One man’s stand
A Rancho Cordova law student puts his principles into action by fasting on the Capitol steps to end the war in Iraq
Victor Copeland is a tall, skinny guy. And the 23-year-old McGeorge School of Law student decided to spend part of his summer break shedding pounds from his already lean frame by depriving himself of food in hopes of bringing attention—and possibly an end—to the war in Iraq.
When SN&R spoke to Copeland on the last day of his protest, the Rancho Cordova resident looked more like a scholar than an activist. He sat on a maroon and black woven blanket beneath a tree on the south side of the Capitol. His lanky frame folded into a neat pile. A shock of dark hair fell over his glasses, and a well-thumbed copy of a biography of Gandhi lay next to him. Copeland was beginning to show the physical effects of a prolonged fast: His skin looked slightly waxy, and his eyes had dark circles beneath them.
Copeland began his five-day fast on July 10 at the Capitol in support of Assembly Joint Resolution 36, which calls for the withdrawal of California’s National Guard troops from Iraq.
“I feel better than I thought I would,” he said, noting that the night before he’d had a headache and had felt unusually emotional. “Otherwise, I’ve been energetic and alert.” He doesn’t weigh himself regularly and so couldn’t estimate how much he’d lost, but the belt on his khaki pants was cinched a notch tighter than usual.
Although Copeland has been protesting the war since its inception more than three years ago, this was the most direct action he’s taken. He’d planned to fast during his vacation this summer to meet what he sees as a civic and moral responsibility to keep attention focused on the war.
When he speaks, his voice is soft and deliberate, and it’s with such intensity and focus that listeners are pulled in. He spoke about watching the war increase in violence and destruction, and of feeling that he needed to do something more: “Fasting intensifies protest in a nonviolent and physically powerful way.”
Copeland takes his inspiration from a number of sources. He’s the kind of guy who quotes Kierkegaard, admires both Martin Luther King Jr. and Thomas Merton for their commitment to the union of spirituality and social engagement, and takes his example for action from Gandhi. In denying himself food, he sought a protest with spiritual implications. “There’s a certain dignity and civility to fasting as a means of protest,” Copeland said. “It’s an escalation that’s not violent, loud or boisterous.”
Copeland fasted publicly at the Capitol during the day and then went home each night after sundown to feed his pets and sleep. He and his fiancée have two dogs, Zero and Function, and a cat, Pi. “We’re sorta math geeks,” he said, laughing. Copeland’s also a former professional rock climber—he led a North Face expedition to Patagonia—and an intern for a local agency that advocates for people with developmental disabilities.
Though Copeland had intended to fast alone, he ended up with company. His fast coincided with the Troops Home Fast, organized by national anti-war group CodePink, which started on July 4. “I was only vaguely familiar with CodePink,” Copeland said. But once he’d applied for a permit, CodePink members stepped in to help. Copeland’s initial application for a permit was denied by the Capitol Protection Service, by a CPS officer who said he was concerned about the potential for “illness or injury” resulting from his fast. Copeland appealed that decision, and CPS issued a permit with restrictions. But he wasn’t satisfied with the restriction that he carry a sign stating that his protest was “not a hunger strike.” That’s when he called the American Civil Liberties Union.
The ACLU agreed that the restrictions amounted to an attempt to control the message of his protest and thus violated his constitutional rights. Alan Schlosser, legal director of the ACLU’s Northern California chapter, sent a letter on Copeland’s behalf to the CPS, pointing out its concerns and asking that CPS remove the restrictions. It did.
Officer Keith Troy, who issues permits for events at the Capitol, attributed the problem to a “miscommunication. We just wanted to make sure that the guy was safe.”
Copeland hopes that people who saw him on the steps of the Capitol will be moved to support the joint resolution and to take action to end the war. AJR 36 asks the president and Congress to “restore the balance between the federal government and the states by limiting federal control of the California National Guard to cases where there is an insurrection or a declaration of war under the United States Constitution.” Introduced nearly a year ago by Assemblywoman Loni Hancock, D-East Bay, AJR 36 is still languishing in the Assembly Rules Committee.
Copeland was joined throughout the week by others who fasted for a day or two. Sacramento CodePink member M.K. Morris fasted the entire five days, and other members of the anti-war group checked in with Copeland regularly and organized a press conference on the final day of the fast to draw attention to AJR 36.
When it was time to break the fast, about 30 people gathered in a circle with Copeland to pass the basket of bread and juice. “People were standing up to share their stories,” he said. “It was so spiritual.” He walked away from the group to get a larger perspective for a moment. “I thought, ‘What a good use of the Capitol space.’”
Two days later, Copeland was back on a normal diet and climbing rocks in the Sierras.
But he’s not planning on giving up on exercising his constitutional right to protest the war anytime soon. He plans another fast before his second year of law school begins, and CodePink’s Troops Home Fast continues until September 21, the International Day of Peace.