Midtown Immigrant Rights Protesters Reveal the Most Important Ingredients of an Ongoing Hunger Strike
Ten young men and women are starving outside of Senator Chuck Schumer's Midtown office. They've gone without food for 9 days and counting to pressure Schumer to support and speed up the (often ridiculously long and involved) bureaucratic process to pass the Dream Act bill, which would allow immigrant youth a path to citizenship if they meet certain restrictions such as coming to the U.S. at a young age, finishing high school, and completing either two years of college or military service. We talked to two of them, who taught us that there's a lot more to a hunger strike than simply not eating -- not that that's easy (What's for dinner?)!
Here's our list of the funny, serious, and straight-up practical ingredients for an effective hunger strike. Do you have what it takes?
1. Find a cause worthy of giving up food indefinitely. "I don't know if he realizes it's our life that's on the line," said Yadira Alvarez, 22, a hunger striker and recent Columbia University graduate. Schumer is the target of the strike because he's in a position of power as the Chairman of the Senate Immigration Subcommittee. He agreed to a meeting on June 18, Alvarez said, but that's not soon enough. At a press conference held yesterday, the strikers demanded a response from Schumer by tomorrow at noon. "He calls himself a supporter. We want him to act on it," Alvarez said. [At the time of this post, Schumer had not responded.]
For Alvarez, who moved here 10 years ago from Mexico with her family, the strike is personal. "We basically grew up as Americans," she said. After high school, she went to college at Columbia University, but she graduated in May and is stuck without a job and without the necessary documentation to obtain employment. "That is why I'm here. At this point, I can't keep on waiting for the politicians to play with my life."
Louis Rivera, Alvarez's friend from college, is hunger striking along with her. He says he has a lot of undocumented immigrant friends in college at Columbia. "Most of the time it's pure luck that they got that far."
2. Stock up on more basic ingredients: water and electrolytes. One passerby told Alvarez and the others that he would only support their cause if they went without water. How cruel! (And not humanly possible if the strike is to last more than 2-3 days.)
"We joke that we should make a drinking game with Pedialyte and cards," Rivera, who prefers Gatorade, said. "I hate Pedialyte. Once a day I take a shot of it" -- for the electrolytes. Grape Gatorade is Alvarez's hunger strike drink of choice. It's good stuff, but 6-8 bottles a day punctuated by a gallon of water is hardly a delicious or nutritious diet.
3. Enlist outside help and support. A doctor and nurse check the strikers' vital signs periodically. Passersby and supporters bring Pedialyte, Gatorade, and water, and a lot of people stop to hear about their cause (shocking in Midtown, but true). Some New Yorkers aren't quite so captivated; one woman kept repeating "Go home, go home," Rivera said. But the strikers keep a sense of humor. "We get a lot of characters out here. I mean it's New York City."
4. Have a bathroom/hygiene plan of action. A donated port-o-potty sits around the corner for when nature calls, and I'm sure it calls a lot with all that Gatorade, Pedialyte, and water. Friends of strikers with apartments nearby have offered their showers, and strikers use the bathrooms at Grand Central Station to brush their teeth. These folks are REALLY standing behind their cause.
5. Make sure to sleep -- so as not to think about hunger for a few hours. The strikers do not leave their post at night. They roll out sleeping bags, blankets, and mats, and curl up on the sidewalk. Volunteers come at night to keep watch while the strikers sleep. Once, a drunk person asked to cuddle up next to them, but mostly, the group has been undisturbed -- except by traffic noises. Schumer, please talk to these people! This is not okay!
6. Dream of food to come. Rivera passes a delicious-smelling Indian restaurant every time he goes to Grand Central to wash up. He said after he spends a few days drinking juice and smoothies to ease back into solid food, his first meal will be there, because it's so tempting every time he walks by.
Alvarez's return to solids will be "tacos from one of the taco trucks here in the city." They have so much free time outside of Schumer's office that the conversation often shifts to their future meals. Whether this makes starving easier or more difficult is hard to say, but either way, the protesters are planning to stick things out as long as it's physically possible. "We've raised so much awareness in this city," said Rivera.
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