and shaking a one finger salute as a blue cloud of burned rubber hovers
near Goldman Environmental Prize winner, Judy Bonds and other
protesters against mountain top removal mining. That's the moment a
sad but not surprising irony struck me: working-class people in this
Appalachian community are in conflict with each other, while those at a
safe distance from this drama have been getting rich from the
destruction of other people's air, land, and water.
Activists with Coal River Mountain Watch, Climate Ground Zero, and
other groups who are living and working in these mining towns to stop
mountain top removal have at least that much in common with the mining
industry workers who seem to despise them.
"We will stand by the workers if they will challenge the
politicians and demand that they bring in new jobs to the area. Only
the politicians have the power and clout to bring in new industries,
not us poor citizens," said Bonds, who was assaulted by a
counter-demonstrator during the protest last June in Sundial, WV. The
protest drew international attention when NASA scientist James Hansen
and Hollywood actress Daryl Hannah were among the dozens of people
state police arrested during the non-violent civil disobedience at the
Goals Coal Processing Plant, operated by Massey Energy.
Massey employees were at the protest as counter-demonstrators, along
with their friends and families. Some of them held spray-painted bed
sheets that read : "Miners Say: Go Home Tree Huggers" and "This Is Our
Livelihood You're Messing With, Not Just A Summer Project."
The Massey employees and other counter-demonstrators reached out to the
protesters in a spirit of class solidarity by blaring car and truck
horns, revving motorcycles, and shouting vulgar insults. Their class
consciousness reached a higher level when, later that day, many of them
jeered and howled deliriously as the police, making their arrests,
grabbed protesters by the crooks of their arms after they had sat down
in front of the entrance to the Massey coal processing plant.
That day in June at times had the ambiance of a festival or perhaps
half- time at a football game played by intense rivals. The arrests
seemed to be the grand finale, at least for the counter-demonstrators
and some of the members of the media army.
But during lulls in the din earlier that day, I didn't hear any of the
counter-demonstrators talk about out-of-state coal companies making a
lot of money from blowing up the mountains with the help of
politicians. Instead I heard about out-of-state environmentalists,
out-of-touch with West Virginia's economic issues, descending from
their big city ivory towers to cause trouble in a small town.
One man wearing dark blue coveralls with orange strips told me
about misguided locals who have too much time on their hands. "They
need to get a life. They need to get a job. Ask yourself how many of
them are gainfully employed. I bet 90 percent of them have no idea
about what they're protesting against."
I asked Bonds about whether she and her pro-mountain top removal
adversaries may have stepped into the trap of being divided and
conquered. "The industry is happy to pit workers against people that
just want to live in safe communities. Jay Gould, the hated
robber-baron said in 1898, "I can hire one half of the working class to
kill the other half,'" Bonds said.
But perhaps history includes additional lessons. In the 1980s,
Judi Bari led efforts to unite timber workers with environmentalists
fighting to stop logging in the ancient redwood forests of Northern
California. Assuming it hasn't already, should something similar to
that be tried in the coal fields of West Virginia? Bonds is skeptical.
"The coal industry has 140 years of oppression here. We try as
much as we can and some volunteers have tried as well, but the
oppressed coal miners aren't having any of it. The threats and violence
are getting worse and the strip miners are only listening to the coal
companies now. Logging in California and coal mining in Appalachia are
two different animals," Bonds said.
However, she said Massey's record on worker health, safety,
along with its workers' inability to unionize connects to what the
company is doing to Appalachia's air, land, and water.
Even though Cecil E. Roberts, president of United Mine Workers
of America, has essentially come out in support of mountain top
removal, I keep thinking that something like the Blue-Green Alliance
between United Steel Workers and the Sierra Club could happen between
the coal miners' union and activists who work with Climate Ground Zero,
Mountain Justice, and other groups.
Maybe in the glare of my computer screen, I have allowed my
own idealism to mesmerize me. There seems at best only a flicker at the
end of the mine tunnel when I present this idea to activists such as
Bonds, who referred me to the Upton Sinclair quote: " It is difficult
to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his
not understanding it."
She gave a further explanation about why she doesn't pin her
hopes on Massey workers reaching out to her with any sort of shared
class consciousness. "It's something similar to battered wives'
syndrome. It's easier to fight other powerless citizens and
"tree-huggers' than to fight big business. Coal owns 95 percent of this
state. It's like a banana republic."
During the protest last summer, activist Vivian Stockman may
have drawn stares from the Massey counter-demonstrators without ever
saying as much as a word to them. Wearing a top-hat that resembled a
coal-plant smoke-stack, and a top-coat with over-sized fake money
pinned to the lapels, she was a robber baron from whose hands dangled a
string puppet of West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin.