12/19/12

Why the Qatari Court should free Mohamed Ibn Al Ajami for writing about Tunisia



On November 29, 2012,  the courts handed Qatari poet Muhammad al-Ajami a life sentence for “insulting” the Emir, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, and “inciting to overthrow the ruling system” after a video was posted on the internet of Ajami reciting his poetic tribute to the Arab Spring, "Tunisian Jasmine."

Amy Goodman of Democracy Now reported on the conviction here,  including a copy of the video , along with a translation and an interview with  Muhammad al-Ajami's attorney.





Ajami’s lawyer says he has filed an appeal to be heard December 30th. The Emir, however, has the power to pardon Ajami. 

 
As a poet, as an activist, as a citizen,  I value freedom of speech, human rights and social justice.  I call on my own government to right its course, when it falls short.  The Quatari government, like ours,  loses respect when it abuses power.  That's why I urge Qatar to immediately release Mohamed Ibn Al Ajami from prison in conjunction with other Split this Rock poets such as Alice Walker, Philip Levine, Naomi Shihab Nye, Sam Hamill, Chris Abani in signing a petition organized by 100 Thousand Poets for Peace.

December 4, in a release dated December 4, 2012, Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch had said:
Qatar, after all its posturing as a supporter of freedom, turns out to be determined to keep its citizens quiet...Ibn al-Dheeb’s alleged mockery of Qatar’s rulers can hardly compare to the mockery this judgment makes of the country’s posture as a regional center for media freedom.
 

It's a bit ironic for a U.S. poet to use a Japanese form to protest the suppression of an Arabic poet, but Code Pink, in conjunction with those groups asked for haikus to be read at a demonstration outside the Qatari embassy on December 19.  Here's mine: 
Rulers pen poets
Dammed  words flood. Rising rivers
wear mountains to sand

You can read the other haikus here.

11/8/12

Ashley Judd Suggested for U.S. Senate

Photo (unattributed) of Ashley Judd, speaking out against mountaintop removal in 2009 accompanied an editorial  on Judd by Kentucky writer Silas House.

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I have friends in Kentucky, such as a magazine editor and bookseller (I'll tell you who, if I get permission) who are speaking favorably of Ashley Judd as a possible opponent for Mitch "I Want To Be Senate Majority Leader In Order To Make Obama A One-Term President" McConnell, noting her experience and education.  It serves as an antidote for my irritation.

Irritation when folks cite Newsbusters as a  source instead  the the actual interview (video, transcript)  with Howard Fineman on The Chris Matthews Show. And although Fineman's a pundit who has interviewed presidential candidates since 1984, why not also cite a LOCAL newspaper journalist, such as  The Courier-Journal's Joe Gerth,  who interviewed U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth and also Judd, via twitter (here, here and here).

Irritation when folks put down Ashley Judd as a light- weight as as possible contender against Mitch McConnell. It even grieves me when her fan lump her (or Al Franken) with Ronald Reagan  as an entertainer who should be able to run for office.

Comparing Judd to Reagan fails to recognize her history as an activist and her education:  she graduated from the UK Honors Program and was nominated to Phi Beta Kappa, then in 2010 earned  a Mid-Career Master in Public Administration degree from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.  (Lumping Al Franken w. Reagan is similarly insulting, as he was a longtime political activist and graduated from Harvard with a Bachelor of Arts cum laude in 1973 in political science). 

Joe Gerth quoted U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, D-3rd District KY. “If you had an Ashley Judd-McConnell race, I think it would be as high profile a race as Elizabeth Warren and Scott Brown.”  

In the past race, the Democratic powers that be discouraged an attractive opponent in favor of running someone with a lot of baggage.  Of course, Judd has been ridiculed for her stand against mountaintop removal coal mining when an anonymous hit man ripped off a copyrighted photo and smacked it up on a billboard at a golf tourney. 

If they bring up that again, we should wonder, as did Silas House, if they would have done the same thing to another politically active actor and KY native, George Clooney:
The sign insinuates that Judd has made her career on taking off her clothes. Nudity is sometimes a part of acting, yes. But to imply that Judd has made her living off that is ridiculous. If George Clooney, another Kentuckian, had made the same speech, would they be putting up a sign about him taking off his clothes, since he, too, has appeared nude on film? Of course not. Because he's a man.
Of course operatives made fun of Elizabeth Warren for her possibly overstated Cherokee heritage in a cookbook when she ran against Scott Brown.  And pundits thought that doomed her to status as an  also-ran.  Given the results on election day, ask Scott Brown if he still agrees...

11/6/12

Voter Suppression Close to Home


Illustration copyrighted and used by permission of Randall Enos (website and bioarchive)

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Happy Election Day!  I hope you've voted or will get to the polls by closing time (in an hour here in Virginia.)  Then around eight join some of us at Cellar to watch the election results.

 Here are some tips from Brad Friedman to protect your vote and that of others. Kate Sheppard over at Mother Jones warns some of them may be illegal in your state.  Sigh.  Someone with a computer should be at every polling place at Montgomery County, Virginia helping folks look up the proper polling place if they didn't do so before they left home. Here's why...

Adventures in voting

Last night, I looked up my voter registration record online and learned that  the Virginia Election and Registration Information System listed my precinct  as, F-2,  while my voter registration card issued last month by our registrar, said I should be voting in E-2.


Although I am not much of a morning person,  I drove, soon after the polls opened at 6:00 a.m. ,  to the place the registrar listed on my voter registration card card (St. Michael's Lutheran Church).  After I waited in line, the woman  person with the polling book on computer told me I wasn't on the rolls because I  had an "old" registration card. False. I showed her the post mark on the envelope, but she insisted.

She said she couldn't tell me where I was supposed to be and wanted me to step out of line and go over to the other side of the room.  I'm guessing she would have made me use a provisional ballot.  I told her no, I would just go to the right polling place, according to the state board of elections site. The gentleman ahead of me at St. Michael's had the same problem. The official told him, "You're a student, your polling place changed, this is a 2008 card." As far as I know he went along with them. I don't know if he got to vote.

When I got to the correct place according the site, Blacksburg Middle School/High School, the official there was very nice. Since I had already waited in one location, he let me check right away to confirm I was in the correct place and then the second official with the voter roll offered to check me in and let me vote without waiting a second time.  I had no trouble with the touch screen machine, but they still make me leery. 

Virginia is one of the states with a new voter id law

A recent study from the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School found that voter ID laws disproportionately affect poor, minority and elderly voters. The Justice Department cleared our law because, on its face, it appears fair. Anyone can vote, with a registration card provided at no cost by the State.I am here to tell you that things are not as peachy as they seem.


I had been unable to find shared housing in Blacksburg.  Students don't want a roommate that reminds them of their mother (or grandmother.)  I thought an apartment on my own busted the budget, so in order to vote, I planned  to move back to property I own in the County, although it has only a shack off of a gravel road  with a privy and no running water.

In Virginia, you are supposed to be able to register to vote if you can describe where you live

 

The County real estate records show me as the owner

In addition to the tax records, I  have a drivers license and bank statements that show my post office as my mailing address and I can point out on google maps, my location:



You have to register to vote in Virginia by October 15

 It wasn't until October 10, when I picked up a receipt for my real estate taxes so that I could register, that I learned  that  the property  no longer has an 911 address on Derby Road, but is instead listed on Coal Hollow Road with no street number. No, the registrar's assistant said, I needed a street address; I wouldn't be able to register to vote.  The Assistant Commissioner of Revenue  and County Administrator were very helpful in trying to get me the address.  The Administrator's secretary suggested that I call the registrar, rather than his assistant.  He, too, said I needed a street address.

By October 11, I was willing to rent an apartment

Even if it busted my budget, since landlords here require long leases.  No luck, though; it would take until Monday to get an appointment to view my options with an agent.  It would take another week to process my application, and the rental agent for one dumpy efficiency told me that if the apartment cost more than a third of my attachable income, I would have to get a co-signer, despite a good credit history.


By 4:35 p.m. on October 12,  I received confirmation I couldn't obtain an address from the county's Director of Planning and GIS Services:
Thank you for your email. At this time we are not able to assign a 911 address for a dwelling on this parcel. Our records indicate that there is a structure on the property however it does not appear that it has been occupied for over 10 years.... In order to assign a 911 address for a residential dwelling on this property, we will need for you to apply for a zoning permit and provide documentation of an approved well and septic system by the VA Department of Health or documentation from the Montgomery County PSA that the dwelling is serviced by public water and/or sewer services. In addition, the dwelling will need to be approved for occupancy by the Montgomery County Building Official. I have attached a copy of the zoning verification form as a guide to help you through this process.

I apologize for the problem that this may cause with your attempt to obtain voter registration. Feel free to contact me directly (see contact info below) if you should have any questions or comments about the process to obtain your new 911 address for this property.
Despite the law, rural poor and homeless apparently need not apply to vote in Virginia

My housing is similar to some poor people in this County.  And there are others who live in trailers with no 911 address,  who, like me get their mail in town at the post office.  A friend on the school board told me of one person she knows who thinks he can't register because of living in such a trailer, although he is a native--by comparison I'm a newcomer--I've only owned property here since the 1980s and I suspect that I lost the 911 address in 2000 or 2001  when the adjoining property changed hands.


I asked about the registrar about the Virginia registration form which said that rural residents should be able to vote by describing their location and giving a post office box if the address was not served by the post office. No, he said, I needed a street address.

I asked him about the third question on the form, that even the homeless are allowed to register.


He repeated that I couldn't vote without an address and that my post office box and drivers license wouldn't do. I asked him what if I registered as homeless and after he called the State Board of Elections or some such, he called back to say I would have to use a church address as a residence and he would mail the card there.  By now it was Friday, October 12.



By October 12, I was willing to say I was homeless


I wrote the registrar back at 5:23 p.m. to confirm:

Thank you for your phone call.  It appears that since I cannot get a 911 address, I am "homeless" unless I move back to Giles County. You advised that I would either need to obtain a lease by Monday at a rental property or get a church or synagogue to accept my mail. You said that  I may not get an individual homeowner to accept my mail.

There are no properties for rent on this short notice. [My friend] tells me that her church cannot accept mail on short notice as it would have to go before a care committee.   Blacksburg Jewish Community Center receives its mail at a Post Office Box.  Which churches in Montgomery County are currently providing mailing services for the homeless?
I was openly copying  the American Civil Liberties Union and  Barbara Arnwine of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.  I got no response from the registrar:   I did get one from a representative of the Lawyers Committee.

Soon it was as October 13

I called the pastor of the church where I had voted and although I am a total stranger, he agree to accept my registration card.  I wrote back the Lawyers Committee to let the representative know.

On October 15,  the last day to register I was still having problems

I  drove over to Christiansburg.  Since the registrar wasn't there, I filled out the form and called and asked to speak to him.  He wouldn't come to the phone.

The Lawyers Committee representative told me he wasn't a lawyer and all he could do was call himself.  I told him I needed legal muscle. He didn't offer to contact a lawyer with his organization.   I wouldn't hear back from the ACLU until two days after the deadline.

I drove over to Christiansburg for a second time ad sat down in the registrar's office

When he came out to meet me, he smirked and said there was no such church or pastor. I had mis-written the name of the church (writing St. Mark's, not St. Michael's)  but had the address correct. I had written the pastor's last name correctly (it was the same as his) but he pretended he couldn't read my handwriting.  He told me the  planning department had showed him on a map where my property lay, but that it wasn't sufficient. Nor would he approve the application, without talking to the pastor, whom he had been unable to reach.

I refilled the form, although he said it wasn't necessary.  I didn't want him to disqualify it.  I asked for a copy signed and dated that it had been received.  He waffled about whether he was going to register me.  I tried to pin him down and put what he had said in an email to the pastor and cc'd the registrar.

At 4:41,  nineteen minutes before the deadline, the registrar wrote back:

I still have not heard back from ..[the pastor].  I cannot approve this application until I get confirmation from [him] that he has agreed to accept your mail. When I hear from him, I will let you know my decision on your voter application. As we have discussed a voter must be able to receive mail at their address so they can receive their voter registration card and other mailing from my office and State Board. As soon as I hear back from [the pastor]  I will phone you with the results of our conversation.
I am not the only one having problems with this registrar

I know one woman who changed her voter registration to a country a couple of hours away at the Division of Motor Vehicles website.  She received a new card at her post office box in that county, but it had her voting here in Christiansburg.  She tells me all she had to do was show her registration card and she was allowed to vote.


This registrar has  been criticized in national publications for discouraging student voting.  (A friend says he was sued, but I can't find a newspaper story to that effect and the reference librarian hasn't found anything for me either.  I wonder what he thought about the 5,000 forms that got delivered to his office by the deadline, according to Democrats.org.

This same registrar has been censured for errors and  yet  reappointed by the Board of Electors.

 Is it a coincidence that the Board of Elections appointments are political?

The sitting Governor gets to appoint a majority.  And the sitting Governor in Virginia is a Republican, a party accused of voter suppression in the form of  techniques it says are necessary to prevent fraud that


A Virginia Republican operative stands charged with throwing out registrations

In the Harrisonburg area (another jurisdiction with a large student population) has been charged with throwing away registration forms and it took outside pressure for the Republican Attorney General to investigate.

Conservative activist O'Keefe pulls another sting--in retaliation?

Weeks later, James O'Keefe released a video of his efforts to entrap the son of a liberal Virginia Congressman, James Moran.  O'Keefe,  of course is the man who brought down ACORN with his undercover video  and has been sued for violations of privacy.  As Jon Healey writes in an LA Times opinion piece which includes the whole video,

The younger Moran doesn't tell the man that what he's planning is illegal, immoral or wrong. Instead, he tells him it would be "tough" and that he'd be better off spending his time and energy getting those 100 voters to the polls. He also encourages him to help Obama's get-out-the-vote efforts in Northern Virginia, which his father represents.

But as the man persists, Moran gets drawn in...
Former John McCain 2008 presidential campaign adviser Steve Schmidt calls fraud a myth
Well, I think one thing you always want to be for, whether you’re Democrat or Republican , is you want everybody who’s eligible to vote to vote, and that’s how you want to win elections. And, so, I think that all of this stuff that has transpired over the last two years is in search of a solution to a problem—voting fraud—that doesn’t really exist, when you look deeply at that question, It’s part of the mythology now in the Republican Party that there’s widespread voter fraud all across the country. In fact, there’s not.

 (Quote starts at 1:43 on this complete clip on MSNBC, which sn't embeddable on this blog platform.)

Former Republican Governor of Florida Charlie Crist criticizes Republican suppression

Now an independent, Crist  wrote in July:

For better or worse, the central principle behind the unlimited contributions to super PACs that will dominate this election cycle is simple: Money is speech, and we cannot limit speech. Yet many who hold this freedom as an article of faith are all too willing to limit an equally precious form of speech: voting.


If we don’t speak out against these abuses, we may soon learn the hard way the danger of that double standard. And a dozen years after the 2000 recount that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, my state of Florida threatens to be ground zero one more time.
He went on to complain that his successor had conducted voter purges,  curtailed voting hours and employed other means of taking away the vote.

Meanwhile it's a nail biter

I'm loathe to make predictions or even cite those who do.  What I will say, though, how does winning at all costs constitute leadership or patriotism?

Or to quote Crist again,  while we go off and inspect corrupt elections in 
"banana republics...[i]t’s time to look right under our noses. It’s happening here at home. And it’s our responsibility to honestly assess the root of the problem — which requires doing so with as little partisan bias as we believe belongs in the administration of our elections.

We can’t be surprised every time it turns out that politics are involved in our politics. But neither can we be silent when our democracy is threatened in its name.
There are lines that should not be crossed; meddling with voting rights is one of them. It is un-American and it is beneath us.

10/30/12

Paul Corbit Brown Challenges European Bankers on Coal: "Stop financing nightmares...begin financing dreams"


From Paul Corbit Brown's (bio) series of eighteen photographs, "Troubled Water" from his larger project, Toxic Water, Poisoned People: When Mountains Fall To Pay For Coal:  from left to right:

Photo 2 of 18: Acid mine drainage, July 27, 2008
Photo 3 of 16: Maria Lambert at  home in Prenter WV shows jars of water that came from her kitchen sink. Behind her are the jugs of water she filled and carried everyday from elsewhere so she would have water for her family to cook with and to drink.
Photo 6 of 18 (chosen by Blue Earth for its photograph of the day on September 17, 2012): Owen Stout with water from his family’s well in Cabin Creek, WV.

At 4:30 p.m., coming back from a late lunch, I noticed that my friend Paul Corbit had sent out--at 3:11 p.m. from Frankfurt, Germany via his cell phone--a status update on Facebook that he was "with" me and nine others speaking to a meeting of bankers from Germany, Austria and Switzerland, sharing why they should "no longer finance coal in general, and Mountaintop Removal in particular."

Through the magic of the internet, I started a conversation with him at  4:35 p.m.and by 5:12 he'd given his permission to share these notes from his talk and approved the use of the above copyrighted images.


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Ladies and gentleman, I would first like to thank you for having me here. I am honored to have the opportunity to speak to you about this incredibly important situation. Indeed, it is so important that I have spent a week of my life to travel thousands of miles, knowing I will have only 15 minutes to speak to you. I hope I am up to the task. I regret that I cannot address you directly, in your mother tongue, for we do not share that. But I do hope to reach you as a fellow human being.

I will not speak of the images behind me directly, but rather, I will let them play silently in the background as a witness to the irreversible devastation of my home in Appalachia, the second most bio-diverse ecosystem in the world, and the poverty, sickness, suffering and death of many people at the hands of the coal industry.

Martin Luther King said, " We must all learn to live together as brothers and sisters or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly."

First I would like to propose a toast

First, I would like to propose a toast. I ask each of you to raise your glass with me and drink to our shared destiny. I know it isn't normal to toast with water, but in this case, I think it is highly appropriate because water is one of the few things that all humans, in fact all life on this planet, share. Our planet is 2/3 water and our bodies are more than 3/4 water. And so it is true that whatever any one of us does to the water on this planet, we do to everyone and to all life on earth.

The bottle of water I am holding is water that came from a well in a community near where I live. You would be rightfully disturbed if I told you that you had just shared some of this water, unaware, just like the people in so many communities where coal is mined.

Don't worry, even if I had shared this water with you, it's doubtful only one sip of it would harm you very much. But unfortunately, my people have had more than one drink. It is their daily reality. It is the water they use to drink, to cook with, and to bathe themselves and their children.

I will pass this water around so you can see it up close and you can know what it feels like to hold death in your hands. You are even free to smell it, if you dare. I put it in a water bottle from here because it is symbolic of the very real fact that financing this industry anywhere, makes a problem for you here, because it makes your bank complicit in the system that creates this poison water.

The effluents of mining, preparing and burning coal include mercury, chromium, selenium, cadmium, lead and arsenic- just to name a few. Heavy metal poisoning is forever. Once it is ingested into your body, it stays there and, like radiation, it accumulates until it kills you. And even worse, large amounts of this poisoning have begun to cause genetic mutations in aquatic wildlife near my home. These mutations will eventually work their way up the food chain to us, humans, who on our current course of environmental devastation, won't stay at the top of this chain for long.

The good news is that we really needn't worry about saving the earth.

The good news is that we really needn't worry about saving the earth. She has been through several mass extinctions already. We aren't really destroying the earth, we are simply and rapidly making it unfit for human life. This is proven by the fact that 4,000 additional Appalachians die each year in the areas where coal is mined and burned.

Death to my people doesn't come quickly from the barrel of a gun. It comes slowly from the simple act of drawing water from the kitchen faucet. There is no difference in killing me slow or killing me fast.

Coal in general, and mountaintop removal mining in particular, is far more than an environmental disaster. The production and use of coal is an egregious human rights violation of epic proportions. It is a living, waking nightmare.

Why should you not finance mountaintop removal mining?

The question in front of us today is, "Why should you not finance mountaintop removal mining?" If, after hearing me talk and seeing the photographs of the way my communities and our ecosystem are being destroyed, isn't enough, I will give you another reason. You represent the banking industry. Banks exist for one very simply reason: to make a profit.

The science has finally arrived to prove what we in Appalachia have always known: coal is killing us. We now have more than 22 peer reviewed scientific studies that show how coal is irreversibly destroying our water and our health. These studies prove that people who live in areas around MTR are far more likely to suffer from heart attacks, cancer, respiratory diseases and are even more likely to have children with birth defects.

The science is here and the lawyers will soon follow.

The science is here and the lawyers will soon follow. Several large cases have already been heard in the courts, with tens of millions of dollars being rewarded to those who have suffered because of coal. This is only the beginning. The courts may finally force the coal industry to pay the true cost of its profits, the human cost- which until now, had been an externalized and hidden cost.

Many in the coal industry point to the jobs that coal creates. "Look at all we've given you," they say.

Yes. I see all you've given me every day.

And I answer," Yes. I see all you've given me every day. I watch my father gasping for his next breath, just like my grandfathers did. All of them victims of Black Lung disease. I see children dying of brain cancer and my own mother suffering through two fights with cancer. I see the communities left in ravages after you make your profit and leave. I see the five counties in my state that produce the most coal are among the poorest counties in my entire country. And I see you pointing to the food you have laid upon our tables, for a time, as being merely a distraction to the fact that you have poisoned the vessel from which we drink."

We should not need to wait for government legislation in order to do the right thing

As human beings with a hearts and minds, we should not need to wait for government legislation in order to do the right thing. Financing coal is exactly and simply financing the poisoning of Appalachian people and our planet. Why do you need to wait for the government to tell you it's wrong?

Coal is a barbaric and outdated method for producing heat and energy

Coal is a barbaric and outdated method for producing heat and energy. There are ways as yet unimagined to do all that coal has done and more. Rather than mining our mountains and destroying our water, invest your best money and efforts in mining the human imagination and the untapped potential for human creativity. The energy in coal pales in comparison to the unlimited and inexhaustible fire of the human spirit.

A good investment should be one for the future, rather than one of the past.

Imagine investing in chariots and stagecoaches when the automobile was first introduced

In hindsight, can you imagine investing in chariots and stagecoaches when the automobile was first introduced?

If you can't do it for my children, do it for your own. There is only one water and one air on this planet and, ultimately, it is shared by all of us. Would you want your children to drink this water and breath this toxic air? How would you feel to know that someone in another country was actually realizing a profit from the suffering and reduced life spans in your own community? I will not sit idly by, offering my life as a mechanism of sacrifice for anyone's profits.

Stop financing coal.

Dream won't manifest unless you, the bankers, finance it

In closing, I would like to share this:

Folks often confuse what they do, with who they are. Many people regard bankers as the greedy ones who only care about money and their profit. But I propose a different view, I suggest we look at bankers as those who sit at the right hand of the Architects of the Future. The architect can dream it, but the dream won't manifest unless you, the bankers, finance it.

From this perspective, the future truly lies in your hands. What will you choose to make of it? You can choose who you are by what you do. My father, for instance, was not merely a coal miner. He was a man who chose to work hard, at any peril to himself, to provide for his family and see to our wellbeing. He and my mother always chose to give of themselves for what was best for us and our community. The world is a better place due to the kindness, devotion and generosity they shared.

Although I don't know you, I have a great belief in each of you. I know each and every one of you has the capacity to change our world for the better. As I leave you, I will offer you this choice:
At the end of your lives, as you say to your children of the world you are leaving them, "I built this world and I now leave it to you", will you look back with pride or will you look back in regret?

The quality of our future will be measured in much more important terms than simply a financial return on our investments. It will be measured more by our ability to live peacefully with one another and in harmony with the planet that gives us life.

As bankers, I challenge you to stop financing nightmares and begin financing Dreams.

9/11/12

Larry Gibson 1946-2012: Rachel Parsons--One Step Up: Keeping Larry’s Legacy

This photo is by Wendy Johnston.  It accompanied the following essay by Rachel Parsons of Athens, WV, originally published this under the same on her blog Mountain Girl Writes on September 10, 2012. Reprinted with permission.(Rachel has another essay here on civil disobedience in WV at the Mountain Mobilization. I've got a short interview with her here. Other posts in this series Larry Gibson 1946-2012 are indexed here.

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In loving memory of Larry Gibson, 1946 – 2012

 I’ve been involved in the movement to stop mountaintop removal for over three years now, which is a relatively small period of time when I think about the many people who’ve been involved for much longer. Fighting big coal has come to define me to such an extent that it feels like a lifetime since I first heard Judy Bonds and Larry Gibson speak. Judy and Larry were two coalfield residents whose words were more than just genuine; they were passionate and empowering.

Larry Gibson was a spunky little man who talked big, and it was not difficult to believe every word he said. I always believed that he would fight for the mountains until he took his last breath. People like Larry don’t just stop fighting for something when the fight gets too hard. Larry’s fight was always hard. Throwing his lot in with the “tree huggers” and refusing to sell the last remnants of his home on Kayford Mountain to the coal company meant that Larry made a lot of enemies.

People shot at his house, vandalized his property, poisoned and shot his dogs and threatened his life. The police ignored Larry’s problems, claiming that Larry lived in “No Man’s Land” on Kayford Mountain and that there was nothing they could do to help him. Despite this, Larry was not deterred. He never claimed to be a saint or anything of the sort, just a man who owed his life to Kayford Mountain, but there must have been some part of him with divine patience. How many people can claim that all those things, or even of those things, wouldn’t scare them away from their home?

If anyone wonders how bad the harassment of Larry Gibson really was, well, let me tell you a little story. It’s about a nineteen year old girl who went with her family to spend the Fourth of July with Larry and a large group of mountaintop removal protestors on Kayford Mountain for Larry’s annual Fourth of July festival. That nineteen year old girl was me and I was brand new to the movement. I’d met Larry a couple of times before but didn’t know him well. He welcomed my family – my mother, my brothers, my grandparents, and me – with open arms, like he’d known us forever.

Not much for crowds, I retired to my tent early on to write. Larry had warned us all earlier that day that there could be some disturbance from locals who didn’t like what Larry stood for. While I was squirreled away in my tent, some of those locals showed up. I could hear raised voices from inside the tent and, afraid of getting involved in something potentially dangerous, I stayed where I was while our group was verbally assaulted by several locals. One of them was a large man who decided to express his disdain for us by eating several of the hotdogs we’d grilled while a female friend of his poured tomato juice all over our picnic area. They shouted vicious things at our group and at Larry, prompting my grandfather to place himself protectively in front of Larry. My grandfather told me later that he put himself in the line of fire hoping that one of them would hit him, so he’d have a real complaint to take to the police, since they wouldn’t listen to anything else.

When I emerged from my tent, the troublemakers had gone and we all tried to go about our celebration and pretend that nothing had happened. As Larry explained, it wasn’t the worst thing that could have happened, which was of little comfort to us when it began to rain. My mother, my brothers and I were huddled together in a tent that leaked, none of us getting much sleep while locals roared their cars and four-wheelers past our camp all night long and shouted expletives and threats at us. After that night, I never doubted any claim Larry made of violence against him and his property and family.

Larry lived on what little remained of Kayford Mountain, which was his family’s ancestral home. He placed his fifty acres in a land trust that prevents it from ever being strip-mined, though underground mining still takes place. That fifty acres is all that’s left of over 500 acres owned by Larry’s family, most of which has been taken and destroyed by a mining company by way of a broad form deed that sold the mineral rights to the property, signed with an “X” by one of Larry’s ancestors. Larry would take all of his visitors to a place called “Hell’s Gate,” a point where you could look out at the destruction of Kayford Mountain.

The first time Larry took my family to Hell’s Gate, I was shell-shocked. There are no words to describe the site. People tried to describe the horror of it to me before I went, but nothing that anyone said could have prepared me for the sight of a mountain that had been nearly leveled. They don’t call it mountaintop removal for nothing. Kayford’s mountaintop is gone. Even worse was when Larry pointed out a patch of green that resembled an island, raised above the rubble and waste. He explained that it was his family’s cemetery, which the company was not allowed to destroy, but was now incredibly difficult to reach. Larry’s ancestors are buried in that “protected” cemetery.

It made me sick to my stomach and I knew I had to find a way to join the fight. Every time I saw Larry, he smiled and hugged me and encouraged me to stay involved. He was very concerned about getting young people to join the movement, because he said that we were the ones who would have to carry on the fight after he was gone. It never really occurred to me that one day we wouldn’t have Larry to lead the charge. He was such a powerful personality that it made me believe Larry would always have my back in this fight.

Now I’m twenty-two and still fighting. A little over a year ago, one of my heroes, Judy Bonds, passed away from cancer. Her death had a huge impact on the movement. I had only just escaped the melancholy that settled on me on the anniversary of her passing. With one powerful person gone, I know the vast majority of people in the movement looked to Larry for inspiration and guidance. I don’t use the word “hero” lightly. Larry fit the word in every sense. If a person grew weary of the fight, they only needed to go to Larry to get that metaphorical fire lit under their ass. Larry didn’t just ask you to fight, he told you flat out that it was your responsibility to fight and to fight hard.

I was not expecting to come home Sunday evening to news of Larry’s passing. In fact, I had no reason to expect that he would leave us any time soon. At sixty-six years old, he was lively and loud, though I was not under the illusion that he was in prime health. My mother and I pulled into the driveway of our home after a trip to the grocery store and we were met by my stepfather, who broke the news to us. My mother broke down in tears. For me, the news was so out of the blue that I wasn’t sure how to react.

The first thing I did was rush to my computer to uncover the facts about the situation. I found out that Larry had indeed passed away. He’d had a heart attack while working on his beloved mountain. I suppose he would have wanted to die up there but I’m sure he wasn’t planning on it happening so soon. He still had work to do, the responsibility for which has now been thrust upon his family and friends.

Activist and photographer Paul Corbit Brown took a video of Larry a few days before his death, in which Larry spoke of his love for Kayford Mountain. Kayford was not quite heaven, he said, but up there, he was one step up – one step closer to heaven. That’s testament to how much he loved that place, considering that most of it was already gone. Larry must have remembered Kayford the way she used to be, wild and rich with life. I can’t say what happens after this life, if we continue to another life or return to the earth, but one way or another, I hope that Larry was reunited with Kayford.

There’s so much to say about him. Physically, he was a small person and had an unassuming appearance. If it wasn’t for the neon green shirt and hat that he wore everywhere, he would have been an easy person to overlook. It was the fighting passion inside him that made him such a memorable person. He wanted to fight for Kayford, for every mountain in Appalachia, and he poured his heart and soul into it. He made sure that no one ignored him, going out on the road to speak all around the country and spread the word of the threat of strip-mining in Appalachia.

People said he looked like a highlighter out in public, clearly visible in his trademark green, which he said he chose because it caught peoples’ attention. The shirt and hat, now owned by many of us in the movement, bear the information for Larry’s foundation, The Keepers of the Mountains. “Love ‘em or leave ‘em, just don’t destroy ‘em,” he said. He wanted to win the fight against big coal and see a stop put to mountaintop removal more than anything. It makes me hurt and angry to know that he won’t get to see the final chapter of the story. He won’t be there when mountaintop removal is finally abolished.

It will feel so strange to celebrate that victory without him or Judy Bonds to get up in front of us all and tell us that we did it; we won against all odds. That’s all the more reason to keep fighting. If I count Larry as a dear friend, which I do, I know that I can’t throw in the towel now. It’s time to step up and carry the torch onwards, to make sure that our voice is not lessened just because Larry’s not here to clear the way in highlighter green.

All that being said, I miss Larry and it hurts so much to know that I’ll never see him again. He’ll never give me another hug, or tell my mother what a pretty daughter she has. Larry was special to me and my family. We counted ourselves as his people, people from Appalachia who were tired of being quiet, and it is like losing a family member now that he is gone. I thought I would get to see him soon in DC and I was looking forward to it. I feel hollow knowing that he won’t be here to lead us anymore.

Larry’s passing only strengthens my resolve. I want the world to hear his story and know the true cost of coal. I want everyone to hear about the suffering of the Appalachian people and our beloved mountains. Larry’s home was destroyed. The forests he explored as a child were demolished, his mountain was leveled, and yet our government thinks that this is okay. Worse than that, this has happened to over five hundred mountains in Appalachia, and more all of the time.

In Larry Gibson’s honor, I refuse to back down and allow the greedy rich to have their way. As Larry would say, it’s my job and it’s your job to see this through. It doesn’t matter if you live here or you don’t, if you’re a transplant or a native, or if you live on the other side of the world. Everyone should care about this, and everyone should want to preserve and protect the Appalachian Mountains.

I know what Larry meant when he said that being on Kayford was “one step up.” There is something divine about these mountains, about the land I have loved since I was a small child, and I have felt that strong connection to it that Larry had. Imagine the most important thing to you in this world, the one thing that you keep in your soul, so deeply ingrained in your being that it defines you. Then you will understand what it is like for me and for Larry, to love this place. Maybe then you’ll want to join us and carry on Larry’s legacy, to move us ever closer to a world where these mountains are protected for future generations.

This is an invitation. If you’re not already involved, stop wondering whether or not this is your fight and jump into the fray. It is not an easy fight. People will try to hold you back every step of the way. They’ll call you a liar and many less pleasant names, they’ll try to label you as an outsider who has no right to speak up, but no matter where you live, you are not an outsider. Larry would have wanted you with us. Join us and help us keep the mountains.

9/10/12

Larry Gibson 1946-2012: Paul Corbit Brown Remembers


Photo by Paul Corbit Brown of him and Larry Gibson at the week-long June 2011 March on Blair Mountain, c. 2011. 

This is a guest post written by my friend photographer and activist Paul Corbit Brown, with the selection of the photos, some editing and arranging by me. The cliche is that a picture is worth a thousand words, and Paul Corbit's are worth many more.

  • The first section explains his thoughts on the above picture he took of of the Larry and him, and memories it evokes. (I had how he had caught the image, thinking maybe he used a shutter delay, a cable release or some other piece of camera gear.)
  • The second section tells about the day he got to spend with Larry on Thursday, September 6 at Larry's home on Kayford Mountain. 
  • The next three sections intersperse Paul Corbit's email to Jeff Biggers (published in the latter's eulogy) with what Paul Corbit wrote about "In the days to come..."
  • Next is a short video  Paul Corbit took of Larry September 6 (which I hope to be able to embed at a later date.) 
  • The last four sections are pair photographs Paul Cobit took of Larry at his home on Kayford Mountain with Paul thoughts on each.  The first of these was taken in May, the others on September 6.
All words, photographs and the video are used by permission of Paul Corbit Brown. I first published this  September 10, 2012 at 2:15. Our conversation about the above photo took place September 12, 2012.  The most recent revision was on September 17, 2012 at 9:26 am.  Other posts in this series Larry Gibson 1946-2012 are indexed here.

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How I took the top picture and what it means

I just hold the camera at arm's length and press the shutter with my thumb. It's not the best photo, but I cherish it...This photo was taken at the March on Blair. When I do these kinds of photos, I usually just hold the camera straight out in front of me, but there were so many people there, I thought shooting from above would isolate the two of us. I remember thinking that as a photographer, I have pictures of everyone else and everyone else together, but I'm usually not in the pictures. I wanted to have a picture to remember being with Larry on this march because I felt like it was a really important event and his friendship has always meant so much to me.

Larry and I had a lifetime of conversations on Thursday

Somewhere in the middle of a very serious discussion, he suddenly stopped, punched me lightly in the arm to make sure I was listening, and he said, "Paul Corbit, you know what the real problem is? I'll tell you. I'm short and good looking' and you're just too damn tall. And there's really nothing we can do to fix it." Larry always knew how important humor is to friendship and to keeping someone's attention.

Looking at this photo of us together on the March for Blair will always remind me of him saying that even though the photo was made over a year ago.

To say... [Larry] had an enormous impact on all of our lives wouldn't be enough.

To say he was a hero wouldn't be enough. To say he changed our lives wouldn't be enough. To say has was deeply loved and will be missed wouldn't be enough. But let me tell you what was on his heart just days ago.

He stressed that this fight was never about him or his mountain alone. It was, and is, about all of us and our shared future. It is about the thousands of young people that he called his kids. It is about those not yet born.

It wasn't about Larry Gibson and a mountain. He wanted to be a voice for all people and the mountains and homes they love. He wanted to speak for Justice and to inspire those too frightened to speak. And even those who called Larry an enemy and wished to do him harm, he spoke of them, still, as "His People."

In the days to come...

It is only natural and appropriate that we will ask ourselves, “What would Larry want?” or “How can I best honor Larry?” There are a multitude of answers to these questions, but I believe one answer will always come to the top: We must Speak. Each of us must find our voice and we must Speak, Speak, Speak. We must rise up with a mighty voice and we must Speak until our truth has been heard. We must speak from the tops of our mountains and through the corridors of power. We must speak and never let up until our Truth has been made manifest and Justice has been firmly established in our homes, our communities, our air and our water. This is the greatest honor we can bestow upon Larry, Judy and all those that have come to illuminate Truth and shine a light upon our path.

 Rest in Peace, Larry

It was only appropriate that you should be on your mountain when you left this world. You can rest assured that we who you left behind will not rest until we finish the work you so passionately and courageously began.

Video: Larry Gibson, Almost Heaven

Here's the link on facebook until an open source link is available.
Now, I'm not in a big hurry to leave here, but I'm pretty close to heaven when I'm here.
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 Larry with "Dog"



I made this photo on May 26, 2012. I had spent the day working on Larry's solar panels. I remember asking him if I could do a photo of him before I left. "Sure," he answered, "What do you want to do?" I asked him if he minded doing one with him beside "Dog's" grave. He looked at me a bit questioningly, but went along with it. I only made a couple of images then we returned to his porch to say our farewells for the day. He was a bit quiet and I was worried I had made some horrible mistake in asking for this. At some point, his eyes filled with tears and he said, "Thanks for doing that. Nobody ever asked to take a picture of me with him since I buried him. I really miss that dog. We went through a lot together. He was a good friend." Thank you.

A man and an icon


Larry asked me to talk with him about his idea of going to the UMWA rally against Patriot Coal on the following Tuesday in Charleston, WV. It was a long conversation, but the essence of it was that Larry was well aware that he had become an icon with his green shirt and cap, and he was aware that this icon was often an inflammatory presence with folks in the coal industry. While Larry was always opposed to coal, not just MTR, he was NEVER opposed to coal miners.

Larry was truly a man of the people and he always wanted to speak for what was fair and just. A lot of folks could (or would) never understand this about him. He always believed the people of Appalachia deserved better than merely the choice between poverty or destroying Appalachia with the devastation wrought by the extractive industries. He felt that he should go to the rally but he would, for the first time, not show up in his green shirt. He said he had made a promise to himself that he would not, under any circumstances, talk about MTR or mining in general. He wanted to be there in support of the workers, people who he believed were his own (and he was theirs).

He felt Patriot Coal was preparing to cheat the miners and he was firmly convinced that if they succeed in stripping the miners of their health cards and pensions, a domino effect would ensue through other industries- I think he's right. And so the photo is significant because he was prepared to step out as Larry Gibson, a man FOR the people, rather than merely the anti-MTR icon he had become. He never wavered in his conviction that MTR and coal in general should be abolished, he simply didn't want the politics of that to interfere with his concern that the miners deserved to be treated fairly by the company that had profited so greatly from their lives and the health they sacrificed for their jobs.

Hell's Gate Reprise


This photo has been made so many times, by so many photographers and visitors that it's quite possible a penny for each photo made might be combined to actually buy Kayford Mountain. But nonetheless, it was a ritual, a meditation, for many of us when we visited. It's both fascinating and chilling to see the changes in the landscape behind him over the years. They will spray their hydro seed and paint it green to cover their greed, but that won't replace the mountain, nor will it replace the ecosystem that existed there before the mining began. A few kinds of grass and a few scrubby trees won't replace a real hardwood forest and the nearly 1,000 species of plants that existed on that mountain before it was destroyed. I once commented to him that they were pulling out the threads in the fabric of Life and I asked him how long it would be before they realized we are all wearing the "Emperor's New Clothes." He looked at me for a moment and answered, "Probably not until it's too late, but we have to keep trying."

Larry on top, with clouds


Seeing him here, if one doesn't know what is really in front of him, it's easy to imagine he's at the top of the mountain. It's beautiful and haunting because once you learn what's on the other side, you begin to look suspiciously at the presumed "top" of every other mountain. I wonder how Martin Luther King's speech would have been different if he had been to the top of this mountain and seen the other side...

These were the last photographs I made of Larry Gibson as he walked upon this earth.

I am certain there will be more [on this post]. Words usually come to me in the middle of the night and I have learned to roll over and grab something to jot them down, otherwise they evanesce with the morning light. In the meantime I hope these photographs will help us remember him, his life, his message, his friendship, his courage, his passion and everything we shared together.

I know we all wish we could have just one more walk on the mountain with him.

9/9/12

Larry Gibson 1946-2012: "I will not be satisfied to be called a victim."





This photo by Wendy Johnston (used by permission) shows Larry Gibson waiting to be taken to jail  in Anacostia, after sitting in at the White House in September 2010   By then, Judy Bonds was already too sick from cancer to attend the "thousand-hillbilly march” she'd envisioned.  Larry, Wendy and her family and I were  among 2,000 Appalachians and allies at Appalachia Rising, which preceded the Arab Spring and the Occupy Movement, but garnered little national coverage beyond one piece in The Hill and an AP article. The latter distorted a serious protest into to some kind of colorful neo-hippy celebration, despite the fact that 125, including Larry, chose to be arrested.  There wasn't a good news account until Judy's obituary in the New York Times.

Bo Webb told The Guardian that I should be the one to write a commentary there on Appalachia Rising. I first used Wendy's picture for the draft on my blog. I titled it "Appalachia Should Abide," which was a variation of a line "Mountains should abide" a line from "Looking Out Over An Abyss in Boone County." The line was inspired by Psalm 125:1: "Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved, but abides forever."

I wrote that poem for Larry , when I met him through the West Virginia Writers' Mountaintop Removal Tour in October 2006. My fellow poet Chris Green--who heads Berea's Appalachian Studies program, but was at Marshall at the time-- had told me about the tour and OVEC kind made space for someone from Virginia. I also wrote a piece for LLRX.com "Strip Mining on Steroids" that was later part of the testimony at the United Nations.

 Larry is survived by his wife, Carol, his sons Cameron and Larry, Jr. and his daughter, Victoria. He was sixty-six years old. The funeral will be private and public memorial service will be announced later. Larry's family has requested that condolences be in the form of donations to Keeper of the Mountains Foundation, which Larry founded in 2004 to support mountain communities.  September 11, the Foundation let me know that you can sign the memory book here.

I first  published  this piece at 10:42 p.m. on September 9, 2012, shortly after finding out about Larry's his death.  I last revised it at 10:39 p.m. on September 11.  There will be subsequent revisions, most recent being on September 14 at  8:52 a.m.  in order to index and link here to other folk's pieces on Larry, which will include:
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Larry Gibson lived thirty-five miles  southeast of the West Virginia capital of Charleston.  His  family had  looked up to the peaks that surrounded them since the late 1700s.  Over 300 of  his ancestors lay buried in the family grave yard.

 Like many Southern Appalachians, Larry left home to find work, returning when he retired, in his case from General Electric.The destruction started in 1986.  
I remember when they started mining here. It was a fine day: pretty sky, no clouds. All of a sudden I heard thunder in the distance. Couldn’t see no clouds, but we heard thunder. That was in spring of ’86.

By the fall of ’86, it was upon us – we could see the dynamite explosions and we were breathing in their dust.

Then by the spring of ’87, we could taste it in our mouths. It was foreign. We didn’t know what it was, or if it was legal to blow up a mountain. I mean, who does that? I just didn’t believe it, I couldn’t fathom it. But I was hearing it, and I was seeing it in the distance, and then finally I could throw a rock and hit it.

 When asked whether he had a picture of Kayford Mountain before mountaintop removal mining, Larry'd  say he had always thought, 
Why should you take a picture of a mountain?  It's going to be here forever.
By 1993, Larry put his land and the mineral rights to the coal below in trust as Stanley Heirs' Park, when he found out that his 53 acres land was worth over a million dollars an acre.  That same year Massey Energy offered Larry $140,000 for his land.  Larry didn't turn down Massey because of its bad offer, though.

But you see, for me, there's no amount of money that could buy this place, even if it was for sale. You know, you've heard of people that talk about their roots. Well, this is it, for me .   My family, the  last three hundred years came from this place...at least. How do you wipe that off? How do you make that okay?  Does money pay for that?  No. Money doesn't pay for everything.

 Massey didn't go away.  Instead it continued to pushed the trees and topsoil it regarded as "overburden" into the valleys, drilled holes and set charges of ammonium nitrate and diesel fuel,  blowing eventually blowing up the surrounding releasing coal and silica dust into the air and releasing toxic heavy metals such as mercury, copper, arsenic, lead and selenium into the streams which feeds the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. Larry would tell folks, 
I will not be satisfied to be called a victim. I am a survivor.
You rarely see the mountaintop removal mining  from the interstate in West Virginia.  It's hidden over the ridge.   In October 2006, when a group of writers walked with Larry up his farm path to the gate that marks the end of the 53 acres he'd preserved,  we were staring out over an abyss.  Larry told us it was "the gate of Hell."  When we flew  over later, we could see just how much was gone. 

I lost  kin in the Holocaust.  Seeing Larry's homeplace reminded me of  visiting Ann Frank's annex in Amsterdam . If Stanley Heir's Park were the annex--one family's tragedy--what lay beyond was Dachau.  The vast destruction left me tearless, hollowed me, much as Big Coal had hollowed out the land which had once been Kayford Mountain.


Because Larry refused to sell out to Big Coal,  he'd been threatened and even shot at.  The  Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported in 2006 that his first marriage ended "over his doggedness and the blasting and the threats to his life."
My wife left, but I could not leave this land. You pay a terrible price in this fight, but paying their price is worse.

Larry would go on to marry Carol, who  supported his efforts.  She was with him and his cousin working on the mountain this morning, according to his daughter, Victoria.  She told Ashley Craig (email) at the Daily Mail  that her father had been moving lumber from the porch and began to feel odd.  Sitting in his truck didn't help and his family called the rescue crew, which decided to fly him to Memorial Hospital in Kanawha City.  Talking about his death, Victoria said,
When my dad passed away you could still smell the mountain air on him...You could still see the dirt underneath his nails and the stains on his hands. He was working. He lived his life devoted to the mountain.
Because of Larry's devotion not just to Kayford, but to all the mountains which might be saved by its example, he lives on in all of us he inspired to fight the violence of Big Coal with non-violence.

May his memory be a blessing. May it give us strength to carry on.

9/6/12

RIta Coal Camp Residents Told to Move: Can This Story Please Go Viral?


This photo of a mobile home in Rita, WV,  owned by Russell Spear after being purchased for $200 in 1978, accompanied Martha Sparks's August 31 story in the Logan Banner, which has 29140 views,  according to the paper's website. I first published this post on September 5, 2012 at 8:28 p.m. and updated it mostrecently on September 7 at 11:02 a.m.

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It's bad enough when Logan County has its mountains blown up

Economic development touted  in Logan County and surrounding areas after mountaintop removal includes the so-called  Hatfield-McCoy Trails for ATVs, dirt bikes, and utility vehicles.  It's bad enough that West Virginia memorializes a mythic feud as our heritage and allows strip mining on the site of the Battle of Blair Mountain, our own civil war over unionization for the coal fields.

It's worse when that development contributes to another act of depopulation of the former coal camps.  An absentee landlord hopes to displace more than more than 30 families in Rita, WV in Logan County  and build a motel and convenience store to cater to tourists of the trail. At the end of August, DB Land LLC, reportedly of Topeka,   gave notice that residents should make plans to remove themselves and their belongings from property by October 1.  Trailers and modular homes or trailers left on the property--many of which replace the original coal camp structures--would be destroyed.

Thankfully a local journalist is more than a stenographer for economic development

 Martha Sparks (email)--who   still uses the quaint title of Society Editor--is writing about more than the lifestyles of the rich and famous.  She explains,
the lease termination notice sent to residents...stated that...[DB Land] had decided to use the property for commercial development purposes. Most of the residents were born and raised in the camp. Many of them are elderly or disabled and with low income.
Sparks took the time to interview resident Russell Spears, who told her, 
As long as the coal was going, we were okay....Nobody ever did any maintenance or anything, but they made us sign a contract in order to stay in our houses that we would pay $200 a month and do all maintenance. We signed a paper that we were responsible if anybody got hurt or anything. They gave us an option to tear down the houses and put in a trailer with our own sewage and everything.
Friends of Mountains (FOM) says there is organized opposition

James Blunt (email) of Rita is trying to organize opposition, according to a letter to the FOM  email list.   Someone wrote the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition to say that Blunt is

 asking that folks call  Rahall's  office  to at least ask for an injunction on the eviction process until the community members can find other places to live.

Rahall's numbers are: Logan 304.752.4934; DC 202.225.3452...
If you feel moved enough to call Rahall, and to perhaps pass this info on to others who may call, perhaps this eviction can be either avoided or made easier with help in finding places to relocate, and with financial assistance for the moves.

Sparks doesn't mention the opposition, but she did a good job of letting Spears tell Rita's story

He recounted,
As long as the coal was going, we were okay....Nobody ever did any maintenance or anything, but they made us sign a contract in order to stay in our houses that we would pay $200 a month and do all maintenance. We signed a paper that we were responsible if anybody got hurt or anything. They gave us an option to tear down the houses and put in a trailer with our own sewage and everything.
Spears added that the former owners son collected the rent:
He was giving out lifetime leases and telling some that they were buying their property and all they had was their rent receipt....He really pulled that off. It went like for five years and we never heard from them. Then their coal ran out and it was sold to this bunch. [DB Land LLC]  Well they found out that the coal wasn’t there and what was there was underground and it would cost them too much to mine....That’s when they noticed this little piece of property. When they bought this land, they didn’t even know they owned this community. They thought they only bought the coal.
Spears told Sparks that Mike Cline, representative for DB Land initially told residents that they would be able to purchase their lots. 
Well, the main man was supposed to come in and talk to us. He drives up in his Cadillac with his surveyor and they sit behind the church for a few minutes and then he left....I got a hold of Mike Cline and he tells me that they have changed their mind and they are not going to sell to us and they are going to make us all leave.... They told me that if I wasn’t out of here in three months they would take equipment and move our stuff....My trailer was purchased by the Red Cross for $200 for me when my house burnt in 1978.  If I move it there won’t be anything left of it....There’s no where to rent to put a trailer.
It seems a first priority to find folks in Rita a pro bono lawyer

A lawyer could outline legal rights and how to document  them for a fight. Do folks have copies of the lifetime rights agreements.  Are they legally binding? Since Appalmad complains about absentee landlords, I'm wondering if that public interest law firm can help or at least suggest someone?

Will members of Congress help?

Senator Rockefeller has recently stood up to the coal industry.  Can he do anything for his constituents in Rita?  Will coal aficionados congressman Nick Rahall and Senator Joe Manchin show they at least "care" about their constituents. It seems to me that the campaign to call Rahall and ask for more time doesn't give folks their do.

How about the professionals doing pr on Appalachia--can they make this story go viral?

A lot of money meant to fight the conditions in Appalachia goes to outsiders.  I once had someone in DC tell me he had fought mtr because he had obeyed Woody Harrelson and sent money to a national environmental group.

In August, the Alliance for Appalachia hired Sue Lomenzo of Small World Strategies of Ashville, NC  to do a media workshop on how to get the message out on the destruction of Appalachia by the effects of the coal industry.  I'm wondering if she is offering any help past the workshop.  Trayvon Martin's parents got his story out through a professional organizer, while Marissa Alexander languished for standing her ground against her abuser.  The low-wage school bus aide who was bullied now has lots of options after a cell-phone video posted to You-Tube got 2 million views June 21 and folks donated over $700,000.   AP is still reporting months later with WSJ picking up the story on on September 2.

In Appalachia, often the wrong stories  get attention

The History Channel distorts the reasons for the Hatfield McCoy feud.  CBS covers the drug scourge.  Testimony about the lack Congressional legislation to protect clean water morphs into a coal porn story after an an award-winning art photo goes viral and few other than Jeff Goodell report it in context of the war on Appalachians by Big Coal.

How do we get the AP to make the story of Rita go national?  I'm not even sure who the best person is to report this for WV Public Broadcasting now that Erica Peterson is gone.  I was underwhelmed with the Derecho coverage and I'm not the only one.

Peterson, to her credit, is still reporting on WV from Kentucky, witness the superior job she did reporting on Murray Energy's attack on environmental journalist Ken Ward.  Tim Thornton, who reports on Appalachian issues, such as coal ash in Giles and strip mining may have some ideas, too.  As may Beth Macy, who is attending the inaugural annual poverty journalism conference at Washington and Lee, hosted by Knight.  Or Sue Sturgis at the Institute for Southern Studies, who  has reported on WV, despite its limited resources.

We are in a war zone

 Some would  think that's hyperbole, but I have to agree with native Appalachians such as Maria Gunnoe and Bo Webb who make this complaint.

I've known about strip mining for years.  Some of my friends were abolitionists in the fight against strip mining that resulted in the Surface Mining and Safety Act.  And in Chris Green, who had published my poems, invited me to join the Ohio Valley Environmental Coaltions Mountaiintop Moval Writer's Tour.   Gunnoe, Judy Bonds and Larry Gibson and others asked writers to help them tell their stories.

 In "Looking Out Over an Abyss in Boone County" for Larry Gibson, I wrote,

Big Coal has its way
they will blow up Blair Mountain.
Permits are pending.

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Eighty years ago
10,000 miners rose up
ten days at Spruce Run

while federal troops
fired: civil war to keep
us company slaves.

Blow up Blair Mountain?
Feature Vicksburg, Bull Run gone
for thirty year's coal.

Mountains should abide
but Massey plays God
scattering our peaks.

How can we be the
Mountain State without mountains,
our home, a war zone?

That war continues

As in the Civil War and at Blair Mountains, Americans are pitted against their fellow citizens.  Witness the most recent example of the harsh treatment of mtr protesters by the WV State Police who seemingly helped miners stirred up by their employers to surround and threaten them.   Remember how Massey employees shouted down retired Congressman Ken Hechler--who had fought for their safety--when he said there needed to be a new school for Marsh Fork elementary school.  Remember how they jeered when filmmaker Mari-Lyn Evans thanked Hechler at the premiere screening of Coal Country.  As photographer Antrim Caskey wrote,

Talk-back to the screen came mostly from coal proponents who comprised about one third of the film’s audience. And when Evans thanked Ken Hechler in her pre-screening address, this vocal group errupted in jeers, catcalls and insults; in response, those who honor Hechler’s decades of service to the state of West Virginia, rose to their feet to give the 94-year-old a standing ovation. This was the tensest moment of the night.
The Goldman Prize, the Purpose Prize and The Martin Luther King Award  have recognized Gunnoe, Webb, Bonds and Hechler  for their bravery in fighting mountaintop removal.

At Gettysburg, Lincoln knew our nation had not yet measured up 

For the Lincoln bicentennial,Virginia Tech Library is hosting an exhibit from the National Constitution Center:  Abraham Lincoln:  The Constitution and the Civil War. The brochure states:
...at Gettysburg,  he challenged Americans to take up the 'unfinished work"...  Lincoln's words have echoed down the decaudes, speaking to what he termed on another occassion 'the better angels of our nature."

 Civil war scholar Bud Robertson gave the inaugural talk on Tech's Lincoln exhibit

I missed the lecture to post the first draft of this commentary.  I even missed any question and answer session.I ran into friends as they were leaving and was able to get there in time to say hello to Dr. Robertson.  On his way out the door, he kindly stopped to answer this question.

 "As a civil war historian, can you explain why Civil War battlefields are preserved even to the extent of fighting a Wal-Mart near Manassas, but in the meantime mountaintop removal is allowed on the site of The Battle of Blair Mountain."

Dr. Robertson told me that Blair Mountain had, for some reason, attracted no attention

Robertson seemed surprised  that I had been asked to write an article by  The Guardian and, in fact, the same paper had commissioned a second article by another author to write a second piece a year later.  He said he read that paper and he'd check out my writing.

I didn't even mention that filmmaker and MacArthur "genius grant" winner John Sayles has talked about Blair Mountain. That Soledad O'Brien had won a CINE award for her documentary on CNN.  That Pulitzer Prize winner Chris Hedges--who spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent-- had  included West Virginia in his new book about sacrifice zones and wrote again about Blair Mountain in July.

The eviction of the residents of Rita, WV is just the latest  skirmish

The Battle for Blair Mountain was a fight for decent living conditions the parts of our region impacted by coal-mining. The forced ouster of families, many elderly and handicapped is just the latest skirmish in that fight.

Washington and Lee's poverty reporting conference that Beth Macy  and I will be attending hopes "to build competence and community among people who report on the underside of the American dream." The keynote speaker  will be Barbara Ehrenreich on “Poverty reporting: Investigating the manufacture of misery.”

And so I ask, when will the misery of Rita and elsewhere in Appalachia affected by Big Coal be reported?  When  will we attract enough national attention to sustain outrage and stop this war  on our people by the coal industry, its politicians and its employees?

Mr. Lincoln,  Appalachia could sure use some better angels.




8/24/12

Fall Book Outlook


I first published this post 8/24/12 at 7:59 p.m. and updated it last on 8/27/2012 at 4:07 p.m.

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Press 53 has sent me a review copy of Roanoke writer Kurt Rheinheimer's new short story collection, Finding Grace ,which I'll be reviewing, as well as Gail Tsukiyama's new historical novel, A Hundred Flowers (St. Martin's), which I found in Virginia Tech's popular reading collection.

Today, I looking for other promising book publications and discovered that  Dennis Lehane has turned publisher, having been offered his own book imprint from his publisher,  Harper Collins.  The first novel will be by  The Cutting Season by Attica Locke.  This follows her debut, Black Water Rising, which the Financial Times called "a seamless marriage of socical comment and slick crime action."  Lehane is so enthusiastic about Locke's writing that he tells us,
I was first struck by Attica Locke's prose, then by the ingenuity of her narrative and finally and most deeply by the depth of her humanity. She writes with equal amounts grace and passion. After just two novels, I'd probably read the phone book if her name was on the spine.
And I'm enthused enough about Lehane to check out his judgement. (BTW, Lehane studied Creative Writing at Florida International University where my friend John Dufresne teaches.  Happily John just won a 2012 Guggenheim fellowship). Harper Collins has promised me a review copy of The Cutting Season and and I'll be sharing my reactions as soon as I finish reading it.  In the meantime, Virginia Tech thinks well enough of her  to have included her first book in its humanities collection and Purdom Lindblad, the librarian for the collection offered to order The Cutting Season today. I've checked out Blackwater Rising and look forward to starting on it this weekend.


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Lindblad also indicated she'd welcome other suggestions, so here goes. First, from BEA Buzz Books: Excerpts from over 30 Top Fall 2012 Titles by Publishers Lunch (downloadable gratis from Amazon for the free desktop Kindle reader) , there's Lehane's new novel, Live By Night. Two other works of fiction that caught my attention were Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Diaz's This is How You Lose Her  (stories featuring his recurrent character Yunior,  coming out in September from Riverhead--a Penguin imprint)  and Bill Roorback's  novel, Life Among Giants,  due out from Algonquin in November. Buzz books also mentioned a number of books beyond those excepted that I'm looking forward to reading soon:
And while these went unmentioned by Buzz Books, it looks like the following will deserve a look:
Not only do we have Wallace's own essays but also a biography coming out August 30 that's well-regarded by Kirkus from D. T. Max:  Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace (Viking). Max wrote about Wallace for The New Yorker and his first non-fiction book, also got good reviews and is included in Virginia Tech's humanities collection. 

I haven't seen a review yet for Orhan Pamuk's Silent House (October, Knopf).  It's the first English translation of his second novel.  Amazon, I think, mistakenly, quotes Margaret Atwood as reviewing a previous edition for the New York Times.  I sent a chat to Amazon questioning that and the individual answering promised to have it researched and get back with me.

Last, Lucy Wood is gaining acclaim across the pond for her first book of short stories., The Diving Belles (review) which came out in paperback from Mariner Books  in August.

BTW,  Tech's popular reading collection  has some other recent books I'll be reading soon.  I just checked out Mario Vargas Llosa's The Dream of the Celt.  I've put Toni Morrison's new novel, Home
 (Knopf 2012 ) on hold. And here are a couple of others I'm considering:
There are also some new books of interest in the regular collection.  For instance: