Nothing in my education had prepared me to get arrested at Marsh Fork that summer.
It was hot, worse because we were instructed to wear thick jeans in case we were dragged along the ground. It was humid as it always is in eastern summers, when air is sweet and sweaty. I was terrified.
The miners were waiting for us when we arrived at the rally at the Marsh Fork schoolyard—a school sitting underneath a dangerous coal sludge dam and just a few hundred feet from a processing plant. Kids were choking on coal dust, and the school had become a battleground between industry and anyone who challenged its absolute power.
As more and more people poured in holding signs that said “Stop Mountaintop Removal,” just as many arrived wearing miner’s reflective stripes and signs saying “Outsiders Go Home.” The crowd swelled and the rally began, but the angry miners used noisemakers to drown out the speakers’ voices—someone even pulled the plug on the PA system.
In West Virginia, men are miners and women are the daughters, wives, and mothers of miners. When they say it’s coal country, they mean it. As they saw it, we wanted to take away their jobs. For us to have entered their territory and tell them to stop doing the thing that they not only depended on for a livelihood, but upon which they based their identity, was the worst kind of insult.
They were defending their families. And the truth is that while there were plenty of locals in the crowd, there were an awful lot of us who weren’t from there. I felt the anger turned in my direction, and acknowledged that, yes, this wasn’t my community. I didn’t belong there. I had the luxury of being able to leave.
The outside agitator argument is false; in this fight, there are no outsiders. As Judy Bonds, a coalfield native, said: “This is everyone’s problem.” And in the end, didn’t we want the same things? Didn’t we all want good jobs and clean water and clean air for kids to breathe while they’re at school?
But no one was in the mood for feel-good abstractions that day, myself included. The truth was that I came because I had been asked: by people like Judy who would later die of cancer probably linked to coal; and Larry Gibson, whose house still stands alone, surrounded by blown-up mountains; and Ed Wiley, whose granddaughter attended the school whose radiators rattled with coal dust. I was there because they needed us outsiders to support them in that fight, people who had the resources and bring the world’s attention to a part of our country that’s conveniently overlooked. How can you refuse a request like that?
After the rally we began the long walk to the coal plant entrance, the road lined on both sides with angry miners. Their screams are what I remember—not us singing Amazing Grace, whose words I could scarcely choke out. My stomach was tight with fear. I’d never done civil disobedience before. I took hold of my friend’s hand, someone six years younger than me and whom I scarcely knew, and held on. He held it back; perhaps he was afraid, too. The screaming miners pressed in on us, restrained by state troopers.
I don’t remember sitting down in the actual act of civil disobedience, or getting put in the back of the car; I vaguely remember chatting with Daryl Hannah, who was next to me in the police station. But something changed in me that day as I walked into the mob: Having always been schooled to be good and to obey, I crossed over into a place where I could finally say no, I do not always have to obey. And I learned that fear is overcome not through strength, but through love.
I wish I could be there for Mountain Mobilization on the 28th. Up here in Canada, when I first saw the tar sands, it was ugly, but not a surprise—I’d seen a similar landscape three years ago, standing on Larry Gibson’s property and looking down into a gutted mountain. Because it’s all the same fight, you know—and there really is no such thing as an outsider.
(photo courtesy of Appalachian Voices)
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