Adrian Parsons spent New Year’s Day at the mayor’s house—but not with the mayor.
Parsons, 29, had asked Vince Gray for an audience several times over the previous few weeks. The closest he got was the promise of a Dec. 30 meeting with a mayoral assistant. But Parsons, who’d been on a hunger strike since Dec. 8 on behalf of D.C. voting rights—an issue near to Gray’s heart—was running out of time. So, along with girlfriend Meg Walsh and fellow hunger striker Sam Jewler, he piled into Walsh’s Hyundai and drove to Gray’s Hillcrest home.
The trio of freedom fighters hadn’t anticipated that the mayor might not be waiting around for them on New Year’s Day. There were a lot of things they hadn’t anticipated.
And so it was that Parsons, who was down to 125 pounds over his six-foot frame, came to break his fast by sipping from a coconut water container while wrapped in a space blanket on a curb outside Gray’s house. His only other witnesses were some fellow activists from Occupy D.C.’s McPherson Square encampment who dialed in remotely. Parsons summoned one of them on his ever-present iPad.
By the time the company decided to leave, Walsh’s car’s battery had died. They huddled in the car waiting for AAA as Jewler, who’d broken his own fast two weeks earlier, discussed the difficulties of coming off a hunger strike. “It was probably the strangest shit I’ve ever taken,” he said of his first post-strike bowel movement. Eventually, a police officer stopped to give the Hyundai a jump-start. The irony wasn’t lost on Parsons, who’d been arrested twice in his previous two months of protesting. “If Vincent Gray were here, he’d think we were retarded,” Parsons said.
He wouldn’t have been the only one with a low estimate of the group’s savvy. When Parsons and an initial cohort of three other Occupy D.C. regulars branched out from protesting economic inequality to hunger striking in the name of local self-government early last month, they hadn’t considered that Congress was about to go on a holiday recess. The House wasn’t scheduled to convene again until Jan. 17, meaning the group had signed themselves up for 40 days without food before the deliberative body that could meet their demands would even be back in town. In the meantime, they needed to find someplace to stay, since wintertime camping and hunger striking make for a bad combination. They wound up in Luther Place Memorial Church on 14th Street NW.
The other strikers stopped their fasts after 10 to 11 days. Parsons kept going. He maintained his strike far longer than anybody—his girlfriend; his family; even Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, who visited him at the church and urged him to give it up—wanted him to.
After more than three weeks of fasting, Parsons had turned himself into something of an icon—which isn’t to say he’d become any more of an expert on the logistics of exactly how Washington’s awkward constitutional situation would end. Take that meeting with Gray, for instance: The mayor, after all, has no vote when it comes to whether or not Washingtonians get one. Why pressure him for a meeting? If the group had wanted to use the strike to demonstrate that the occupiers’ embrace of local issues is more than a half-cocked gesture, it didn’t do the trick. By the time the ailing Parsons gave up his fast, it still wasn’t clear how much D.C. would benefit from having as its champion an emaciated artist best known for having once publicly circumcised himself as part of a performance.
Not that that mattered on New Year’s Day. “I cannot believe that is what coconut water tastes like,” Parsons said, hiccupping through his return to sustenance. “My mind must have hallucinated it.”