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Editorial: The long tradition of hunger striking at Brown and beyond

This past Friday, 19 Brown students announced an indefinite hunger strike in a call for Brown’s Corporation — the University’s highest governing body — to hear and consider their calls for divestment from companies identified in a 2020 report which it says “profit from human rights abuses in Palestine.” The students have used the Stephen Robert ‘62 Campus Center as a major congregation point for public meetings and support, information sharing and rallies.  In light of the current activism on campus, understanding the history of hunger strikes — both here at Brown and around the world — as well as the stated intentions and goals of the current strikers, is essential to preventing the spread of misinformation. 

Believed to originate in its modern form with 19th century Russian political prisoners, hunger strikes have a deep historical precedent as a method of nonviolent protest, often used to draw wider attention to issues of injustice. It’s also often used by those who have no other plausible form of protest left to them, such as prisoners. The most well-known use of a hunger strike in history is most likely those of Mohandas Gandhi, as part of his nonviolent, anti-colonial campaign for Indian independence from Britain, which also inspired resistance movements across the world, including against apartheid in South Africa. 

Hunger strikers rely on the extreme, but nonviolent, nature of their protest to draw publicity to an issue of injustice by willingly harming themselves. The prolonged denial of food can cause debilitating consequences which eventually include life-threatening infections and organ failure. But it is uncommon for hunger strikers to die during their protest — in some cases because they are subjected to force-feeding, a practice that has been condemned as inhumane and cruel by the United Nations. All of the Brown students currently striking were screened by doctors prior to beginning their demonstration . 

The students participating have announced their plan to continue striking until the Corporation agrees to consider a divestment resolution proposed by the Brown Divest Coalition, and to conduct a formal vote on the resolution during their Feb. 8 and 9 meeting. These demands stand in contrast to other recent protests, which called explicitly for divestment. In the wake of the arrests of peaceful protesters sitting in at University Hall last fall and the University’s rejection of the 2020 report by the Advisory Committee on Corporate Responsibility in Investment Practices, supporters of the Coalition have resorted to hunger strike as a means to achieve wider coverage, increase pressure on the Corporation and rally the moral force of the student body, alumni and community beyond Brown. Some of these attempts have succeeded — the students’ escalated protests have received increasing media coverage from outside of Brown — but so far President Paxson has refused to meet the demands of the strike.


Brown’s history of hunger striking did not begin last Friday. In 1986, four Brown students also went on a hunger strike in Manning Chapel, calling for divestment from apartheid South Africa. This hunger strike also came after students attempted other forms of peaceful protest, such as a sit-in that resulted in the arrest of fourteen students — including former President Jimmy Carter’s daughter, a public figure who attracted further attention to the protest. When four students began a hunger strike as a more extreme measure, the students were disenrolled by the University, and only re-enrolled upon quitting their fast. At the time, the University refused and maintained holdings in South Africa throughout the apartheid regime. 

Paxson has maintained that the divestment recommendation fails to meet the requirements for rigorous analysis and specificity needed to bring it to the corporation.

Given the context of this previous strike, and the fact that the current strikers have yet to face disenrollment, it is unclear whether Brown’s history will repeat itself, but it seems unlikely that the students protesting now would be deterred by any form of disciplinary action, which they probably anticipated. The University now hosts a web page detailing the anti-apartheid protests that swept through campus in the 1980s, among other records of protest and discontent on campus. The current South African government recently presented a case accusing Israel of genocide in the United Nations International Court of Justice. 

Hunger striking, while one of the most extreme forms of protest, remains a recognized tool of nonviolent resistance, used by protestors ranging from Russian opposition activist Aleksei Navalny; British suffragettes in the early 20th century; Bobby Sands, a member of the IRA who died in prison during his hunger strike; and nineteen Brown students today. We hope this context will be useful as students interpret and engage with protest on campus and around the world.

Editorials are written by The Herald’s editorial page board and aim to contribute informed opinions to campus debates while remaining mindful of the group’s past stances. The editorial page board and its views are separate from The Herald’s newsroom and the 134rd Editorial Board, which leads the paper. This editorial was written by the editorial page board’s members Paul Hudes ’27, Paulie Malherbe ’26, Laura Romig ’25, Alissa Simon ’25, and Yael Wellisch ’26. 


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