I'm just a shrimper whose gonna stop eatin' to stop the war!

May 26th, 2006

An interview with Diane Wilson by Medea Benjamin

Diane Wilson, a fourth-generation shrimper from Texas and mother of five, has become legendary for her struggles to stop chemical companies from dumping devastating toxins into the Gulf Coast, as chronicled in her new book An Unreasonable Woman: A True Story of Shrimpers, Politicos, Polluters and the Fight for Seadrift, Texas.

Diane, a founding member of CODEPINK, announced at the Mother's Day peace vigil in Washington DC on May 14 that she was going on a hunger strike to bring the troops home from Iraq and invited others to join her. The Troops Home Fast, which will begin on July 4, has already attracted hundreds of supporters.

This interview, conducted by CODEPINK co-founder Medea Benjamin, explains Diane's reason for calling for this fast and what she hopes to accomplish.

We were in Iraq with a CODEPINK delegation before the war began. How did your experience with the Iraqi people affect you?

I'll never forgot my time in Iraq. People were so friendly, so polite, even when they knew our country was fixing to invade their country. We'd wander around Baghdad day and night, and whenever I'd get lost, a child or a man would always offer to bring me straight home. Now it's too dangerous to even go there. That's what this war did.

I can't even imagine what life is like for Iraqis today, with death and violence all around them. It breaks my heart to think that those children we met are dying. It truly does.

Before the war, the Iraqis were really clear to separate the American government from the American people. Now after three years of war, do you think the Iraqi people are still making that distinction?

No. They don't see the American people rising up against this war based on lies, so the lines between the American government and the American people have become blurred. We haven't shown the Iraqi people that we are truly against the war, and it's time we did that.

Their bodies are on the line every day. And so are the bodies of the US soldiers. So shouldn't we be putting our bodies on the line? Shouldn't we be as serious about making peace as some people are about making war?

Is this fast also in support of the American soldiers fighting in Iraq?

Yes, they are victims too. I know the military well, and I've seen firsthand what war does to young boys. During the Vietnam War, I joined the army to be a medic because I wanted to help. But in boot camp, I saw how they took these young boys-some only 17 years old-and turned them into killers. They indoctrinated them to hate other people, dark-skinned people, and to kill, kill, kill. They also taught them to just follow orders and never think on their own.

When I was at Ft. Sam Houston taking care of the wounded, I saw these boys come home from Vietnam like zombies-dazed, drugged, messed up for life. My ex-husband was in Vietnam and came home a different man. He's still impacted today-he says he had a knot in his throat that never went away. Same with my brother. Now we're messing up a whole new generation of young people by sending them off to another unjust war.

Do you have family members fighting in Iraq?

I've got nephews there and my daughter's fiancé is a gunner who already served in Iraq and is about to be sent back again. He told me about the checkpoints, how they once shot up an innocent family. He's totally traumatized. When I told him about the fast idea, he encouraged me to do it. He and his whole platoon don't want to go back.

I hate seeing all these soldiers being forced to put their lives on the line for nothing. So I'm doing this fast to support the troops, AND the Iraqi people.

You've done several hunger strikes before. What has your experience been?

I learned in my struggles against the chemical companies that a hunger strike can be a very powerful action. I did a two-week fast against Formosa Plastics to get the EPA to do an environmental impact study, and sure enough, EPA agreed to do it. The longest hunger strike I did was 31 days. That was 1998 and I was trying to get Dupont to recycle its waste water. I started it alone, and then others joined in, and we eventually won. I did a 29-day-fast to support the people of Bhopal. We had support that time from CODEPINK women, and over 1,000 people joined the fast in 8 countries. The Indian government was going to let Union Carbide off the hook, and thanks to the fast, they changed their policy.

How long will you go on this fast?

My goal is to bring the troops home, to stop killing the Iraqi people. I don't know how long I can fast, but I'm making this an open-ended fast. I plan to take this as far as I've ever taken anything in my 58 years. I think that everything in my life has led me to this point. I fear our future is at stake, and I'm ready to make a major sacrifice.

How can others join you?

They can join the fast for at least one day, or as long as they can. I think people should try to push themselves. If they feel they can only fast one day, try two; if they feel you can fast one week, try two. Will it be uncomfortable? Yes, but we've been too comfortable for too long.

It's funny. I've found that people are terrified of fasting. There's an Iraq veteran who agreed to join us. He said that he's been in combat, seen people blown up, but that the idea of not eating terrifies him. But once people try it, they usually discover that they're a lot stronger and their bodies are a lot more resilient than they think."

Are you fasting with only water, or will you drink other liquids?

I'm hard line; I'm doing a water-only fast. Others who are joining plan to do juice or no-solid-food fasts. A lot of people have families to take care of and work obligations or busy travel schedules. For those people, a liquid fast makes more sense. They can drink fruit juices, or anything that's liquid--just no solid food. People can make their choice about how to fast-whether water only or a liquid fast.

Do people have to come to DC to join the fast?

We'd love people to join us anytime during the summer at the White House. But they can also stay at home and fast. The important thing is to be visible. Don't just sit at home and fast. Be public. The American people need to see us. Tourists will be visiting the White House in droves this summer, and will have to see us. Fasters who can't come to Washington can be outside their federal buildings or recruiting stations or churches. People can also do rolling hunger strikes as a community, with each person taking 24 hours. And we're asking people in other countries to fast at US embassies, especially on July 4th when the embassies are having their big parties.

What gives you the spiritual fortitude to do a long-term fast?
Gandhi talked about a fast as a mental thing. You don't get in shape physically; you prepare yourself mentally. He called it "soul power." Fasting is transformative, both of the individual and the larger society. Not eating quiets down your bodily functions and lets you go deep into yourself, and find oneness with the world. The Bible says to find yourself you must first lose yourself. I find myself by fasting. Hunger strikes have changed who I am. Totally. They have given me more confidence in my body. They help me lose the worldly trappings, the illusions, the fear. They are very liberating.

Some people make a distinction between a fast, which is more religious, and a hunger strike, which is more political. Is this a hunger strike or a fast?

I'm a fisherwoman, a shrimper. I battle with fish, not with words. I don't get into that intellectual stuff battling with worlds. I don't really care what you call it; I'm just gonna stop eatin'. I'm just a shrimper whose gonna stop eatin' to stop the war.

Are you religious?

I grew up Pentacostal, and one thing that stuck with me is that you are your brother's keeper. I believe that, I truly do. But the definition of your brother shouldn't stop at a border. While Bush says his God told him to go to war, my God says we should be do everything we can to stop war, to protect our brothers and sisters from being in harm's way.

Everyone is talking about religion these days. I was at the book expo in New York City signing copies of my book, and there were all these new books about God and religion and politics. And there is all this talk about the left taking back religion from the religious right. But here we are engaged in a bloody, aggressive war, with the apocalypse staring us straight in the eyes, and people are just talking and talking. It's time to stop talking about religion and practicing it.

Already people are writing to CODPINK, saying they don't want to see us get sick from this fast. Some are trying to talk us out of it, saying that the peace movement is about life, not death, and that we need to keep our activists strong and healthy.

Are they as worried about these kids that are getting sent off to war? Are they trying to stop them from getting injured? Anytime I have any reservations about putting myself at risk, I think of the children in Iraq and the children we're sending off to war. What I'm going to do is nothing by comparison.

Look, the fate of our nation is at stake. If we allow this war to continue, it's just a matter of time before we invade another country, like Iran or maybe even Venezuela. We can't just lay down like a mat and let this administration walk all over us. You know that line about "all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing"? We have to do something to stop evil.

Why don't you use other tactics, tactics that aren't potentially damaging to your health?

We do. We've been marching, lobbying, getting arrested. I just did 3 months in jail for hanging a banner-120 days and $2,000 fine. We did a 4-month vigil in front of the White House. But it hasn't stopped the war, so we have to go further. We have to reach down into our souls. And during the fast, we're going to work with other campaigns-Voters for Peace, Cities for Peace, Declaration of Peace-and ask people to join these efforts.

The Declaration of Peace says that if there is not a satisfactory exit plan by September 21, International Peace Day, we'll engage in massive civil disobedience around the country to end the war. How does the fast fit into this?

We will be encouraging people to commit acts of civil disobedience around the country that week. Fasting, engaging in civil disobedience, these are all "unreasonable" actions to ramp up the anti-war momentum. We've been too well behaved. I always say, "Reasonable women adapt to the world. Unreasonable women make the world adapt to them." It's well past the time to be unreasonable.

Will the fast really accomplish anything? Do you really think George Bush is going to bring the troops home because some people are refusing to eat?

I've seen throughout history how people have used hunger strikes. Gandhi won independence for India without firing a shot. The suffragists did a hunger strike to win the vote. Mitch Schneider fasted to call attention to the homeless. People in Belfast fasted till death to try to get the British out of Ireland.

Some fasts are successful, others aren't. You never know. There's certainly no guarantee of success. But I damn sure know that if we don't do anything, nothing will change. And I damn sure know that it's a time for action, not navel-gazing.

When you fish, you have to use your instincts. That's what the sea teaches you. I've learned to trust my instincts, my gut feelings, and my gut tells me that with this fast, we can create the space for change to happen. I don't know exactly what that will be. But I know that boldness can be magical. I believe that we can create miracles when we put the intent out there. And I'm willing to stake my life on it!