By Sara Lepkoff
Many Earlham students are familiar with the kind of notoriety that one can gain on a small college campus, but you may not know that one of your peers was arrested this summer due to her activism surrounding “extreme extraction.”
She prefers to have her name withheld, but her words and stories are her own.
Student X was arrested on a misdemeanor charge along with five other activists on May 24, 2013. She served a total of 4 days in jail from July 25th to July 29th, and spent one day awaiting a $5,000 secured bail bond on May 24th.
The non-violent direct action involved a blockade of the Alpha Mountain Resources Headquarters in Raleigh County, West Virginia. Alpha Natural Resources, formerly known as Massey Energy, is one of America’s main coal suppliers, with coalmines and coal preparation plants across West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, Wyoming, and Pennsylvania.
Student X sees Alpha Natural Resource’s history of safety violations as “fully preventable” especially in the case of the “Upper Big Branch Mine” Disaster, which killed 29 miners in 2010 in neighboring Montcol, and a few miles from where she lived during the summer.
The latest action surrounded the planned expansion of the “Brushy Fork” impoundment, which holds claim to being the largest earthen dam in Western Hemisphere.
While the dam currently holds back 7 billion gallons of coal sludge, it has recently received a permit to expand to approximately 9 billion capacity, she says. There is structural evidence that these dams are unstable and according to Student X, the issue is “not if the dam breaks, it’s when.”
For someone who has spent time in West Virginia, Student X knows several fellow activists who live near this dam, including one whose house is located a mile underneath the dam. “It will bury the coal river and drown my friend’s house for sure in toxic sludge.” she says.
The action was planned and coordinated by “Mountain Justice” made up of a coalition of frontline organizations in the area including “Radical Action for Mountain Peoples’ Survival ” (RAMPS), which align themselves against Mountain Top Removal (MTR) and strip mining, both tactics to extract coal.
Student X spent the rest of summer working for Coal River Mountain Watch, an affiliated group that organizes on a community level engaging in advocacy and community development activities, and “making sense” of the action she participated in.
Student X believes the success of the direct action can be measured by the awareness it raised, both through a fundraising campaign for legal fees for those involved in the action and its involvement in a larger “Fearless Summer” campaign.
The action was the first in a string of direct action protests across the country called “Fearless Summer”, protesting and raising awareness of “extreme extraction” happening across the country in 2013.
As for the protest itself, she did not expect that the action would prevent expansion of the dam. Rather the result was to create a “disturbance in the day for executives at the Alpha Headquarters,” she says. “My protest was more like a sit-in than an actual blockade.”
Student X and the 5 others arrived on May 24th at 7am. Each participant was locked to each other using “lockboxes” and to large barrel of water and a concrete block.
With a sign reading “Alpha- We’re locked to your dirty water”, they sat across the access road. Left undisturbed for several hours, the local fire department and police were sent in after several hours to remove the group.
As the police made progress on dismantling the blockade, Student X made the decision to unlock and had others unlock with her, all voluntarily. “There was a feeling that we aren’t going to gain anything from staying longer. We’d sort of made our point.” She says.
Each was formally charged, with varying bail bonds. Student X was given a $5,000 secured bond, meaning she couldn’t leave the jail until it the amount was paid in full. She was released on bail later that day. According to Student X, there was, “no correlation” to previous criminal record or involvement in the action. “It made no sense.” she says.
The magistrate attempted to charge the group with two misdemeanor charges, obstruction of justice and the other, obstruction of a roadway.
The 5 plead guilty to the charge of obstruction of a roadway, and the other charge was dropped.
Student X served her four days while others who were released on “recognizance” had to serve 5 days.
Student X has spent some time understanding the implications of this action for her and for those within the West Virginia community where she lived for the summer. What did she think of her unique role as an outsider to the community and of the “success” of the action itself?
According to Student X, direct action is often described as the “last resort” by most activists, only to be used when there is nothing else that citizens can do to lobby political figures or affect change within their communities. But direct action can have a different meaning in a community like West Virginia.
“Direct action can close doors. But the doors have been slammed and locked in these people’s faces since the creation of the state.” she says.
According to Student X, the target of the action becomes unclear. Is it the government, capitalism, or the politicians who are often staunchly on the side of coal? What about those within the community who support the coal industry and the economic opportunities that it brings?
“One thing that is difficult when organizing against Mountain Top Removal is that there really isn’t support from the community. Yet, there are individuals and groups who are very against the coal industry. How do you respect the community you are entering versus standing against something that I fully believe is bad and wrong?”
Those within the community who stand against coal are the minority, as doing so threatens their livelihood, family, and safety, she says.
Coming with a certain amount of class privilege and choosing to be arrested, Student X has thought deeply about the implications of this act. Something she “brought to the action”, she says, was her network of friends, family, and those who were helping to organize the action and advocate for her and the 5 participants as they went through the legal process.
“What does it mean for me to come in and stir stuff up? I don’t have a really good answer for that.” She says, adding that she has much to think about and unpack.
Student X has since been involved in other Mountain Justice Seminars, which bring college students regularly to the region to learn about extraction, hear the stories of those marginalized within the community and learn about the health and social effects of coal in the region.
College students bring the resources of a rich institution behind them with a lot of drive and energy. “Activist groups can capitalize on that.” She says.
Student X has seen that a “tricky dynamic” arises when college students are less aware of their privilege, the questions of what it means to be an ally, and questions of cultural bias when attending these types of conferences. Privilege, she says, can “be really hard to talk about,” especially for those who haven’t had the chance to reflect on it, even after the requisite anti-oppression workshops and seminars.
While there was positive energy, she was found that some were offended at one workshop in particular that poked fun at college students.
One college student in attendance shared that being aware of privilege did not mean having to “making each other feel bad.”
While Student X is sympathetic to this sentiment, as she shares that her goal was to focus on what they were giving instead of focusing on being “celebrated for what they were giving.”
“I didn’t just feel like I was supporting by ‘being there’. I was also going to work with people who knew a lot and are willing to share with me,” she says.
Though that mindset was concerning, she remembers being at that place “not too long ago.” Being aware of privilege, she says, “really is a process.”