….An interview with filmmakers Josh Fox and Mari-lynn Evans; and a personal report-back from the June 11th march on Blair Mountain.
On June 11th, in the remote West Virginia town of Blair, almost a thousand people converged to demonstrate their opposition to mountaintop removal. Specifically, they opposed the destruction of Blair Mountain, which is the site of one of the most important labor battles in United States history. The rally attracted labor supporters, environmentalists, and coalfield residents who want an end to the massive destruction that mountaintop removal is wreaking upon their land and communities. Pittsburgh represented; myself and others who attended from our region felt the instinct for pan-Appalachian solidarity more keenly than usual, in the face of the threat we now face from Marcellus shale drilling. I think we were also attracted to see firsthand the results of a decade of movement-building, as ours is in its infancy and the odds seem long. Josh Fox also made the trip, and spoke eloquently with West Virginia filmmaker Mari-lynn Evans on the need to connect these struggles. Evans produced the films Coal Country, Low Coal, Coal Stories, and the PBS documentary “The Applachians”.
Myself and fellow serviceberry / Pittsburgh Indymedia documentarian Ben Fiorillo grabbed an interview after their speech at the rally:
The history that motivated so many to stand up for this particular mountain stands in stark contrast to the present reality. In 1921, ten thousand miners marched to Blair Mountain, and fought against paid company thugs for the right to join the United Mine Workers union. Although they lost the battle (they were ultimately firebombed by the U.S. government), it was a crucial step in the eventual victory of the U.M.W.A.. According to one speaker at the rally, before the coal industry was unionized, more Americans died in deep mines than in all our major wars combined. Many of the labor-oriented speakers at the rally emphasized that they saw the transition from deep mining to strip mining and mountaintop removal as an effort to kill unions. While some deep mine jobs are still union, strip mining and MTR jobs are not. Furthermore, even as West Virginia produces more coal than ever before in its history, the number of people employed is a small fraction of those who once worked in the mines. Human union workers have been replaced with dynamite and giant dragline machines.
The icing on the cake is that the company holding the permit to destroy Blair Mountain is Alpha Natural Resources – which just bought Massey Energy, the company responsible for the 2010 Upper Big Branch mine disaster that killed 29 miners. In the forensic spotlight such a disaster inevitably attracts, the nation learned what locals already knew: that in a Massey mine, speaking out for safety meant you lost your job. And, that enforcement doesn’t work – Massey had amassed thousands of violations before the accident, which were simply viewed as another cost of doing business. At the rally to save Blair Mountain, a United Electrical Workers union member from Charleston, West Virginia told me that the Battle of Blair Mountain was excised from the school history books when she grew up, and she only learned about it after she joined the UE. Now the coal companies want to go a step further – what could do more to destroy the memory of resistance than to obliterate the very ground upon which it occurred?
Personally, I made the journey because I see mountaintop removal as an insanely shortsighted abomination, and the movement fighting against it sent out the call. Unlike previous actions where coalfield residents took their plight to Washington, this time they summoned everyone else to their ground zero. Since my own time living in the coalfields has taught me a little bit about what it means to live daily with consequences completely out of sight and mind of the rest of the nation, it seemed especially important to answer. As I made the journey to I kept thinking of a concept introduced by author Derrick Jensen – that if a foreign nation, or an alien race, came in and starting blowing up whole mountain ranges, it would be considered an unspeakable act of war unlike anything we’ve seen before. But when corporations do it for profit, somehow it’s acceptable.
Although I knew the basic facts coming into the march, I was surprised by the pathos in the experience of spending even one day getting to know a mountain that may not be much longer for this earth. Its life grabbed me. First, while at the gathering waiting for the march to begin, a local resident showed me a photograph album he had compiled about the mountain. Not only did it have pictures from the era of the battle, but it also included his own shots from his time exploring the mountain: pink lady slipper orchids, ginseng plants of unusual age and maturity, the vivid colors of the mountain’s forests in the fall. As we walked up the winding road to the mountaintop, I was captivated by the life that surrounded us; tulip poplars, pawpaw, rosinweed, rock outcroppings covered in mosses. A surprising number of redbuds; in our parts that’s a sign things will be interesting – and on Blair Mountain? No time amidst the march to step off the road and find out- and if Alpha resources has its way, no time ever again As we reached the summit and the forest transitioned to oaks, I spotted the distinctive brown seedstalks and lyre-shaped leaves of wood betony, a medicinal plant a friend had asked me about months ago. Ironic that the first chance I have to introduce him to it is here in this place where the forest may all be ground into rubble in a matter of months.
At the very top, the marchers crowded into a small roadside pulloff, and someone pulled out a megaphone. After hours of speakers in the morning, I wondered what could possibly be left to say – but they had saved the local organizers for last, and they spoke with the passion and clarity born of struggle, sacrifice, and being forced directly to choose whether to stand up or roll over when someone comes for your personal everything. As they spoke I spotted a large cluster of wood betony among the trees on the slope behind them. When they finished I didn’t want to leave. Having met the life of the mountain, I felt like we should stay and guard it. But that wasn’t in the organizers’ plans, and since we all had lives and commitments outside of this weekend on the mountain anyways, we reluctantly trooped back down. But I did take some seeds. Normally I don’t move seeds; they belong where they live, in the environment which they have adapted to over the eons. If you mix them across states, watersheds, mountain ranges, they lose these unique adaptations. In the spectre of the death of the mountain, though, I made an exception.