Philadelphia climate activist Abby Leedy says hunger strike is over but the battle continues

WASHINGTON – Abby Leedy smiled and nodded as she listened to her fellow climate activists singing, like a conductor satisfied with the beat.

It was just after dawn Thursday, and she and about 50 others had just rushed Senator Joe Manchin as he stepped out his barge along the Potomac River. West Virginia Democrat – criticized by activists for blocking of major climate legislation – disappeared in a parking lot.

Protesters gathered to await his release and Leedy raised his normally soft voice: “Pack in. Look mighty!”

It had been more than two days since the 20-year-old from West Philadelphia ended the hunger strike she and four other activists launched to call on President Joe Biden and Democratic lawmakers to respond. to the urgency of climate change.

She was tired – at one point she sat on the floor to rest – but it was good to be back on the streets. Light and quick, she sometimes couldn’t be seen above taller heads in the crowd, but everyone was silent whenever she spoke.

“There are a lot of people in this fight,” Leedy said, his face lighting up. “And next time there will be more. “

READ MORE: With Biden’s Bill at stake, Manchin hesitates

The strike reflects a global movement led by young people whose future is threatened by climate change: Humans must take swift action to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, scientists agree, to avoid catastrophic climate change.

Leedy had arrived in Washington more than two weeks earlier with her prayer book, protest sign and hopes to force lawmakers, including Manchin, to pass Biden’s social spending bill and his climate package.

She and her fellow strikers – Paul Campion, Julia Paramo, Kidus Girma and Ema Govea, all members of the national youth-led climate advocacy organization, the Sunrise Movement – have drawn national attention. Messages of support poured into Twitter and passers-by wrote prayers on note cards.

The strike had made Leedy powerful and “closer to the universe,” she said, but also sent her to the emergency room and put her at risk of organ damage.

When she got to the other side this week, she was thinking about what was to come next.

“I feel more angry with the US government, in general, than before I started,” Leedy said Wednesday, his knees pulled to his chest on a sofa in a Sunrise-rented Airbnb. “We literally starved each other in public for two weeks, and I both felt it was really impactful and also made me feel that there is something really broken about our democracy. “

Two months ago, Leedy crossed the Walnut Street Bridge the morning after the remnants of Hurricane Ida swept through Philadelphia. The path below, which she had walked so many times, was underwater.

“This is bad, but what will it look like next [time]? ‘ She remembers thinking. “The sea level will rise, the Schuylkill will rise, the Delaware will rise. What will this flood look like in 20 years? What is underwater then?

Leedy’s family moved to Philadelphia from Portland, Oregon when she was 8 years old. She didn’t grow up imagining herself going on a hunger strike outside the White House. But she grew up hearing her parents talk about inequity and the responsibility of government and society to take care of people.

READ MORE: Pennsylvania expected to warm 5.9 degrees by 2050, state climate report says

After her environmental science teacher at Central High School invited the Sunrise movement to address the class, Leedy joined in. She credits her teachers for giving her the confidence to get involved in the organization.

She became so invested that she delayed college, choosing to work full time with Sunrise. In 2020, she appeared in an episode of Netflix Strange eye, where the show’s hosts renovated a home for the Sunrise organizers and taught Leedy to be a confident activist.

Julia Paramo, 24, from Dallas, saw this episode and was so inspired by “this goofy young lady doing this thing she really cared about” that she joined Sunrise.

The two women felt called to join the hunger strike. When organizers started talking about it – alarmed by Manchin’s delay in the reconciliation bill – Leedy said she felt it was the right thing to do.

The courage to take the plunge came from her strong organizing community, including members of Sunrise in Philadelphia, who held a vigil for her last week; the support of his parents; and his episcopal faith – the conviction that “if there is God, this is something God would have me do.”

The strikers’ vigil began as Democrats negotiated with Manchin – the senator opposed Biden’s emissions reduction program and other aspects of the social policy agenda, highlighting potential economic impacts – and backed down. continued as world leaders gathered in Glasgow, Scotland for COP26, the summit widely seen as a pivotal moment in the fight against climate change.

Their famine, Leedy said, “represents what is at stake in the climate crisis for young people – like how bad it is for us, how far we are willing to go to see change happen, to force change to happen. produce”.

The attackers believe their efforts made a difference, citing the 555 billion dollars of climate measures kept in Biden’s expense bill and an expectation of more executive action.

The White House and Manchin’s office did not respond to The Inquirer’s requests for comment. Last week, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the president admired the activism and agreed that “long overdue investments in our climate” are needed.

READ MORE: World leaders issue apocalyptic warning to start climate talks

For Sunrise activists, the strike was galvanizing. Emily Isaacson, who came from Chicago for Thursday’s action, said they had been exhausted by national politics, but watching the strike brought new clarity.

Ed Brown, an 18-year-old from West Philadelphia, has spent the past two weeks in Washington.

“The hunger strike meant to me that we were going to do everything we could to make sure that [catastrophic] the future doesn’t happen, ”said Brown, who met Leedy when she helped him start a Sunrise hub at Masterman School. “She was called in on the spot to really put her body on the line [and] to waste away to show the world the suffering that awaits the whole world.

On Wednesday, Leedy was sitting cross-legged on the Airbnb lounge floor, a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol. Leaning over a low table, pen in hand, she guided a meeting between half a dozen fellow activists.

On the wall hung a program; a list of options that activists had chosen to decide whether to end the strike; Potential protest slogans targeting Manchin. Sunrise organizers came in and out, and Leedy, in leggings and a sweatshirt, collaborated with friends and planned a training.

She also did something that still seemed new: take a lunch break. In the rental kitchen, Leedy opened a can of Campbell’s tomato soup and got approval from health monitor Nina Eichner to make a grilled cheese sandwich with cheddar cheese, cream cheese and tomatoes.

Coming off a hunger strike means a limited number of calories per day, possibly as high as 2,400. It also means an increased risk of an eating disorder, so Eichner was counting his calories.

Another friend from Sunrise, who had just arrived in Washington, walked into the kitchen and hugged Leedy in tears, half-jokingly saying, “You’re alive.” Isaacson walked in singing a protest song.

They called Leedy an incredible leader.

“I want her to live in a world where she [doesn’t have to be] spending his early twenties doing things like that, ”Isaacson said. “She feels compelled to make the choice to do these tough things to show leadership because our leaders are not. And his moral clarity leads him to that.

Once the strike ended, Leedy hoped his influence would extend beyond this season. While this was a “big blow” to winning climate action while Democrats are in power, she also envisioned that it could be the first step in the movement towards global activism. civil rights movement.

“I hope this is, in some ways, a time when we look back as a small turning point towards a more intensive climate movement in the United States,” she said.

More immediately, the group turned their attention squarely to Manchin, of which support the amended reconciliation bill still seemed uncertain.

This brought Leedy to Thursday.

At the end of the riverside protest, she prompted the group to walk to the Capitol, but quickly canceled the plan after realizing it was a 45-minute walk – the strikers still recovering could not push their bodies. As protesters gathered in a church, Leedy sat at a patio table so Eichner could check his blood pressure.

She was at the height of the power of movement she had felt on the platform. She was also exhausted and on the verge of tears. She realized she needed to eat and lie down.

Squinting a little, the morning sun filtering down her face through the pillars in front of the church, Leedy prepared to join friends for breakfast at one of the picnic tables.

“I feel really optimistic,” she said. She nodded. “I feel hopeful.”

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