TO EAT THE RICH is of course mere rhetoric, a fantasy of vengeance. The terrible irony is that for those in extremis, one of the most radical forms of protest is to shun food entirely — to visit violence on oneself, turning it inward, internalizing the crime of the oppressor so that its corrosive impact is made manifest to the world. The history of hunger strikes is long, going back to the age-old Indian custom of dharna (historically, sitting at the threshold of a debtor and fasting until the debt was cleared, and today a more general term for a sit-in) and the Celtic troscad, which predated Christianity’s arrival in Ireland in the early fifth century. This was not mere ritual: Troscad was a legally sanctioned means of extracting justice from someone of higher rank and a rare tool of the poor “against the mighty,” as the late 19th- and early 20th-century Irish nationalist Laurence Ginnell wrote. Once all other avenues of redress had been attempted and exhausted, you would wait publicly at the doorstep of the wrongdoer and refuse to eat until reparations were made. The act of self-starvation so disrupted the social order, some thought it took on a supernatural aura, with the intimation that the damage done to the victim’s body would redound upon the offending party, exacting a spiritual price. (There were legal consequences to fear, too, including, in some circumstances, a doubling of the amount of reparations required.)
If the potency of troscad rested in part on the bonds and expectations of a small community, where refusing hospitality to a guest at your door was a mark of dishonor, the modern hunger strike has had to rely on a broader sense of outrage. Sometimes this is achieved by exposing the callousness of the oppressor, as in the case of imprisoned suffragists in early 20th-century England, who were subject to brutal force-feedings that broke teeth and caused internal injuries, drawing widespread public condemnation. In 1981, 10 members of the Irish Republican Army were allowed to starve to death over months in a paramilitary-style prison in Northern Ireland, their troscad — and request to be recognized as political prisoners instead of common criminals — unanswered; some in the British press greeted their deaths as a victory (“I will shed no tears,” one newspaper editor wrote), but the world spoke out against such indifference, and across Ireland, the dead were mourned and celebrated as martyrs — the leader of the protest, Bobby Sands, had been elected to Parliament while on strike, and upward of 70,000 people attended his funeral — pressuring the British government to improve prison conditions.
To have moral force, the hunger strike had to be a last resort. For the Irish nationalists, as outlined in a statement released on the day of the strike, it was a “demonstration of our selflessness” — as opposed to the selfishness of criminals out for personal gain — “and the justness of our cause.” The student activists who occupied Tiananmen Square in Beijing in the spring of 1989 explicitly framed their decision to stop eating as a sacrifice on behalf of their country: “Although our bones are still forming, although we are too young for death, we are ready to leave you. We must go; we are answering the call of Chinese history.” In keeping with the exalted language, the hunger strike was orchestrated as spectacle, with more than 3,000 students eventually joining the fast and some even rejecting water, accelerating their decline in Tiananmen’s midday sun. Hundreds of thousands of supporters crowded the square, and doctors and desperate parents hovered, ratcheting up the anxiety against a backdrop of throbbing ambulance sirens as strikers lost consciousness and were hauled off to the hospital. It wasn’t simply the students’ youth but their privilege as part of the educated class that made their willingness to risk everything so persuasive; by starving themselves, they earned credibility and galvanized the country — until the government declared martial law and troops opened fire on the protesters. In the aftermath, thousands were detained, and, decades later, all references to the massacre continue to be censored within China.
Gandhi, who endured 17 fasts in his resistance to British imperialism, cautioned that, even when successful, a hunger strike could be merely coercive rather than persuasive: Your opponents might make concessions but not actually believe they’d done anything wrong. The result is a temporary fix, a slapped-on bandage, rather than lasting change.