On the eighth day of his hunger strike on Monday, University of Missouri student protester Jonathan Butler scored a rather rare success.
He had pledged to live on only water until Mizzou president Tim Wolfe was ousted. Within minutes of Wolfe’s resignation, Butler ended his strike as a victor.
Hunger strikes have a long, storied history around the world as a form of nonviolent protest, bringing attention to everything from India’s fight for independence to the plight of farm workers in the field and the cause of Republican prisoners in Northern Ireland.
Hunger strikes are still employed, but most don’t score the same widespread American media attention as Butler’s strike, which in part has social media and the Mizzou football team launching a strike of its own to thank for that.
Last December, another student activist, Joshua Wong Chi-fung in Hong Kong, made international news when he went on a hunger strike to urge the Chinese government to hold talks on political reform. He and his fellow demonstrators pledged to “use our bodies to wake people up.”
One Chinese official patronizingly told him to take care of his health in the cold weather. The hunger strike lasted 108 hours.
In September Cuban activist José Luis García Pérez, who spent 17 years in jail as a political prisoner, led a group hunger strike called “Holy Father, we too are Cuba,” at his home to call Pope Francis’ attention to the condition of human rights there.
History’s civil disobedience pioneer, Indian leader Mohandas Gandhi, inspired the nonviolent protest movement by going on no fewer than 17 hunger strikes in his lifetime to protest British rule in India. His longest ones lasted 21 days.
Labor rights leader Cesar Chavez went on many hunger strikes as well to call attention to the plight of farm workers. The United Farm Workers founder was 61 when he went on a 36-day strike in 1988.
Unlike Butler at MU, hunger strikers don’t always win the day, and opinions are mixed on how effective they are.
Even Gandhi, who used fasting and hunger strikes to settle many disputes and end rioting in his country, didn’t always get what he wanted, admitting he ended one hunger strike “empty-handed, with body shattered and hope cremated.”
In July 2006, Iraq’s deposed dictator Saddam Hussein announced that he was on a hunger strike to protest his trial.
He made it 19 days, ending his strike with a meal of beef, rice and Coca-Cola, according to The New York Times, just months before he was hanged.
As an established “cultural form of seeking justice in the 20th century,” a hunger strike isn’t like any other kind of protest because it doesn’t directly affect its target, Sharman Apt Russell, author of “Hunger: An Unnatural History,” told the BBC.
All the pain of a hunger striker belongs to the protester, Russell said. Hunger strikes need publicity to thrive and causes that can bear public scrutiny to succeed, Russell said.
In 2009, actress Mia Farrow, 64, launched a high-profile hunger strike to protest the expulsion of aid agencies from embattled Darfur.
She planned to go without food for 21 days but lasted only 12 because her doctor ordered her to quit for health reasons.
“My doctor ... told me to have sugar immediately because my blood sugar count dropped,” Farrow told People magazine. “He said I could go into seizures ... I just got weaker and weaker.”
On the fourth day of his strike Thursday night, 25-year-old Butler told The Washington Post that “my body feels like it’s on fire. I have pain all over. I’m exhausted. Of course, I’m hungry. I’ve got an ongoing headache.”
He told media that he was subsisting on water alone — no vitamins, no painkillers.
By the fifth day he had passed a worrisome threshold, said Nicolette Jones, a clinical dietician at the University of Kansas Hospital.
After depriving the body of necessary nutrients for “a prolonged period of time, our body starts going into our emergency storage system in our body to try and replenish some of those nutrients we need,” Jones said.
“Everything starts to slow down, our metabolism ... the body will look for energy from muscle mass so he’s probably lost some muscle. Everything is starting to clam up and slow down.”
After almost eight days, Butler needs to take care and go slowly when he starts to eat again, Jones said.
“For someone who hasn’t had food in eight days this isn’t, “Oh, I’m going to have a meal and feel great again,’” she said.