A Hunger For Justice
Saturday, April 14, 2007
Forty-four days without food and counting, and he thinks his mind is starting to slow. There are days he is so nauseated, he can barely move. His legs, he says, have swelled up from a problem with his kidneys. His body doesn't give off heat anymore. But his resolve -- his heart, he would say -- hasn't faltered. If need be, he says, he'll take this to the end.
A few hundred yards away from a statue of Mahatma Gandhi on Massachusetts Avenue, 55-year-old Start Loving, a former business executive known to his friends and family as Jay McGinley, lives on the sidewalk in front of the Sudanese Embassy, a month into surviving on nothing but water and the will to stir the world into stopping genocide. Bearded, sunburned and dirty from weeks on the street, he could be another homeless wretch -- except that hanging like wings off his shoulders are two giant laminated orange placards that read "Darfur Hunger Strike March 1."
By night he is swaddled in a green sleeping bag, snatching a fitful few hours of sleep without lying flat, else he'd risk arrest. By day, he sits on a plastic crate on the sidewalk or in the street, a hair too close to the passing cars. Or he steps up and down on a couple of bricks, to expend more calories, he says. He is placid, unobtrusive, never looking passersby in the eye, sometimes huddled over a well-thumbed Bible.
"What I'm doing is not clever," he says. "It's exactly what Gandhi, what King, what Jesus did."
It is, in short, a cry to society's collective conscience. At least 450,000 people have died in the Darfur region of Sudan as a result of violence and disease, and millions have been displaced since 2003, when the Sudanese government responded to a rebel uprising by bombing villages and arming a militia known as the Janjaweed as part of a campaign of aggression that the U.S. government has called a genocide.
Driven by a newspaper article he read three years ago about the atrocities in Darfur, the man formerly known as McGinley gave up his job last May running a small retail outfit in Pennsylvania, moved to the streets of the District with $10 in his pocket and began a nonstop vigil, either forgoing food completely or on a semi-starvation diet of a few hundred calories a day, to protest the world's inaction.
"Babies are being killed. Women are being gang-raped, then mutilated. What kind of human beings are we if we don't respond?" he asks.
Only if thousands of people were willing to stand up, on a hunger strike, Loving says, would the U.S. government be prepared to risk its political capital and take meaningful action: Pressure Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir into softening his stance, and persuade China to stop its massive trade with the country in weapons and oil.
Loving posted himself in front of the Sudanese Embassy on March 13 -- a spot he was happy to discover was smack in the middle of Embassy Row and the daily commute of the diplomatic corps -- and slipped a letter under the door asking Bashir to "soften his heart" in return for Loving's life.
Before that, he held his vigil in Lafayette Square in front of the White House, where he befriended William Thomas, who for nearly 26 years has maintained a protest against nuclear weapons on a patch of ground he staked out long ago, complete with two yellow placards dense with text ("DON'T BE A LEMMING") and a rain canopy.
"If you starve yourself to death, people will write you off as a kook," Thomas said, sitting at his post in a drizzle. "I've been telling him each day, 'You should rethink this.' " Thomas and his wife, Ellen, supply Loving with his daily needs -- these days, now that he's not eating, mainly water. They also let him use the computer at their Washington Peace Center office to update his blog at Standwithdarfursudanembassy.blogspot.com. (He took a break from his embassy post on recent nights to update it and used the chance to freshen up, spend a night out of the cold and lie low from the Secret Service after stepping too close one evening to Vice President Cheney's convoy.)
Darfur, however, is not the first cause for which he has been ready to stake his life and livelihood -- causes that have cost him his family.