Benefield: Santa Rosa teen ends climate justice hunger strike after two weeks
After 14 days of eating no food and taking in only water, vitamins and electrolytes, Ema Govea on Tuesday ate bread, bananas and apple sauce.
It was a bittersweet meal for the Santa Rosa teen.
“Ending the hunger strike was a lot harder than starting it,” the 18-year-old Credo High School senior said.
On Wednesday, Govea was focusing on the positives the climate justice campaign reaped — national and international news stories, audiences with a slew of politicians willing to give their cause an ear, and a growing social media presence.
But no deal.
The group of five young activists had parked themselves in front of the White House and then the Capitol for 14 straight days, reminding all who would listen what was at stake if more aggressive climate provisions were not included in President Joe Biden’s proposed reconciliation bill.
People listened, but still no deal.
Today, Biden’s so-called Build Back Better plan is arguably no closer to being enacted, let alone fortified with a robust list of climate justice provisions, than when the activists started their fast more than two weeks ago.
The reason for inaction? Activists have pointed their collective finger squarely at one man: Sen. Joe Manchin, the Democrat from West Virginia.
“We are really going to need to make it impossible for politicians like Joe Manchin to be in the Democratic Party,” Govea said. “Knowing that this wasn’t just a climate bill — this bill had provisions for pathway to citizenship, for paid family leave and health care.”
“Fossil fuel money … that really torched the necessary things in that bill that we need to live,” she said.
Despite obsequious pleas from Democrats around the country to secure his support, Manchin — whose vote, along with that of Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, carries outsized weight for Democrats — said on Monday he’s not ready to commit. He wants more transparency, more clarity, more time.
He urged a vote on the separate infrastructure bill; then, he said, he’d talk reconciliation.
So time, for the hunger strikers, ran out before they got the assurances they were looking for.
“We wanted to continue, but a lot of us were really at the edge of having a lot of bodily harm and the very strong possibility of permanent damage,” Govea said in a phone interview from Washington on Wednesday.
“Also, our doctors were pretty unwilling to continue past 14 days and they were threatening to drop because of ethical concerns. … And the support team didn’t feel comfortable continuing on without the doctors.”
But Govea remained upbeat. Wins were secured, she said.
The strikers drew visits from the likes of Rep. Cori Bush, D-Missouri, and Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Michigan. They were featured on CNN and Al-Jazeera.
One hunger striker got attention on social media with her one-on-one confrontation with Manchin.
But with negotiations on the bill going the way they have, Govea maintained a cautious tone.
“Those commitments from Biden do feel like a win, although we know they are just words and no action,” she said. “Empty words and empty promises at this point are pretty worthless.”
The group, backed by Sunrise Movement, planned to host a Thursday rally to adjust their focus from a hunger strike to what they say is Manchin’s stranglehold on Biden’s budget proposal.
“Bring your rage to Washington D.C. on Thursday and join us as we mobilize for the fight ahead,” hunger striker Kidus Girma said in a statement on social media.
Govea will be there.
“This campaign has made me realize how effective it can be for regular people, regular high schoolers like me, to do that really crazy brave thing and it can actually be effective,” she said.
“We can and we must do these things in the future, and I know I will continue to do so. I know there are thousands of young people who will build the movement that we really, truly need to win.”
Govea isn’t sure when she will return to Santa Rosa. Her mom arrived in Washington a few days ago. Govea bought a plane ticket west, but she made sure it’s refundable.
She is taking part in Thursday’s rally. But she is behind in her school work. She is not sure what next steps are.
“I was really set on going home and going back to high school, and trying not to fail school,” she said.
But she’s also feeling inspired. There is so much to do.
“Really putting myself on the line, that has definitely lit a fire in me that was stronger than what was there before,” she said.
This is from a teenager who walked nearly 300 miles across Northern California this summer to bring attention to climate change and climate justice policies.
Leaders are failing young people, she said.
“We are fighting for lifesaving things we need. It’s not some wild ask, it’s not a wild demand to want to be able to live. It’s not a wild demand for our government to deliver on the promises they made.”
You can reach Staff Columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @benefield.
Columnist, The Press Democrat
Have a story that is wild, wacky, bizarre or beautiful? Tell me about it. Have a question that starts with, “What’s the deal with…?” Let’s figure it out together. This column is about the story behind the story, a place to shine a light on who we are, what makes us a community and all of the things that make us special. With your help, I'll be tackling the questions that vex us: (the funny, the mundane, and the irritating.)