As I prepare myself mentally and spiritually for the long fast I will be undertaking on September 4th as part of the Climate Emergency Fast, I find myself thinking back to the first time I consciously and deliberately went without food because of an issue I felt strongly about.
It was in the summer of 1971. I was being held at Danbury federal prison, serving what turned out to be 11 months behind bars for my anti-Vietnam war, draft resistance activism as a member of the “Catholic Left,” or what J. Edgar Hoover called, in the words of Time magazine, a “terrorist ‘conspiracy’ involving radical Catholic priests and nuns.”
Two of the leaders of that “terrorist conspiracy,” Frs. Philip and Daniel Berrigan, were in prison with me, and they had just heard from the Federal Bureau of Prisons parole board that they had been denied parole and likely would have to serve out their entire six year sentence. They had received this sentence after burning pieces of paper, Selective Service draft files taken from a Catonsville, Md. draft board, with home made napalm just outside that draft board in the spring of 1968. They waited for the police to arrive, were arrested, tried and sentenced.
Phil was concerned about whether his brother would survive 3 ½ more years in prison. He also clearly saw the potential for a hunger strike, a fast, to contribute to the anti-war cause. And so, under his leadership, a group of eleven of us stopped eating on August 6th, the 26th anniversary of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima. There were three basic demands: a fair and reasonable review of the Berrigans’ parole turndown; various reforms in the way the parole board dealt with all prisoners; and a shutting down of the “tiger cage” prison on Con Son Island in what was then South Vietnam. Con Son Island prison was to Vietnam what Abu Ghraib prison is to Iraq.
Five of the 11 of us began the Danbury hunger strike by passing out leaflets on the 6th announcing it, and calling for other prisoners to engage in a work stoppage and hunger strike starting on August 9. We had surreptitiously printed up the leaflets on a mimeograph machine in the prison library. Within minutes we were arrested by the prison guards and put into solitary confinement, “the hole.”
When the remaining six of us passed out leaflets the morning of the 9th, almost the entire prisoner population stayed away from work for about a half an hour. Only 100 out of 800 prisoners ate lunch, and 40 were taken to the hole for refusing to go to work when the prison administration mobilized and threatened serious punishment for any who didn’t do so.
Two days later the 11 of us were whisked away from Danbury out to the federal prison in Springfield, Mo., one of the institutions where they send trouble makers. For 34 days, confined together apart from the other prisoners in one wing of the prison, we drank only water, juice and, mistakenly, milk before finally ending this fast. And it had results. There were, for a time, some changes in the way the parole board functioned, and Phil and Dan were released from prison about 16 months after our hunger strike ended.
I’ve fasted many times since. There have been two major ones. In the year following the Danbury action I was part of a 40-day, water-only fast calling for an end to the Vietnam War. And 15 years ago, at the age of 42, I participated in a 42-day, water-only fast organized by Brian Willson, Karen Fogliatti and Scott Rutherford at the time of the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus arriving in the Americas. The purpose of that fast was to oppose the planned, official government celebrations of Columbus, to make a statement about the depth of the changes needed in this country and world to turn away from the many negative things that Columbus represented which were, and are, still very much at work.
Humankind’s relationship to our Mother Earth, the environment, is high up on the list of those negative things. And time is running out, without a doubt. The model of economic development built upon, dependent upon, coal, oil and natural gas, the carbon-emitting, greenhouse gases that trap the sun’s heat, is a model of economic development that is literally destroying our ecosystem. I am convinced based on study, observation and the opinions of independent scientists who know much more than I do, that the changes in our climate we are seeing all over the world are not temporary and will only get worse, potentially catastrophically worse, unless and until we take dramatic steps to enact a deep and wide, justice-based, clean energy revolution.
And I don’t think we can wait for our federal government to pass strong legislation toward this end until 2009.
Given the reality of who’s in the White House, it may be that we can’t get much of what is needed before then, but those of us who appreciate the urgency of the climate crisis cannot accept that.
I remember a discussion we had during the 40-day fast against the Vietnam War in 1972 about the Presidential elections. At the time Richard Nixon and George McGovern were campaigning for the Presidency. Dave Dellinger, one of the fasters, said that he wasn’t going to get involved with supporting McGovern, the peace candidate. Explaining himself further, he said that he had learned that whether a Democrat or a Republican is elected, what is most important is what happens independent of the government and the two dominant parties, the strength of movements for justice or people’s rights. And half a year later, surprisingly, following Nixon’s re-election and the shooting down of many planes by the Vietnamese during a Christmas U.S. bombing campaign, the Nixon administration said “uncle” and negotiated a withdrawal agreement.
Does this mean that it doesn’t make any difference who is in the White House come Jan. 20, 2009? No, I don’t believe that. There are differences between the two major parties, and among the candidates for President in each party, and certainly with the Green Party and other “minor” parties. But I’ve come to appreciate what I think Dave was getting at. I think what he meant was that if the bulk of the movement for peace and justice, for a clean energy revolution, gets caught up primarily in direct work supporting Democrats (or Republicans) and we don’t keep organizing independent of and outside of that corrupted political system, we will be weakened. Our movements will be less vital, less out there focusing on the issues, less about movement building, less about forcing candidates and elected officials to respond to and be accountable to us.
I don’t feel weak as I think about going for weeks without food again, although I know I’ll be physically weaker as it goes on. I’m feeling very strong, very gratified by the response to the call for this Climate Emergency Fast. It looks like there will be close to 1,000 people fasting for at least one day, possibly more, and close to 100 fasting for more than one day. As of today there are 45 states and eight countries where people will be taking part in this action, and those numbers will grow in the nine days left before September 4th. Even before it has begun, there is interest from several non-movement press outlets, a hopeful sign.
I think of the words of an Ojibway prayer I carry around in my wallet,
“Grandfather, look at our brokenness. We know that in all creation only the human family has strayed from the Sacred Way. We know that we are the ones who are divided, and we are the ones who must come back together to walk the Sacred Way. Grandfather, Sacred One, teach us love, compassion and honor, that we may heal the earth and heal each other.” Amen.