Yasiin Bey Puts a face on Force-feeding

By: France Francois

By now, people across the world have seen Yasiin Bey, the rapper and actor better known as Mos Def, volunteering to be force-fed using the U.S. military’s operating procedure for hunger-striking Gitmo detainees. When Bey initially steps into the room, he is well-dressed and understated in all black. His eyes wary, yet confident, he wishes viewers “Peace” and “Good morning” as he introduces himself. A few seconds later, he is in an orange jumpsuit being shackled to a chair. What proceeds next is even more disturbing to watch because of the look of unmasked terror and anguish on Bey’s face—this was not what he’d expected.

A tube is inserted into Bey’s nose and down into his stomach. It’s obvious to see when the procedure goes from being uncomfortable to outright painful as his body begins to writhe. Your instinctive reaction is to look away from what will undoubtedly lead to the breaking of another human being’s spirit—many viewers don’t even make it beyond the first minute or so. As the video continues, Bey begs for the procedure to stop. Instead, his straps are tightened and his head and body are forcibly restrained. “Please, please, please,” he screams.  And then it happens. They break him. A voice commands the doctors and guards to stop and they do, leaving Bey gasping for air and sobbing. It is a heart-wrenching scene to watch and in that moment, you realize that he may never be the same again.

When Bey looks up to the camera in the next scene, the quiet confidence in his eyes is gone, replaced by a palpable fear and anxiety. I made myself watch the video a second time, because the look in Bey’s eyes instantly and searingly humanizes the treatment of the 40-odd faceless hunger-strikers at Guantanamo Bay. Men whose faces must wear much the same look of dehumanization and powerlessness every time the feeding tube is fed through their nose, with no one to bear witness or plead their cause. To watch the video is to be joltingly reminded that our government has been holding people without trial for years. It makes it harder to go about your day like nothing is amiss when you’ve watched a grown man cry and know that dozens of others go through this ritual of subjugation at the hands of our government at least once each day.

In modern times, a hunger strike is usually taken up as an act of nonviolent civil or political disobedience—often, but not always by the incarcerated. Mohandas Gandhi popularized hunger strikes to protest and shame the British government during colonial rule in India. Bobby Sands of the  Irish Republican Army, union activist Cesar Chavez, and assisted suicide guru Jack Kevorkian have endured long and well-publicized hunger strikes to bring public attention to their causes. According to NBC, hunger strikes are “visceral, agonizing, striking at a person’s most simple needs…[a] method of protest used the world over to galvanize popular support, unite a cause, and draw attention to issues that otherwise might go ignored.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the practice of force-feeding that robs and individual of their right to protest appears to be almost as old as the hunger strike itself. Hunger-striking Africans on Trans-Atlantic slave ships were force-fed with funnels, as were British suffragettes at the turn of the 20th century. At Gitmo, most of the hunger strikers have been cleared for release for some time, but remain trapped in an indefinite legal limbo that may only be solved by forcing the hand of Congress or the President. In the meantime, daily force-feeding via rubber tubing continues.

The Obama administration has defended detainee force-feeding, declaring it “humane, high-quality medical care to preserve life and health” despite near-universal condemnation by the human rights and medical communities. The World Medical Association has unequivocally declared force-feeding as inhumane. More recently, a group of prominent medical ethicists wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine that “force-feeding a competent person is not the practice of medicine; it is aggravated assault.” By force-feeding detainees, the Obama administration undoubtedly wants to make the hunger-strike issue go away and dissuade any other detainees from joining the strike. (Un)fortunately, these actions have had the opposite effect, particularly after a widely-discussed New York Times op-ed penned by a Gitmo detainee awaiting release. For many however, the strongest case against force-feeding is made simply in seeing the powerless terror etched on the face of Yassin Bey—an indelible humanization of what it’s like to be dehumanized.