Thoughts following the RAMPS action camp

by Sara Blazevic | August 22, 2012

On a steamy New York City morning in July, I took the subway to the airport to catch a flight to North Carolina to catch a layover to Charleston, West Virginia, where my Swarthmore Mountain Justice buddies picked me up for a drive through the winding wooded roads of southwestern West Virginia mountain country.

I was going to WV to participate in the RAMPS Mountain Mobilization action camp, about which I knew basically nothing. I had been a member of Swarthmore Mountain Justice (MJ) for one year and felt that my visit to “the frontlines” was overdue, no matter where or how it should happen. One year with MJ was one year of working to organize and implement our small but feisty battle against mountain top removal (MTR), through a divestment campaign targeting Swarthmore’s investments in fossil fuel extraction companies.

Although the divestment campaign aims to attack the fossil fuel industry in a highly direct way, at times MJ’s work felt far removed from that of people protesting within those Appalachian communities affected most acutely by MTR. This became a stifling thing to reckon with while organizing within the culture and community of a liberal arts school, in the face of injustices which go far deeper than any college’s investment portfolio. It felt immensely useless sometimes. It sucked having MJ members’ hard work, our intellect, our various beliefs, belittled by the institutions and individuals with the supposed insight and influence to make necessary change happen efficiently, while outside our bubble of pacifistic academia frontline activists routinely engage full-force with viciously destructive juggernauts of political and corporate power.

I decided to go to West Virginia because I knew that I could not continue putting energy into MJ until I had at least a glancing firsthand experience of the entrenched forces of oppression we are struggling against. I hoped that this would intensify my understanding of the universality of all oppression, and the necessary connectedness of the fight against it, preparing me to wage MJ’s divestment campaign with a greater depth of knowledge and conviction.

I went to the mobilization knowing that I would be unable to participate in the culminating action, which meant that I was in for a distinctly different experience than that of the activists preparing themselves to walk on to a working strip mine and stop its operations. I attended a nonviolent direct action training, panel talks by local residents, a talk on the history of Appalachian resistance to the coal industry, and an Anti Oppression open discussion.

The RAMPS organizers defined direct action as any action taken without mediation between the individual and the issue. Much of the training and discussion that comprised the week was focused around RAMPS’ intention to facilitate the arrests of as many activists as possible, with a short-term goal of clogging up the West Virginia court system, and the longer-term aim of using these numbers to increase media attention and build support for the movement to end MTR. There were also trainings provided for people working in various supporting roles, from the relatively high-risk role of doing media at the action site, to doing offsite media or jail support.

The discussions I participated in raised many questions that have continuously colored my experience of activism. One frequent refrain concerned how the participants of the mobilization, who were almost all regional outsiders with little firsthand experiences in West Virginia, ought to be situating themselves in relation to the local miners who would be meeting them in counter-protest. The folks from the area who came to speak with us stressed the importance of asking questions of counter-protesters instead of giving answers, which could escalate conflict, and refraining from trying to educate our ideological opponents, as that deviated from the purpose of the action.

There was also a strong emphasis on the idea that any struggle is everyone’s struggle, and that while activists from outside West Virginia should treat with respect the experiences of people living there, they should not automatically defer to local currents of belief as the “right” or “just” perspectives simply because they come from residents of the area. This resonated deeply with my concerns about on-campus activism being too self-contained, too removed, as well as my fear that being a college student from my particular demographic background was inherently limiting of the social justice movements that I could justly ally myself with. I was surprised and encouraged by the seasoned activists and experienced local residents who urged us all to loudly resist that deference, and the timidity that it could lead to.

In witnessing the trainings focused more explicitly on the details of doing direct action in West Virginia, with all the physical risks and legal slipknots entailed, I considered the role of male/cisgender/white/class privilege in preparing protesters to put their bodies on the line, and the possibility that these privileges make direct action an exclusionary tactic and a potentially fragmentary one for a movement. No amount of training can change someone’s ability to pay bail, or their statistical likelihood of being sexually or otherwise assaulted – these are the reasons that I personally am not prepared to participate in actions that risk arrest right now. These trainings nevertheless increased my awareness of the diversity of tactics currently being employed against MTR and other extraction practices – from actions like sit-ins, lock-downs, occupations, and purposeful arrests, to educational methods like trainings, teach-ins, skill-shares, and tours.

The people I had the privilege of talking with intensified my sense of solidarity with Appalachian activists, as well as my analysis of the place of MJ’s divestment campaign in a national (and global) movement against extraction. Being at the RAMPS camp allowed me to engage deeply with folks from a wide variety of experiences in social justice action and organizing, providing me with a firmer belief in the efficacy of MJ’s work. The experience also reinforced what I (and, I feel safe saying, Swat MJ) view as a necessity in our campaign: continuously checking our own ideas and analyses against those of activists and organizers tackling an issue with different strategies and/or perspectives. I hope that the sense of solidarity I felt with these people will carry into MJ’s work this fall – through coordinated actions, skill shares, and ongoing inter-campus/campaign discussions, and through messaging that persistently and passionately reminds the people in power that the students who comprise our particular small group are not the only ones waging this tremendous battle.


From education to direct action on the Divest Coal Frontlines Listening Tour

by Ali Roseberry-Polier and Margaret Christoforo | August 2, 2012
Crossposted from Waging Nonviolence

Anti-coal activists dropped banners opposing mountaintop removal at Hobet mine in West Virginia on Saturday. Photo by Mark Haller.

For the past two weeks, students from Swarthmore and Earlham Colleges have been traveling around areas of West Virginia and Tennessee that are affected by mountaintop removal (MTR) coal mining on a Frontlines Listening Tour. The students, in alliance with other organizations fighting coal mining in Appalachia, are involved in campaigns at their respective colleges to divest their endowments from the coal industry.

Over the course of the tour, students spoke with organizers from local groups engaged in the fight against MTR, such as the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC), Coal River Mountain Watch, Statewide Organizing for Community Empowerment, Radical Action for Mountain People’s Survival (RAMPS) and Blair Community Center and Museum. The tour came to an end at the Mountain Mobilization on July 28, which was a large-scale RAMPS action that shut down Hobet mine, the largest strip mine in West Virginia, for three hours.

The students’ aim was to strengthen connections between their divestment campaign and the organizing that people in Appalachia are doing to fight the coal industry. Divestment is a tactic that the students are using in solidarity with frontline organizations. While the colleges are not located within Appalachia, they have money invested in mountaintop removal, and students hope that by withdrawing funding from these corporations, they can support the campaigns of local organizers who are fighting the same institutions.

“The trip was a valuable opportunity to learn more about the struggles against the coal industry that people have engaged with historically throughout Appalachia,” said student organizer Kate Aronoff.

On the tour, students went to the Whipple Company Store, which is now a museum, where they learned about the relationships between workers and coal companies earlier in the century. Whipple, for instance, was once a coal camp, filled entirely with workers and their families who worked 12-hour days and could only spend their earnings at the company store, creating a cycle of control of the coal industry over local communities.

At the Blair Community Center and Museum, students learned about the historic struggles of workers against the coal industry and their oppressive labor practices. “We realized our connection to decades of activism against big coal,” said Aronoff. “It was comforting to be reminded that we’re not the first ones to fight the coal industry, and that we have a lot to learn.”

The students also directly engaged with the health concerns that local residents are facing. At one point, they traveled with an organizer from OVEC to deliver water-testing results to community members living near an MTR site. While they were there, they spoke to several people who had relatives with Crohn’s disease, an illness rare even in heavy industrial areas. They also spoke to many individuals with various forms of cancer and other illnesses that seemingly resulted from exposure to contaminants. They learned that the drinking water in the area was red in color; the test results only confirmed what had already been obvious to community members.

After much traveling and conversing with community organizers, the students convened at the RAMPS Mountain Mobilization, connecting their education with direct action. The brunt of the Divest Coal campaign organizing has been done hundreds of miles away from the Appalachian region, but the ultimate goals of the campaign and RAMPS Mountain Mobilization are the same. They are both dedicated to sending a message of dissent and letting the coal industry know that people all over the country will no longer stand aside while corporate giants exploit people and the environment.

Divestment and nonviolent direct action seek to address the social and economic power of the coal industry and have become necessary tactics to make known fatal flaws in a system that so many people rely on. This reliance is especially prevalent in areas where coal mining is the most available job and coal is credited with progress and stability, as well as environmental degradation and extortion.

The power of the coal industry in the economy has become obvious to Earlham and Swarthmore students trying to persuade their institutions to divest and support sustainable and ethical energy sources. But the power these corporations hold over surrounding communities was another experience entirely, especially seeing them as the targets of extreme anger and fear from local miners and their families.

In a panel discussion before the RAMPS Mountain Mobilization, life-long West Virginia resident Junior Walk explained how the coal industry was the direct source of this anger:

They [the coal companies] are controlling their workers and they are controlling the citizenry here in southern West Virginia and manipulating them … getting these people to take that aggression and anger and pent up rage that they have against the coal industry and direct it toward us. Even though we are the ones trying to come in here to make something positive happen.

The strategic shift of anger away from oppressors is not a tactic that works on everybody. After protesters left the mine they encountered Friends of Coal protesters blocking the road. Two deep miners took the opportunity to ask one of the students from the tour, inquisitively and without hostility, what they stood for. One of these men expressed concerns about the “propaganda he had been fed [by the coal industry]” and wanted to know why so many people had come from all over the country to a place where they were not wanted. This led to a conversation about the viability of alternatives to coal mining and the concerns of the community.

While such conversations can make a difference, they’re not always easily had. Dispelling the hatred against so-called outsiders or tree huggers is a battle often fought indirectly. Shutting down the Hobet mine for several hours elicited a lot of fear and anger, but that’s because many saw it as an attack on a community that is entirely dependent on the coal industry. This misconception can be righted from all over the country where campuses are calling for divestment. By targeting its bottom line, the Divest Coal campaign pressures the industry to respect workers and their communities as well as re-evaluate its mining practices.

By resisting coal companies on their college campuses, students are fighting corporate domination and the power of the coal industry nationwide. As West Virginia resident and incarcerated Mountain Mobilization protester, Dustin Steele, said, “When you fight oppression anywhere, you fight oppression everywhere.”

Sordid Sixteen in the News: Chevron Fire in Richmond, CA

From Democracy Now, August 8, 2012

(Alex Tafla/Flickr)

“More than 900 people have sought medical treatment following a massive fire at a Chevron oil refinery in Richmond, California. Tens of thousands of area residents were ordered to stay in their homes with the windows and doors closed after a series of blasts Monday sparked blazing fires that sent huge plumes of smoke. Chevron now says the situation is under control. We talk with Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, a member of the Green Party, who is seeking a full investigation into the blaze. “We have a community that has been fighting Chevron for a long time, and I’m proud to and honored to stand for that community,” McLaughlin said. We’re also joined by Andres Soto, the Richmond organizer for Communities for a Better Environment, an environmental justice group that has previously sued Chevron over what it says was a shoddy environmental impact report. “They refuse to sit at the table, they refuse to negotiate in good faith with the community over a wide range of issues, whether it’s fair taxation or whether it’s environmental safety and environmental justice,” Soto said.”

More from KQED Radio: Details, Questions Emerge About Chevron Refinery Fire