September 12, 2015
All along, fasters with Beyond Extreme Energy have had two questions: How will this feel, and how will I pass the time? Of course, that’s in addition to the broader concern about how to ensure their actions help bring change.
From the day after Labor Day until Sept. 25 — 18 days — a dozen people are on a water-only fast on the sidewalk in front of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, on First Street NE in Washington, just down the street from Union Station. Some have stayed overnight on the sidewalk as well, although most head for Lincoln Temple United Church of Christ to sleep.
Other people are fasting for a shorter time, at FERC or in their communities. They are calling on FERC to stop issuing permits for pipelines, compressor stations, storage and export facilities, the machinery of a fracked-gas-powered economy. They want to end the revolving door for employees between FERC and the industry it regulates. They have the support of more than 80 health professionals who have signed an open letter to FERC asking it to stop its “unethical experiment” on communities. They are fasting to show their “unwavering commitment,” as one faster’s sign says, to people and places in the way of fracking. And to a climate overheated by our insatiable appetites that require ever more fossil fuels to be extracted and burned.
The fast ends Sept. 25, the day Pope Francis speaks at the United Nations and the day after his address to Congress, when he is expected to call for climate, economic and environmental justice, topics from his encyclical Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home. Because the “earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth” — as the pope phrased it.
Beyond Extreme Energy activists have been at FERC before, blocking its entrances in nonviolent disobedience actions or speaking out at its meetings. They are always hauled out, sometimes to jail. They and affected residents have written letters, testified, lobbied. So far, FERC has not slowed the pace of permits. It has called BXE activists a “situation,” which it has handled with new rules intended to silence dissent and isolate FERC commissioners. FERC members are appointed by the president and approved by the Senate but have no oversight other than the courts.
As the days pass, the fasters, ages 19 to 72, remain optimistic, sometimes tired, sometimes lightheaded and dizzy, particularly if they forget to get up slowly. Many say they feel weaker. Food comes only in dreams. One dreamed of a trolley of teacakes rolling by, another of eating a cookie in front of the others. One said he dreamed he had eaten a sandwich and woke up feeling shame and fearing the dream was real. One evening, Steve Norris, a retired history professor and, at 72, the oldest faster, took his son to dinner: “It was very interesting, because I was not tempted by the food. … It’s not that food doesn’t appeal to me. It does a lot. But there’s something about this mysterious journey being more important now than anything else.”
Faster Clarke Herbert, a former teacher, says one key benefit is that those fasting are getting outside their routine. “And that is what we are asking others to do” to solve our environmental and climate crisis. “We will have to move into a new world, to change from compulsive consumption. That makes fasting really beautiful,” he said.
In an email on Day 5, Norris of Asheville, NC, wrote that “the experience so far is one of both joy and sorrow: There is the great exuberation and learning that comes from working and fasting daily alongside people with rock-solid determination to challenge climate change and its attendant economic, social and racial injustices. And the exhilaration each time I see a stranger’s eyes light up and they say something like: ‘thank you for being so bold. Please keep it up.’ Then too there is the sadness of dealing daily with the reality that millions of people (the victims of Hurricane Katrina and emigrants from Syria, for example) are already dealing with the impacts of climate change, and that nothing in the short term is going to stop their uprooting and pain, and that ultimately my own grandchildren and great-grandchildren may be similarly impacted.”
Faster Lee Stewart posted on Facebook Saturday: “Today is day 5 of the 18 day water-only hunger strike at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) — an agency that fuels community destruction and climate pollution. My energy and spirits ebb and flow. Sadness, joy. Fogginess, clarity. Breathlessness, stability. Can hardly walk, ready to stand strong. Much love to those who stand up to FERC all over the country. Much love to those who act for justice in the face of bleakness.”
Among the youngest fasters, at 23, Sean Glenn says she is feeling mostly “sleepy and grateful to be doing this with such amazing support.” After the fast, she heads to Rome, where she will join a 500-mile pilgrimage with former Filipino diplomat Yeb Saño, among others, to the Paris climate talks.
With no need to shop, cook or wash dishes or be much of anywhere but FERC, how do fasters fill the time?
- They offer a glossy card with information about the fast to passersby, often FERC employees. Some accept it, others walk by stony-faced. A few offer words of support. On Day 1, someone driving into the FERC parking lot accepted a flier and said FERC employees had been instructed not to talk to the fasters.
- They take a turn on the bicycle generator, which is used to power phones and laptops during the day. No passersby have taken them up on offers to try out the bike.
- They put dots on a United States map to show the locations of communities fighting fossil-fuel projects.
- They use fabric paints or markers to design fast T-shirts.
- They design and will be making quilt squares showing the harm to communities from FERC-approved projects. During the summer, faster Jimmy Betts traveled across the country with the United States of Fracking banner, which was made for an earlier BXE action at FERC. He talked to people fighting fracking and other fossil-fueled projects and now is connecting them with the fasters. Each faster will call one or more of the contacts and design a quilt square based on the conversation. BXE is also spreading the directions for the quilt squares through social media.
- They read. Some read Pope Francis’ encyclical, which was part of the inspiration and timing for the fast. Or newspapers. Or Rivera Sun’s new novel, The Billionaire Buddha, a story of love, connection, healing and awakening. “Imagine that one generation could change the course of all the generations of humanity yet to come. Imagine that the human story does not end in the chapter of today,” Rivera writes in the novel. The fasters can imagine that. Day 1 of the fast happened to coincide with International Literacy Day, which was celebrated with a read-in.
- They get interviewed by alternative media. CNN, just steps from FERC, hasn’t even poked its head out the door to ask what’s going on.
- Every few days, one of two nurse volunteers checks their blood pressure and pulse.
- They know the sun’s cycle, which beats down on the sidewalk in front of FERC from about 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., before slipping behind the building. During the first three days, the fierce sun and humidity had them crossing the street to the shade for meetings and respite. In the sun, they mostly sit on camping or beach chairs under rain umbrellas. They apply sunblock.
- One day, some fasters joined Elders Climate Action for a flash mob at Union Station and in the cafeteria of the Longworth House Office Building. In the evenings, some attend #BlackLivesMatter and environmental justice meetings in DC, because all these struggles are intertwined in a system built on inequality and sacrificed communities.
- On Day 1, Doug Hendren, the Musical Scalpel, entertained the group with his guitar-playing and anti-fracking and social justice songs — “The Ballad of Pope Francis” and “Fracking’s Just a Bad Dream,” for starters.
- They hold morning and afternoon meetings to check in with each other and plan activities, including the Sept. 25 action to end the fast. That day, starting at noon, the program will include music, speakers, a procession and an attempt to deliver five copies of the pope’s encyclical to the FERC commissioners. BXE is inviting passersby who have seen the fasters daily, as well as people who have rallied in DC during the pope’s remarks to Congress the day before, to join in the ceremony to break the fast and deliver the encyclical.
- They nap.
- And they fill and refill and refill again their water bottles from jugs of spring water that faster Debbie Wagner brings from her home. Periodically, they add a bit of salt or potassium. And they hunger for climate justice.
by elisabeth hoffman