“It’s the power of vulnerability” says one onlooker of 76-year old Peter Cole’s solemn vigil in support of action on climate change. It’s his 22nd day of a hunger strike outside the Conservative Headquarters in Westminster and it’s bitterly cold.
Cole is passed by Tory party workers on their lunch breaks. Helen Elwes, a friend of Cole, told Eastlondonlines: “It’s shocking. When we were here a few days ago, a woman walked out (the Conservative Headquarters) and said to Peter “If you’d really hunger struck for 20 days, you’d be dead.”
Cole, from Tower Hamlets and fellow striker, London-based artist Marco Stepanov, 67, have written numerous letters to Prime Minister Boris Johnson requesting a meeting as they urge political parties to back the Extinction Rebellion demands for the Government to declare a climate emergency. Johnson has failed to acknowledge them or the climate emergency.
But Cole, from Tower Hamlets has both seen at first hand the power of protest in the past and has the future in mind: “My main motivation is my grandchildren. I’ve got two; aged 4 and 2. I’m scared as to what they will be suffering in 20 years’ time.”
His job as a Professor of Respiratory Medicinetook him across the world, enabling him to join Martin Luther King’s Freedom March in 1963 and then witness at first hand the effect of apartheid in South Africa.
On Monday lunchtime they were joined by XR’s Red Brigade, actor and model Lily Cole – no relation – and other members of XR to raise media awareness for Cole and Co’s hunger strike. They intend to stay there until at least Election Day tomorrow.
Cole says “We wanted to do something which didn’t inconvenience the public like most of the things XR have done. Where we could try and make a statement by putting ourselves on the line.”
Cole is putting his life at risk to put pressure on the Government to act on the climate emergency. His friends and fellow XR members say they’re worried about his health.
The hunger strikers have only been consuming water with added salt and vitamins. He also insists on travelling to and from his flat in Tower Hamlets each day via public transport for his shift outside the Tory HQ.
He said: “The worst thing is that the mind works slowly, and you speak slowly, and you can’t think what to say. I came out of my flat three times today and had to go back because I was forgetting things. I do this a lot normally though…I’ve been saying nobody’s really noticed the difference with me.”
“I get here fairly early around 8am because I am an early bird. We leave around 4pm. The problem is travelling; we’re very weak and it takes a long time, so we try and go before rush hour. If I start out in the morning at 7am, I’ll hopefully get a seat. It’s not very nice…it takes ages.”
Christopher Sheppard, a fellow member of Extinction Rebellion Tower Hamlets group, told ELL: “Peter has lost more than 12 kilos. He’s a 76-year-old guy…it’s not right that the fat cats working in the building behind are not taking the time to come and say anything.”
The strikers and XR are asking for legislative action on the declaration of a climate and ecological emergency earlier this year. The hunger strike thus far has provoked around 80 candidates to commit to the bill.
Dr Larch Maxey is an XR member and coordinator of the strike. He told ELL: “We are going directly to the parties by getting candidates to support the bill. The leadership will eventually follow.”
Stepanov told ELL they have penned 7 letters to the Conservatives so far. “They don’t want to talk to us, and they don’t want to do anything about the environment for the simple reason that a green revolution will threaten their vested interests, their privileges and their entitlements.”
Cole tells ELL he has received advice to sensationalize the strike to attract mass media attention and recognition from major parties. “Gandhi used to popularise hunger striking by being carried out each day. But we want to be truthful. I know if one of us collapses, that would be news.”
Cole is modest about his life achievements, claiming he never engaged in activism on purpose, it just kept bumping into him. “I was working in the States between my preclinical and clinical medicine training.” He happened to be in the South in 1963 during the Civil Rights Movement and took the opportunity to walk with Martin Luther King in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. “I witnessed atrocities down there from the Klu Klux Klan and the police. It made me grow up. Then I got involved with Apartheid when I was in South Africa working as a doctor.”
Cole intends to make it to day 25 of the hunger strike. “We’ll be here on election day, until 4 o’clock. Marco will go and vote, I’ve already postal voted. Then we’ll see what happens.”