For the past two weeks, students from Swarthmore and Earlham Colleges have been traveling around areas of West Virginia and Tennessee that are affected by mountaintop removal (MTR) coal mining on a Frontlines Listening Tour. The students, in alliance with other organizations fighting coal mining in Appalachia, are involved in campaigns at their respective colleges to divest their endowments from the coal industry.
Over the course of the tour, students spoke with organizers from local groups engaged in the fight against MTR, such as the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC), Coal River Mountain Watch, Statewide Organizing for Community Empowerment, Radical Action for Mountain People’s Survival (RAMPS) and Blair Community Center and Museum. The tour came to an end at the Mountain Mobilization on July 28, which was a large-scale RAMPS action that shut down Hobet mine, the largest strip mine in West Virginia, for three hours.
The students’ aim was to strengthen connections between their divestment campaign and the organizing that people in Appalachia are doing to fight the coal industry. Divestment is a tactic that the students are using in solidarity with frontline organizations. While the colleges are not located within Appalachia, they have money invested in mountaintop removal, and students hope that by withdrawing funding from these corporations, they can support the campaigns of local organizers who are fighting the same institutions.
“The trip was a valuable opportunity to learn more about the struggles against the coal industry that people have engaged with historically throughout Appalachia,” said student organizer Kate Aronoff.
On the tour, students went to the Whipple Company Store, which is now a museum, where they learned about the relationships between workers and coal companies earlier in the century. Whipple, for instance, was once a coal camp, filled entirely with workers and their families who worked 12-hour days and could only spend their earnings at the company store, creating a cycle of control of the coal industry over local communities.
At the Blair Community Center and Museum, students learned about the historic struggles of workers against the coal industry and their oppressive labor practices. “We realized our connection to decades of activism against big coal,” said Aronoff. “It was comforting to be reminded that we’re not the first ones to fight the coal industry, and that we have a lot to learn.”
The students also directly engaged with the health concerns that local residents are facing. At one point, they traveled with an organizer from OVEC to deliver water-testing results to community members living near an MTR site. While they were there, they spoke to several people who had relatives with Crohn’s disease, an illness rare even in heavy industrial areas. They also spoke to many individuals with various forms of cancer and other illnesses that seemingly resulted from exposure to contaminants. They learned that the drinking water in the area was red in color; the test results only confirmed what had already been obvious to community members.
After much traveling and conversing with community organizers, the students convened at the RAMPS Mountain Mobilization, connecting their education with direct action. The brunt of the Divest Coal campaign organizing has been done hundreds of miles away from the Appalachian region, but the ultimate goals of the campaign and RAMPS Mountain Mobilization are the same. They are both dedicated to sending a message of dissent and letting the coal industry know that people all over the country will no longer stand aside while corporate giants exploit people and the environment.
Divestment and nonviolent direct action seek to address the social and economic power of the coal industry and have become necessary tactics to make known fatal flaws in a system that so many people rely on. This reliance is especially prevalent in areas where coal mining is the most available job and coal is credited with progress and stability, as well as environmental degradation and extortion.
The power of the coal industry in the economy has become obvious to Earlham and Swarthmore students trying to persuade their institutions to divest and support sustainable and ethical energy sources. But the power these corporations hold over surrounding communities was another experience entirely, especially seeing them as the targets of extreme anger and fear from local miners and their families.
In a panel discussion before the RAMPS Mountain Mobilization, life-long West Virginia resident Junior Walk explained how the coal industry was the direct source of this anger:
They [the coal companies] are controlling their workers and they are controlling the citizenry here in southern West Virginia and manipulating them … getting these people to take that aggression and anger and pent up rage that they have against the coal industry and direct it toward us. Even though we are the ones trying to come in here to make something positive happen.
The strategic shift of anger away from oppressors is not a tactic that works on everybody. After protesters left the mine they encountered Friends of Coal protesters blocking the road. Two deep miners took the opportunity to ask one of the students from the tour, inquisitively and without hostility, what they stood for. One of these men expressed concerns about the “propaganda he had been fed [by the coal industry]” and wanted to know why so many people had come from all over the country to a place where they were not wanted. This led to a conversation about the viability of alternatives to coal mining and the concerns of the community.
While such conversations can make a difference, they’re not always easily had. Dispelling the hatred against so-called outsiders or tree huggers is a battle often fought indirectly. Shutting down the Hobet mine for several hours elicited a lot of fear and anger, but that’s because many saw it as an attack on a community that is entirely dependent on the coal industry. This misconception can be righted from all over the country where campuses are calling for divestment. By targeting its bottom line, the Divest Coal campaign pressures the industry to respect workers and their communities as well as re-evaluate its mining practices.
By resisting coal companies on their college campuses, students are fighting corporate domination and the power of the coal industry nationwide. As West Virginia resident and incarcerated Mountain Mobilization protester, Dustin Steele, said, “When you fight oppression anywhere, you fight oppression everywhere.”
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