Behind the scenes at a big mountaintop-mining protest: The good, the bad, and the ugly
Over the weekend, a group of protestors affiliated with the group Radical Action for Mountain Peoples’ Survival (RAMPS) managed to shut down operations at Patriot Coal’s Hobet strip mine in Lincoln County, W.Va. Some 20 were arrested; most remain behind bars, facing high bail and likely the most severe charges West Virginia authorities think to throw at them.
During their protest, they faced threats and intimidation from locals and police alike. Here, one woman who attended the protests, Gail Zawacki, shares her personal experience and thoughts. I don’t agree with everything expressed, but I think it’s a valuable look into the mechanics and psychology of activism in coal country.
It took several weeks for me to make the decision to travel to Appalachia after first learning of the announced protest against mountaintop removal. Part of my hesitation was just nervousness about venturing into the unknown, and some due to wondering if it would be a failure — a waste of time and money. But as the numbers increased to the hundreds on the RAMPS Facebook page, and a young lady signed up to drive with me from New Jersey on the ride board, I was encouraged to go ahead.
Part of my ambivalence was that I was unconvinced that my agenda was reflected in RAMPS policy, which is avowedly against the localized ravages of mountaintop removal but not necessarily against coal itself. My primary concern, beyond the existential threat of climate change, is trees dying from air pollution, a significant portion of which derives from burning coal, as anyone who reads my blog or Dead Trees…Dying Forests knows. And as it happens, there is indeed a contingent that opposes MTR but not underground coal mining or burning, as subsequently confirmed by statements in an article and video from Waging Nonviolence.
But I discovered there were enough participants involved who are primarily concerned about climate, resource exploitation, and corporate hegemony that I felt I was in good company. In fact I recognized several people from Occupy Wall Street and the tar-sands protests in Washington, D.C., which struck me as both good and bad. It was nice to see familiar faces, but I had the uneasy impression that it meant there are far too few who are willing to actually do anything about the multiple converging disasters on the horizon.
Initially, I was confident in the intention to be arrested, having already done so in planned actions outside the New York Stock Exchange and against tar sands in Washington. In both cases, I was released in a matter of hours. However, when my partners decided to leave after the police arrived and issued a warning, I was relieved. A growing inkling had developed that this action, the largest ever shutdown of a mountaintop-removal site, was likely to provoke a commensurately extreme response.
That suspicion was correct. The organizers had historically cultivated what they considered reasonable relations with law enforcement, but this episode would prove a break with that tradition. Veterans of the long struggle against King Coal warned us that civil disobedience in West Virginia presents a unique set of circumstances, but even they were taken by surprise at the coordinated virulence of the counter-protest, the police complicity, and the ongoing harsh terms of incarceration for those who were arrested.
Twenty people are still in jail, with the ridiculous condition that each must post in-state property valued at $25,000 as bail. Neither cash nor bondsman is acceptable, so for anyone who is not a resident, it’s almost impossible to arrange. This constitutes an outrageous abuse of the justice system, since almost all of the charges are minor offenses. The RAMPS website has updates and a link to contribute to the legal fund.
The camp was, um, rustic to say the least. Even though we retained many modern amenities — propane for cooking, and port-a-potties — it still gave a taste of what it would be like to live without conveniences Americans take for granted. Like showers. Frankly, I doubt many people in the developed world will take to such deprivations with grace. The very nature of mostly leaderless, horizontal protests attracts outcasts and rejects, lonesome ragamuffins, rabble-rousers, and young women with hair flowing unchecked on legs and under arms. Few campers expressed feeling burdened by the constraints of tent living. After three days, however, I couldn’t stand my own stickiness anymore, so I snuck off to a river to wash my hair with the tiny fishes. It turned out to be one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, and I had it all to myself.
At first I didn’t comprehend why we were meant to arrive several days prior to the event on Saturday; I expected to be bored and idle. Instead the schedule was packed and a general feeling prevailed that we could have used more time in advance to prepare and get to know each other. Every morning and evening, the entire camp met in a circle, while orientations were held for smaller groups throughout the day.
We split into self-selected “Affinity Groups” of around eight to a dozen, determined largely by our preferred degree of arrestability. Each group decided for itself which of the two actions they wanted to attend — trespassing at the mine, or a less risky diversionary demonstration at a park. The members then volunteered to attend the trainings offered for various required roles — support, legal information, advanced de-escalation, medics, mine safety, and techniques in locking down and passive resistance. In the process, trust is developed among the members, which is essential when you need to rely on each other in a situation fraught with unpredictable dangers.
As time passed, a number of people, disgruntled from various controversies, drifted away. My affinity group — the late, lamented McPherson Madness — collapsed completely as the bulk of the members recoiled from an emerging consensus that bail and jail time were far in excess of what most of them had anticipated. Several stated resentfully that they felt they had been misled, which left me adrift. Not all affinity groups were inclusive of new members. Finally, I met two late arrivals and we formed a band of three, as the advance brigade with a banner warning the target vehicle to stop, loosely associated, with the only remaining affinity group intending to lock down on a vehicle.
In fact, with some stellar exceptions, there was a pervasive atmosphere of cliquishness and, in some individuals, an overweening self-importance that was downright obnoxious. It was more pronounced than anything I encountered at Occupy. For a movement that wants to expand, they might want to consider some sort of systemic outreach, because for a newcomer to join it is quite overwhelming and requires mastering new terminology that almost amounts learning a new language, not to mention norms that seem bizarre to the uninitiated — like announcing, at every single meeting, your preferred gender pronoun along with your name. Seriously? I prefer She, Her, He, His, They?
I’m 57 years old, so perhaps I don’t understand the zeitgeist of the younger generation’s elaborate concerns about gender identities, personal space, and rules about touching. I wonder if this cohort is justifiably more aware and explicit about boundaries, or whether perhaps they are reacting to a lifetime of exposure to too much casual pornography, erosion of respect, or even sexual assault. One girl related to me her anger that her boyfriend refused to use a condom which resulted in her contracting an STD. Well, I suppose there’s nothing new about that.
Beyond those relatively benign issues, the atmosphere was almost excruciatingly intense. In fact, the morning of the action I woke up and wondered in a moment of slight panic whether I had inadvertently stumbled upon a cult. Very late the night before, while constructing the pipes and chains to lock themselves in place, the young people shared a peculiar fervid light in their eyes almost like they were in a drugged trance, no doubt from exhaustion and anxiety.
There were certainly moments of levity and friendly interactions, but overall it was extremely stressful and many people were on edge. Whether that’s endemic to the sort of personality attracted to direct actions or is a temporary condition from the apprehension just prior, I can’t say. It didn’t help that surveillance helicopters regularly swept over our camp.
The “Rainbow People,” a scruffy lot of vagabonds who travel on a dilapidated old bus, departed after being publicly chastised for saying “you guys” instead of “y’all” and not accepting the onus of white male privilege, among other transgressions. They also resented being told that they had to wear shirts and not peace signs. Hippie is an image shunned by most activists.
Everyone was expected to engage in role playing in a mock conflict with miners and protesters and this proved invaluable practice for what indeed followed. Much was made of the importance of sensitivity to the plight of the miners, who are already losing jobs because mountaintop removal requires fewer workers and the demand for coal is waning. It wouldn’t have been prudent of me to reveal that I just don’t feel the special empathy for miners we were supposed to have.
Did anyone mourn for the lost canvas sail makers when steam ships came along, or the farriers who became obsolete when people abandoned horses and took to cars? We are supposed to feel for the miners because it’s all they know how to do, it’s a culture, and it has a history, but to me it’s an ethic that — like just about all human endeavors everywhere — simply grabbed onto to a cheap, easy income to live beyond our environmental means. I believe RAMPS has the fanciful notion that they can bridge the differences with miners if only they can educate them, which has about the same probability of success as convincing a fundamentalist religious zealot that they imagined God.
Several times I asked organizers: What would West Virginia look like if there just happened to be no coal? How would people get by?
The answer was inevitably: There just wouldn’t be so many people. Really, it’s likely there wouldn’t be any people. In other words, those mountains are incapable of sustaining a human population. Even the Indians, I was told, never lived there — they only visited to hunt.
So I guess you could say, the problem isn’t MTR, or coal. It’s our numbers.
I’ll go one step further and say (and I in no way mean to include all the other fine folks in West Virginia, because this statement already got me accused of, perish the thought, stereotyping!) that the counter-protesters were not just vicious and belligerent, they were incredibly stupid. Why do I say so? In one of many “conversations” that ensued over the course of the afternoon of the protest, a woman demanded to know why we were there given that we weren’t from West Virginia. I told her as politely and calmly as I could that the toxic emissions from coal plants travel hundreds of miles, giving people far away (like my daughter) cancer. Despite this, she continued to demand to know why I was there, as though she hadn’t even heard my answer. Two miners in the back of a pickup engaged in a loud discussion, meant to be overheard, deriding us for caring about the environment. One declared, “Ain’t no pollution here!” Not two miles from this:
One local article doesn’t come anywhere close to describing the reality of what we called “The Gauntlet” as we walked for hours after the protest to find our vans. Dozens of anti-protesters in miners’ gear drove pickups, ATVs, and motorcycles that threatened to run us off the road, roaring around the twisting, narrow corners at insanely high speeds, throwing sticks and rocks. I would say most of us were terrified.
It wouldn’t surprise me if the only reason they didn’t shoot or otherwise attack us is that they, too, had training, from the coal companies, and were instructed to intimidate us but not do anything that would create bad publicity for the coal companies by causing permanent injury. Having said that, there is no question in my mind that had we responded with anything in kind, the situation could have easily crossed the line into physical violence.
When we finally did locate our vans, which had been prevented by the police from rescuing us, the trucks blockaded our vehicles on the street. The verbal assault continued for about two hours while we were trapped, fearful we would be stranded at their mercy in the dark. Finally three state troopers arrived and made them let us through. Several vehicles then tailed us for well over an hour into the night, boxing us in on the freeway, before we finally lost them.
Among the anti-protesters, the women were the worst, cursing and screaming. My favorites were, “Brush your fucking teeth!” and “Take a fucking bath!” It occurred to me, when one girl complained that we were insufficiently appreciative of the sacrifice miners had made to provide the rest of us with electricity — such as her brother, who had sustained injuries on the job — that their dependence on coal resembles the emotional traits of abusive relationships, in which victims cling irrationally to their abusers.
Confederate flags and signs that demand “End the War on Coal”decorate their houses, many of them trailers. The inhabitants feel besieged and in their minds are clearly waging a war. Even neighbors of our isolated campground, which was located down a long, graveled single lane, were overtly hostile. The morning of the action, one person was missing and it turned out that he had been out walking when a man shouted to him, “Get off the road!” Thinking a car must be approaching, he leapt onto the lawn, and the man, who was brandishing some sort of club, said, “I can’t believe you’re so dumb you fell for that. Y’all are on private property now and according to West Virginia law, I can take you hostage.” Really! Our comrade refused to fight and so eventually the man’s wife called the police and they arrived and set him free.
When we finally got back to camp, we found out that someone had put spike strips on the drive, cut trees with a chainsaw to block it, and left a half-dozen 9mm bullet holes in the campground sign (one right through the sheep’s heart).
I have speculated that perhaps the reason more people haven’t realized that trees are dying from pollution is that so many of us live in cities or are otherwise cut off from nature. And yet here in the midst of huge forests, the worst epithet the miners could derisively hurl at us was “tree-hugger.” They have no appreciation for the trees at all, other than to exploit them. They are still logging relentlessly.
All in all, it was an excellent adventure, even fulfilling the cliché of “empowerment.” Although the trees in West Virginia are no healthier than the sickly specimens that haunt me in New Jersey, there are just so many on so many mountains that it was an enormous pleasure to walk in their blue shadows. And I do actually have sympathy for one of the signs on a miner’s truck, which declared, “Don’t Like Coal? Burn Candles.”
The miners, like other climate deniers, understand in a visceral way that there is no technological replacement for the concentrated power of fossil fuels. They continue to stick their fingers in their ears because scientists and activists simply haven’t been truthful, and deniers know it. There is no way that catastrophic climate change — and consequent extinction for most species — can be averted unless human population is deliberately restricted and individual consumption in the developed countries is drastically curtailed. So they tune out the scientific evidence of climate change.
Ecological and health costs of industrial civilization have been given short shrift in the climate-change narrative: epidemics of cancer and heart disease, hormone-disrupting plastics leading to obesity and diabetes, ocean acidification and coral bleaching, habitat destruction and water contamination from coal mining, tar sands, and hydrofracking … and what is completely obvious, but never discussed, the collapsing ecosystems on the land as trees and annual agricultural crops absorb ozone and lose resistance to insects, disease, fungus, and drought.
Food and health are things that people care about, not melting ice caps in the Arctic from CO2, as dangerous as that is. With this obstinate strategic error, the climate movement has won very few battles and totally lost the war.
But don’t go down without a fight.
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