Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Quest for Mountain Justice

I had many formative experiences in the forests of West Virginia, my home state. I hiked to the top of Shavers mountain, sledded down the slopes of Chestnut Ridge Park, ate wild clover, used sassafras to make blazing campfires, and built shelters from forest debris and slept inside. The state slogan is “wild and wonderful” for a reason. But my home state is also a war zone. In the mountains and hollers, hidden from the view of city-dwellers, behind orange fences and threatening signs against trespassing, a small number of workers drive giant machines. The machines cut down the forests, and bombs detonate the tops of mountains. Every week, an explosive force equivalent to one Hiroshima bomb strikes Appalachia. They dump the mountain's remains into nearby streams; then throw down some grass seeds and call the land “restored.” This process, called mountaintop removal, obliterates widlife and soil, contaminates rivers, and gives people cancer and birth defects. Now, hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) has also made inroads to West Virginia. Giant towers inject poisoned fluids deep into the Earth, to break up the rocks and create seams for extraction of methane fuel (or “natural gas” if you prefer the euphemism.) The process converts pristine mountains into energy factories, and pollutes air and water.  In mid-March, I came to know both of these extractive industries, in a more direct, up close and personal way than I ever had before. And I partook in an effort against these destructive approaches and for a clean energy future. I attended Mountain Justice Spring Break

We, the people of Mountain Justice Spring Break, came from all over the United States (and from other countries, such as Sweden.) Our 150 or so participants included many college students, as well as diverse professionals, and local residents. We assembled in the Doddridge County Park, located in the heart of the Appalachian mountains, near to extensive coal mining and marcellus shale drilling. Trucks loaded with fracking fluid rumbled past the park, day and night. The March weather was of the winter, with gray skies, cold, and snow. Nonetheless, we set up tents on the grounds, next to a mountain stream—wherein, on the first evening, I saw a band of mergansers out for a swim. It was the first time I had encountered the diving ducks in Appalachia! We also set up shop at the Lodge Building, which provided us with dining hall, dormitory, and classroom, all in the same structure. We had to keep a security watch round-the-clock, for detractors with bad intent.

While we called ourselves Mountain Justice, the local people called us “the protestors.” Even though we held no local protest this time around (our day of action happened in Charleston), our presence still caused a stir, and prompted local discussion about the economy and environment, and preparedness for disruption.

At Mountain Justice Spring Break, the week's schedule consisted of one presentation, one workshop, one field trip, after another, after another, after another. I stayed busy, and struggled to make time to setup my tent or brush my teeth. We learned about extractive industries, such as coal, nuclear, and methane (“natural gas”), their repercussions for human and environmental health, and ways to take a stand for a better world. We also learned and practiced internal anti-oppression, and developed our skills at climbing trees via rope (in preparation for a tree-sit, should we choose to hold one at a future date.) We learned about the power of nonviolent direct action for stopping environmental destruction in its tracks. Mountain Justice considers direct action a viable option, but only if the local community requests it. This time, they did not.

Our guest-speakers included Emily Bee of the Beehive Design Collective, who presented their visual map (or poster) of "The True Costs of Coal." The Bees never fail to amaze. Every square millimeter of their intricate visual maps is loaded with information, symbolism, and passion. Comics at its best.  “The True Costs of Coal” is a story told through juxtaposed still pictures, therefore comics, as I see it.  The narrative is so packed with meaning and complexity that I would even call it a graphic novel. 

We visited the home of Diane Pitcock, the Program Administrator of West Virginia Host Farms. She came to rural West Virginia to retire to a quiet home in the woods. And then drillers of the Marcellus Shale built a fracking operation directly adjacent to her mountain home. From beside the bonfire in her backyard, I stood under the glare of halogen lights, from the tower that loomed on the horizon, like a tripod from the planet Mars, injecting poison into the Earth. Diane explained that in the past, she held bonfires to the tune of owls and coyotes. Now, lights blaze and trucks and machinery rumble and churn, day and night. She receives no compensation for the natural resources extracted, even from beneath her property, due to claims over mineral rights. And the contents of the toxic “frack brew,” syringed underground beneath her land and well, are a proprietary secret. While the companies claim that the fracking fluid never contaminates drinking water, the “faucet fires” of the film Gasland make a different testimony. Diane has responded to this disruption of her retirement by educating a new generation of emerging leaders about extractive industries, with the hope that they will guide a shift to wiser approaches to natural resources and energy.

We took a night hike, to get a better view of the fracking operation. From atop the hill, we stayed on Diane's side of the fence, and surveyed the scene. The industrial lights cast the landscape in eerie chiaroscuro. Men drove giant trucks around giant tanks of fluid, and pumped it with hoses. The smell was fetid. Meanwhile, we listened on the two-way radios, and overheard police and rescue services speak about the large number of “protestors” on the hill. Multiple police cars and ambulances awaited nearby. But our trip was purely educational in nature.  The cops and medics saw no action, other than whatever nightmare scenarios went through their imaginations.

We visited the home of Larry Gibson (1946-2012), the legendary “Keeper of the Mountains.” The son of a coal miner, Larry spent his early childhood on Kayford Mountain, West Virginia. He experienced the joys of a life in the woods, near to the graves of his ancestors, going back to the 1700's. After living in Ohio for some years and working for the automobile industry, Larry retired to his childhood home—only to be plagued by explosions, from surface mining operations nearby. Larry chose to stay and protect his mountain, and refused millions of dollars from coal companies, who sought to buy the land for resource extraction. He established a cabin with a solar panel. Later, relatives joined him, and built cabins of their own. Larry brought many thousands of visitors to his mountain home, and spoke against mountaintop removal and for preservation of wild, wonderful West Virginia. He moved and motivated many mountain activists—and angered pro-coal forces. Larry stood his ground despite death threats, beatings, attempts to run his car off the road, and the slaying of his dogs.  What could motivate a person to take such risks? In Larry's own words: “What do you have in your own circle of life that is so precious that you can't put a price on it, what would it be for you, and what would you do to protect it, and how far would you go? For me, it's a way for life. For me, it's walking through the woods. For me, it's listening to the critters when I'm out there. For me, it's Appalachia.” [1]

Larry's 50-acre home property is a forest preserve, resplendent with life. The rest of the Kayford Mountain has been less fortunate. From Larry's home, we hiked uphill. We came to an overlook of Coal River Mountain, still intact, still covered in trees, colored with the greens and browns, purples and yellows of plant life. Then we came to what used to be the upper 500 feet of Kayford Mountain. We stood at the edge of a pit of jagged rocks, dull-grey and devoid of life. It looked like a crater on the moon. We stood in hushed silence at the devastation. This is mountaintop removal. Surrounding Larry's home are 12,000 acres of ravaged land.

Amidst the many lectures and field trips, our Mountain Justice camp made time to plan and conduct an action, a culminating event for the week. Our action was a protest in Charleston. For the first time, the campaigns against mountaintop removal and fracking in West Virginia united for a single demonstration.  And for the first time, I learned how to properly plan and conduct a public protest. We divided into teams and working groups of various sorts. Like in a well-orchestrated medical response, everyone had a specific job. We had working groups for songs and chants, signs and banners, and media outreach. We had “peacekeepers,” trained in de-escalating stressful situations. We had a jail support team, prepared and on standby should our people be arrested. (We didn't plan on getting arrested, but the possibility exists at any political demonstration.) As for me, I took on the role of “action medic,” to put my EMT skills to use. The lead medic Noah gave me bridge training for protest medicine, including flushing eyes of pepper-spray.

Naturally, I made a sign for the event. While guest speaker Becky from the Heartwood Forest Council gave me the slogan, I took on the challenge of producing a picture to address both mountaintop removal and fracking. I had only four colors and large paintbrushes to work with, and so I created simple, iconic imagery.

Despite an entire week of staying up late and getting up early, we still manged to rise at six AM on the morning of the protest. I slept in the building that night, knowing that if I were in my tent in a warm sleeping bag at cold dawn, I would have trouble getting up. After a quiet breakfast, our caravan assembled, with the five action medics in one vehicle. Off the Charleston!

In Charleston, we gathered on the terrace by the fountain, before the capitol building, with its golden, domed top, against the grey sky. A cold breeze whipped through. A long line of police cars had parked nearby. Many officers in dark green uniforms and flat-hats positioned themselves at various locations on the terrace. Some came and spoke to us before the events, with their hands on their pistols. I smiled at the officers, said hello, and avoided conversation beyond that, insofar as possible. We had a “police liason” working group, consisting of two individuals trained and prepared to talk to the cops—so I left the task to them. However, they weren't the only ones who spoke to police, as some of the other West Virgians on our team found it necessary to correct a cop's mistaken notion that we were all “outsiders.” (For this scene and other rally highlights, see this excellent video by Nathan Grant of Eye on the Ground.)

On the other side of the fountain, the other protestors assembled. The counter-protestors, proponents of the coal industry and its present practices, including mountaintop removal. Their signs read “Coal keeps the lights on,” “Stop the war on coal,” “We support MTR,” “Impeach the dictator,” and “Undying Second Amendment.” They numbered around 35, including men, women, and a few children. Their side had coal miners on it, but so did ours.

On our side of the fountain, around 100 demonstrators. The action began. We raised our signs to full display. They read “Diversify the economy,” “Save our mountain homes,” “People over profit,” “Clean water is a human right,” and “Keep West Virginia wild and wonderful.” We chanted “Hey, Governor Tomblin, we don't want no mountain bombin',” and “Don't give me no frack, don't give me no coal, just give me clean jobs.” And we sang classic protest songs from the civil rights movement. I say “we” in the communal, not literal, sense. As an action medic, I did not display a sign, chant or sing. I had to stay “neutral.” I stayed in the background, within an arms length of the other two medics on my team. All of us wore jackets and carried bags decorated with crosses of red duct tape. Although honored to have a specialized role, it was hard for me to miss the energy and passion of the protest's front lines.  (Luckily, a comrade displayed my protest sign.)

On the other side of the fountain, the pro-coal rally chanted “We love coal,” or simply “Coal.” They shouted questions and proclamations across the fountain. “Where did you come from?” “How many of you work?” “Where do you work?” and “You need soap.” Indeed, when they tired of chanting coal, they took to a repeated chant of “soap.” If this were philosophy class, the counter-demonstrators would have a very low grade: they sought and made ad hominem arguments.

Next, we began the scariest part of the rally. The march inside, past the counter-protestors, who formed a line accross the capitol steps. We positioned a team of two medics in the front, and a team of three (myself included) in the back. My senses went onto high alert, and I made a steady visual scan of the people ahead of me. Everyone on the Mountain Justice side had agreed to a written policy of non-violence. I doubted that the other side had made any such agreement. Their repeated taunts and personal attacks, the shout of “We don't want you here,” as we hiked up the steps—made me worried for my fellow demonstrators. I clutched my medical bag in anticipation. There were more verbal accusations from the other side as we crossed their path. But luckily, there was no blood. I saw some of our peacekeepers talking to our opponents, and evidently doing good work.

Inside the capitol, we marched in a clockwise circle in the public arena, and draped banners over the walls. The counter-protestors marched in a counter-clockwise circle outside of ours, and continued their praise of coal. Confined indoors, the cacophony of voices only became louder, a semi-musical thunderstorm. We had more featured speakers, including Dustin White, an Organizer for the Ohio Valley Environmental Council. When a counter-protestor shouted “You don't even live here,” Dustin responded forcefully. “I am an eleventh generation Appalachian West Virginian, born and raised, from the coalfields of Boone County. I am from a long line of coal miners, who never supported strip mining.” Later, Dustin said to his fellow demonstrators, “Don't let anyone here tell you that you're not somebody, because you are. If they want to say that you're an outsider, well, we true West Virginians have invited you here to help support us!” [3] As he continued his speech, the counter-demonstrators resumed their chant of “We love coal.”

After energized chants of “We are unstoppable, another world is possible,” we marched out of the capitol to the somber tune of the John Prine's “Paradise” (AKA “Mr Peabody's Coal Train.”) On the way out, we passed a crew of middle school students on a field trip; some hailed us with peace signs. As I stepped outside, and passed by some counter-demonstrators, one said, “You want a job? The coal companies are hiring.” I ignored him.

We re-gathered on the sidewalk, away from the capitol. One of the officers thanked us for not causing any trouble, but still kept watch on us, until we had fully cleared the scene.

By the end of the event, I had a surprisingly high heart rate for my low amount of action. My only “medical” task for the day was to act as part of a human shield to outside cameras, while Noah treated a young woman who had stumbled on the capital steps, and twisted an ankle. She recovered well, aided by an ace bandage and cold pack. I was proud of all my comrades, but especially those on the front lines. They had conducted themselves with grace, dignity, and strength, in the face of adversity. It was a good day for the first amendment, and for our vision for the future.

We seek to find a better way. We seek to create a better economy, with sustainable jobs, healthier communities, clean water and air, a stable climate, a good life for children and adults, plants and animals. We might not have the transition planned in every detail, but that won't prevent us from launching a dialogue. We might follow in the footsteps of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and use direct action to “create such a crisis and foster such a tension” such as to force the community to confront the issue. [4] We are wise to recall another piece of wisdom from Dr. King: “I refuse to accept the idea that the "isness" of man's present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal "oughtness" that forever confronts him.”[5]  Indeed, we ought to use all our collective wisdom and ingenuity to move beyond fossil fuels, and achieve mountain justice.

Image Credits
Topmost photo (of Ross at Cooper's Rock State Forest) by Susan Moyle Studlar. 
Photo of Mountain Justice group at Kayford Mountain by Nathan Grant. 
"True Costs of Coal" thumbnail by the Beehive Design Collective.
"Diversify the Economy" photo by Ritza Francois. 
Artist unknown for "Mountain Justice" logo and "Ross at Capitol" photo. 
All other images by Ross Wood Studlar. © to respective creators.

Other quotes from my own records/ memory.

Recommended Further Reading / Viewing
Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt by Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco
The Last Mountain directed by Bill Haney
Gasland directed by Josh Fox

1 comment:

  1. There's a chance you qualify for a new solar energy rebate program.
    Find out if you qualify now!