One week into their hunger strike for District of Columbia voting rights in Congress, Joe Gray and Kelly Mears have lost 20 pounds each. Fellow strikers Adrian Parsons and Sam Jewler, who had wiry frames to begin with, have dropped 10 and 8 pounds, respectively.
The men are all in their 20s and affiliated with the Occupy D.C. encampment in McPherson Square.
“I had plenty to lose,” said Gray, who's down to 195 pounds from 215.
They've walked the halls of congressional office buildings, sometimes being pushed in wheelchairs to conserve energy, and they've met with a few members of Congress and staffers for several others. But they've made little tangible progress toward their long-shot goal: two senators and one representative for the 600,000 residents of the nation's capital, along with full local control over the district's budget and laws.
Given Congress's history on the issue, there's little reason for optimism. The last time voting rights got serious consideration was 2009, when the Senate approved a bill that would have turned the District's nonvoting delegate into a full-fledged representative. Conservative senators tacked on an amendment that would have wiped out the district's strict gun laws, and House leaders declined to bring it to the floor, a move that district leaders supported.
Congress approved a constitutional amendment in 1978 that would have given the district full voting representation, but it fell far short of ratification by the states.
In the face of such intransigence, Parsons said, only an extreme form of protest is appropriate. So he turned to the hunger strike, a tactic employed by suffragettes in the United States and Britain, Mohandas Gandhi in India and imprisoned Irish Republican Army activists.
Congress is consumed with last-minute budget negotiations ahead of its winter recess, meaning the hunger strikers likely would have to wait until January to see even incremental progress.
“We want them to leave with that looming over their heads,” said Parsons, a 29-year-old artist. “Go back to your families, go back to your states, where there are representatives, and understand that you're leaving 600,000 citizens disenfranchised.”
The men are consuming only electrolyte-enhanced water and vitamins. Parsons, Mears and Jewler, all district residents, began their hunger strike at noon on Dec. 8 after a nutritious last meal of fruit smoothies and stir-fried vegetables. Gray, of Gaithersburg, Md., joined them the next morning after chowing down on an egg burrito.
While they insist they won't declare victory until they've accomplished their numerous goals, the strikers say they are not suicidal. Each has signed a document that specifies what kind of medical intervention he would want if he becomes incapacitated.
Mears, a 24-year-old freelance software developer, said he was still struggling with how much he was willing to endanger his health.
“It's not that I want to die,” he said. “I very well could end up in the hospital on an IV.”
The strikers spent their first two nights in a tent in McPherson Square before moving to St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church, which has a long history of progressive activism. They have access to showers, but they're sleeping on the floor, and the church is only heated on the weekends.
On Thursday, the strikers made their third trip to Capitol Hill, where they met with Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., and staffers to Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va. They were buoyed by their meeting with Ellison, who pledged to fast for 24 hours to show his support and to read their demands into the Congressional Record.
District voting rights advocates have taken a confrontational approach since the failure of the 2009 bill. In April, several dozen people, including Mayor Vincent Gray, were arrested for blocking a street outside the Capitol.
Gray told The Associated Press that he supports the strikers, although he's worried about their health.
“I'm very appreciative that they are standing up for their rights and the rights of every other person in the District of Columbia,” Gray said.
On Tuesday, the strikers met with staffers to Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who drafted a bill in November that would give the district more control over its budget. District leaders rejected the bill because it included language that would have banned the use of local funds for abortion, but Issa has pledged to continue working on a bill that the district could accept.
Frederick Hill, an Issa spokesman, told the protesters that Issa was eager to finish the new bill, but he also urged them not to risk their health by waiting for it.
Parsons's 73-year-old father, Sam Parsons, a district native who now lives in Fairfax, Va., doesn't have any illusions about the strike's chances for success.
“What they're going for is not going to be resolved,” Sam Parsons said. “I wish they'd try something else. I can't think what, at this point. At the very least, they're getting the word out.”
Asked whether he would intervene if Adrian's condition deteriorated, Sam said, “I probably would. We're not going to lose my son.”
Although they look tired and pale, the strikers remain in good spirits. Mears said his leg muscles have atrophied, and walking 100 yards can make him as sore as he normally would feel after a strenuous workout. They don't mind talking about food, but smelling it is tough to handle.
“My mother always said hunger is the best sauce,” Gray said. “I've found that to be true because every day I look at my shoes more longingly, like I'm going to eat them.”