The Destruction of Blair Mountain and How to Oppose It

Kenny King took this  photo of a new metal gate on the dirt road running north from Route 17 at Blair Gap and says he encountered armed guards patrolling there.  The following piece was commissioned by The Guardian, where it was published as "Fighting the battle of Blair Mountain:  The struggle to conserve from stripmining the historic site of a labour struggle in West Virginia could not be more symbolic."  The only link I've changed is the one for "Battle of Blair Mountain."  The editor added one to wikipedia--I prefer one to Tim Thornton's series in the RT.  Another minor edit in that paragraph deleted my link to WSJ coverage of  the suits against Massey for poisoning water


Last week, with Massey Energy under siege from federal safety officials, yet still proposing to stripmine the site of the Battle of Blair Mountain, I recalled standing on battlefields at Gettysburg and Manassas, haunted as the landscape somehow revealed what had once happened there. I was listening to David Rovics sing:
The hills of West Virginia will long remember… the Battle of Blair Mountain.
A Massey subsidiary, the Aracoma Coal Company, is seeking a permit to obliterate a 554-acre site that includes parts of the battlefield in West Virginia. This land bears traces of the second largest insurrection after the Civil War – and the largest labour uprising – in US history. Here, in 1921, the miners of West Virginia, seeking the right to unionise (that is, organise, assemble and speak freely), took on the coal operators and their mercenaries.

According to historic preservationist Barbara Rasmussen, the origins of the battle of Blair Mountain lay in anger over conditions in the southern coalfields, where the "company store" system ruled and unions had been denied the right to organise. The 2 August 1921 shooting in cold blood of Matewan police chief Sid Hatfield by mine operators' agents provided the spark. A year earlier, Hatfield had defended the miners when the Stone Mountain Coal Co tried to evict striking workers from their homes. After several weeks of protest and unrest, battle lines were drawn on 26 August 1921; ten days later, the rebellion was over. Michael Meador describes the melee:
As many as 15,000 men were involved, an unknown number were killed or wounded, bombs were dropped, trains were stolen, stores were plundered, a county was invaded and another was under siege. The president had to send in federal troops...
The miners' rising was suppressed, after an estimated million rounds were fired. The defeat was a setback for the unionisation campaign in the short term, but raised public awareness of the appalling conditions borne by miners and paved the way for the political victory of full recognition of union rights under the New Deal in 1933.

You'd think the crests, the narrow valleys below, would be a historic shrine – like other national battlefields preserved by the Park Service. In an article for the magazine Preservation, the DC-based journalist Christopher Swope has described, "a land of rippling ridges and deep, shady hollows. Coated in oaks and black locusts, Blair Mountain rises just a bit higher than what surrounds it."

The National Trust for Historic Preservation listed the battlefield as endangered in 2006. For years, miners' descendants have confronted a new generation of coal operators, and now, as of this November, a new private army has appeared in place. Kenny King – whose grandfather fought with the United Mine Workers – reports, "armed guards… patrolling the dirt road running north from Route 17 at Blair Gap… a [new] metal gate… on the same road, with a sign that warns the area is under video surveillance."

King has been tireless for decades in seeking artifacts to document the history of the battlefield. Since 2006, he has been joined by scholars such as archeologist Harvard Ayers, Barbara Rasmussen and West Virginia native Brandon Nida. The battlefield gained its listing in 2009 by the National Park Service on its National Register of Historic Places.

That accomplishment, however, was soon undone – when lawyers for the coal industry convinced West Virginia state officials to ask the Park Service to delist the site, claiming, after the deadline, to have found additional opponents to the listing.

In July this year, Friends of Blair Mountain – a grassroots group of scholars and activists – reported bulldozers had started to destroy the archeological sites described in the application for listing. The National Trust, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and Sierra Club filed a petition with the National Park Service to re-list Blair Mountain on the National Register of Historic Places. In late July, the petition was denied. On 9 September, the Sierra Club, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, Friends of Blair Mountain and the West Virginia Labor History Association filed a legal challenge to contest the site's removal from the National Register. The call on the National Park Service to re-list Blair Mountain has been echoed by a coalition of musicians (David Rovics and Hazel Dickens), filmmakers (John Sayles, director of Matewan, and Barbara Kopple), authors (Denise Giardina) and scholars.

As Brandon Nida wrote me:
The miners were rebelling over brutal living and working conditions after a generation of oppression and severe exploitation. Today, putting armed guards hired by the coal companies at Blair Mountain is like rubbing salt in an old wound. The history is still in our consciousness, and on top of all the destruction going on in Appalachia, this has really upset community members in the area.
• If you wish to register your objection to the destruction of the Blair Mountain battlefield site, there is an online petition to the National Park Service. More urgently, though, the Friends of Blair Mountain asks for people to write to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, requesting that it deny Massey's mountaintop removal permit. Letters must arrive no later than 26 November 2010, and should include the applicant's name (Aracoma Coal Company, Inc) and the application number (S-5035-08); if you write, please describe your perspective and why you disagree with a permit being issued, and mail to:
The Permit Supervisor
WV DEP Division of Mining and Reclamation
1101 George Kostas Drive
Logan, WV 25601


Thugs Redux at Blair Mountain

Folks may remember the Battle of Blair Mountain from  the 1987 John Sayles film, Matewan, or the 1987 Denise Giardina novel Storming Heaven, or the 2004 Diane Gilliam Fisher poetry collection Kettle Bottom. I hadn't realized that the number of UMWA workers shrunk from 50,000 to 600 after the battle, or that the army had enthusiastically sent 17 planes to strafe American citizens until I read a 2006 Roanoke Times article, "Roanoke proudly plays a bit role in the battle," in a series by Tim Thorton commemorating the 85th anniversary of the battle.

As Sue Sturgis of Southern Exposure describes it:
Back in 1921, more than 7,000 miners outraged over working conditions in southern West Virginia's coalfields faced off against an army of some 3,000 police backed by the coal companies in an effort to bring in the union.

When the fight that came to be known as the Battle of Blair Mountain ended five days later after President Harding called in the U.S. Army, anywhere from a dozen to a hundred miners lay dead, along with as many as 30 people from the other side. It was the largest open class war in U.S. history, and the country's largest armed insurrection aside from the Civil War.
Now  there's the spooky echo of company thugs attacking local families, as the mining company has hired security guards in preparation for mtr mining on the historic site of the battle, where mining is being contested because of its possible status as a historic landmark.

CEO  Don Blankenship  got the 2009 historic designation reversed on a technicality  that more landowners opposed the designation.  Some say that his count was hinky and the matter is back in the Courts.

Blankenship, of course, is infamous for running the first mine EVER  shut down by the Labor Department for safety violations and the mine disaster this past April, which has rumors flying of Massey's possible sale.

There's all this fervor by historians to protect civil war sites from Wal-mart or Disney.  How about they come to the aid of  Friends of Blair Mountain and prevent our history from being blown to smithereens as a mountaintop removal site.


Feingold in Oz: How Citizen's United Contributed to his Defeat

Graphic by CTRAFFIK (bio, email), a Miami hip hop artist. from his June 2007 post  in response to the Military Commissions Act. (Term for R's expurgated by moi to avoid the kiddy curse-filter at public libraries.)

The following essay, commissioned by The Guardian, has been updated to include the edits to match  the version  published  there on 11/10 as  "The Murky Business of Electioneering." You can  review it at NewsTrust.


The Wizard of Oz enjoined us in the 1939 classic, "Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain." I thought of the wizard on election day, as I read David Brooks's piece "Don't Follow the Money", while watching Wisconsin's Democratic Senator Russ Feingold go down to defeat.

Brooks said we should pay no attention: corporations can't buy elections, despite the supreme court's Citizens United decision, which gave them the same constitutional rights to free speech as individual citizens – striking down a provision of the McCain-Feingold Act on campaign finance reform that barred businesses from funding electioneering advertising. He'd have us believe:
[D]onors give money because it makes them feel as if they are doing good and because they get to hang out at exclusive parties.
Yet, according to an analysis by the Sunlight Foundation, 40% of the money in the 2010 could be tied to Citizens United. And while the court ruled eight to one that disclosure could be required (Justice Clarence Thomas being the only outlier), groups organised primarily for "social welfare" under Section 501c(4) of the tax code currently can promise anonymity to their funders.

Again, according to Sunlight:
$126m in undisclosed money represents more than a quarter of the total $450m spent by outside groups… By a nearly six to one margin Republicans outspent the Democrats among groups that failed to disclose the source of their money.
Are such c(4)s really social welfare groups or are they primarily political groups, which would trigger disclosure?

Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies – formed in July 2010 with help from GOP guru Karl Rove – reportedly forecasted spending $65m, much of it in an effort to defeat [Senate majority leader] Harry Reid. Also questionable: American Future Fund. A 20 October complaint charges that it has
devoted more than half its advertising spending this year – approximately $3m as of a few days ago – on television ads that expressly call on voters to vote for or against particular candidates.
Other dubious groups include the American Action Network (with which Crossroads GPS shares an office), Americans for Prosperity, Americans for Job Security, the Chamber of Commerce, and Justice Thomas's wife Ginni's new group, Liberty Central.

So, why don't the (c)4s have to report donors?
The IRS relies on precedent set under the 1958 supreme court decision NAACP v AlabamaCampaign Legal Centre's Trevor Potter wrote me that this case should only be germane,
IF the groups can make the arguments made by the NAACP – that their donors would be killed or beaten or their houses burned down if their identities were known.
In the case of Russ Feingold, $192,120 came in from committees to support his election and $33,232 to oppose the eventual winner, Republican Ron Johnson. Contrast this with $935,844 to support Johnson and a whopping $1,319,737 to oppose Feingold – of which $910,000 came from American Action Network, whose donors are undisclosed. Ruth Conniff, political editor for the Progressive, wrote me:
In Wisconsin we were the recipients of an overwhelming barrage of advertising – much of it from groups outside our state who tarred Russ Feingold with the same brush they used against every other Democrat – never mind that he opposed bank bailouts, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and government overreaching, especially in the Patriot Act.

You couldn't  turn on the television or radio, go to the mailbox, answer the phone, or even watch old Sesame Street episodes on YouTube without being bombarded by political attack ads.

The repetition of catchphrases concocted in Washington thinktanks drowned out thought and discussion of real issues, and ultimately sent an inexperienced rich guy with no specific plan to Washington to replace a senior senator who was one of the lone independent voices in the US Senate.
Given the Citizens United decision, supreme court reporter Lyle Denniston suggested we could increase transparency
by more rigorous disclosure legislation, in hopes of exposing more vividly who is in fact benefiting and, perhaps, by embarrassing the beneficiaries.

In Congress, the House passed the DISCLOSE Act, (HR 5175). Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell has favoured disclosure for 20 years, but led efforts to block a vote, most recently on 24 September.

Is this how we want to run our elections? Congress should let us pay attention to who's behind the curtain. If corporations are to have free speech, let's at least know whose money is talking.