Hundred activists sit in front of the White House demanding the practice of mountaintop removal coal mining be abolished. by Kevin Gosztola
*See end of article for video montage of events.
Over a thousand Appalachian residents and activists participated in a rally and march in Washington, D.C. on Monday, September 27th. The action was the culmination of a multi-day convergence that had been put together by a coalition known as Appalachia Rising, which organized the activity to advance the movement to abolish mountaintop removal coal mining in the United States.
Those organizing understood in order to wage comprehensive action to end mountaintop removal all the players involved had to be sent a message. Plans were made to visit regulators, corporations making the practice possible, and President Obama, who has the power to end this practice once and for all.
Just before the rally, a number of activists staged an action at the Army Corps of Engineers building (the Army Corps of Engineers has the power to give permits for mountaintop removal projects). Nine young people went into the Department of Interior Office building and issued a series of demands for Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar. They refused to leave and staged a sit-in. And, at PNC’s flagship location in D.C., Reverend Billy and the Life After Shopping Choir, Earth Quakers, and RAN Chicago all had activists inside who engaged in a sit-in inside the branch.
As the march made it’s way to the White House, it stopped at the EPA building and at the PNC branch, where activists were still sitting in. Those marching chanted, "EPA do your job," and outside the bank, which is now the top funder of mountaintop removal projects, "PNC, you’re killing our communities." One man, who presumably works for the EPA, laughed at those who had paid the agency he works for a visit. And, at the PNC location, bank managers and security detail expressed frustration that police could only arrest 4 people inside the building because they had to take care of the major action that was about to take place in front of the White House.
Led by key leaders of the movement like Teri Blanton and Larry Gibson, the march entered Lafayette Park and congregated and then took off across Pennsylvania Avenue to line up on the sidewalk outside the fence surrounding the White House. One group of Appalachians went to the White House gate and attempted to deliver a letter. Another group went in the opposite direction. And then, the two joined each other in front of the White House.
In rainy weather, one hundred people sat down on the wet sidewalk and were cheered. They began to chant and sing as they waited for police to give their three warnings and then begin the arrests.
A bus that read, "This Bus is Running on Clean Natural Gas," menacingly sat ready for taking away those who were about to engage in civil disobedience and indicated just how important it is to, as the director of Gasland, Josh Fox, told filmmakers and activists at the convergence, merge the movements against mountaintop removal and natural gas drilling. Police vans were also brought to take the activists away.
The police were slow, arresting people one by one. This was likely because they wanted the hundreds of people who were standing behind police caution tape to leave and thought by prolonging the arrests support for those who were making them do extra work would dwindle. However, many remained and, in fact, walked under the caution tape multiple times giving food and water to anyone who was making a small sacrifice for the people of Appalachia.
Monday’s actions started on Freedom Plaza with a rally that featured outspoken Appalachian residents from the movement and others.
Maria Gunnoe, an organizer from West Virginia who has earned awards for opposing the practice of mountaintop removal in Appalachia, declares that Appalachians will not back down. She delivered a message that the destructive practice is stealing our country’s homeland security.
Gunnoe explained, "The youth is so knowledgeable of mountaintop removal and its impacts on their water and their land. Now, we have a government that thinks that they can regulate blowing up mountains. You cannot regulate destruction." And, she talked about being interviewed by people from other countries who don’t get how the government in West Virginia expects Appalachians to blow up their mountains so they can have jobs.
Hansen said, "We’re gathered here today to draw attention to the failure of our government to protect the rights of the people and the failure to provide equal protections of the laws. People have suffered a long train of abuses invariably with the same objective: to enrich the few at the expense of the many." And, he added, "Our government allows and contributes to a great hoax perpetrated on the public by monied interests aimed at confusing the public about the reality of climate change. We are in danger of becoming the land for the rich and the home of the bribe."
Ken Hechler, the ninety-seven year old principal architect of the Coal Mine and Health Safety Act of 1969 and a man who ran against Governor Joe Manchin in the special election to fill the late Senator Robert Byrd’s seat because he wanted to draw attention to the devastating impact of mountaintop removal mining in West Virginia, sent a letter to be read at the rally. Mari-Lynn Evans, executive producer of the documentary film Coal Country, read the letter.
Hechler’s letter explained, "I have been a fighter my entire life. I fought a world war. I disposed the very Nazis who I faced in that theater of war. I’ve advised presidents. I’ve served in the U.S. Congress and I marched with Martin Luther King for the rights of oppressed citizens. In my ninety-seven years, I’ve seen people sacrifice and be sacrificed. We together take up the fight for our history, one that would be and has been endangered by historical revisionists armed now with heavy equipment called the coal industry.
He called upon the second battle of Blair Mountain to be a "focal point of the movement" and drew attention to the history of Blair Mountain as a key example of how the coal industry wishes to obliterate any symbols from labor history that might energize people against mountaintop removal. He called himself a hellraiser and then he asked the audience to "get political" and endorsed a candidate running in the special election to fill Byrd’s seat:
"Ask yourself to step up and don the mantle that I wear hell raiser. If you believe in this struggle, then it is time to double your efforts. If you don’t like to get political, then it’s time to understand that the very circumstances of your life is political. So, do it now. Get political. You must realize the power to change is not only within your grasp but it is to your responsibility to your generation and the one to follow
To exert this power and citizenship, I have chosen to ignore my own political party and I’ve endorsed a fighter, Jesse Johnson, whose running for Senate in West Virginia. Jesse is a fighter, he too is a hellraiser, and he is the one to carry this baton. I have deemed him the ultimate solution in this fight."
Johnson, of the Mountain Party in West Virginia, came up on the stage and, after leading people in a song, declared, "They want to erase the history of labor in this nation. And, they want to remove it for a little bit of coal and then another mountain and then another mountain and then another mountain." He added, "They take the miners out of the mines. They are killing the jobs. They are poisoning our waters at their very source."
During the march, Lorelei Scarbro, an activist born and raised in the Coal River Valley, declared while standing on the steps of the EPA building, "We have asked over and over and over for Lisa Jackson [head of the EPA] to get out of her comfy little office up here in this building and fly to Appalachia and see what’s going on. [We have asked her to] knock on the doors of the people in our communities, listen to their stories, look in their eyes when you can tell that they’re drinking poison water and they are dying and then after you do all that then you have to believe us and when you believe us you’re gonna have to change it."
Many marching wanted to believe that the Obama Administration would listen to them. They chanted, "Yes you can! Yes you can!" and talked about wanting change they could believe in today, which means friends and family who are suffering and dying would stop suffering illness and death because of what the coal industry and political leaders failure to treat Appalachians like the human beings they are.
Hansen, who was arrested during the action, indicated how this action and future actions might help finally end mountaintop removal. He suggested those arrested not beg the courts to forgive them for violating the law and instead ask the courts "to order the government to present plans to phase down fossil-fuel emissions at a pace dictated by the science, a pace stabilizing climate, preserving nature and a future for young people, providing young people equal protections of the laws."
Appalachians face some of the worst symptoms of capitalism in America. In states like West Virginia, the economy is a mono-economy, which means everything is defined by one industry–coal.
Residents are treated like sub-humans. The coal industry fights them as they try to tell their stories. The political leaders refuse to listen or take seriously the destruction Appalachians face. They, instead, are whores for the industry, taking donations from coal and so-called "friends of coal" to help them get elected and re-elected. And, regulators have not the fortitude or courage to act in defense of the humans suffering from weapons of mass destruction in Appalachia. They choose to instead send patsies to share coal industry-produced pseudo-science with students in high schools and tell students that sludge ponds from mining are not really toxic and that certain elements polluting the air, water and environment are not to be worried about because they are on the Periodic Table of Elements.
The system refuses to respond to Appalachians so, therefore, it is up to Applachians and others to stand up and fight. Just like people stood up to fight for women’s suffrage and civil rights for African-Americans, the people of America must fight.
The following is a video montage of Monday’s action: