Without question, one of the most rewarding organizing experiences I have ever been a part of was the “Appalachia Rising” mobilization in late September of last year. Appalachia Rising consisted of three very successful days of action in Washington, D.C.: a two-day weekend conference, followed by a Monday morning march of 2,000 people to the White House demanding an end to mountaintop removal coal mining. At the White House 118 people were arrested in front of it.
The next morning there was a huge color picture on the front page of the Washington Post of the nonviolent civil disobedience action, and there was extensive news coverage from other media outlets. This was an action that had an impact, and not just via the mass media.
Appalachian activists who initiated and led Appalachia Rising have continued to build their movement. A couple of weeks ago Kentucky activists staged a four-day sit-in at the Governor’s office. This action turned out to be immediately before the inspiring occupation of the Wisconsin statehouse in Madison by embattled public employees and their allies.
And a week ago a public call went out for a “March on Blair Mountain,” a week-long action from June 5-11 (http://www.friendsofblairmountain.org/march-on-blair-mountain). In the words of the call to action, “We will march five days from Marmet (near Charleston) to Blair Mountain in Logan County. Each day we will march 10 miles. Music, speakers and workshops will be held at camp grounds in the evening. The sixth day, June 11, will be a mass rally in the town of Blair and Day of Action on Blair Mountain.”
What are they demanding? “We demand that MTR be stopped now, and that a large-scale clean jobs initiative be enacted so that Appalachian workers can lead the nation’s economic recovery. We call for an investment in clean energy development, as well as responsible unionized underground coal mining, as part of a just transition to sustainable energy sources. We all need good jobs and clean air and water, so we must work together as we move toward a clean energy future.”
Those not from Appalachia or not up on their labor history may not understand the significance of Blair Mountain. It is the place where, in 1921, as part of the organizing efforts of the United Mineworkers of America, what has been called “the second largest overall armed insurrection next to the American Civil War” took place. Thousands of armed coal miners rebelled in response to fierce and murderous actions by the coal mine owners to prevent unionization of mines in Logan and Mingo counties.
An historical marker in the area, entitled “Battle of Blair Mt,” sums up what happened: “In August of 1921 7,000 striking miners led by Bill Blizzard met at Marmet for a march on Logan to organize the southern coalfields for the UMWA. Reaching Blair Mountain on August 31, they were repelled by deputies and mine guards under Sheriff Don Chafin, waiting in fortified positions. The five-day battle ended with the arrival of the US Army and Air Corps. UMWA organizing efforts in southern WV were halted until 1937.” At least 100 people were killed, on both sides.
Led by Friends of Blair Mountain (www.friendsofblairmountain.org), efforts have been underway for 20 years to have it listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In April 2008, Blair Mountain was chosen to be listed, but the state of West Virginia, clearly doing the bidding of the coal industry, has contested and held up that designation.
In the meantime, there is mountaintop removal (MTR) coal mining taking place right now on a mountain very close to Blair Mountain. A Blair Mountain site has been given a permit, and there are five more in various stages of review. In the words of Brandon Nida, board member of Friends of Blair Mountain, “the coal companies are trying to get as much work in as possible before a combination of tightening financing by banks and strengthened regulation by the EPA makes it much more difficult to mine coal using MTR.”
Brandon is very hopeful about how things are looking for the March on Blair Mountain. “There’s lots of talk about it. People are taking the initiative to post flyers all over. It’s a major galvanizing event for a cross-section of groups. Labor outreach is going well. Lots of coal miners don’t like MTR. Lots of underground miners are unemployed because MTR uses a lot less workers and most MTR operations are non-union. There’s a real awareness that this is a serious time for workers and for communities. With this march we are building a new conception of solidarity for the 21st century.”
There are historical moments when actions that seem to come out of nowhere spark a popular uprising because conditions are ripe. It is a wondrous thing to see that happening throughout North Africa and the Middle East, in Wisconsin and other Midwestern states. People power is literally on the agenda of hist
ory, today, right now.
And not a day too soon. It is clear that without people power in the United States—what the USA is supposed to be all about, “government of the people, by the people, for the people”–our living standards will continue to go down as the corporate rulers who dominate our politicians and our political process wreak their damage.
But it is crucial, essential, urgent that action is taken not just to address union-busting and attacks on our rights and incomes. Stronger and ever-larger actions are needed to address the accelerating and deepening world climate crisis, to move us rapidly away from fossil fuels via a renewable energy revolution. We are in a desperate race against time to prevent worldwide catastrophic impacts, much worse than the floods, droughts, huge storms and disrupted weather that we are experiencing now.
One important upcoming action is the Energy Action Coalition’s “Power Shift” conference (www.powershift2011.org) and day of action in Washington, D.C. April 15-18. Thousands of students and non-students will be coming together for three days of workshops, panels, networking, inspiration and conferencing, followed by a day of action on April 18th in the streets of D.C.
The March on Blair Mountain is the next big action. It should be very big, and it should be supported by all those who believe in justice, the rights of workers and a truly clean energy future.
As the late Judy Bonds said, God bless her soul, “fight harder.”