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.