words by whitney bauck
photographs by Will Warasila
For five youth activists, climate action is worth hunger striking for.
“I’m on hunger strike because I believe so much in a future that’s worth risking everything for,” says Ema Govea.
The high schooler is sitting in front of the White House, alongside four other activists, all of whom are hunger striking in an attempt to pressure Democrats to pass meaningful climate action as part of the Build Back Better agenda. The activists are members of Sunrise Movement, a youth-led political action group focused on climate justice known for organizing in support of the Green New Deal.
Though they started the strike last Wednesday on folding chairs, the five are sitting in wheelchairs now, to avoid exerting any more energy than necessary. One of the strikers was hospitalized over the weekend before returning to the strike the next day. None of them has had anything but fluids since they began.
On Friday, they enter the tenth day of their strike.
They have traveled from across the country to take part in this demonstration: Govea, who turned 18 the day before the strike began, from California; Kidus Girma, 26, and Julia Paramo, 24, from Texas; Abby Leedy, 20, from Philadelphia; and Paul Campion, 24, from Chicago. Though they each articulate slightly different reasons why they’re here, it all comes down to one thing: they want to see Democrats, led by President Biden, deliver on the promise to “pass climate policy that matches the urgency and the scale of the climate emergency.”
At a solidarity vigil outside the White House on Wednesday, Sunrise Movement co-founder and executive director Varshini Prakash articulated the stakes of the bill being discussed.
“The future of billions of human beings and species on this planet and generations to come are going to be shaped by what we do in this moment,” she said. “Biden is facing an existential choice—this is an opportunity to [either] end this era of fossil fuels and pain and pollution that is being wrought on so many communities, or a moment where we let fossil fuel companies and the people that they have employed… put the future of human civilization at risk.”
“The future of billions of human beings and species on this planet and generations to come are going to be shaped by what we do in this moment.”
The “people fossil fuel companies have employed” comment was a barely-veiled reference to Joe Manchin, a moderate Democrat from West Virginia responsible for shooting down a clean energy plan that made up the centerpiece of Biden’s proposed climate policy. Over the summer, an Exxon Mobil lobbyist was caught on tape describing Manchin as the “kingmaker,” whom the lobbyist called “every week.” Manchin has received more fossil fuel donations than any other Democrat, and has made more than $5.2 million dollars from a coal company he started.
While Biden has been eager to reach some kind of compromise that would allow him to arrive at COP26 with meaningful promises about the United States’s commitment to climate action in hand, the hunger strikers have spent the past week and a half encouraging progressive Democrats to “hold the line.”
“Biden and others are not showing that they understand that this might be our last best shot to pass climate policy,” Campion, the striker from Chicago, told me outside the Capitol building on Thursday morning. “And they are not showing that they understand that there are billions of lives hanging in the balance.”
Still, some politicians, including Cori Bush, Rashida Tlaib and Jamaal Bowman, have come in person to meet and express solidarity with the hunger strikers.
Though hunger striking is a tool of non-violent resistance that has been used in numerous social movements throughout history, employed by everyone from the suffragettes to Mahatma Gandhi, the five young people have received plenty of criticism for their choice. Some have mocked the action as foolish or ineffective, while others have argued that it’s too punishing and potentially physically and psychologically harmful for such young people to inflict on their own bodies.
Campion dismissed those ideas while being wheeled away from Capitol police on Thursday morning.
“We know the stakes for ourselves. But we also know that pales in comparison to the number of lives lost already due to the climate crisis.”
“We know the stakes for ourselves,” he told me. “But we also know that pales in comparison to the number of lives lost already due to the climate crisis and the number of lives and livelihoods that will continue to be lost in the floods, fires and storms ahead if the US fails.”
Looking at Campion and his four companions, it was easy to understand both their youthful determination, but also the reasoning of their detractors: Every day, it seems, another much-fought-for provision is whittled from the Build Back Better plan, and even though progressives promise that a version of the bill will be passed next week, the climate policy it does contain—despite making up the largest part of what remains in the bill—may not be enough to satisfy the strikers.
But then I remembered 20-year-old Abby Leedy, who said she was hunger striking for a future where she could live with her wife and her mom in West Philly and go to church every week and have a garden. I thought about how much has changed in just her lifetime, that she could imagine a future where she’s happily married to a woman and welcome in church every week—something that would’ve seemed unthinkable in most of the U.S. just a couple decades ago.
And then I thought of Campion, who—like Joe Biden and Joe Manchin both—is a Catholic. Campion sees his faith as inextricably tied to his climate action. Earlier in the week, he quoted from one of Jesus’ most famous sermons, and those are the words that continued to ring in my ears for the rest of the day:
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.”