Occupy D.C. hunger strikers, frail but undaunted

December 16, 2011

The hunger strikers are no longer hungry. Soon, if they keep going, they will no longer be lucid. (Some say they never were.)

Cocooned in sleeping bags on the cold floor of St. Stephen’s Church in Columbia Heights, the hunger strikers dozed under a painting of Jesus Christ bearing a loaf of bread. They woke now and then to flick through their Twitter feeds in search of solidarity, looking for the hashtag #OccupytheVoteDC, wondering whether anyone would join their bodily protest of the District’s taxation without representation.

Colors have become crisper now, they say. Smells are fuller. Time has slowed. They can hear every beat of their hearts. They have passed one week without food.

And still, the federally taxed citizens of the capital of the free world have neither a voting representative in Congress nor control over their own city budget and laws — an injustice they see as reaffirmed Thursday by the House of Representative’s spending deal, which prohibits the District from funding abortions with local tax money.

Four starving stomachs vs. entrenched public apathy, a couple hundred years of precedent and a dismissive Congress about to go on recess.

A joke, really.

Speaking of which: A rabbi walked into the church about 11 a.m. one day last week.

The hunger strikers tottered to their feet, pulled up chairs and chatted in hushed, reverent tones with him.

“I’m not promising you any groundswell of enthusiasm,” Rabbi Ethan Seidel said. “It’s not at the forefront of many D.C. residents’ minds. I get a sense of futility about this.”

“There is a kind of faith involved because people see futility,” says striker and artist Adrian Parsons, 29. “Maybe it is futile. Maybe it is like trying to swim up a waterfall. But it’s better than being pummeled under the waterfall.”

“That’s why we’ve taken on the Occupy mantle in general,” said striker Kelly Mears, 24, a Web developer. “There is a fatalist sense from the older generations that ‘This is how it is.’ But our generation doesn’t have to be this way. This is our world we’re trying to hold and understand.”

“Faith itself can be misleading,” the rabbi said carefully. “That’s not to say I don’t support you guys. I will send your message to my congregation, but it’s not going to resonate like you want. For a Buddhist, there’s something very beautiful about transcending your body and dying for a cause. Jews tend to see if we can move things bit by bit.”

“People need their state, as the Jewish people know,” Parsons said. “We have our borders,” but not a state.

Sapphire light fell from stained-glass windows on this latest scene in the socio-theatrical saga of Occupy D.C., which has many set pieces and plotlines tied together by a single theme: resistance to disenfranchisement (from the economy, from the workforce, from the government). Over the past week, Parsons, Mears and their fellow strikers Sam Jewler and Joe Gray, both 23, have tried to sharpen the broad Occupy movement into a fine point.

A little more than a week ago, they had a last supper of steamed vegetables and carrot-spinach-parsley juice on the pedestal of James B. McPherson’s statue and then slept in his square. Sunday, the most painful day, they moved to St. Stephen’s for warmth. This week, they’ve visited the congressional offices of the men who preside over the District’s budget and legislation: Speaker of the House John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) and Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.).

They’ve been heard then ignored, acknowledged then brushed off. Friends stopped by the church to show support, parents to express concern over their deteriorating health, a yogi to teach them breathing exercises that may temper stomach spasms.

The longer they go, the louder the message gets, they say, and they’re prepared to go as long as they can. Right now, their muscle mass is breaking down and their metabolism is slowing and adapting to starvation. If and when they clear 14 days, they’ll be inviting serious health consequences, physicians say. Their spirits were high earlier this week, but the past couple of days have been both active and challenging.

Rep. Keith M. Ellison (D-Minn.), who in solidarity committed to a one-day hunger strike, read the strikers’ demands into the Congressional Record on Thursday. Mears ended his strike Thursday night after his condition took a sharp turn for the worse. Parsons, 200 hours into his strike, was arrested Friday morning for obstructing passage on U.S. Capitol grounds during a protest organized by D.C. Vote.

At the protest, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the District’s non-voting member of the House, announced that she would enter a tribute to the strikers into the Congressional Record. Ward 6 council member Tommy Wells (D) said they were sending “a message to our country.”

In his wheelchair, Parsons — too weak to walk, too strong to back down — raised his cuffed hands to the heavens as a policeman rolled him away.

Staff writer Jimm Phillips contributed to this report.

Dan Zak is a feature writer and general assignment reporter based in the Style section. He joined the Post in 2005, after stints as an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a city-desk reporter and obituary writer at The Buffalo News.
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