The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Five young people stopped eating to get grown-ups to start addressing the climate crisis

Five young people started the hunger strike in the nation’s capital on Oct. 20. From left to right: Paul Campion, Julia Paramo, Kidus Girma, Abby Leedy and Ema Govea. (Allyson Woodard)
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Day 4 of the hunger strike proved to be one of the most difficult.

Paul Campion, a 24-year-old who grew up in Silver Spring, Md., could feel his body responding to the lack of food. His stomach groaned with hunger. His brain functioning seemed slower. And when he stood, his legs held him up, but a dizziness tried to force him back down.

Even so, he was doing better than fellow hunger striker Kidus Girma. The 26-year-old had gone from experiencing blurred vision, dizziness and limb numbness on and off throughout the day to no longer being able to stand.

By evening, he was taken to a hospital.

“That was really scary,” Campion recalls. “The rest of us were sitting around crying as we were waiting for updates.”

In recent days, the U.N. global climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, has tried to advance conversations about the climate crisis and draw important commitments from world leaders.

But for two weeks, in the nation’s capital, five young people did more than just toss out words and promises. They put their health on the line, starving themselves in hope that their actions would push others to act. After preparing their bodies to go without food, they launched a hunger strike outside the White House on Oct. 20 and vowed not to end it until President Biden and other Democratic lawmakers delivered climate policy that matched “the urgency and the scale” of the crisis.

Unfortunately but not surprisingly, the pace of politics moved slower than the pace of their bodies’ decline.

On Tuesday, two weeks into the hunger strike, the group was forced to end it. The decision, as they describe it, was not an easy one and came only after they faced serious health scares and warnings about the potential repercussions of continuing.

“Once we hit the two-week mark, the doctors were very concerned,” Julia Paramo, one of the participants, told me Tuesday, before the group publicly announced the end to the hunger strike. “They said this is where we risked more permanent damage.”

On the first day of the strike, each of the five young people held a sign explaining why they were there. One read, “Hunger striking for my future.” Another: “Hunger striking for my community.” Paramo’s read, “En huelga de hambre para vivir.” Hunger striking to live.

“I want a future where I can live, where my friends can live, where I can be outside in clear skies with my family, breathing the air, having a picnic,” the 24-year-old explained. “I want communities not only to survive but to live.”

A few days into the strike, Paramo got emotional when someone mentioned the freezing conditions in Texas in February that resulted in deaths. She and her relatives live in Dallas. She also knows that too-close-to-home crisis was just one of many deadly climate events to occur across the world in recent years.

“Climate change affects so many communities, everywhere globally,” she said. “I think the five of us doing this really brought more attention to the morality and humanity of how serious this is. We should have already done something, and if we don’t do anything now, it could be catastrophic.”

Paramo said the hunger strike may have ended, but the group’s effort will continue.

The five young people came together through the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led climate organization, and they now plan to focus their energy on a new target: Sen. Joe Manchin III, the West Virginia Democrat who has expressed doubts about a $1.75 trillion spending bill that would represent the most consequential climate legislation ever proposed in the U.S.

The group has invited others to join them Thursday morning at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Southwest Washington. A description of the event reads: “After fourteen days, we have decided to eat as fuel for the rage we feel toward Joe Manchin and any Democrat who sides with him. Bring your rage to Washington DC on Thursday and join us as we mobilize for the fight ahead.”

“We will continue to fight, in one way or another, until we get the life-affirming legislation we all need and deserve,” Girma said when we spoke.

The 26-year-old, who was born in Ethiopia and grew up in Texas, thought he might not be able to continue with the hunger strike after he ended up in the hospital on that fourth day, following the advice of a medical team that had been monitoring the group. There, Girma said, doctors told him that his blood sugar was at a potentially fatal level.

After the staff filled him with saline and a syringe full of glucose — which he describes as feeling like fire as it coursed through his veins to his heart — he returned to the hunger strike.

When we spoke, he hadn’t eaten for 14 days and described himself as feeling “vacuous.”

“For the first time in maybe five years or more, I dropped into the 130s again,” he said of his weight. When he started the hunger strike he was 150 pounds. His shoulder bones were also less prominent and his pronunciation of some words different. Toward the end of the hunger strike, he noticed his words coming out in the way he used to say them as a child, before receiving speech therapy.

Girma, who works as an organizer in Dallas for the Sunrise Movement, said he has been involved in activism in some form or another since he was a kid.

“l love organizing,” he said. “I love organizing because to organize you must inherently, deeply believe that groups of people can come together and make the world a better place, as cheesy as it sounds.”

He described the encouragement that he and the other hunger strikers received over the two weeks from people across the world, and some lawmakers who took the time to talk with them, including Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.), as making them “feel more heard now than we have ever before.”

Girma and Paramo were the only two of the original hunger strikers to make it 14 days. The other three were forced to stop earlier.

Campion went 11 days without eating when he ended up in the hospital. A photo taken of him at that time shows him lying in bed, wires spilling from his chest. His heart rate had dropped low and wouldn’t rise. He said doctors told him he was at risk of major heart complications, including cardiac arrest.

“Choosing to do a hunger strike was incredibly scary and a very vulnerable and intimate decision for those who chose to do it,” he said. Before agreeing to participate, he spoke to his parents, partner and housemates. Then he put his life in Chicago on hold to come to Washington.

“The hunger strike, for me, felt like I was doing everything I could to fight for the future, for the life I want for the people and places I love and care about,” he said. Ending it was hard, but seemed necessary, he said. “Ultimately, I know I need to be in this fight and I want to be in the fight, and I was not prepared to risk that.”

The sign he held on that first day of the strike read, “Hunger striking for my future children.”

Read more from Theresa Vargas:

It’s not just sugar skulls. Dia de los Muertos offers a chance to remember the children Washington lost.

Covid left a Maryland woman on life support, unaware she gave birth. Then came ‘a miracle.’

A Virginia filmmaker entered the deadly Darién Gap to capture what Black migrants face. He almost didn’t make it out.

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