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The March on Blair Mountain

Mountains are sacred the world over, and when about a thousand of us gathered at the foot of Blair Mountain June 11, you could feel the spirit rising. For five days, several hundred people had walked single file down roads from Charleston, West Virginia’s capital. Now, joined by several hundred more, they staked a claim to the historic site of the Battle of Blair Mountain 90 years ago when a face-off between United Mine Workers and coal companies reached such a peak that federal forces came in to quell the conflict.

So pivotal was that fight that in 2009 Blair Mountain was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, a move that would have protected it from surface mining if coal companies had not succeeded in getting it promptly delisted. We had gathered at the mountain on this hot June day to call for honoring the past by protecting Blair Mountain from mountaintop removal, but we had also gathered to march for the future?a future, we hoped, when all mountaintops would be safe.

I had arrived in Logan, West Virginia, the night before the Saturday rally, and already, sitting on the floor of a van shuttle from the parking lot to the state park camp in Logan, I saw what a far-flung lot we were: from Oregon, Washington, Kentucky, Florida, Indiana, West Virginia. The next day in the field at the base of the mountain I saw more from near and far?a diverse array of tattooed young medics, oldsters under big umbrellas, college students trained as legal observers in case conflicts should erupt. Before the rally started, I talked with Quakers and opponents of natural gas extraction by “fracking” and a veteran of the Appalachian mountaintop removal movement.

I also listened to retired mineworker Joe Stanley, born and raised in nearby Mingo County, who explained to me why the United Mine Workers of America was not opposing mountaintop removal (although one union local voted to support the march and sent signs along for marchers to carry). A former UMWA official, Stanley said the union is divided between surface miners and deep miners?a state of affairs he thinks the companies have encouraged. For coal companies, surface mining is more profitable; for miners, it’s easier than mining underground.

“Surface mining is heavy equipment operation,” he said, and though he respects surface miners for making a living for their families, “we did not need and cannot endure the damage that mountain top removal mining is causing. We will never recover. That’s Blair Mountain right there,” he said, pointing to the steep slopes above us. “Once it’s gone, it’s gone, and it will leach heavy metals for 300 years.”

That was just one conversation I had, and there were others: it was a richly educational day, with lessons to be learned even from the police cars parked on the road above us, the line of not very friendly people watching from the road, or the motorcyclists who gunned their motorcycles to interrupt the speeches, at one point, nearly drowning out Robert Kennedy Jr., who heaped righteous wrath on a coal industry that would destroy this sacred place.

It was, Kennedy said, an illegal industry, which admitted it could not make a profit without breaking laws. The year before he had confronted Masssey Energy CEO Don Blankenship with the company’s record of breaking environmental, health, and mining laws thousands of times in just a few years. “And I said to him,” Kennedy said, “‘Is it possible for your industry to make a profit wihout violating the law?’ And he said, ‘No, no because we’ve got a lot of silly laws.’ What he was admitting to me,” Kennedy said, “was that he was operating a criminal enterprise, and their business plan is that they’re going to violate the law, and then they’re going to dismantle democracy, and they’re going to muzzle the press so that they can get away with it.”

In West Virginia, democracy has been subverted, Kennedy said. “If you are a property owner in this state, you have no property rights?. If they want to drop a 5-ton boulder on your property, you can’t do anything about it. If they want to rain toxic dust down on your property and your children, you can’t do anything about it. If you did that in New York state, we’d sue you, we’d take your money, we’d make you clean up every bit of silicon dust, but you can’t do that in West Virginia?.

“By every poll, two-thirds of the people of the state of West Virginia oppose mountaintop removal mining and want to see it shut down immediately?but there’s not a single elected politician of the state who will say that publicly. This is not democracy. That is something else, and I’ll tell you what it is. Domination of business by government is called communism. Domination of government by business is called fascism.”

What has already happened in West Virginia may be in store for the rest of us, Kennedy said. “Our democracy is under attack, and it’s under attack by the United States Supreme Court that made the worst decision in United States history”?the Citizens United decision that overturned a law preventing corporations from spending money to advocate for or against candidates in elections. That decision has unleashed a “tsunami of corporate dollars into the American political process,” Kennedy said.

“The same thing is happening nationally as is happening in West Virginia. Human beings are being turned into commodities, and when human beings are turned into commodities, the environment and landscape are turned into commodities. And that is going to happen across America unless you turn back this ascendancy of corporate power, and this battle is beginning now.”

Kennedy was followed by a host of speakers and musicians, among them West Virginia’s singer Kathy Mattea, novelist Denise Giardina, and Larry Gibson, patriarch of the anti-mountaintop removal movement. But if this was a day of words, it was also to be a day of action. In early afternoon with the sun beating down, marchers headed up the hill. Two of us older protestors, defeated by the heat, stayed behind, making our long way back to town in the vintage BMW of one of the musicians and seeing, on the way, police cars hurtling toward the mountain. We were worried that whatever was happening, it was not good.

Not until the marchers were shuttled back that evening to the parking lot at the state park did I hear what had happened there. All day rain had threatened without falling but now, at the end of the day, it fell gently as a young marcher, Brady Bradshaw, a student in Wilmington, North Carolina, told me how on the way up the mountain, about 150 of the nearly 1,000 had broken away to go the area designated as the 1921 battlefield. Skirting a security car that halfheartedly blocked their path, they marched on for a mile or so.

“When we reached our peak,” he said, “the cops had come up around us and gotten in front and were starting to say the magic words, ‘You’re trespassing ? you’re now trespassing, everybody needs to move down the mountain now.’ And the organizers were saying, ‘Plant your flags now’?our flags that said, “Save Blair Mountain.” so people started planting those. It was really awesome. They were lining the pathway.” Having done that, they felt they had accomplished their goal, and, as a group, went on down the mountain.

“Do you feel good?” I asked.

He grinned. “I feel great.”

Later that evening in the dining room of the state park lodge, I talked with historian Barbara Rasmussen, president of Friends of Blair Mountain and a leader in the effort to place Blair Mountain on the National Register. A retired history professor, she drafted the successful National Register nomination, which was then undermined by a legal challenge by the coal industry. Now Friends of Blair Mountain, the Sierra Club, and others have filed an appeal of the de-listing and await a decision by a federal court.

“The case was assigned to a federal judge in Washington (DC), not in West Virginia for which we are very grateful.” Does she have any idea when the decision will come? “We have none. We know if that it had been filed in a West Virginia court it would be over. Or in the Richmond federal court it would have been over?that’s where Massey is.”

And what did she think would be impact of the Blair Mountain march? “If anything comes of the demonstration today, it will come through local governments. Perhaps today we were able to empower a county commissioner to ask questions, or a state representative to say, ‘Wait a minute?.'”

My hope is that it will do that and more. In the March on Blair Mountain, the network of groups that came together as Appalachia Rising reminded us of the possibilities for creative political action under difficult circumstances. Three times, marchers along the way were turned away from the camping places they had been promised and had to return to their starting point. While many people along the way thanked marchers for what they were doing, others heckled them. Yet through it all demonstrators had remained?as an organizer told them the final day? “strong, determined, dignified.” State Police had done their jobs and demonstrators had thanked them. There was only one arrest, on the battlefield, and release came within hours.

The March on Blair Mountain, as organizer Brandon Nida told me, was a “complicated action,” and it was put together in Appalachian style, with people talking things out and deciding what to do. It was a creative action, reaching back across nearly a century to find in the past inspiration for the present. Using the full array of electronic media to get the word out, organizers scattered across the Appalachian states brought together a crowd and turned them into a movement. In more ways than one, it was, as I overheard one marcher say, “a historic day.”

Carol Polsgrove, author of Divided Minds: Intellectuals and the Civil Rights Movement, has written on environmental and energy issues for Sierra and other magazines. She is professor emerita at the Indiana University School of Journalism. She explores the varied lives of writers on her website, http://carolpolsgrove.com.

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