Historic Mountain Mobilization sparks mixed feelings in Appalachia

Pro-coal demonstrators followed and harassed anti-strip mining activists at last month’s Mountain Mobilization in West Virginia. Photo by Mark Haller, via Flickr.

Last week, the remaining 10 members of the Hobet 20 were released from West Virginia’s Western Regional Jail in Charleston. For the arrestees, release meant resuming life outside of jail and committing to pay a $500 fine, as well as to serve one year of unsupervised probation. For organizers and supporters of last month’s Mountain Mobilization, it meant that one of the most unprecedented actions in the history of direct action against mountaintop removal was winding to a close.

On July 28, about 50 activists walked on to Hobet — a southern West Virginia mine site comparable to Manhattan Island in scale, the largest such site in Appalachia. After entering the mine, the activists locked down to several pieces of equipment, formed a blockade across the mine road and hung a banner from a tulip poplar tree on the edge of the site.

Because many of the activists participating in blockades and lock downs chose to be non-compliant, they were dragged and carried off the equipment by state police. The arrestees then mostly lay in a field, though some sat, near the state police station in Danville, West Virginia, for hours, being processed one by one. In certain cases, including that of West Virginia native Dustin Steele, processing also meant being beaten by police. When they were later arraigned by Lincoln County Magistrate Mona Snodgrass, all 20 activists were given $25,000 bail for misdemeanor trespassing and obstruction.

Twenty-five other activists left Hobet under the threat of arrest and walked for four hours along Lincoln County, West Virginia, roads. Police closed Mud Creek Road — the only road to the mine — to local traffic only, which meant that they let counter-demonstrators through but not Lincoln County residents supporting the mobilization. The activists were harassed by counter-demonstrators in cars for the duration of the walk. When they finally met their rides, the activists were blocked in by pro-coal demonstrators for two more hours. Across southern West Virginia, Enterprise vans, like the ones the activists had rented, were being chased by pro-coal supporters. And back at the activist base camp, shots were fired, nearby trees were felled and angry neighbors visited on a nightly basis.

Direct action against mountaintop removal has occurred in southern West Virginia for the past seven years. But the response of the coal industry and the police to the Mountain Mobilization was unprecedented. In certain regards, it was to be expected: The campaign had escalated by publicly announcing, weeks prior, its intention to shut down a southern West Virginia mountaintop removal site. And part of the response was also linked to the plummeting price of coal, which is causing mine shutdowns across Appalachia.

While these shutdowns are mostly being driven by the economy and cheap natural gas prices, a lot of the anger about the downturn of Appalachian coal has been directed toward groups fighting mountaintop removal. As it turns out, Hobet — one of the only unionized strip mines in the state — will soon be closing.

Some say that the Mountain Mobilization has marked a turning point for those engaged in the struggle against mountaintop removal. As an organizer with the Radical Action for Mountain Peoples’ Survival (RAMPS) campaign, which put together the Mountain Mobilization, told me, “This may be too soon to say, but I think people will be talking about direct action in southern West Virginia in terms of ‘before the Mountain Mobilization’ and ‘after the Mountain Mobilization.’ The lines have been redrawn.”

Across Appalachia, activists are considering the impacts of the mobilization on future organizing against mountaintop removal. At the Mountain Justice meeting in eastern Kentucky this past weekend, the mobilization was a primary topic of conversation.

“[Regarding other parts of Appalachia], it feels like West Virginia is still the only place that’s really ready for these types of actions to be happening,” said Eric Blevins, a Mountain Justice organizer who attended the Mountain Mobilization. “There was no one from the other states who felt that similar actions would be beneficial in their state. It does seem like people from different places want to help out with other [actions] happening in West Virginia.”

In Kentucky, one of the four states where mountaintop removal occurs, the action has received mixed responses.

“My close friends that I work with all have major deep concerns with the actions and some friends are downright hostile to it and don’t even want to talk about it,” said Greg Capillo, of Lexington, who worked on jail and legal support during the Mountain Mobilization. “They feel like it’s stirred up a hornet’s nest they have to deal with, and they didn’t even participate in the action. It’s hard to work on responsible economic development and environmental justice in eastern Kentucky. It’s hard to do that in central Appalachia period.”

According to Marty Mudd, who works with Mountain Justice and also lives in Lexington, direct action against a coal mine in eastern Kentucky wouldn’t be appropriate. “We’re planning on focusing our efforts on corporate headquarters in Lexington and corrupt politicians in Frankfurt,” Mudd explained. “That’s our zone of influence and we have a lot of support [for that] in this region.”

Many activists in Lexington were excited about the mobilization and contacted Capillo to find out what they could do to help. These Lexington activists planned Kentucky Stands with the Hobet 20, a benefit event on August 16, which counts the storied Kentucky writer Silas House in its lineup.

For western North Carolina’s Katuah Earth First! (KEF!), the Mountain Mobilization was a jumping off point for future campaigns.

“Katuah Earth First! has been quiet for the past few years and, besides supporting our comrades in RAMPS, we wanted to get KEF! back into the mode of doing actions again,” said Bryan Garcia, a KEF! organizer who was arrested alongside other members of the group during the Mountain Mobilization. “There are lots of things happening in North Carolina, like hydrofracking. This [action] was our way of saying, ‘Hey look, we’re serious, we’re going to be doing these actions locally.’”

The Mountain Mobilization was one of the first major actions in Appalachia to happen within the context of a growing national movement against extraction. Many Mountain Mobilization participants came from anti-hydrofracking campaigns in the Marcellus Shale region and from urban movements like Occupy Wall Street. Not only did they take action in solidarity with the people of Appalachia, they also gained skills and knowledge to take back to anti-extraction struggles in their home regions.

This network, nicknamed the National Uprising Against Extraction and, for this summer, the Summer of Solidarity, showed a tremendous amount of support in the media and fundraising efforts that followed the action. In the future, the RAMPS Campaign plans to work with and strengthen this network.

“Direct action, in one form or another, has been present here in West Virginia since there has been oppression to fight here,” said Junior Walk, a southern West Virginian who works with the RAMPS Campaign. “The direct action movement that’s happening now will continue to happen until we win, not just here, but in places where hydrofracking happens, in campaigns against strip mining in Wyoming and Montana and anywhere that injustice is being done to people so other people can make money.”

Organizers also plan on continuing to push discussion about the economic impacts of coal on Appalachia. One of the key messages of the Mountain Mobilization was that both the United Mine Workers of America pensions and strip mine reclamation are funded by a per-ton tax on coal, a tax that is becoming less lucrative with the industry’s decline. As they continue to address the environmental and health impacts of coal, organizers also plan on addressing the need to move toward a more diversified and sustainable economy.

When it comes to direct action in southern West Virginia, it is too soon to fully assess the impacts of the Mountain Mobilization on future actions and plan next steps. Still, there are ideas. Many of the organizers have been inspired by climate activist Tim DeChristopher, who is serving two years in federal prison for actions he took against the oil and gas industry in Utah.

“With only the people in this room, we could send 30 people onto a mountaintop removal site, shut it down temporarily, start to clog up the West Virginia court system,” DeChristopher said in a speech given at Power Shift 2011. “And we could send 30 people the day after that and the day after that and the day after that every day for a year. I believe we would never get to the end of that year because mountaintop removal would end before we reached that point.”

The Mountain Mobilization was a step towards this vision. RAMPS chose one day and brought a large number of people to a site, shutting it down for three hours. In the future that RAMPS is striving for, organizers plan to shut down more mountaintop removal sites, with more people, for longer periods of time, until DeChristopher’s vision becomes a reality.

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