by Mary Schellentrager, Divestment Campaign Coordinator, Energy Action Coalition
In the aftermath of RAMPS' Mountain Mobilization in WV on July 28, the participants in the action and our movement as a whole have been reeling from conflicting feelings. We’ve felt empowerment from our direct action that shut down the largest mine site in West Virginia, the Hobet 21 mine owned by Patriot Coal. We’ve felt anger and betrayal at the police who exercised undue repression and failed to protect our safety during the action. We’ve felt sadness for our comrades who were imprisoned under unjust circumstances, especially for Dustin Steele and others who were brutally beaten while in police custody. We’ve felt joy when the Hobet 20 were finally released from jail yesterday. We’ve felt triumph at successfully confronting and speaking truth to this powerful industry through executing this action.
Most of all, many of us have been conflicted about the community response to our mass mobilization. Although RAMPS facilitated several informative workshops on de-escalation that included role-plays and clearly outlined their mandatory policy of respectful engagement of dialogue with miners and community members, I was personally emotionally unprepared for the level of antagonism we received.
As we mobilized to protest MTR, the industry-funded nonprofit Friends of Coal also mobilized its members to meet us with resistance. Miners and community members lined the road that led protesters away from the mine site, encouraged to shout their angry words by police who let them through checkpoints while blocking RAMPS vehicles that attempted to bring them home to safety. Our caravan was aggressively chased down the highway and folks in my group were pepper sprayed at a gas station. People showed up at our base camp to confront us and blocked the road leading in with fallen trees. These were incredibly stressful experiences that many of us have had to process – the difference is through what lens we are processing these experiences with.
But the reaction from miners and the Friends of Coal is not the real story of the action we took on July 28 at the Hobet Mine.
The real story is how the coal industry exploits their stranglehold on Appalachian economies to convince people that they must mine coal to ensure economic survival and experience correlated horrific health effects for both miners and the community members around them. It might be difficult for some of the more privileged among us to understand, but mining coal is one of the few options people in Appalachia have for survival. As Junior Walk, West Virginian and former coal industry employee who participated in the action said, “the people that live around here and have to work in these mines do have to make a choice of whether to work in the mines to feed their families, or to sell pills, or to go into the Army. Those are the only three choices these people around here got.”
The real story is how the police failed to protect protesters' safety while encouraging the Friends of Coal’s aggressive behavior. They disregarded the duties and responsibilities of their position when they failed to intervene, prevented us from protecting our comrades' safey, and brutalized those in prison.
The real story is the bravery of those who put their whole selves – bodies, minds, and spirits – on the line to speak truth to the power of the coal industry. The Hobet 20 especially sacrificed their freedom for our movement’s collective struggle, but each and every one of the 60+ people who walked onto the mine site that day deserve commendation for their commitment, resistance, bravery.
With the coal industry in the middle of a six-year, 50% production decline in the region, people are already feeling the effects of economic instability. When their employers, government, other power structures, and every dominant cultural standard all places blame for this upon the environmental movement it is easy for folks who should be our movement’s natural allies to view us as our enemies. I can empathize with and try to understand that behavior. But it is incredibly problematic and frankly unacceptable when some folks in our movement start to view coal miners and communities as our enemies. Our real enemies are the extractive industries who are oppressing and harming those communities and communities around the world.
As Dustin Steele so truthfully explained to the folks gathered for the action, “The rich man and me don’t have much in common. The coal company and me don’t have very much in common. Me and a coal miner have something in common. We’re drinking the same shitty water. We’re breathing the same shitty air. We’re dealing with the same flyrock that’s coming down and hitting our neighbors’ houses…. When the reactions of the folks from the coal fields and the mine site, even if it’s extreme, realize that they’re feeling that same fear of the future that we are. They’re oppressed by the same mechanisms and they feel it in the exact same way and it’s only a matter of time before the people of Appalachia figure out who we need to be resisting."
In these times of self doubt and instability, it’s important for us to remember that community members and organizers who have been active in Appalachia for years called for this mobilization. They asked us to come and put our bodies on the lines because unlike them, we do not have to stay in the community after. We don’t have to fear being shunned or retaliated against by our neighbors. We have the privilege to not only put our physical selves on the line but also the privilege to leave.
Some have compared this to the “parachute phenomenon” where activists enter a community with their own ideas and set notions of what the people there want and need, execute their actions, and leave the community with the aftermath. The Mountain Mobilization was not a parachute action but was strategically planned by folks who live and work in Appalachia to escalate the struggles that communities have been fighting for decades, even centuries. RAMPS was very intentional about communicating their commitment to building an inclusive movement to the visiting activists and sharing that their strategy has been to engage and empower community members to participate and take leadership in our movement.
It is important to recognize and elevate the resistance that local people have taken against the coal industry, especially the century-long unionization battle that coal miners ultimately lost. Losing a fight that integral to workers’ lives can be incredibly disempowering but they are continuing to resist. Our movement needs to honor that resistance and the continued struggles from the local communitites.
Participating in this action as outsiders to Appalachia was one form of solidarity we collectively expressed with the struggles of communities fighting extractive industries. Students have discovered another meaningful way of acting in solidarity on their campuses. They are participating in the growing movement for universities to divest their endowments from coal and other fossil fuel industries and shift millions of dollars directly into growing the green economy and a sustainable future for generations to come. And we need to be intentional about building the green economy in areas that need it most, such as Appalachia and the PRB where the monoeconomy of coal has a stranglehold on communities’ economic livelihoods.
Several students who are leading divestment campaigns at their universities came to the Mountain Moblization to connect their campus solidarity to impacted communities and the anti-coal movement at large. They took powerful videos and photos both in the lead up to the action and on the mine site. They blockaded a mining truck and prevented it from further destroying the mountain that day. They experienced the same negative reaction from the community. And they have emerged from this experience with an even stronger resolve to leverage their access to the $400 billion that university endowments control nationwide in support of community resistance of extractive industries.
As Sarah Vekasi, Eco-Chaplain of our movement explained, "This is one of those times that we need solidarity and cohesion. This whole summer has been such a big deal – climate chaos is no longer theoretical but right here and all of us are feeling the tension from that, and right now is the time to really love up all of the courageous people who are in trauma from putting their lives on the line for the sake of Appalachia at the moment." Make sure that while you are taking action this summer you are also intentionally taking care of yourself and your fellow activists. We must bring our best selves to this movement.