This op-ed recounts the experiences of Rachel Giovanniello ’14, member of MJ since her freshman year.
Over spring break this year, six members of Mountain Justice drove down to Appalachia, Virginia, to participate in Mountain Justice Spring Break 2012. We met with frontline activists, community organizers, and students on college campuses in Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Michigan, and elsewhere.
The time I spent in workshops, actions, and talking with other organizers was a powerful reminder of how environmental issues in Appalachia (like issues of environmental justice throughout the United States and the world) are inextricably tied to issues of race and class, of access to land and ownership over that land.
Although I’ve been heavily involved in MJ for about a year and a half now, I had never been down to Appalachia or seen an mountain top removal (MTR) site firsthand. I‘ve seen a lot of pictures, but none of them conveyed the spectacular emptiness of the space where a mountain used to be, the way the landscape looks dead even after restoration has occurred and new grass has been sprayed on. It wasn’t only the geography, though, that hit us so hard. Mountaintop removal is destroying mountains in Appalachia, but it’s also destroying people’s lives, communities and culture.
We traveled to the MTR site with a local activist who explained to us how he became involved in organizing with the national Mountain Justice movement about 7 years ago. In 2004, 3 year-old Jeremy Davidson was crushed to death by a boulder that fell from an MTR site after the road was widened to make room for larger coal trucks. The town of Inman came together almost immediately afterward, marching in protest through town and beginning to organize against MTR and strip mining more generally.
I wanted to use this place to retell the story we heard while in Appalachia because it’s not a story that often gets a lot of press coverage. Mountaintop removal remains an issue that’s rarely spoken of outside of Appalachia. Of course the organizing is coming from Appalachia; the communities that have been most affected are the ones who have done some of the most amazing work organizing to put an end to MTR. But having spent time in Appalachia I felt a distinct sense of responsibility to the communities I met and organized with.
As Mountain Justice, we’ve thought a lot about (and continue to wrestle with) how to position ourselves in a way that supports the work that folks in Appalachia have been doing and continue to do, and how we could use the power and privilege we have as Swat students in a way that was useful and respectful. This is the logic of our divestment campaign – as Swatties, we are part of an institution with a great deal of economic power.
When we continue to invest in destructive extractive industries, we actively allow those companies to continue destroying communities and the environment. Swarthmore is thus implicated in any violation of human rights Alpha commits (formerly Massey Energy, Alpha was implicated in Upper Big Branch mine in WV that killed 29 miners), in all the exploitation perpetuated by coal, natural gas, oil and hydro-fracking companies – for we have allowed them to continue to exist.
I am not from Appalachia, and though the time I spent there meant a lot to me, I’m now back at Swat, going to classes and eating in Sharples, hundreds of miles away from an MTR site. But the people I met matter, the community I visited and the community we formed together matter.
It meant a lot to all of us to spend 4 days in a community that knew it was in danger, that was organizing around an issue that has never been only “environmental”. Mountaintop removal is an issue of social justice, an issue that highlights already existing oppression, especially in terms of class. West Virginia, Virginia, and Tennessee are states where coal industries have been exploiting residents for as long as mining’s been around – MTR is simply their newest and best way to do it. But people are organizing, people are coming together to fight for the land rights they were stripped of years ago, to call on major banks to stop funding such a destructive process.
As Swat students, acting in solidarity with communities in Appalachia is the best way we’ve been able to come up with to support the people we’ve met and communities we’ve interacted with even while we’re far away.