"Joe Biden is, frankly, being a coward": A conversation with the White House climate hunger strikers

Salon spoke with two of the five strikers, both in their 20s, who are putting their bodies on the line for change

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published October 30, 2021 6:00PM (EDT)

Protesters with the Sunrise Movement protest in front of the White House against what they say is slow action on infrastructure legislation, job creation and addressing climate change, as well as against attempts to work with Senate Republicans in Washington, DC, June 4, 2021. (SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)
Protesters with the Sunrise Movement protest in front of the White House against what they say is slow action on infrastructure legislation, job creation and addressing climate change, as well as against attempts to work with Senate Republicans in Washington, DC, June 4, 2021. (SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

It is Day 11 of a hunger strike for climate justice outside the White House — and the stakes are nothing less than saving the world, at least in the eyes of those protesting.

Salon spoke by phone Friday with two of the five youths who are participating in the high-stakes protest in Washington, D.C. Twenty-six-year-old Kidus Girma is the organizer, a climate activist who tells Salon he is originally from Ethiopia and grew up in Dallas. He joins the conversation a few minutes after Abby Leedy, a 20-year-old born in Portland, Oregon, and raised in Philadelphia. Three others are also participating: Paul Campion, Ema Govea and Julia Paramo. Their spirit of solidarity is immediately palpable, with Girma and Leedy emphasizing one point over and over: President Joe Biden needs to stop hiding from a public that desperately needs leadership.

It isn't that they are unaware of the parliamentary snag in which the commander-in-chief finds himself. They understand that Biden has a slender 50-50 majority in the Senate — controlled by the Democrats solely because Kamala Harris is vice president — and that a pair of senators, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, are holding up good faith efforts to act with enough time to mitigate the worst effects of climate change and maintain the planet's livability for future generations.

They say Biden has no other moral choice, and must do whatever it takes to save the planet. They feel that he has failed to put himself forward as a leader, to rally the people who want to solve climate change against those that stand in the way. As the entire group explained in a letter shared with CNN, "We will continue to sit starving outside the White House everyday until you use your power as elected president of the United States to deliver your mandate for bold, and transformative climate action with justice and for jobs."

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

On Monday they had a virtual meeting with White House National Climate Adviser Gina McCarthy and Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry. The Biden administration has expressed deep admiration for the protesters — but not everyone feels that way. Manchin was more defensive than usual when confronted by Leedy on Tuesday about his role in weakening climate measures.

The group takes their stand as Congress haggles its way through increasingly watered down measures and the president departs for COP26, the United Nations climate summit in Glasgow.

The following interview has been edited for length, clarity and context.

The big question is, what do you think Biden should be doing differently?

LEEDY: Biden ran on the promise of being a climate champion, of being the next FDR, of fighting for my generation, and his administration has continued to approve new fossil fuel projects, like continuing to approve new oil drilling on public lands and offshore drilling in American waters. The administration has been using its powers to continue causing the climate crisis. I also think Joe Biden himself has frankly not done enough to stand up to Manchin and his fossil fuel donors. He has not done enough to use the power of the presidency to make the Democratic Party fall in line or make them accountable to my generation, instead of the fossil fuel billionaires and CEOs.

The Biden administration's response is that they're trying, but that Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema are impeding progress. What is your response to that?

LEEDY: I think that Joe Biden is, frankly, being a coward. I have not seen Joe Biden stand up to Joe Manchin publicly. I've not seen him talk in honest terms about what's going on, to call out the influence of the fossil fuel CEOs in these negotiations. I have not seen him like own up to that.

The Build Back Better plan that is getting passed is bullshit. It is not enough for my generation. It is not enough for the millions of young people growing up into the climate and economic crisis in the United States. Joe Biden is not speaking honestly about that. I think the least that he could do is admit that this has been a failure to my generation in which he knew better. I also like lots of this stuff that was in the bill, like the clean energy standard, like trying to move away from fossil fuels. There are so many things that Joe Biden could do unilaterally to address that, that he and his administration has refused to. So for him to say 'Oh, this is Joe Manchin. I have no control over it,' I won't accept that, and young people won't accept that. We know that that's bullshit.

Kidus just joined me.

GIRMA: Hi Matthew. My name is Kidus. I just walked a little bit so I'm feeling a little bit tired, so my responses might be a little bit slow.

What is Biden doing wrong in terms of communicating to people on this issue?

GIRMA: I think the President of the United States could start being the President of the United States in the public sphere. I think there's a lot of conversation about Manchin and Sinema not letting Biden get his agenda, but in reality Biden exercises very few of the tools that are in his toolbox. Right now our president, that we're hungry striking from in front of his house, only knows how to invite folks to Delaware and backroom deals, trying to butter up of folks that are bought out by corporations to get them on his side. He currently is not fighting for us in the public sphere in the way that previous presidents have. And so I'm expecting my president to get on air and to demand that Manchin and Sinema fall in line because it's what the majority of Americans want. Not just a majority, but a super-majority.

I think the last couple of days of hunger striking make me think about what a different president would have done, right? I'm thinking of LBJ and the Great Society and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I'm thinking of Roosevelt and the New Deal and the way that, when they didn't get something in a backroom deal and they knew it was what's best for the American people — which is what climate means for the planet and every human being that currently exists and doesn't exist — it means President Biden doing everything he possibly can to get Manchin and Sinema to be on the people's side. And that means going to the people and saying, 'I'm fighting for you and we need to move these two people,' and it's not going to be Biden that does it alone. It's going to be the people as a whole. And for that to happen, the president needs to start swinging at the balls.

It seems like there are two issues. The first is that there is an existential crisis which, if it is not resolved, literally imperils the future of humanity, and that is an issue that is very urgent and very pressing. The problem is that unlike Roosevelt and Johnson, Biden only has a very slender majority in Congress. I'm not saying that this means he can't do more, but that is the response that his team offers, because that example has been made about Roosevelt and Johnson. What they say is that they don't have the same congressional majorities.

GIRMA: Yes, and that would be a reason even more for Biden to fight in the public sphere. Not less. If Biden has a worse hand, he should be going far more ham than he currently is.

So you're talking really more Theodore Roosevelt and the bully pulpit?

GIRMA: Exactly. Yes. That's what past presidents have done. And that's how they have won. So I'm not dismissing the fact that Biden is in a bad position. I'm saying that Biden isn't fighting hard enough for his own position, and what he's been doing so far hasn't actually worked. We've just seen the bill get whittled and whittled and whittled. And he's playing easily into the hands of Sinema and Manchin.

Sinema's whole plan is to delay. It's to shoot down one funding structure, for other Democrats to come up with another funding structure, to also shoot that one down. In that context, Biden can't keep playing the backroom deals because it fundamentally isn't going to work. So that means Biden needs to switch it up. That means Biden needs to go to the people. Because politicians, in a lot of cases, don't do what is impossible. They do what they think is possible. And the conditions for what is impossible only changes when a substantial amount of the American public is involved in the process. This is what climate needs in this moment. And that's what Biden can provide. And so I am being deeply realistic when I say Biden hasn't done enough. Because Biden hasn't done enough for life-affirming, lifesaving climate legislation to become a reality.

LEEDY: Something I would add to that is, I just keep thinking what what if Biden got on a major network tomorrow and called out the donors, called out the fossil fuel CEOs and the corporate CEOs that are donating to Manchin and Sinema. It is clear to any average person that this is the reason why Manchin and Sinema are doing this. These two senators are receiving millions of dollars from these corporations. These corporations are acting against the interest of the American people. These senators are helping them do it. This is inexcusable. They need to stand with the majority of people in their states. I mean, paid family leave, for example, something like 75% of Republicans support that policy. And it got cut. I just don't think enough people know that, frankly, and as Kidus said, Biden has the power to capture the attention of the American people. And he's choosing not to use that, not to go to the American people and say in plain terms that this is what's going on, this is what's stopping me. And I just think if he did that enough times, I can't imagine that those corporate donors would continue to act this way. I think that they need public approval just as much as Biden does in order to do what they do.

I'm going to close with a personal question for both of you. How are you feeling? What are you experiencing right now in terms of both your health, which I'm obviously concerned about, and also in terms of how people are treating you, what you're observing, what is your experience at this point?

GIRMA: You asked me a question and my heart started racing. I immediately started thinking about my blood pressure, which jumps 30 or 40 points when I go from sitting to standing. Emotionally and spiritually, I'm feeling grateful. I'm feeling grateful for this moment and all of the things that had to happen to get us to this point. I'm thinking of all the organizing and care that folks across the climate movement and beyond have done to bring us to this moment. I'm thinking about Nina who brought me hot water last night, which was my treat (you know, not lukewarm water), and how important that was to me. I'm thinking about a stack of note cards of support that I got from some George Washington University students yesterday. And I'm thinking about what we need as human beings, and what my small role in that is, and what the big role is for all of us. Because we're fighting for all of us in this bill and on this bill.

LEEDY: I feel like the adrenaline I get talking to you or when I ran into Joe Manchin the other day. And I just got this huge shot of adrenaline. And I know after this conversation, I'm going to have to lie down.

What happened when you met Joe Manchin?

LEEDY: I saw him come out of this meeting at this hotel like two blocks away from the White House. I was there with my parents, actually, they had been visiting that day. My mom was like pushing my wheelchair and I asked him if the millions of dollars he receives from the fossil fuel industry has anything to do with the fact that he was blocking lifesaving climate legislation right now. He lied to me about America's role in the climate crisis. And then he told me I need to get a meeting with him. I was really begging him at one point to stop doing this and support this legislation, and he just like, walked away and got in his car. I was just kind of there in my wheelchair, screaming that I wanted to live.

You said that you felt adrenaline. What were you thinking at that moment?

LEEDY: I was just thinking about how I feel really desperate, honestly. I feel really desperate and just so furious. It was just incredible to me that I was there. There was this guy coming out who was doing so much evil in this moment. I'm a person of faith and it's kind of incredible to me.

If you don't mind me asking, what is your faith?

LEEDY: I'm a Christian. I feel like part of my faith is just the faith in all people's ability to be good. And I'm sure that like somewhere Joe Manchin has a soul. I'm sure he's capable of good. And as far as I can tell, he's chosen to do a lot of evil, just really, really evil stuff with his time on earth and with his power. And that's just honestly hard for me to wrap my head around.

How are you feeling right now?

LEEDY: Totally. I feel really weak and honestly scared about my physical health. I don't have really that much fat left. I can see my ribs, which is really scary. Then your body starts eating your muscles for energy, and that happens around day 14. There's a risk that the fat and muscle in your brain starts to get eaten, which can lead to permanent mental health effects. As we're getting closer to Day 14, I'm just feeling frankly really scared about my health and about my body and about what this is doing to me. I also think I'm just as scared about the future and the rest of my life and the lives of the people here that I love if we're not able to win more in this moment.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

MORE FROM Matthew Rozsa