Why this 24-year-old went on a hunger strike outside the White House

Sunrise Movement organizer Paul Campion told Mic about risking his life to protest President Biden’s climate change policy.

Paul Campion on day five of the hunger strike.
Photo by Allyson Woodard
Our Streets
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Our Streets is a column by writer and reporter Ray Levy Uyeda that highlights activists, artists, and organizers who are doing the work and reclaiming power for the people.

The U.S. is responsible for nearly a third of global carbon pollution. It emits more carbon dioxide than any country ever. If the U.S. doesn’t take dramatic action, life as we know it will end. That’s why, from Oct. 19 through Nov. 2, five activists and organizers with the Sunrise Movement participated in a hunger strike in Washington, D.C. They spent their days in front of the White House to draw attention to the ongoing negotiations around the Biden administration’s Build Back Better Act, which organizers say has been whittled down to exclude life-saving climate provisions that would forestall a catastrophic climate disaster.

One hunger striker, 24-year-old Paul Campion, is a full time organizer with Sunrise Movement in Chicago. “I want to live a full, beautiful life,” Campion tells Mic. “And that's part of why I went on the hunger strike in the first place — because I know the climate crisis threatens that.”

Substantive action is required to avert an ongoing climate crisis, scientists warn. An August report put out by the United Nations’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found without fast action, human-caused climate change will only worsen current conditions of extreme heat, drought, wildfire, species extinction, mass migration, and destructive weather events. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said we are now at a “code red for humanity.”

After 11 days, Campion was sent to the hospital and discontinued his strike for medical reasons. Had he continued, Campion would have risked incurring major heart complications, cardiac arrest, or heart arrhythmias. He returned to Chicago on Nov. 8.

Even though he’s back home now, Campion says Sunrise activists won’t relent until comprehensive climate policy is approved — including the yet-to-be passed Build Back Better Act. Mic spoke with Campion by phone last week about the strike and what comes next.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

How are you doing health-wise?

Thank you for asking. I'm doing well. I made the hard decision to end my hunger strike after 11 days and to begin the refeeding process. Refeeding is a prescribed way of how to ease back into processing food without causing refeeding syndrome. I started by eating 1,200 calories a day and then slowly increased the amount. Now I'm at a point where I can eat a full day’s worth of food and I've been getting some of my weight back. I have a lot more energy and I'm feeling well, which is something I feel grateful for.

Walk me through the setup of and motivation for the hunger strike.

Our group of five ranged in age from 18 to 26. One striker, Emma, turned 18 the day before we actually started the hunger strike. From the initial conversation that we had to actually being in D.C. beginning the hunger strike was just six days; it's not like we were planning or preparing for this for weeks or months. It all came together very quickly, but it was not something we pulled out of a hat at random.

The decision to go on hunger strike was one where it felt like we had, in a lot of ways, run out of options. We'd done a massive electoral turnout in 2020. We’d had to rewrite [President] Biden's climate plan. We had done rallies, and earlier this summer folks went on 100-mile-long treks to build support for the Civilian Climate Corps and the Build Back Better Act. We had blockaded all the entrances to the White House in June to put pressure on Biden. And yet still, over the past few months, we were seeing how Joe Manchin and fossil fuel executives and their lobbyists were cutting out things like community college, family leave, and Medicare expansion to cover dental, hearing, and vision.

“One of the things about the hunger strike that was really clear was that the suffering that we were going through was minuscule compared to the number of lives already lost to the climate crisis.”

Particularly, on Oct. 15, The New York Times published an article that said the centerpiece of Biden's climate plan, the Clean Electricity Performance Program, was getting scrapped all because Joe Manchin and his oil money didn't want it in there. That really pushed us to a point where we were seeing that this fight was not going in the direction that we needed it to go.

We felt that a hunger strike would be both a way we could put pressure on Biden to actually deliver on his promises and also to clarify what is at stake right now, if, collectively, we miss this shot at federal climate legislation. We may not get another shot like this for another 10 years, the way our current American politics and governance system is so skewed to favor the interests of the billionaires as opposed to the people.

It was also about showing in a very direct way what courage or leadership looks like and how young people have been pushing and fighting for just the bare minimum in terms of passing legislation that would let us have the futures that we deserve. The hunger strike was one way of showing Biden, you need to have the courage to actually fight for your own damn promises, instead of giving them up as soon as Joe Manchin says, I don't want that because it would impact my profits.

Was there anything specific you did to prepare?

The legacy and the tradition of hunger striking was a part of our calculus and a part of our discernment. One of the things that we did was read about other hunger strikes. We met with folks who had done hunger strikes before for immigration reform and for local battles against the fossil fuel industry in the Gulf South.

For me, and for each of us individually, there were other things that are part of our life experiences that we brought into how we were making our own decisions whether to participate or not, or whether we should go forward and do it or not. My motivation was in part due to my faith. I'm Catholic and traditionally we fast on Ash Wednesday. This past spring, there were folks doing a hunger strike in Chicago around this environmental justice fight to stop a polluting company from moving from a wealthy neighborhood to a poor neighborhood. I did a solidarity fast with them for one day. Seeing the bravery, courage, and power of those organizers informed my own decision to think that this can be something that could be powerful and that I could take on.

How do you think the Biden administration has fallen short?

Biden and the Democrats promised us that they would deliver on their climate justice commitments and to pass legislation that would enable us to halve our emissions by 2030, that would create good jobs and that would finally bring environmental justice to our communities. In particular, we were reminding Biden of those promises and demanding that he deliver on them. One of the things about the hunger strike that was really clear was that the suffering that we were going through was minuscule compared to the number of lives already lost to the climate crisis.

There's already been so much suffering that, relatively speaking, not eating was, while hard, only a small example or sign of what families are going through across the country and of the suffering yet to come, and how much opportunity there is in actually passing good policy that prevents an enormous amount of potential suffering.

Campion protesting in front of the White House.

Photo by Rachael Warriner

Sunrise has been demanding at least $10 trillion of investment over 10 years in climate solutions. Right now, Biden's proposing $550 billion over the course of 10 years. We need a Green New Deal.

Has there been any kind of shift in the Biden administration’s tone or approach? What’s the response been like?

We did directly speak with Secretary John Kerry, who's a special envoy for climate, as well as with [Biden’s top climate adviser] Gina McCarthy. Kerry gave me a pretty wishy washy response that made excuses for Biden not delivering on his promises, and that was honestly really disappointing. He said, “thank you so much for your activism and organizing” — those kinds of condescending platitudes.

But while we were on hunger strike, Biden delivered his updated Build Back Better framework to Congress, and his administration also unveiled a new cross agency strategy on reducing methane emissions to get us to net zero emissions by 2050. However, they have failed to pass the Build Back Better Act, retain the Clean Electricity Performance Program or other climate measures in it, and failed to do any other additional executive actions, like ending fossil fuel leases on federal lands and any other of the Biden campaign promises. As it’s currently written, the Build Back Better Act is not enough to actually deliver on the president's commitment that he just made to the world at COP26 to halve emissions by 50%. In addition to passing legislation itself that they've been working on for months, they also need to and can do a whole lot more within the executive branch.

What would be considered “enough” in terms of climate legislation?

One thing I’ll ask is, enough for whom? How many more people need to drown in their apartments in New York City? How many more communities need to be burned down by wildfires? How many more farmers need to commit suicide because they can’t make good on their debts because their farms are collapsing? How many more young people who are contemplating big life questions of where to live or whether to bring children into the world, need to make those decisions out of fear of the climate crisis? Our real lives are at stake here in all these negotiations. I want to communicate that we have so much to win and there's so much that is possible if we collectively, as a movement and as people, value people and their lives.