West Virginia: The Third World
If they hurt you, should you back down?
By: Rachel Parsons
It’s Saturday, July 28, and there’s something big happening. I’ve known about it for months. People are going to get arrested today, lots of people, to make a statement. Everything has been planned meticulously, most people in the movement – the movement to end mountaintop removal and strip mining in Appalachia – don’t even know where it’s all going to go down, but we know it’s going to happen. A lot of people sign up to go. The action is called “Mountain Mobilization,” and it is organized by RAMPS, or Radical Action for Mountain Peoples’ Survival, one of many groups protesting coal in the mountains of Appalachia.
Some people, myself included, don’t go. For me, it’s because I don’t want to get arrested right now, although I believe strongly in the importance of it. There are many personal things I’m dealing with that make me stay home. My mother and I go to an antique auction to take our minds off the action, worried about our friends who are going with the intent of getting arrested. We are miserable and cranky the whole time. When we get home, we make a beeline for our computers, hoping for good news.
Instead we get bad news. 20 people were arrested on Hobet Mine in southern West Virginia. That’s not the bad part. We had planned on getting lots of people arrested to make a statement and draw attention to West Virginia’s plight, all the poisoned water and polluted air and mountains reduced to rubble. The bad news is that the other 30 people who were on the mine were sent on a 15 mile walk by police officers who refused to let the shuttle cars meant to pick them up drive down the small road to the mine. However, the police did let pro-coal supporters down the road and the anti-coal protesters were forced to walk almost four hours through a gauntlet of hate until they reached the rest of their party and were picked up. The cars carrying our protesters were then harassed on the way home, with coal supporters in big trucks trying to run them off the road.
It’s Sunday, July 29, and we get news that at least one of the arrested protesters, Dustin Steele, has been severely beaten while in police custody and has been denied medical treatment. A cry of outrage goes out across the web. Dustin will be 21 on August 1, a year younger than myself. I know this guy. Someone I know has been beaten by the police and refused treatment. Any lingering delusions I might have had of living in the land of the free? Well, those are gone, if they were ever there. Home of the brave, on the other hand, well, maybe we can still claim that title. The next few days will show.
The bond for each of the 20 arrested protesters is set at $25,000 in West Virginia property. That adds up to $500,000 dollars with of property in exchange for the release of 20 people who were arrested on misdemeanor trespassing charges. Naturally, we all think this is outrageous.
A pro-coal group online has found several of our Facebook pages, including Ramps Campaign. The page where we have all been watching for news of our comrades is bombarded with comments from the other side. Our opposition tells us “dirty, tree-hugging hippies” to “go back where we came from.” A large number of protesters, including myself and Dustin Steele, the arrested protester who was beaten, are West Virginia natives. We say so. We regret engaging any of our assailants in conversation as we are swept away in a sea of hate. Someone says the arrested protesters should be hung from trees. Someone else tells the arrested protesters “not to drop the soap.” They think these comments are funny. Well, they’re not.
Monday, July 30, I drive to my grandparents’ house to spend a couple of days with them. My plan is to relax and distract myself by helping on their farm. Instead, the three of us compulsively check Facebook for news. We’re worried and outraged for Dustin. We have no idea how the movement could possibly post bond for Dustin and the others, and Dustin still has not seen a doctor. Fingers crossed, we share articles on Facebook, trying to spread the word if we can do nothing else. Donations for the legal defense fund for the arrested protesters are still asked for, in hopes that cash will eventually be accepted by police.
That night, I am stressed and have trouble going to sleep. My anxiety issues hit me full force. On Tuesday, July 31, I wake up tired. The news is dreary at best and so is the weather. It rains and all I can think about is Dustin and how I don’t even really know how hurt he is. It’s not like I’ve ever been close to Dustin, but I know this kid. He could have been me if I’d been a little bit braver. And he had a right to protest and to stand up for what he believes in. I’m so angry that the police, who are supposed to keep citizens safe, would do this to 21 year-old kid who had no way of defending himself.
Ramps Campaign reports that the other arrested protesters witnessed the brutality against Dustin. More bad news, the Environmental Protection Agency loses a court case about water pollution restrictions in regards to coal mining. It’s not looking like a good day for the movement.
All the hate people are spewing everywhere is too much. It hurts to hear Governor Tomblin on the news say that the decision against the EPA is a “victory for West Virginia.” It’s not a victory. Coal is going to kill this state and I’m miserable and think that maybe I made a mistake by coming back here instead of staying in Tennessee after I graduated. More and more bad news. I have a negative confrontation with a supposed “friend” and it just blows everything sky high for me. I call my mom in tears and tell her I’m moving to Canada. She tells me I’m going to stay here and fight.
I call my Dad and explain everything that has happened over the last few days. I cry some more. He says, “Write about this. You are a great writer. Don’t be upset because the opposition has finally recognized that you are a force to be contended with. You should feel empowered by it. Congratulations.”
Wednesday, August 1, I wake up feeling better. It’s Dustin’s birthday, and it’s the birthday of Mother Jones, a historic figure in our movement. It’s also the anniversary of the death of Sid Hatfield. Such a day can’t be anything but powerful. News from Ramps says that they’ve finally convinced authorities to allow them to pay bond with cash, and I have high hopes that Dustin will soon be released.
There are two petitions circulating, one demanding justice for Dustin and the other demanding that the bail be reduced for the “Hobet 20” as the arrested protesters are called. I sign them both and watch with high hopes as more and more signatures are added.
Word from Ramps that Dustin’s bail has been paid and he is finally safe with friends. The fight’s not over. There are still 19 more of the Hobet 20 to get released. Dustin’s abuse cannot be allowed to go unpunished. But I am feeling more empowered now. So I write about it, because writing is what I do and I will never be afraid to write about what’s important, no matter who threatens to hang me from a tree or put me through a wood chipper.
I am home and I am here to stay.
“The earth is not dying, it is being killed. And the people who are killing it have names and addresses.” – Utah Phillips