Once a last resort, hunger strikes now used to pressure local officials in Oakland
on March 22, 2022
Hunger striking may be most well known as a political tool used by suffragettes and Irish prisoners, which is why it caught some off-guard recently to see it being used in Oakland to influence a school board decision.
Two Oakland Unified School District employees launched a hunger strike in response to proposed school closures in January, signaling that the once drastic measure may change the way communities protest local issues.
“Oakland Unified now faces the prospect of many future hunger strikes, whether it is on this issue or any number of other issues where people feel passionate,” School Board member Sam Davis said during a Feb. 17 emergency board meeting intended to end the hunger strike.
That night, six more people, including some students, vowed to join the hunger strike if the board didn’t reverse its stance. The magnitude of their remarks wasn’t lost on the board, though it stuck to its decision. Davis, who voted for the school closures, said it was “impossible to have an authentic discussion when we hear people saying they are going to harm themselves.”
Board member Mike Hutchinson, who voted against the closures, believes people are tired of speaking at school board meetings and making petitions. Activists, he said, are looking to more direct action. Hunger strikes provide that and add a moral imperative, he said
“I learned how a hunger strike like that can really become a symbol,” Hutchinson said.
In January, OUSD proposed a plan to close or merge about 15 schools as a way to reduce the budget and capture a $10 million incentive offered by the state. One of those mergers would have affected Westlake Middle School. In protest, Westlake staffers André San-Chez and Moses Omolade launched a hunger strike.
The two partnered with the Do No Harm Coalition, a group of health workers and activists from UC San Francisco, which supported their strike and monitored their health during it.
On Feb. 8, the board shrank the list and voted to close seven schools, with Westlake no longer affected. San-Chez and Omolade continued their strike for nearly two more weeks until the board agreed to hear their concerns. After 20 days, their strike ended, but others picked up the baton, with pledges to fast.
Since ending their hunger strike and being hospitalized for three days, San-Chez and Omolade have slowly reintroduced calories, and their physical health has returned. Recovering mentally, however, has been harder.
“I don’t feel like it was a win,” San-Chez said, adding that it was always the plan to remove all schools from the list, not just theirs.
San-Chez said he was especially disappointed in Davis, who ran on a “no school closures” campaign in 2020.
“There was a little sliver of hope in me that was like, ‘Oh, these people aren’t going to let me die. They’re not going to let the nation just watch me waste away,’” San-Chez said.
From Gandhi to OUSD
One thing that makes hunger-striking such a powerful form of protest is that it isn’t commonly used, said Sharman Apt Russel, author of “Hunger: An Unnatural History.” She called it a “dramatic presentation to an audience who has to care that someone is harming themselves or someone might be dying.”
In the 1980s, a hunger strike in Northern Ireland by incarcerated members of the Irish Republican Army ended with the British government agreeing to some concessions. But the cost was high, as 10 IRA members lost their lives. Suffragettes in the United States and Britain used hunger strikes as one of the many protest tools in their arsenal. And Mohandas K. Gandhi garnered the world’s attention when he launched fasts against India’s caste system.
The OUSD hunger strike is not the first time that form of protest was used to pressure local governments.
In 2004, nine people in the West Contra Costa Unified School District began a hunger strike to protest inadequate funding of California’s public schools, particularly those in marginalized communities.
Similarly, in 2015, activists in Chicago staged a 34-day hunger strike to force the district to reopen Dyett High School. Unlike in OUSD, the Dyett hunger strikers had more time to prepare and were successful in saving the school.
As a former school board member, Russell believes it’s important for the people in power to keep a line of communication open with hunger strikers. At the same time, hunger strikers should present specific demands that can be considered. Regardless of the outcome, hunger-striking shines a spotlight on issues and engages the public in a dialogue that otherwise might not have emerged, Russell added.
As for the physical impact,
there aren’t any long term effects on the body from long-term fasting, said Marc Hellerstein, a professor in UC Berkeley’s Department of Nutritional Sciences & Toxicology. Typically, a person can survive up to two months on just water, he said.
Taking electrolytes and vitamins, which San-Chez and Omolade did, can help during a hunger strike. However, starving the body can lead to depression and overall fatigue.
“It’s a courageous thing to do,” Hellerstein said.
Many in the community apparently saw it that way with the OUSD hunger strikers. San-Chez and Omolade told the school board that many people dropped off water and other supplies to them, offering their support and encouragement.
Hutchinson, the OUSD board member, said that despite the support, he doesn’t see hunger striking becoming more commonplace in Oakland politics. Occupying spaces and rallying has been the community’s go-to forms of protest, he said, pointing to the sit-in against the closure of Lakewood Elementary School in 2012 that lasted for more than two weeks.
“I don’t think Oakland is there yet,” he said.
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