WASHINGTON -- On a patch of pavement outside the Canadian Embassy, Jay McGinley is trying to starve himself to death.
After drinking nothing but water for more than 30 days, he appears close to achieving his goal. When he stands up, his dark blue sweater hangs from a wasted frame.
On the 21st day of his hunger strike, May 15, McGinley was hospitalized briefly when his kidneys almost failed. He returned to his post the next day. Wednesday is his 36th day without food.
He demands that the United States stop using fossil fuels, particularly those harvested from tar sands deposits in Canada. He is confident that if 1,000 people were to die for his cause, the government would act.
“I need to get us from 1,000 to 999 as fast as possible,” he said. “I need to blaze that trail.”
In the 1990s, McGinley, now 60, had a good job in a database software company and a family in a well-off Philadelphia Mainline suburb.
In 1997, shortly after he helped sell the company, McGinley decided to retrain as an elementary school guidance counselor. He says he worked in a large, “totally failing” school in Chester, Pa.
He left his family in 2001, moving out of his house and into his car, and began demonstrating for after-school and summer programs.
One protester’s path
McGinley has spent much of the last decade campaigning in Washington for various causes. In 2007, he went on an extended hunger strike at the Sudanese Embassy to protest the humanitarian crisis in Darfur. Since last fall, he has been an iconic figure to some in the city’s branch of the Occupy movement.
As McGinley sits outside the large, modern Canadian Embassy near the Capitol, he produces YouTube videos on a laptop and a manual to show other protesters how to follow in his footsteps.
He began his hunger strike after watching a Canadian Broadcasting Co. documentary called “Tipping Point,” about the development of tar sands in Canada.
Chris Plunkett, an embassy spokesman, said McGinley was not considered a security threat, and that his protest had had no effect on Canada’s approach to mining the sands.
But McGinley’s demands, which are moderate compared with his extreme tactics, are aimed squarely at the American government. He supports a plan also backed by NASA climate scientist James Hansen to impose punitive fees on the consumption of fossil fuels. The proceeds would be distributed as cash to all Americans to encourage them to use other sources of energy.
Manny Perez, who founded the software company and hired McGinley to help run it, said he was “quite surprised, but not totally surprised,” when told of the hunger strike. “He danced to the beat of a different drummer, I will say that. He was a rather spiritual guy, and sort of had a New Age aspect to his way of doing things.”
McGinley insists that he decided to fight for a cause, not to leave his wife and children. But he acknowledges that a worsening relationship with the family affected choices he made.
“There was profound distance or estrangement within the household for years,” he said. “My sons from me. My wife from me. ... When it was evident they had taken themselves emotionally out of my life, then the decision was infinitely easier than it would have been otherwise.”
Undeterred by family -- or anyone
McGinley’s eldest son, Steven, is 31 and a chef in Charlotte, N.C. The last time he clearly remembers seeing his father was in 2001, he said, but he keeps up with his father’s progress by reading his blog.
“This, of course, has been a pretty personal affair,” Steven McGinley said. “As for how each of us deal with this, we will do it in our own way.
“I have learned very clearly through experience over the years that Jay McGinley, or Start Loving as he prefers to be called, would not be happy or satisfied even remotely living a conventional life. To that end, I believe my wishes to be irrelevant.”
John Zangas, an organizer with the Occupy movement in Washington, said he tried to talk McGinley out of his latest protest.
“I don’t want to see him die,” Zangas said. “I’ve seen his health go down and I’ve seen him become weaker.”
But McGinley said he was determined to give his life for his cause.
“Until enough people are seen dying for it, global warming is not going to stop,” he said.