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Showdown at the Hobet Strip Mine

I recently attended the July 28 “Mountain Mobilization” in southern West Virginia, which included a confrontational rally and a direct action to halt operations at Patriot Coal’s Hobet strip mine, claimed by organizers to be the largest mountaintop removal site in the United States. More than fifty people walked onto the mine site, blockading a road, sitting in trees, and locking themselves to a large mining rig. Twenty of the participants were arrested and were held on $500,000 combined bail. One of the arrestees, a native West Virginian named Dustin Steele, reported being taken to a room and beaten by the authorities. Aside from the “Hobet 20,” the rest of the participants left the mine site voluntarily. Police would not allow shuttles to collect these people, forcing some to return from the action on foot. Coal supporters harassed returning vehicles, reportedly blockading a group at a gas station and pepper-spraying three individuals.

While the direct action was occurring, supporters who were unable to risk arrest held a rally at Kanawha State Forest just outside Charleston. Unlike the location of the targeted mine site, this rally was publicized and attracted a boisterous contingent of miners protesting our presence, as well as scores of police and some local media. This event effectively diverted police resources, with only a few on hand to respond to the mine site once its location became known. The media were particularly interested in the presence of 98-year-old former Congressman Ken Hechler, the self-described “hell raiser” who gleefully expressed his support for the direct action and its young participants.

RAMPS welcomed participants to arrive at its base camp starting on July 25 to attend a series of trainings in preparation for the non-violent direct action event. Approximately 100 to 150 people pitched tents or slept in hammocks. The camp featured an outdoor kitchen offering delicious meals with meat, vegetarian, and vegan options.  Security volunteers provided round-the-clock surveillance for police and hostiles, which proved necessary on multiple occasions. In addition, there was an art space for making signs, and a large training tent in case of rain. Reflecting the group’s commitment to ecology, there were even composting “privies” out in the woods. Trainings emphasized non-violent direct action, de-escalation of tensions with police and opposing groups, decentralized “affinity group” organizing structure, a legal system overview, non-alienation of locals, etc. Group discussions were organized on a horizontal consensus-based model similar in practice to the Occupy movement.

While I expected a large number of privileged young people from outside West Virginia, I was unprepared for the extent to which these self-proclaimed hippies, anarchists, and “tree huggers” dominated the group. The people I saw were oriented toward activism on many issues. They had been at Occupy Wall Street and the Tar Sands Action against the Keystone XL pipeline. They were tree-sitters, LGBT activists, animal rights proponents, and anti-fracking campaigners. They were practitioners of alternative healing offering reiki and herbal remedies. It was a group of non-conformists wearing cutoff shorts and t-shirts, bandanas, many unshaven and tattooed. There was one young woman with a pet raccoon. Discussions emphasized the difference between “direct action” and civil disobedience, as well as the strategy of “non-compliance” with police.

Even though the organizers emphasized the need for us to avoid alienating locals and others who might be sympathetic to our cause, I couldn’t help thinking that the appearance and behavior of this group would be alienating to most people who are more mainstream. It wasn’t just the way people were dressed, or the fact that every time we had a group discussion we were asked to state our preferred gender identity; there was too much emphasis on shutting down the strip mine via non-compliance, and too much secrecy surrounding location and logistics. While ultimately the majority of participants chose to comply with police, we were encouraged to use tactics such as locking ourselves to equipment and each other, or going limp to make the police’s job more difficult. These tactics stand in contrast to those employed by the Tar Sands Action last year. In that case, participants were encouraged to dress in business casual, the plans to get arrested were announced well in advance, and once in handcuffs people went willingly.

To point out this contrast is not to say that non-compliance is never appropriate. Obviously the goal of the Mountain Mobilization was different than that of the Tar Sands Action. The former sought to disrupt the operations of a strip mine, to put a direct stop to a practice that is horrific, while the goal of the latter was to make a statement. The main problem I had with the RAMPS campaign is that the organizational structure and plan of action were not explained to participants in advance of our arrival in West Virginia. While we were free to form our own semi-autonomous affinity groups and to choose our level of risk comfort, we were given no information about the site that would help plan an effective course of action or assess risk. This proved to be an inefficient way to plan; for example, when my affinity group discussed forming a soft blockade of an access road, it became apparent that we had no idea what the characteristics of the site were. Only one member of our group had been on a mine site before, and he noted that the access road was likely to be much wider than what many of us had imagined. Did we even have enough people to form an effective blockade? It seemed impossible for us to arrive at a reasoned plan of any substance with which everyone could feel comfortable. We debated for hours without any concrete information at our disposal, leaving many of us frustrated.

My aim in pointing out these organizational weaknesses is to encourage more conversation within the environmental movement about how we can be most effective, whether the goal is to stop mountaintop removal, pipelines, and fracking for natural gas, or to demand policy actions to stop climate change. While RAMPS ostensibly supports a decentralized consensus-based organizing model in which all participants have equal say in planning, the secrecy surrounding this action created a de facto elite class comprising those who knew what was going on. The rest of us were left in the dark as foot soldiers awaiting instructions before blindly following the leaders into battle. It may be impossible to organize secretive direct actions on a larger scale because the underground nature of such actions and the emphasis on non-compliance is inherently alienating to the masses of people we need to join our movement, and because as attendance grows it will be harder and harder to keep plans secret and to maintain a non-hierarchical organization.

If the July 28 action at Hobet would have been impossible without such secrecy, we ought to ask ourselves whether such direct actions that evade the authorities are appropriate. As thinkers such as Bill McKibben and Chris Hedges have suggested, civil disobedience is most effective when performed openly. RAMPS should ask itself why more local Appalachians did not participate in the action, and whether a more open and inclusive planning process would have been more effective at bringing attention to the issue of mountaintop removal. The Hobet action targeted the strip mine itself as the problem: if only we could disrupt their operations on an ongoing and regular basis, it would become unprofitable for them to mine coal. But the coal companies are the wrong target. As the documentary The Last Mountain addresses, if the EPA and West Virginia DEP would only enforce the environmental laws on the books, the coal companies would not be able to make money. This suggests that the problem is one of systemic corruption, where government agencies work not for the public interest but for the companies they are meant to regulate. I would argue that this is the larger problem that needs to be addressed, by performing symbolic acts of civil disobedience directed at policy makers.

Civil disobedience is necessary because problems of government cannot be addressed simply by voting for new people. Government is not working because our democracy is sick. It is sick, not because corporations are pouring endless money into misleading campaign advertisements, but because television ads are so important in the first place. Our democracy is sick because the majority of Americans live in low-density suburbs where public space serves primarily to move automobiles, not for civil discourse, and where protesters standing on the sides of four-lane highways can’t effectively disrupt anything systemic. Our democracy is sick because regulations in cities prevent mobilizations that are not pre-approved to block traffic, and over-reactive police with riot gear and military-style equipment have repeatedly brutalized peaceful protestors to dissuade them from exercising their First Amendment right to assembly. When public discourse is reduced to television sound bites, letters to the editor, online petitions, and comments below internet news articles, we lose our ability to engage in direct, nuanced public discussion with our fellow citizens. If we don’t practice our right to express our displeasure with the system and debate issues in public, we risk losing this right.

When opposing groups meet each other in an open public forum, they are confronted with real people and real emotions that are missing from advertisements, talk shows, and the internet. At the rally near Charleston at which coal miners organized a vocal counter-protest, I was struck by how, after they let off some steam in the form of angry outbursts, some expressed a desire to debate and understand our point of view (impossible because of the wide police buffer between the two groups). I wished that I could have had a discussion with the miners, not because I thought I could convert them to my views, but because it is important for people to meet each other and understand and accept opposing concerns as legitimate. This is why public space must be occupied and reclaimed. Environmental activists must understand that reforming government will do more to address our problems than protesting the companies who commit the atrocities. We may have shut down a mine on July 28, but the war against fossil fuels continues, and we are losing. This war cannot be won through underground actions against mine sites, just as it cannot be won by environmental lobbyists making backroom deals in our capitals. It must be won in public, out in the open, in the streets, to bring as many people into the movement as possible.

Sam Scoppottone is an environmental activist from Ithaca, New York. He can be reached at: sscoppettone@riseup.net.

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