From Birmingham to Coal River

As we reach the top of the mountain (what mountain I did not know), we leave the old skid trail, now covered with thick brush and thorny vines, and head up the steep slopes through the big trees. All morning we had trudged up the hill on a confusing network of abandoned logging roads, encountering nothing more than the tracks the animals had left in the fresh snow, each set of tracks with its own story to tell. A wild turkey wonders around in search of seeds or insects, or hopefully something bigger. The tracks of a coyote looking for turkeys, a raccoon, a fox and many unidentified birds are the only signs of activity on the mountain and we are hopelessly lost. Perhaps on the other side of the knob we will finally see the power lines that lead to the coal processing plant and that go by the Shumate Dam, our destination.

It is now late in the afternoon, and we had planned to be on the dam by noon. We had missed a key junction early on and now are some seven miles beyond and above the dam. Gaining the ridge, we see a road going over from the other side, and head straight to it, now sure it will take us to the dam. It didn’t. Instead, what we thought was a road was a sediment ditch, designed to catch the run off and runaway boulders coming off the mountain top removal site. It is filled with water and ice, so we hike around the mountain on the berm, a small dyke that has a flat surface on which we could walk. The mud is thick and gooey and clings to the soles of our boots, but it is easier by far than the crashing through the thorns, from which our hands and faces are now stinging and bleeding.

Then I spot the footprints on our makeshift trail. Someone has been up here recently. Rounding the hill, we almost stumble upon an excavator loading blasted rocks into the beds of massive trucks. Just below, out of sight from the big machine’s operator, we find a rare flat spot sheltered by big tress and covered with logs and dry leaves. We take a short break and while we are resting a helicopter hovers high above and spots us. It makes a broad turn and now flies low over our position. In the helicopter is Don Blankenship, CEO and major stockholder of Massey Energy, the owner of the Edwhite Mine, the one we are about to enter. We wave to him and start up to the berm. Just below the excavator, we unfurl our banner, made from an old tarp which read simply: “Stop.” By now, Massey’s security, in their silver pick-up trucks with flashing lights, begin to appear, all holding cameras.

Spotting us, the excavator drops a large load of rocks and trees just in front of us. When the machine goes back for another load, swinging the huge bucket on the large tracks back towards the hillside he was busy tearing down, we stand beneath him. When he swings back around, we hold our banner high. He stops the machine and gets out to stand on the iron treads. He begins to shout at us and we answer politely that he is in violation of the law and will have to shut down. He turns off the machine.

We now continue up onto the hard packed surface and watch as two trucks loaded with rocks come out and drive by us. Two more empty ones go in. The next truck that comes out stops as we step into the center of the road. Work comes to a complete halt until James Guin McGuiness and I are arrested by Trooper Mike Smith, who also arrests Antrim Caskey, a photo journalist who accompanies us…

After getting out of the police stationed (we were not jailed) we went to Power Shift, a very big and much ballyhooed conference in Washington that was to be attended by 12,000 student activists and was to be followed by the Capitol Climate Action, a call to mass civil disobedience by writers Bill McKibben, Wendell Berry and top NASA scientist Dr. James Hanson accompanied by several dozen Coal River residents who wanted to get arrested.

Billed as an historic action, the event did indeed recede quickly into history. No one back in West Virginia saw it on TV or in the newspaper, and of course when we got home nothing had changed. Every day except Sunday, at around 4:30, the blasts go off at the mine and it rattles the panes in my window. Of the 12,000 students at Power Shift we managed to recruit only two, and on March 5th they had joined two residents and one other West Virginian and hiked up to the dam that we had intended to climb and unfurled another banner and shut down traffic on the main haul road leaving the mine, in direct violation of a recent temporary restraining order (TRO) from Judge Hutchinson of the Raleigh County Circuit Court. Another hearing was set for March 9th.

The Coal River delegation to the Power Shift rally was a little disappointed that they did not have a chance to be arrested with the writers and the Nobel Prize winner, as were many of the volunteers from Mountain Justice and Rising Tide, two of the more militant groups that sponsored the Capitol action.

I was even more disappointed that now we may have to wait a few more months before another nation mobilization. What went wrong in DC? I know getting arrested isn’t always as easy as it should be, but we had the best organizers in the movement with plenty of advance notice on this and it did not happen. So far they have offered us no explanation for it, other than the event continues to be billed as “historic”. But why?

Perhaps I know the reason. Civil disobedience has gotten a bad rap lately as being a worn out and ineffective tactic. This rap is undeserved, and certainly getting Mr. Hanson and McKibben arrested would have garnered the international attention that the the big rally simply did not receive. The wave of gloating over media coverage of the event that is now filling my e-mail boxes from the many sponsoring organizations that I have joined is starting to get irritating. When do we admit our mistakes? Never?

The CCA organizers wanted to recreate the glory days of the WTO protests in Seattle and elsewhere and recycled the slogans and costumes and some were even in face masks and bandannas (although it was so cold and snowy that no one even noticed!). I applaud these efforts, as I do all honest effort to address climate change,  but while this may be indeed be civil disobedience it has little to do with non-violence, which is a strategy as much as it is a philosophy.  To continue to use tactics that aren’t effective isn’t non-violent, it smacks of laziness and fear. You have to abolish fear if you wish to prevail in a non-violent struggle. What was the CCA afraid of?

Perhaps the timidity  can be traced to the aftermath of 9/11, and the prevailing notion among progressives that the Bush administration had outlawed dissent, what came to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Getting arrested had by then become a stunt, with little risk of jail-time or financial sanctions. We had lawyers, bail and were out for pizza and beer by dinnertime. Where was the risk? Other than one of our climbers falling or being assaulted, there were few legal repercussions. Certainly no one would violate a court order. Greenpeace is under court orders not to protest on Exxon/Mobile property or on the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and so far they have obeyed.

Since the 1990s, activist organizations have backed down under the threat of legal sanctions on several occasions and last year when several of them teamed up to block construction of the Dominion Coal-Fired Power Plant in Wise County, Virginia, the result was that the activists pled guilty, even though James Hanson volunteered to testify at their trial. They not only didn’t receive a trial, they apologized to Dominion. I know why the students and locals capitulated: they had no money or lawyers. But I simply can’t understand why the other sponsoring groups, like the Rainforest Action Network followed suit. The result is that this docile posture actually set back the campaign for mass civil disobedience that even Al Gore has said is justified. These were terrible precedents, no matter what the conditions were when they occurred.

In a packed Beckley, West Virginia courtroom yesterday we were in front of Judge “Hutch”, a known Friend of Coal supporter who has been elected with the help of big coal money. With no lawyers present on our side, we were unable to prevent the TRO from being extended. We left the courtroom, spoke to the media and vowed to continue our campaign. The threat of jail now seems real, but we remain unafraid. So far.

Back here on Rock Creek I have some time to gather my thoughts. It’s been a busy last two months, with five actions and 19 arrests and now the West Virginia media is finally paying attention to the situation on the Coal River. Massey Energy is trying to crush us under a lawsuit, while we are receiving a great deal of support and encouragement from our neighbors. The feeling here is that we can change things if we don’t back down.

But we will need help. I would like to ask all of those people who came to Washington for the Capitol Climate Action to get arrested and didn’t to consider this: how about coming down here West Virginia, where we are organizing regular demonstrations at the Massey mine on Coal River Mountain?  Wouldn’t that send a stronger message than trying to convince Congress to convert a small coal fired power plant  to natural gas—natural gas that comes from where? Hello Wyoming!

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. never got arrested in Washington DC, he got arrested in Mississippi and Alabama, not once, but many
Many times. King also broke an injunction. Here on the Coal River, we are trying to infuse a deeper meaning to our non-violence. These actions are not media stunts but a last ditch effort to save the Appalachian Mountains from total destruction and time is swiftly running out.

If the Massey TRO is successful in crushing our budding rebellion in West Virginia, then I fear our movement is not going to be successful in saving what’s left of the Appalachian Mountains. However, if we can end Mountaintop Removal by standing up to Massey and the coal corrupted West Virginia courts, then we will have learned a valuable lesson about nonviolence and how to confront the crisis of climate change.

In the end, it will not be the clean energy future that we must build, as the CCA e-mails continue to urge me to do, but the urgent, dangerous and dirty energy present that we must confront, and confront it in here in the strip mines of West Virginia, where the rule of law has been denied to both the people and the land for too long. Only the harsh light of non-violent confrontation will illuminate the dark hollows of Appalachia, and bring in justice, our one and only request.

For more information visit Climate Ground Zero.

MIKE ROSELLE lives in Rock Creek, West Virginia. Roselle’s book, Tree Spiker, will be published by St. Martin’s Press. He can be reached at:


MIKE ROSELLE is Campaign Director of Climate Ground Zero and author of Tree Spiker!. He can be reached at: