Hungry for justice: an interview with CloseGitmo hunger striker Cynthia Papermaster

Posted by CODEPINK Staff

by Janet Weil

Cynthia Papermaster, a retired law librarian, has been a stalwart SF Bay Area organizer and local group coordinator (Golden Gate local) for nearly a decade. In June 2013, she escalated her years-long opposition to the horrors of indefinite detention and torture in Guantanamo Bay (Gitmo), taking on a hunger strike in solidarity with over 100 detainees on hunger strike. Her fast lasted until late September. Cynthia lost 30 pounds -- and gained much in her journey for justice for the prisoners at Gitmo.

I asked Cynthia about her motivation, her experiences on 300 or fewer calories per day, and what she will do going forward in her quest for justice for Gitmo prisoners, over 80 of whom have been cleared by the US government - and still not released.

1- Going on a hunger strike is a brave and extreme thing to do - what motivated you?

I don't feel brave, but yes, an 84-day hunger strike is extreme. It's the biggest thing I've ever done in my many years of activism. It put me on the national stage, gave me a platform for educating people about Guantanamo.

The extreme part was interesting... I'm sure many viewed me as crazy. After all, how many of us give up food, the pleasure and comfort of food, for a cause? I learned a lot about hunger strikes, joined a long tradition with my hunger strike.

For years I've been working on the issue of accountability for US torture policy. The situation at Guantanamo is heavily connected with torture. My work is mainly focused on prosecutions for government officials who conspired to torture, such as law professor John Yoo, Judge Jay Bybee, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, David Addington, Steven Haynes, Condoleeza Rice.

I also initiated the Berkeley City Council Resolution, passed in 2011, which welcomes cleared Gitmo prisoners to resettle in Berkeley with private money, and have been raising money for the prisoners and awareness of the Resolution.

When I saw a photo of my CODEPINK sister Diane Wilson sitting in front of the White House with a sign saying she was on a hunger strike I was inspired to join her. Others joined the strike-- Elliott Adams and Tarak Kauff of Veterans for Peace, S. Brian Willson of Portland, Leslie Angeline of CODEPINK, John Pope of Florida, Cynthia Johnson of Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarian Universalists, to name some. We became a nationwide support group for each other, focused on closing Gitmo, ending the indefinite detention, solitary confinement, and torture there, and embracing the Pelican Bay Hunger Strike in California prisons as well.

2 - What and who kept you going through this difficult summer of living on 300 calories a day?

Well, once I made a commitment it was fairly simple to stick with it and not eat, but what really helped was hunger strike support from the folks in, especially Andres Thomas Conteris, Sherri Maurin, Elliott Adams, Brian Willson, Les Angeline, Diane Wilson, Cynthia Johnson, John Pope. The hunger was difficult, but manageable. The payoff was so gratifying, knowing that people were calling the White House, signing the CODEPINK petition to Clifford Sloan.

Berkeley artist Doug Minkler stepped forward to do a poster of Gitmo prisoner Djamel Ameziane, who was cleared for transfer in 2008, but who remains in Gitmo indefinitely, without hope of freedom. We communicated to him, via his lawyers, the Center for Constitutional Rights, that we were raising money for his resettlement and pressuring Obama to release him. I organized a postcard-writing campaign to send him messages of courage.

My friends, especially the ones who DIDN'T try to talk me out of fasting, were supportive, loving, caring, available. Jimminywinks [her dog] never wavered in her support, but left home for 24 hours one day because I was on edge emotionally. Warning: starvation will make you emotional, often angry, impatient. I was angry at someone, and she doesn't like disharmony,  so she went out the open back door, out the open side gate, and over to the park nearby where she was spotted and taken to the Berkeley animal shelter. I got her back the next morning when my friend Mark called me and said "She's here! She's at the shelter!"

3 - Going forward, how do you see the Close Gitmo struggle?

We must continue to push Obama to stop the forced feeding, release the cleared-for-transfer prisoners, charge and try the remainder, and close the prison. I'm willing to go on another hunger strike, but I think instead that I will lobby the Democrats who represent me in Congress-- Congresswoman Lee and Senators Feinstein and Boxer-- and get them to talk to their man Obama, get him to take action. Feinstein actually sounds like ME re Guantanamo. She's a good potential ally on this issue, so I'm going to exploit that as much as possible.

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