has recognized how sacrifice itself is a kind of speech. The Court has upheld the freedom of individuals to spend unlimited amounts of money in political campaigns in part because the act of spending so much says something. Spending a million dollars on television ads signals not just that you support an idea or a candidate, but that you support them strongly. The Court has thus held such freedom fundamental to the freedom protected by the First Amendment.

Maybe. But of course, spending millions on a political campaign is not an act that just anyone can do. Whether or not it is free speech, it is not a form of speech open to everyone. Hunger is. Anyone can choose to suffer hunger. Anyone can therefore choose to underline their words with the significance that that suffering might give them. In a world of clicktivism, where online petitions and GoFundMe pages stand for commitment, this suffering should mean something. And in a world that imagines its youth lost to TikTok or Snapchat, this suffering for democracy should mean something significant.

I have known many such activists in the dozen or so years I’ve been in this fight. Before I joined it, Doris Haddock, aka “Granny D,” at the age of 88, had begun a walk from Pasadena, California to Washington, DC, arriving at the age of 90 with a sign on her chest that read, “For Campaign Finance Reform.” In the time since I’ve been part of this fight, thousands have honored her sacrifice with their own marches, including hundreds who marched across the length and breadth of New Hampshire in the depths of winter, and hundreds who have staged walks to DC from New York, and Georgia and many places in between.

Those acts, like the acts of these hunger strikers, are meant to focus a distracted nation on a critical problem in our own democracy. That problem has only gotten worse. When Granny D walked, it was still a dozen years before SuperPACs would emerge. It would be a dozen years before the power of big-data gerrymandering would be revealed. It would be 15 years until the Supreme Court would gut the Voting Rights Act. State legislatures were not yet openly acting to suppress the vote of their political opponents. We had not yet seen in our own time two presidents elected without winning even a plurality of the popular vote. And when Granny D began her walk, the United States Senate had not yet completed its transformation of the filibuster, from a device that merely gave the minority the power to assure debate on a bill they opposed, to a device that gave a minority the power to block legislation absolutely. Today, 41 Senators can stop the United States Senate from even debating legislation, save budget reconciliation. Forty-one may sound like a lot. But if you collect the 21 smallest states that supported Donald Trump by at least 10 points, that’s 42 Senators, and those 42 Senators would represent 21% of the American people. When Granny D walked, no one imagined we would become a representative democracy where Senators representing just over a fifth of the nation were given a veto more powerful than the President’s. And when Granny D walked, I doubt there was a single American who would have believed an event like January 6 was even conceivable.

These student hunger strikers are right that our democracy faces an enormous threat. If Congress fails to pass the Freedom to Vote Act this year, then the states will succeed in gerrymandering the House of Representatives to assure Republican control, whether or not more people support Republicans than Democrats. If the Republicans gain control of the House, then no law will be passed to reverse the vote suppression in the States. No law will check the extraordinary efforts in some states to give state legislatures the power to reverse the vote of their people in a presidential election. Un-PAC.org declares — rightly—that democracy reform is not partisan. But we should not blink the fact that a partisan minority is furiously trying to cement control of the American government through techniques designed to obstruct efforts to assure that in a representative democracy, the will of the majority prevails. (And please, don’t start with the “tyranny of the majority” confusion, or with the suggestion that somehow the Framers of our Constitution (as opposed to the Articles of Confederation) didn’t mean for the majority to govern.)

When I saw the faces of this suffering, I realized I couldn’t just look away. When I arrived yesterday, most of the strikers had been striking for at least 5 days. They were weak and subdued. Though joy pops through, every one of them shows how difficult this commitment is. They don’t complain. They don’t need to. I’ve begun to listen to, and record their stories. How were they brought to see what they see? How much of the tradition that they are joining do they understand. Today, we’ll hold a teach-in about the movement and its history. I’ve taught for many years; I’ve never taught hungry, or with a constant ache reminding me of why the lesson is so important.

Everyone in this movement does what they can. The students listened yesterday to the extraordinary radio host and civil rights activist, Joe Madison, who is at day 36 of his own hunger strike for democracy. I doubt any of these students will get to “day 36” themselves; I pray there is no need for them to make that choice. And I hope others will join them, whether in person or only virtually (#HungerStrike4Democracy), signaling they too see how critical this issue is.

My own sacrifice here is tiny. COVID has meant that I’ve not been away from my family for any length in over a year and a half. I miss them desperately. And despite COVID (though with very special safety precautions), tonight we are missing a special premiere of the film, Don’t Look Up — the story of an asteroid destined to hit Earth, and the desperate efforts of scientists to convince the world, and especially the media and political caste, that catastrophe is imminent.

Or am I really missing that premier? Is the story of that movie really different from what’s happening right now here in DC. The denial in that film may be more dramatic, sure. But it is certainly not more real. And that more American’s don’t see what we will lose if Congress fails to act this year is only slightly more believable.

Representative democracy will face a certain catastrophe if President Biden fails to persuade enough Senators to pass this bill. I pray that he recognizes that fact, and acts upon it.

You can follow the strikers here — Twitter, Instagram, Facebook. You can support what they’re doing here.

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