Saturday, June 18, 2011

in the belly of the beast

Appalachia Rising: March on Blair Mountain.


So many things took place, so many extreme feelings. I've been having trouble figuring out how to tell people about it. What pieces do I tell, how do I put it into one narrative, that tells the full story, communicated the epic truth? I don't really have an answer. So, I'm taking a different route. Here are snippets of the week. Just small crumbs, little pieces. Maybe one day I'll understand how they all fit together. (maybe not?)

On Sunday night, after a full day of trainings, orientation, and full on information download, there was an emergency organizing meeting called. It was a trend that would continue throughout the week. Why did we have a meeting after having meetings and stuff all day? Because after lots of hard work- we found out that yet another camp site had pulled out. We had been working for months to secure camp sites. For the week or so leading up to the march, our sites kept falling out. We'd scramble and find new ones. Totally secure ones. We knocked on doors of folks with big yards, we found paid camp sites, we had verbal agreements with parks to let us stay there. We had camp sites. And sunday night, we found out- another one dropped. So, we had a choice to make. Keep pushing, make it work, try our hardest, or... not.

We decided, we can make a suggestion but really- its not up to us. It's up to the marchers. What do they want to do? What would feel good to them? So, at around 10:30 pm- we called everyone together. For a big ol' group moment. And a moment it was.

Sarah opened the space- letting folks know what was happening. That we lost our camp sites. We were still trying to find more. That this was happening- because of what we're doing. We're fighting the coal industry, where it is strongest, most deeply rooted, where it has formed a strangle hold on the entire area. Therefore the fairly simply task of sleeping out, is coated with hardship. This is part of the struggle, it's what we're up against.
{The march just outside of Marmet- walking with the coal trucks. Photo: Cheshire Tongkat}

Then, this amazing thing happened. The room erupted in cheers, and clapping... we were not anywhere close to quitting. When asked what we should do, some folks said 'lets march in rotating groups so we can march 24 hours a day, all through the night, and we can rotate who sleeps' (a suggestion much of the room loved, but all organizers winced at). Folks said lets do it. We're going to do it. Saro lead us into song- and we sang "ain't gonna let intimidation/big coal/NOBODY gonna turn us around." And Dustin Steele closed us out- reminding us-- that we are in the belly of the beast. We have to do this. We are challenging power, we are changing power, we are creating power.
{Dustin- giving one of many powerful speeches. Photo: Cheshire Tongkat}

The next morning, we had about 250 people marching together through the streets of Marmet, WV. Marching along the original march route those union fighting miners took 90 years ago. We marched, together. We looked almost as strong as we are.
{Heading out of town. Photo: Brian Farkas, AP article}

As the week moved on, so did the hardships. On monday, the police told us we had to leave our camp site. That the verbal commitment we had- didn't really matter and the powers at be were calling strongly for us to move (shockingly, this isn't the story of 'those bad police' but is much more complicated and they actually worked with us...). So, at about 10 pm- after having our tents set, our speakers and musicians wrapping up- and folks getting ready to hit the tent--- we called another group meeting. Time to pack up and leave. Time to figure out how to shuttle 250 people back to marmet for sleeping- and figure out what to do in the morning. Rough.
{camp site}

But, as we called folks together for yet another dreaded 'we can't believe we have to tell you this' moment... we began to see a trend. A trend of the marchers being vigilant. Not willing to let these powers turn us around. Not letting intimidation weaken our spirits. Not letting a lack of sleep, a large amount of unknowns, or any other hurdle that could come out way prevent us from marching to Blair Mountain.

By midweek, we had it in our schedule to shuttle folks back and forth each night, and each morning. We gave up on finding new campsites, and we accepted the harsh truth. We had an amazing team of shuttle drivers step up. Folks lent their cars and their time to moving 250 people each day. By the end, we were spending about 8 hours a day shuttling people. No joke.
{Included in our many many vehicle chain? Portapotties on trailers. Perhaps one of the smartest things we did. Photo: Mark Haller}

It's a little hard to say what exactly happened on the march. I had been given the task of March Marshall- and stayed several hundred feet in front of the march- trying to slow cars, trucks, motorcyles- down before they hit the long wave of marchers. But what I do know- is how much support there was.
{marshaling the long line of marchers. luckily, i was part of a really grand team of folks. photo: }

We drove by signs that said folks were with us. People came out to their porch to wave. Folks handed out cold bottles of water from coolers filled with ice, handed out ice cold sodas (sierra mist to be precise), a fella gave his hat to a marcher, people stopped their cars to give donations, wave of school children rushed over to the fence and waved and shouted, and high fives went out to all the marchers. It was amazing. It is amazing.
{High Fives in Madison. Photo: Wren}

One fella came out in his driveway on his four-wheeler. He was holding a small bouquet of flowers and a sign that read 'thank you.' A woman we passed hollered 'you have water? you can fill up here with my hose if you want!" Kyle and I said we had plenty, but thanks for the offer. She offered water to the entire line. 250 people.
{photo: Cheshire Tongkat}

That's not to say, there weren't folks who sped up when they drove by us, or who gave a little swerve in our direction. Its not that folks didn't hold signs and yell 'go home treehuggers,' 'coal keeps your lights on,' 'we love coal' or 'coal feeds my family.' They did. The closer we got to Blair, the more intense it got. It was an incredibly visible proof that towns, neighbors, families- are divided. Sometimes, every other home rotated between 'welcome and thank you' to 'go home and friends of coal.' It's for real.
{Family sitting in front of the school in Marmet. Photo: Cheshire Tongkat}

I stopped to speak to a woman and her husband who were standing by the side of the road- red bandannas worn proud- who said they'd join us tomorrow. I had the privilege of getting their phone number and calling them to let them know when and where to meet us. When they arrived, the woman told me 'i saw my niece drive by with her 'other family', yelling at us. I told her she can't talk to me like that.' It's between families. The tensions are strong, thick, and incredibly real.

Mid week, I was standing on the side of the road, waiting for a rest break to be over, and Larry said to me 'i've been waiting my whole life for this.' i smiled and said something to the effect of 'well, you did a lot of work to make it happen.' modestly he replied that he didn't really do much to make this happen, that others- like myself- were the ones doing the work. and in that moment, i had the privilege of acknowledging that hes been doing this work for a long time, and without his work, none of this would be possible. i was able to thank Larry Gibson.
{Larry- standing strong, as always. On the mornings we had to be up at 5:30 am- larry was always the first one up, waking the masses, asking how folks were doing. amazing. photo: Cheshire Tongkat}

after one of the many nights of little sleep, and lots of work, I found myself waiting for the second round of shuttles to leave from Marmet and take us to the spot we'd start marching from. Which meant I had at least an hour and a half. Naturally, I decided I'd rest my eyes for a moment. Before I knew it, Kyle was waking me up to say the last shuttle would be leaving soon, so I better get ready. As it turns out, I had slept under the registration table for at least a full hour- probably more- all while people were coming into the building and were being registered. Embarrassing and an accurate depiction of the week.
{another photo of me catching rest at any moment possible- this time during a lunch break. photo: Paul Corbit Brown}

After a relatively short rally, we got hundreds of folks to head up the mountain. Blair mountain. We took over the road, and along the way we placed historical markers. We marched up that mountain, holding the incredibly beautiful signs made by the art build team.
{marchers heading up Blair Mountain. photo: Mark Haller}

When we got to the top, about 150 folks broke off and climbed up the company road (illegally) and onto the battlefield where archeological work has been taking place. I wasn't with them, so it's hard to say what that experience was like. The rest of the marches, went up the a public access road just up the way- where we all gathered. We had made it to the top, some of us had marched over 50 miles to get there, some of us had traveled from across the globe, some of us from the holler over... but we were all there. together.
{Photo: Elias Schewel}

Instead of joining the rally cry at the top, I took a moment to chat. One thing about being a marshal all week was that I didn't have capacity to get to know anyone on the march (other than Kyle, my co-marshaller). So, I decided to chat up two elderly fellas sitting on a guard rail on the margins of the rally. They were both retired UMWA miners. One from Logan, one from ___. They talked my ear off, about the good ol' days. About how miners these days don't know what they are missing. How women deserve the right to make choices about their bodies, and nobody else should have a say. How these mountains are part of who they are, who their families have always been. How private company land is making it harder to carry on traditions, to care for themselves and their own. How one of them is now a bus driver, and he's proud to say they just unionized. How the women in their families know how to get by, how to get their families through- but it depends on the land. How they were proud to be here, with us, with all these people. It was amazing, they were so amazing. It was so humbling to just be able to listen.

The march ended over a week ago. Everyone went home, I went home (err... to a home. one of many). There's lots of work to be done, but the march its self- is over. It was hard. I was pushed further than I knew was possible. I cried, a lot. I saw others cry, alot. I saw and felt real and raw anger, sadness, disappointment, and hurt from people who were working towards a common goal. There are wounds still open. Mediation is being scheduled, for organizers, so we can learn from these hard lessons, so we can heal our relationships, so we can keep working together.

I did more than I knew was possible. I saw a group of committed people do more together than I knew was possible. I saw extreme strength and resistance within the movement. I felt solidarity. Real solidarity. I saw our movement grow- get bigger and stronger.

This story isn't over. There is healing to be done, there is a mountain yet to be saved, there is local connections to be followed up on... this narrative is in its infancy. The Battle of Blair Mountain continues.

I don't know how the story will end, what the next chapter will look like, or what flow the plot will take- but for now- I feel confident we won. I don't really know what that even means, but I think we won.

{Cohen Sigdon Shea- the newest addition to my family- another reason to fight... and win}

{want more photos of the march? Check out my wonderful photo sources! Cheshire, Wren, and Paul photos at March On Blair Mountain Flickr. Mark Haller Flickr. and Elias Schewel Flickr}


  1. Great job, Molly. This brings back a lot of the emotions I felt on this march, my first anti-MTR action. I'm struggling to even put words together in this comment. I think that in and of itself says a lot about all that you've written here. I was especially moved by your conversation with Larry. And I hope the mediation goes well. I'm sorry to hear that hurt feelings remain. It was such a difficult situation with so little sleep, so little privacy, and so many challenges. Hopefully people will recognize how impossible it is to always say and do the right thing in those circumstances.

  2. thanks for writing this molly, and thanks for all your amazing work. onward!

  3. I am changed forever from this march.I cried I laughed and yes i bled some.I'll remember this for the rest of my life.Thanks everyone.

  4. Dear Molly, thank you so much for writing this. I was moved to tears as I read it. The March on Blair Mountain was so profound on so many levels, and your descriptions do a good job conveying that. They are a good start as you say, and there is so much more to do to save Blair Mountain, the rest of the mountains of Appalachia, and to bring a sustainable economy to the region. Thanks Molly for all your good work. I expect our paths to cross again.