Following a morning health scare that sent hunger striker Sellassie Blackwell to the hospital, the 39-year-old rapper and activist is back at the campsite in front of Mission Police Station where a group of five activists have been camping and fasting for 14 days.
“We are getting weak, it’s the fourteenth day, we are not superman,” said Blackwell, leaning against a wall near the entrance of the police station at 17th and Valencia streets. “I’m tired. My blood was low, it was all bad.”
Blackwell said that earlier this morning he fainted in his tent and checked into the hospital, heeding the advice of doctors who were concerned about his health following a check-up on Saturday.
Along with four other strikers, the rapper has vowed to go on a hunger strike to demand police reform. They are protesting the killings of minorities at the hands of San Francisco Police officers and are calling for the ousting of Police Chief Greg Suhr or Mayor Ed Lee.
At around 11 a.m., Blackwell notified his supporters of his health condition by posting on his Facebook page, “In the emergency room. Blood work…I hope. Pray for me y’all.”
Blackwell was checked into USCF for additional blood testing, and as of noon it was unclear how long he would remain or if his fast could be compromised.
Back at the campsite at 6 p.m., Blackwell said that is blood tests were not alarming and that he and the other strikers will continue to receive daily check-ups by medical professionals.
They have “no plans to quit, but are back at the drawing board,” said Blackwell in reference to the strike, which is now entering its third week.
He also pushed back against criticism from onlookers who wondered about the severity of the strikers’ health conditions. The group is still taking in calories through their consumption of coconut water and chicken broth.
“I’m sure everyone who says that eats two to three meals a day,” said Blackwell. “We are putting our lives on the line beyond the [effects of not eating]. We are out here camping, vulnerable every night.”
When asked if he feared retaliation, Blackwell said “Every police officer in San Francisco knows my name.”
— Mission Local (@MLNow) May 5, 2016
“There was some concern for him on Saturday so they took him in today,” said Maria Cristina Gutierrez, the director of a local preschool who initiated the hunger strike, shortly after Blackwell was sent to the hospital. “We made sure he did not go to General Hospital, they are beautiful people, but after everything we’ve been through, we don’t trust the city anymore.”
The remaining strikers at the camp outside of the police station said that they receive daily visits by medical professionals that include checking their vitals, and that a doctor was concerned for Blackwell’s well-being following an examination over the weekend.
“There’s a possibility that he may be hospitalized and may have to quit the strike,” said Gutierrez.
On Saturday, Gutierrez was also alarmed when doctors advised her to undergo a chest X-ray because she was breathing irregularly, and said they suspected pneumonia. Doctors have advised her to stay active, and Gutierrez said she follows their suggestion by taking walks around the station.
But Gutierrez said that she is “fine” and that her younger counterparts should follow her example.
“I have been taking care of myself by staying inside [of the police station], but they are out there talking to people,” said Gutierrez. “The sun is hot, you feel like you are going to faint. I tell them to come inside, but they don’t listen. When you are young you think you will come out of this no matter what. I don’t want to die here.”
Doctors explained to Mission Local that a variety of health complications can result from even a partial hunger strike.
The group of protesters that includes two rappers, two educators, and a local politician embarked on the strike with a clear message — that they would refuse solid foods until their demands are met. By signing a form refusing to be force-fed should their health deteriorate, they say that they are very well aware that the hunger strike could lead to long-term health complications and even death.
“My muscles are getting sore,” said candidate for D9 supervisor Edwin Lindo, adding that doctors have advised the strikers that they are entering a critical phase in the strike in terms of their health. “As you approach the third week, your body goes into severe survival mode.”
Each of the strikers have lost somewhere between 15 and 20 pounds due to a liquid diet that includes water, coconut water, vitamin supplements, and chicken broth. During the initial days of the strike, Lindo and preschool teacher Ike Pinkston collapsed after experiencing lightheadedness and dizzy spells, though both say that they are now more or less adjusted to functioning without food.
“Our bodies are on another level,” said Lindo. “There are extreme waves of energy, but that’s not sustainable.”
Pinkston said that for him, thoughts of his deteriorating health are becoming more frequent.
“During my last check-up the doctor told me I was dehydrated,” said Pinkston.”They stuck me several times with needles and blood wouldn’t come out. Now that Sellassie is in the hospital, I’m kinda worried.”
Pinkston said that he has felt fatigued in the last few days, a state that in part is due being deprived of food, but also a lack of proper sleep.
“Every time I crawl into my tent they keep pulling me out to talk to the media, to visitors, for meetings,” said Pinkston. The strikers say that these visits and social interactions encourage them to go forward with the strike, but that they can also be draining.
Yesterday, under the noon sun, the group spearheaded a march of some 800 supporters from their campsite at Mission Station to City Hall, where they planned to confront Mayor Lee. Though accompanied by medical students who pushed the strikers nearly two miles in wheelchairs, the day’s events took a toll on the starving activists.
“Last night exacerbated our health [problems],” said Lindo. “Mama [Gutierrez] was screaming at the board of supervisors for 20 minutes. I think that [much action is] having a severe effect on our health.”
Blackwell said that Tuesday’s march was trying for all.
“The wheelchair rolling around on Mission Street, I had a many headache,” he said. “It was also disappointing because there was such a build up the whole day, we were so high, and then we get to city hall and find out that Lee is not there.”
While expressing concerns for his own health, rapper Equipto, whose legal name is Ilych Sato, said that he worries about his mother, 66-year-old hunger striker Gutierrez.
“Sellassie is scared, and we all are. I’m mostly scared for the well-being of my mother,” said Equipto. “I know she won’t quit, she’s too stubborn like, me.”
This story has been updated.