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Do Lives Matter in Whitesville?  Not If You’re Working Class

The mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, which tragically took the lives of 14 people last week, ominously amplified choruses of all the worst sort–Islamophobes, militarists, fans of the police state.

It also helped to push off the front pages breaking news about another massacre of historic importance, a massacre that took place right here in the United States, killing nearly twice as many people as the shooting in San Bernardino.

It took place in Whitesville, West Virginia, April 5, 2010, when 29 workers at Upper Branch Mine, run by Massey Energy, were incinerated, suffocated, or crushed to death.  A super-profitable coal mine exploded, due to methane gas  build up, due to inadequate ventilation.  It was the culmination of a decades-long history of systematic safety violations by Massey Energy, a firm that amassed billions of dollars while busting unions and breaking hundreds of federal rules and regulations.  Not to mention producing and profiting off a commodity the burning of which is a deadly contributor to the global warming that threatens the entire human race, and other living things on this planet.

The Breaking News?  This past Friday, Massey Energy chief executive Don Blankenship was acquitted of all felony charges holding him responsible for the deaths of the miners whose lives he sacrificed for profit.  These charges could have brought 30 years in prison.  Instead, Blankenship was convicted only of the misdemeanor,  “conspiracy to violate mine safety rules,” a crime punishable by no more than a year in prison.

Apparently conspiring to violate mine safety rules is not a very serious crime.

Apparently putting the lives of hundreds, even thousands of mine workers at risk, deliberately and for decades, is no big deal.

***

A Google search for the “Massey Mine Massacre” won’t return results. We are taught to refer to such events as “disasters” or as “accidents.”  Not as massacres.  Not as homicides.  Not as manslaughter or murder.  As if such mine collapses are matters of chance, rather than human agency, acts of nature rather than crimes of capitalist profiteers and the judicial and political elites that assist them.  As if they are the product of a cruel fate, or a mysterious god, rather than expressions of a social and economic system that is designed with intention.

Those hoping to see the coal exec spend a day in prison best not hold their breath.  Don Blankenship is notorious for his blatant use of his millions to directly manipulate the judicial system in West Virginia, at one point personally funding a successful multi-million dollar campaign to unseat a Supreme Court Justice.  The judge had issued a $50 million ruling against Massey Energy.

And so it would appear that lives–black or white alike– do not matter in Whitesville, not if you are poor and working-class.

Not when 29 of your close friends and family members can be crushed or choked to death at the bottom of a mine run by bosses who systematically dodge hundreds of federal safety rules to add to their billion$.

Not when the wealthy executive primarily responsible for these deliberate decades of safety violations–and thus for the massacre of 29 workers–is convicted of only a misdemeanor, and that only five years later.  A delayed slap on the wrist for strangling 29 people dead.

Coal dust clotting their lungs, filling their eyes, their lives snuffed out by billionaires with impunity, so-called white mine workers can breathe no better than their black comrades can.

Capitalism doesn’t give a shit about them either.

***

In the rhetorical battle between the slogan “Black Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter,” there is no doubt that people of basic decency, anyone who has a sense of this country’s racist history, must side with the former and against the latter.  The “All Lives Matter” slogan is a ruse, an exercise in denial and racist “colorblindness.”

And yet, even as we must condemn the use of ‘All Lives Matter’ rhetoric as an attempt to blot out the disproportionate impact of police brutality and mass incarceration on black communities–and the legacies of racial oppression more generally–we must not fall into one trap this slogan may set for us.   For the flip side of asserting that “Black Lives Matter” would appear to be that, while Black lives at present do *not* matter–to the judicial system, or more broadly to the political, social, and economic regimes that dominate in the United States–white lives *do.* That most or all white people in this society are well-served by the system under which they live.

But do they?  Are they?   Not, it would seem, if you’re working-class in Whitesville.

***

The brutal truth is that we live under an economic system that values profit above all working-class lives–whatever their hue–and indeed above human life itself, past, present, and future.

Case in point:  A new peer-reviewed study has found that it is possible that present trends of global warming–in part caused by the very coal burning from which Massey Energy profited–may, by the year 2100, grow so severe as to shut down the process of oxygen generation on earth.   At that temperature (6 degrees Celsius of global warming) the scientists found, it is possible that the photosynthesis of the earth’s vital sea-borne phytoplankton will cease function.  These plankton at present produce around two-thirds of the earth’s oxygen.

Meaning: those trapped at the bottom of a coal mine–or pinned beneath a policeman’s chokehold– won’t be the only ones who can’t breathe, if this system keeps having its way.

It may be only by grasping this deep and unsettling truth–by coming to see capitalism as indifferent and as hostile to life as such– that we can finally forge a human chain that is long and strong enough to start our collective climb out of this dark and toxic mine shaft where we are presently stuck, trapped, heaving.

What working person, what decent person among us can breathe free under this system, really?

More articles by:

Joseph G. Ramsey is an activist and writer living in Boston. He is a contributing editor at Red Wedge, a co-editor at Cultural Logic: an electronic journal of Marxist theory and practice, and a contributing board member at Socialism and Democracy.

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