Eco-Chaplain Sarah Vekasi: First Hand Report on Mountain Mobilization

Photo  from Facebook of Sarah Vekasi taken at the Mountain Justice 2012 Summer Activist Training Camp May 19-26 at the Appalachian South Folklife Center in Pipestem, WV. This guest post by Vekasi, first published on August 1, 2012 at 8:00 p.m. is adapted with her permission from the letter she wrote following her attendance at the Mountain Mobilization.


Editor's Note

Sarah Vekasi (email, website) has a Masters of Divinity degree from Naropa University in Boulder, CO and lives in Swannanoa, NC, where she throws pottery and operates the Eco-chaplaincy Initiative. 

Vekasi coined the term"eco-chaplaincy" in 2005 for inter-religious and secular spiritual chaplaincy designed for people engaged in environmental and social justice work.  In a letter to her followers on August 1 before the RAMPS (Radical Action for Mountain People's Survival) Campaign announced that Dustin Steele had been released from jail, Vekasi explained that she returned home the previous night from attending the Mountain Mobilization. Before writing, she
had to sleep for about 30 hours first, which helps me know that the organizers need rest too. It is hard to rest though, because we know that at least one of our activists, [Dustin Steele] was hurt pretty bad by the law, and that is ...[he] is spending ...[his] 21st birthday today in jail...I know Dustin well, and love this person so much that it hurts to think about [it.]
She wrote that as the evening of July 31, 2012,
...[W]e were still not able to visit ...[him] or anyone else in the jail. There are twenty people incarcerated, all in the same jail, held on charges of misdemeanor trespass and obstruction, we think, yet held with a $25,000 surety bond each, which means we need $500,000 cash or WV property to get them out. They have not had a formal hearing yet, and we are affectionately calling them the Hobet 20. This is outrageous and we are working on reducing the bail, while also collecting money. There are names and addresses online if you are willing to write or need to know if your child or friend is one of the Hobet 20.
Vekasi describes the Mountain Mobilization

As of last night  I have just returned home from providing support at the Mountain Mobilization organized by the RAMPS Campaign at the request and guidance of locals in West Virginia.... It is a story our whole country needs to know about, and one that deserves our attention immediately since there are a lot of people currently in jail who need support, organizers who need sleep, activists in need of trauma relief, communities in need of reconciliation and safety, and a powerful story about continual resistance and courageous people to be lifted up.

This past Saturday, over a hundred activists were able to walk on to an active mine site at the Hobet Mine, the largest mountaintop removal site in West Virginia, and shut down mining at its source, while simultaneously holding a rally and trainings at a nearby park. Some activists physically locked down to the mining equipment until arrested and brought to jail, while everyone brought forward a message that it is time to end mountaintop removal coal mining and work for a just and sustainable Appalachia now. The demonstration was the first in a “Summer of Solidarity Against Extraction,” so along with RAMPS, Mountain Justice and Appalachian activists, we had people fighting to protect their homes from Fracking, from the Keystone XL Pipeline, from the Coal Export trains in the northwest, and from Occupy Wall Street and Occupy D.C. The reality of blowing up mountaintops to get to the coal underneath, filling in valleys with the overburden, hence polluting the water supply of all nearby communities and permanently destroying the mountains is so outrageous, so horrifying, that this invitation went out to the world to come to West Virginia at the invitation of local communities to directly witness the atrocity of surface mining, and shut down a mine site with our bodies.

The Mountain Mobilization was advertised as “the largest direct action yet” in the movement to end mountaintop removal by doing a “mass walk-on to an active surface mine” and by all accounts – it was. As our movement’s eco-chaplain, I live to tell the tale, and the story continues as we all pass it on. The primary version of the story for public consumption is that there is still an ongoing atrocity called mountaintop removal coal mining, and even as mining companies are going bankrupt there needs to be serious commitment by the companies and the states involved to restore the land and re-employ the people.

The inner story

The inner story is that we are using direct action techniques of public walk-ons and lock-downs to draw attention to the issue and that we were met with organized mobs of people using violence, intimidation, harassment, and hate speech to try to stop us, in collusion or at least without attempts to stop it by the state and local police.

As of Saturday night, all of our activists are accounted for, but the need for ongoing support is acute, particularly in terms of getting our friends out of jail, supporting one another through trauma recovery, and the ongoing efforts of ending mountaintop removal coal mining for a just and sustainable Appalachia. I personally would appreciate your support as I just went to the edge of my ability to hold the safety of our group with an awareness of the whole, and am now home recovering before offering support for our activists and their families in this intense time....

The idea of doing a massive direct action was, and is, to show the coal industry that we will not back down in light of harassment and attempts to silence local leaders, rather, we will invite more and more people from around the country to come and witness the situation first hand, and by doing direct action, continually grab the attention of the public to force the lawmakers who have been sitting on the fence not passing any of the legislation our movement has put forward, and shine a light into the shadowed halls of the decision makers throughout Appalachia who rubber-stamp permits for more valley fills and surface mines.

The back story

Here is the back-story: We gathered for three very full days of extensive trainings in nonviolence and non-violent direct action tactics, de-escalation trainings and mine safety, while having daily talks by local organizers about what life is like day to day in the mountain communities impacted by the coal industry. The trainings are significant because we will not allow anyone to join in these actions without committing to a full code of nonviolence and learning de-escalation techniques to follow through with them. This means carrying ourselves with the dignity one can possess with walking as a mountain, for mountains, with the knowing that the whole nation is impacted by mountaintop removal coal mining, and everyone, especially including the folks who are employed by the coal industry, have a stake in our collective survival, and that survival is put in immediate threat when we blow up mountains and fill in valleys.

We all commit to bringing no weapons of any kind, and not even engaging in debates or escalating dialogue during actions, since that doesn’t lead towards actual dialogue. Instead, we go into actions with our awareness wide open to the fact that we are marching and demonstrating for the good of the whole and out boundaries up to protect ourselves the best we can from violence. I lead people through trainings specifically oriented towards holding compassion particularly towards the folks whose jobs put the health of their whole hollows in jeopardy, since that is where a lot of the tension generally arises, and this time did in a large degree.

Our messaging to encompass the whole community

Even the messaging on the banners is written to encompass the whole rather than feed a “environmentalist” vs. “miner” divide the coal industry front groups like the Friends of Coal and the media like to perpetuate. Want to know what some of our banners said?

“Coal Leaves, Cancer Stays.”

“Re-employ our Miners, Restore our Mountains.”

“Stop Mountaintop Removal for all Appalachians”

“Repair, Reinvest, Retrain, Re-Employ”

This is all preface to say that on Saturday, nearly on hundred courageous people followed the call and did pull off the largest direct action protest in the movement to end mountaintop removal coal mining to date by simultaneously holding trainings and a rally in a state park while fifty people walked on to the Hobet mine in Lincoln County, WV, the largest mountaintop removal mine in West Virginia.

The counter-protest  with its threats and acts of violence

Both in the park and on the mine site, we were met with hoards of counter-protesters, most likely organized through the Friends of Coal, certainly organized somehow, whose intention seemed singularly to make us go home or never speak out again against mountaintop removal through threats and acts of violence – both physical and verbal. Did they succeed? I really hope not. It began in the morning leaving our campsite with an organized attempt to block us by felling trees over the road, and continued throughout the past few days. On Saturday, the day of action, the counter-protest was intense, to say the least.

I witnessed an incredibly well organized group of people I would call a mob, mainly dressed in mining stripes, some sadly dressed up with coal on their faces, lining up and doing everything in their power to seem menacing, cruel and mean by singling people out from the group and picking apart their identity – be it that they were an active marine, or a trans-gendered person, a recognizable local resident, a person of color, a hippy, a punk, a woman, a child, etc. The words that were hurled by these counter-protestors were so racist, so homophobic, so mean in general, that it was easy to recognize the fear underlying all of it. The fear in the mob was so thick that any hateful thought was hurled out toward our activists. Most of it was non-sequitor, just any old comment meant to be threatening, which helped show the hopelessness these folks feel about the situation – the mines going bankrupt, the water polluted, jobs scarce, etc., but hate speech all the same.

Our intention to take this stand for the sake of everyone is so strong, that the organized strategy of harassment, intimidation, violence and fear did not and does not work to take down our commitment to ending mountaintop removal, and through using nonviolent direct action to keep the conversation going.

The toll violence takes

That said, the hate hurled toward us these past few days, and for months and years for our local residents does take a real toll. Above all else, it make us feel sad. And traumatized too, because the things that were said, and way in which the mob behaved, was scary, and something we would all like to think ended a few generations ago. The intensity of the racism and homophobia was so thick it rings in our ears. Meanwhile, we all have a need for safety, and our very survival was at risk, so of course that leaves trauma. It was sad, and embarrassing, because I know from experience that this mob does not represent West Virginian’s very well.

I know that sometimes with direct action strategies, it is easy to say, “well – y'all shouldn’t have put your lives on the line like that.”

Direct action pushes forward the conversation, just as in the Civil Rights movement

I guess. But then again, we know that mountaintop removal coal mining is literally killing this region through economic poverty and toxic waste which creates cancer, etc., and are simultaneously doing every other strategy for change without satisfactory result. As an eco-chaplain supporting this movement, I work with people in all spectrums of strategies, and will advocate for the inclusion of direct action and support of the folks going through it with all my heart. We have multiple national bills in the house and senate, extensive state and regional organizing, and way too many scientific studies proving how deadly this form of mining is to the land and people. So there is a real reason why we use direct action as one of the strategies to push the conversation forward and not let it get forgotten in bureaucracy and corruption.

If you are noticing yourself wondering why RAMPS and Mountain Justice would use direct action knowing the situation is volatile, I encourage you to take a moment to think back on what we remember now from the Civil Rights movement, and how far our nation has come, and how far we have to go. When we remember now about all the violence from police dogs and water hoses, guns, and mobs of scared white people perpetuating white supremacy hurling toward the activists fighting for civil rights, we honor those activists for their courage rather than explain why the mob had a right to assault the nonviolent Freedom Riders, etc. Please find space to do the same here, or at the very least, hold back judgment while we work to get all our friends out of jail and participants back into balance.

A call for solidarity and cohesion

This is one of those times that we need solidarity and cohesion. This whole summer has been such a big deal – climate chaos is no longer theoretical but right here, and all of us are feeling the tension from that, and right now is the time to really love up all of the courageous people who are in trauma from putting their lives on the line for the sake of Appalachia at the moment.

There were times throughout the past four days when I have witnessed the state police and local police step forward to protect us from hostility, and for those times, I commend them, but there were too many other times when they looked the other way, and overtly worked with the mob to put our lives at risk.

Witnessed police contribution to putting activists lives at risk 

Here is a small example... On Sunday morning, while we were waiting to hear from our friends in jail with the thought we could get them out soon, the neighbors of the Tawney Farm, where we were camping, drove up to the driveway to continue the harassment that had been going on all night. The previous evening there were gunshots and more trees down in the road, we found nail-spikes tire strips in the road meant to destroy our vehicles, and all the while the police had not arrived. James Tawney, the farmer and owner of the campground was nearly ran over by one of the trucks, so we made the decision to call 911 again. This is how the phone call went:

911 Dispatch: “What is the emergency?”

James Tawney: “I was just nearly ran over by a truck and there are more threats of violence over here at my campground.”

911 Dispatch: “Are those tree-huggers bothering you?”

James Tawney: “Excuse me?”

911 Dispatch: “Are those tree-huggers bothering you?”

James Tawney: “That is rude beyond belief, they are great people, and the folks you mean as tree-huggers are camping out on my campground legally, and the law isn’t protecting them. I was just nearly ran over by a truck, last night they were shooting at us, now I need protection over here now.”

And so on, and so on…. Eventually the local sheriff and state patrol arrived, but hours later when we had an armed mob sneaking through the field on our whole group that evening, they were nowhere to be seen. We did not panic and used all our skills to stay peaceful and alert and keeping one another safe. Now that I am home and in a safe place, I am able to think about all of this. You know what comes to mind – that it is horrifying what can happen when we de-humanize one another. The use of “tree-hugger” in this instance was jargon like many known to take away our humanity, our fullness. The fact that even 911 dispatch could use the term nonchalantly and assume we ‘tree-huggers’ were harassing our neighbors after hours of getting calls to the contrary shows how thick the fear and mis-information is.

How readers can help

If you or anyone you know have political ties that can be pulled to help reduce the bail and get these folks out of jail, we would appreciate it. Furthermore, if you are willing to donate to the legal fund, you can do so online at http://rampscampaign.org/ and if you are available to write letters to the folks in jail there is information on that site as well. There is also a big need for media and political pressure, so if you can write a letter to the editor of your local paper, and connect us with friendly reporters, and write letters to politicians asking for an end of mountaintop removal and differential treatment for activists than the mob, that will help too.