Activists in front of the White House at Appalachia Rising. Photo by Rana Xavier
Last week I had the honor of participating in Appalachia Rising, a mass mobilization in Washington DC calling for the end of mountaintop coal removal (MTR). There was something really special about this mobilization, and I’ve been trying to nail down exactly what it was. I have attended my share of big demonstrations, and normally I attend because I enjoy the morale boost of being with other activists, not because I feel our rallying will have an impact. That changed for me at Appalachia Rising. For the first time in my life, I marched through the streets of DC surrounded by banners, flags and chants, and felt like my being there was important, that I was part of a strategic, loving movement, and that we are going to win.
My involvement in anti-MTR activism began three and a half years ago, when some of my friends started a RAN group on our college campus. Our first direct actions were at two local Chase bank branches where we dumped coal, sang mining songs and closed our accounts. Since then I’ve been to more bank protests, met with EPA officials, visited Larry Gibson on Kayford Mountain, written letters, and locked down blockading the gates of a construction site of a coal-fired power plant in VA. Throughout, my activism and organizing has been channeled into different approaches to addressing MTR, which I think is representative of the movement as a whole. There are people pushing for government reform through Congressional legislation and the permitting process carried out by the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers. There are people pushing for financial reform by targeting the banks that fund MTR coal companies. There are people taking direct action on MTR sites, such as the Climate Ground Zero campaign. And there are lots of people sending e-mails, holding fundraisers and talking to people at their church about the issue. All of these people and all of these strategies were present at Appalachia Rising.
The diversity of the crowd was just one of the things that felt special about Appalachia Rising – with the exception of racial diversity, which I’ll get into later. The action was called for and organized in large part by Appalachian community members, and there were tremendous resources put into assisting Appalachian residents to attend. Many Appalachians got a chance to share their experiences the preceding weekend at the two-day Voices from the Mountains conference.
Alongside the Appalachians, there were many allies. I saw numerous faith groups in attendance, mostly Christian churchgoers. A group I work with in my hometown of Philly called the Earth Quaker Action Team held an action in a PNC bank where 13 people risked arrest. A woman I was in the paddywagon with told us she was there because of her spiritual beliefs as a Sikh. Another young man sitting with us worked with Restoring Eden. At the preceding rally, Blackfoot Indian Matthew Sherman spoke about the significance of MTR to Native people. For people who believe that mountains in their majestic beauty have been created by something divine, MTR is an assault on the Creator’s work. It was inspiring to see so many faith communities come out to support Appalachia.
Youth were also highly represented at Appalachia Rising. (By this I mean people aged 18-25 – not children, though there were younger people too). In 2005, a group of pro-mountain activists organized the first Mountain Justice Spring Break, an alternative Spring Break experience aimed at college students. It invited youth to come to Appalachia, meet community members, see MTR sites, and get training to help them organize around the issue on their campuses. The program has now expanded to include a Summer Break and a Fall Summit gathering. It has trained hundreds of college students, who have gone back to their schools where they’ve educated their peers. To me, Appalachia Rising felt like a test to see how many of these youth would put their bodies on the line when the time came. There had already been one such test – at the Capitol Climate Action following Powershift in March 2009, hundreds of youth and Appalachian community members locked down outside of a DC coal-fired power plant, but the police refused to make arrests. I spoke to many people afterward who were disappointed – they had wanted to make a stand. Now, a year and a half later, many of these youth were in attendance again, and ready for action.
Protesters and art at Appalachia Rising. Photo courtesy of Friends of the Earth
Another special element of Appalachia Rising was the art. So often, organizations and organizers devalue the importance of having common artwork and music as part of our work and movements. At Appalachia Rising, art was everywhere. Appalachian songs were played and sung throughout the day, and there was even a spontaneous dance among the arrestees as we waited for the police to process those already in cuffs. There were two types of cardboard signs that were ubiquitous at the march – mountains and fists. The former bore the names of mountains that have been leveled, the fists brandished names of communities in Appalachia where people are resisting MTR. Behind the mountains were gravestones or signs reading “DESTROYED”, while the fists read “RISING”. It was very powerful to recognize how many mountains are already gone, and at the same time see how many communities are standing up to MTR in their backyards. In addition, there was an anti-MTR puppet show by Bread and Puppet Theater and a showcasing of the Beehive Design Collective’s True Cost of Coal design. The march was dotted with bright yellow screenprinted flags with the image of a flatlining electrocardiogram (a visual representation of both decapitated mountains and the fatalities that accompany MTR) declaring “Blowing up Mountains for Coal Poisons People”. At the front of the march, people held beautiful handpainted banners. So many artists from different backgrounds used varied mediums to contribute to the beauty of the event.
Also adding to the culture of Appalachia Rising were the many red bandanas seen on marchers. The red bandanas are a nod to Appalachia’s strong history of coal miners’ labor union activity. In the early 1900s, multiracial unions of Appalachian coal miners wore red bandanas as a show of unity. Soon the term “redneck” was synonymous with “union member” (albeit used in a degrading manner.) The miners were fierce despite the violence of the coal companies, and one of their most notable struggles was the 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain, the second largest armed insurrection in the US (second only to the Civil War). The Appalachian Rednecks at the turn of the twentieth century fought the coal companies’ oppressive policies to win a better life for their families, just as Appalachian anti-MTR activists do today. It was very moving to see so many marchers honoring this legacy of organizing and direct action in the coalfields.
The march reached its climax when about 110 of us sat down in the rain on the White House sidewalk and declared we would not move until MTR is abolished. Someone later told me that about a quarter of the those who risked arrest were Appalachians, the rest were mostly youth with some older allies sitting in as well. It took nearly three hours for the police to take everyone into custody and get us cuffed and loaded into vehicles. During that time, those of us waiting to be apprehended passed the time by singing “Amazing Grace” “Go Tell It On the Mountain” and John Denver’s “Take Me Home Country Roads,” among other songs. We danced and passed around water and granola bars thrown in from the crowd. We passionately punched the air with our fists as we chanted “1! We are the people! 2! You can’t ignore us! 3! We will not let you blow up mountains!” and did a call and response with the crowd – “When I say Mountain you say Justice! MOUNTAIN! [Crowd:] JUSTICE! [Sit in:] MOUNTAIN! [Crowd:] JUSTICE!”.
There was something essentially feminist for me about the way the sit-in culminated. I may be projecting a bit, because my reasons for being in the group that day, besides the obvious desire to end mountaintop removal, were feminist. I knew that this would be a first arrest for many of the people there, both older Appalachia residents and young people. As someone with arrest experience, I wanted to be a supportive presence for new folks leading up to and during their arrests. During my first arrest a few years ago, a more seasoned organizer, Lisa, had been with me and had made the experience feel fun and safe, even empowering, which isn’t easy to do in jail. I think this kind of emotional support is feminist work that isn’t recognized or designated often enough in organizing, and I felt strongly that it was a role I wanted to play at Appalachia Rising. I wanted every person risking arrest that day to have so much damn fun and feel so fucking empowered that they would want to do it again and again, until there really is justice in the mountains. Throughout the sit-in, I saw several people, many of them women, supporting their fellow arrestees and generating enthusiasm and consciousness of physical and emotional needs in ways that made me feel that there was an unnamed collective effort at hand, and I was not the only person with these intentions in mind. In contrast to the many marches I’ve been to where solitary, entitled men take it upon themselves to lead everyone into a confrontation they have not prepared the group for, this caring and supportive atmosphere was a breath of fresh air.
One critique I would make of Appalachia Rising is that it was a very white event. There are obvious reasons for this – most Appalachians are white, the U.S. environmental movement is mostly white. White people are more likely to support and ally themselves with other white people even when there are class and regional differences. It’s misleading, however, to say that the people most affected by the coal industry are white. There are many historically black and interracial communities in the coalfields of Central Appalachia, such as Lynch, KY where a multiracial chapter of Kentuckians For The Commonwealth is fighting to preserve Black Mountain. In addition, after coal is mined, it is sent to polluting power plants throughout the country, and many of them are located in People of Color (PoC) neighborhoods. Appalachians get air and water pollution at the source of extraction, and PoC communities get air and water pollution at the site of incineration. 68% of African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant, according to data from the 1990 and 2000 census. If we are truly building a movement for environmental justice, there needs to be more overlap and mutual support between these communities. There was some evidence at Appalachia Rising of these connections and relationships being built, but there is still a long way to go.
I said earlier that Appalachia Rising was the first time in my life that I felt like my presence at a mobilization was important, and that I was part of a movement that is going to win. This isn’t because I think President Obama or Lisa Jackson looked out their windows that day and decided it was time to outlaw MTR. I’m not that naive. But I do think it was a successful building block for the anti-MTR movement. It showed that the movement has the strength and resources to mobilize lots of people – there were at least 1,000 marchers and a tenth of them risked arrest. It was the largest group of people arrested in DC in years. It also recognized the importance of targeting both the government and corporations. It was a family-friendly and feminist space, where a commitment to non-violence was declared over and over, despite the severe violence Appalachians face from MTR in their communities. It was a community-building event, where people who had only known each other from e-mails and Facebook got to meet in person, or reunite after not having seen one another since a visit to Appalachia some time ago. Perhaps most importantly, Appalachia Rising centered direct action and civil disobedience as a desirable and necessary tactic. In an age when many Big Green environmental groups shy away from anything so controversial as breaking the law, this grassroots movement is not afraid to risk arrest to draw attention to their issue and put pressure on those who can stop it. I really do hope that every person arrested that day will go home and do it 10 more times, not just until MTR has been abolished, but until there is justice everywhere. Appalachia Rising demonstrated how powerful grassroots activism can be. I can’t wait to see where it will lead us.
Photo courtesy of Friends of the Earth
Thanks Emily and jasper for editing help.