On a late September day in 2009, I trekked from the NCH offices to make visit to the White House and happened, instead, upon a collection of people and a sign that read “61st Day of Fast.” I didn’t know such a thing was possible. Surely one would have to have died. I approached the group eagerly, wanting to know more. I was not only intrigued but in absolute awe of the dedication and stamina it must have taken.
More accurately, I was in awe until I saw the pot bellies and flush cheeks of the fasters who were resting on lawn chairs while another protester rambled incoherently into a bull horn. These were not the Ghandian thin protesters I thought of when I imagined a fight for justice. Enraged and grumbling to myself about being duped, I asked a volunteer from the group to explain what was going on. The fast, she explained was rotational. Each person fasted for a short period and was replaced by another group member. The result was a longer fasting period without any real danger to the fasters themselves.
To be fair to the group of fasters, I didn’t and don’t know anything substantial about their cause. Furthermore, my protest experience is comparatively limited; it certainly has never put my life in immediate danger or my body in prison, for that matter. That all said, I continue to hold a certain contempt for insincere protest. One may fast for one day, ten days, to death, if the cause calls for such action. But it is a slight to one’s own commitment to claim a 100-day fast because 100 men have each fasted 1 day each. The value of a protest, after all, is in its earnestness.
I was still bothered by my White House experience two weeks later, when, back at the NCH offices, Executive Director Neil Donovan was looking through a pile of materials from the 1980’s. “Is that Mitch?” he asked himself. “This must have been the second fast. Wow look at him.” Donovan’s voice was low, but the Wow was sincere enough to send another intern and I skidding across the room to see what was in his hand.
The picture Donovan held, which was taken in 1987, showed several people assisting a hollow-cheeked, empty-eyed man off the White House lawn. A flash of excitement went through me. This, I thought, this was activism with earnestness. And this, I learned was Mitch Snyder.
Whatever is said of Mitch Snyder, what should be remembered is that he was what one sees in this picture: stark, earnest. The image of a hollow-bodied, frail Snyder is frightening. It implies not only mortality but a belief in a cause that forgoes such idle human concern. It states faith that commands respect. This is protest as it should be, protest of belief and value.
Neil Donovan gave the photo one last look before handing it off to the small crowd of NCH staffers that had collected around him. The picture was passed around quickly with each person stealing a glimpse and a gasp before passing it off again. Immediately, anyone who knew anything about Snyder began to share it. And, as swiftly as the chatter began, it subsided and the staff returned to work.
This, it seems, is what is now lacking in the homelessness movement -or any movement for that matter. The ability to not only say, I believe, but to fight for that belief, time and again. It’s not my place to demand homeless advocates all begin to starve themselves. Protest of any kind is a matter of personal faith. I cannot and will not force earnestness upon others, such is a matter of free will. But earnestness appears to be fading with an older generation, and without it, so to an ability to make meaningful systemic change. No, I cannot force earnestness on others, but I have no doubt in my mind that it is time this generation of advocates found some. R.I.P. Mitch Snyder.
By Adam Sirgany, former NCH intern and Knox College (IL) ’11