Monday, July 16, 2012

Hunger Strikes: In History and in Los Alamos Today

King, Gandhi and Chavez: the three world icons of nonviolent resistance.
Hunger strikes are powerful, nonviolent weapons in the art of political resistance. The gravity of inflicting starvation on oneself until an injustice is amended is so profound, a hunger striker can potentially compel the perpetrator of the injustice to feel guilt and shame, and consequently, be forced to correct the wrongdoing. The power also lies with the hunger striker to raise attention on the issue and inspire others to join the cause. To fast requires a tremendous amount of willpower, sacrifice, strength and of course, a deep-rooted affirmation in the cause. One can not engage in a hunger strike without a purpose that one wholeheartedly believes in; how much more devotion to a cause can one show than to starve for it?

Alaric Balibrera, with the Santa Fe-based organization Nuke Free Now, is teaming up with activists from around the globe to raise awareness on the grave and perilous dangers that nuclear weapons pose on the planet. Rather than using picket signs and petitions to spread their message, however, the activists are engaging a much different—and perhaps more powerful—tool: a hunger strike.
The location and date of the hunger strike holds a symbolic value. The strike will begin on July 16th, the anniversary of the first atomic test in Los Alamos, New Mexico, and will last through August 6th, the anniversary of the Hiroshima bombings. Los Alamos is the location of the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), one of the two facilities in the United States where classified production of nuclear weapons is conducted. LANL was one of the sites where the Manhattan Project was directed. It was also the birthplace of Trinity, the first atomic device ever detonated, and Little Boy and Fat Man, the atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively. It was at this time, in 1945, that the Nuclear Age chapter in human history is known to have begun.

To protest the laboratory, the atrocious amount of dollars it costs to run the facility, and the omnicidal nature of nuclear weapons in general, Alaric Balibrera and his fellow strikers have created a list of demands to be given to the director of LANL, Charles MacMillan. The demands include a suspension on all works on nuclear materials until the laboratory is in compliance with environmental, health and safety regulations; compensation given to the New Mexico residents who have suffered as a result of the lab-produced radioactive activity; and a progressive transformation of all nuclear weapons work at LANL to be turned into life-affirming programs. 

Hunger strikes have been used plenty of times throughout history, but the most famous and most effective of all hunger strikes was that of Mohandas Gandhi. Gandhi led India to independence in the twentieth century and to this day has become an internationally-recognized inspiration in movements for freedom and civil rights. Gandhi developed a philosophy of satyagraha, or “force of truth.” To practice satyagraha is to practice resistance against exploitation, but rather than practicing it passively, as in the case of passive resistance, satyagraha engages a more forceful resistance. By resisting an unjust law or exploitation, in a nonviolent and peaceful manner, the exploiter is forced to eventually unveil the “truth.” One such manner is fasting. Gandhi fasted numerous times in his lifetime for causes such as to end British imperialism in India, grant India national independence, stop injustices towards the “untouchable” caste and to end inter-religious violence in the Indian subcontinent. Gandhi’s methods of political protest posed a serious threat to the British authorities; if he were to die under British imprisonment during his hunger strike, he would become a noble martyr and no doubt inspire thousands of more acts of civil disobedience. Furthermore, Gandhi’s image as a freedom fighter and a holy man had severely damaged the British empire’s reputation and legitimacy. Finally, on August 15th, 1947, Great Britain granted independence to India. However, Great Britain simultaneously partitioned the nation, creating the new-founded state of Pakistan for the Muslim demographic. The partition led to an escalation of violence between Muslims and Hindus. Again, and for the last time before his assassination a year later, Gandhi engaged in a fast that he said would not terminate until violence between the Muslims and Hindus would cease. The religious leaders, aware of Gandi’s frailness at his old-age as well as how endeared and beloved he was to Muslims and Hindus alike, vowed to seek peace with one another. 

Gandhi’s devotion to nonviolent resistance inspired movements for social justice throughout the world. Nelson Mandela applied satyagraha during his struggle for racial equality in South Africa under apartheid. Martin Luther King, Jr. followed satyagraha’s teachings and tenets during the civil rights movement in the US. Gandhi’s philosophy of peaceful civil disobedience also influenced the activism of Cesar Chavez, a Mexican-American activist who fought for labor and civil rights for farm workers.  In 1968, Chavez staged a hunger strike to support a pay raise for migrant grape workers and in 1989, engaged in a “Fast for Life” that sought to expose the dangers of pesticide on farm workers. Chavez “passed” the hunger strike on to Reverend Jesse Jackson, and throughout the year, the torch moved along to individuals and communities. The international exposure the fast received was so successful, Chavez’s labor group became one of the most powerful in history. 

Nuclear weapons, like independence, civil rights and freedom from labor exploitation, is a noble cause to fast for. It is a unique cause too, for not only does the abolition of nuclear weapons guarantee a safer world for the Los Alamos hunger strikers, but for every complex life existing on our planet. In every sense, Alaric Balibrera and the thirty strikers joining him are also fighting to protect you and I, as well as the future generations that are to inherit our planet.

As human beings, our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world - that is the myth of the "atomic age" - as in being able to remake ourselves.
               ~ Mohandas K. Gandhi


  1. Quite inspiring. It takes courage to stand up for a cause like that.

  2. A well-written and moving article. It seems though that most successful hunger strikes, like the ones you mentioned, have been carried out by well known individual personalities (not group strikers like Alamos hunger strikers). I commend their cause and wish them luck.

  3. ...the atomic bomb has deadened the finest feeling that has sustained mankind for ages. There used to be the so-called laws of war which made it tolerable. Now we know the naked truth. War knows no law except that of might. The atom bomb brought an empty victory to the allied armies but it resulted for the time being in destroying the soul of Japan. What has happened to the soul of the destroying nation is yet to early to see. — Mahatma Gandhi, Harijan, July 7, 1946

  4. Thank you for the article and for all the support offered. One slight correction - the Director of LANL is called Charles Macmillan, not Chris.

    What Alaric and the other hunger strikers are doing is incredibly courageous, profound and noble. Please everyone who supports this cause do what you can to spread the word about the hunger strike and the weekend of events in Santa Fe and Los Alamos, August 3rd to 6th. We have an incredible one-day conference in Santa Fe on Saturday August 4th, with some of the top anti-nuke activists and experts from the region and around the country. On Sunday August 5th we will have a rally, with speakers and music, and a march in Los Alamos. And on Monday August 6th there will be a day of non-violent direct action in Los Alamos. Please, if you can come and join these events, all of which are free.

    For more information go to

    1. Thank you for the information, I corrected the name! :)


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