Interview from the Earth First! Journal about the ongoing coal blockade in Harlan County Kentucky.
When I heard news of the coal miners’ railroad blockade in Harlan County, I knew it presented a real chance for growth, especially for movements like Earth First! who are at the intersection of various struggles, including eco-defense, anti-capitalism, climate justice, and prison abolition.
Though I spent most of my life in flat swampy Florida, stories of Harlan County, Kentucky, were burned into my head as a teenage anarchist in circles of Earth First!ers and IWW-types singing labor songs by fireside.
One of the most famous of union ballads, “Which Side Are You On?,” about miners’ resistance in the Kentucky coalfields, includes the line, “They say in Harlan County there are no neutrals there…” Even before the development of climate-focused mass movement, it has always been Big Coal vs. the rest of us.
Over the years, I must have heard dozens of knock-offs of that song for campaigns all across the country. We’d replace Harlan with whatever county we found ourselves in at the time, facing off with corporate raiders of all types.
And now the barricades have come full circle: back to Harlan, a locale of near-mythical significance for it’s legacy of resistance to corporate greed. The miners there have stopped a coal train operated by the company Blackjewel LLC, which filed for bankruptcy and secretly stopped paying the miners while they were still working.
The train is estimated to be carrying around a million dollars in coal, mined by workers who were unknowingly off the clock.
The following is an excerpt from Organizing Work, offering some context for the Harlan blockade:
On July 1 , Blackjewel LLC filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. In the balance are nearly 1,700 employees’ livelihoods across Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia and Wyoming. Immediately upon filing for bankruptcy, Blackjewel closed many of the mines it operated and workers had their paychecks bounce…. The miners are owed nearly $12 million in wages and $1.2 million in retirement contributions. This bankruptcy doesn’t appear to be disrupting recently ousted CEO Jeff Hoops from building a $30 million resort in West Virginia, however.
The average lifespan of a Harlan County resident has actually gotten shorter between the 1980s and now, and they live on average ten years less than the average American. Unemployment in Harlan is double the national average. A similar story can be told across Appalachian coal country.
Against this backdrop, miners affected by Blackjewel’s bankruptcy heist in Harlan County, Kentucky are putting their collective foot down. The bankruptcy has left nearly a quarter of Harlan County miners out of work. For [10 days as of writing this], a group of miners has occupied the railroad tracks leaving from a mine. They are blocking a train loaded with coal… Coal that they worked to get out of the ground. Work that they haven’t been paid for.
Blackjewel intends to have its cake and eat it too: it intends to keep making money while the miners go without their pay. The group of miners blocking the rail say that they aren’t leaving until they get paid. “No Pay, We Stay” is their motto…
Anarchists and eco-radicals fresh off the pipeline blockades in Virginia have joined miners in one of the boldest and most dangerous types of blockade.
Though train blockades have been used frequently for many decades by our neighbors to the north in occupied Indigenous territories of so-called Canada, they have been more rarely used in the U.S. recently. They have also been used in anti-nuclear and anti-military actions in decades past, one of which resulted in anti-war veteran Brian Willson losing his legs in 1987. In short, they are no joke.
This heavy reality has not kept the miners from making the most of their railroad occupation, turning their protest into a family-inclusive atmosphere, where an intergenerational crowd has been cooking-out, playing cornhole and sharing stories.
Below is an interview with Lill, a resident of the blockade site, about life on the tracks in Harlan.
Panagioti: Why did you personally feel the need to go to the blockade in Harlan county?
Lill: I was born and raised in southeastern Kentucky, in the coalfields. I’ve seen and felt the deep painful impacts of the coal industry my entire life – including losing my mother when my stepdad was laid off from a coal mining job and we were without insurance. While I knew supporting a blockade led by coal miners and their families would be complex, I ultimately knew that they were fighting directly against the coal industry, something I feel really strongly about. I know not to blame the workers for the destruction created by these industries that have only taken from this place and these people for over a century.
I know other folks on the left, or in the world of eco-defense and anarchism, might not feel the same as me when it comes to building solidarity with the workers, but ultimately I know these men are not any more happy to wreck the planet and their bodies than anyone else, but they have families to feed, bills to pay, and medicine to buy. I don’t believe in environmentalism without class consciousness, and I know that’s a controversial opinion, but when you’re talking about sitting right at the intersections of two realities, that’s my personal experience.
What do the miners who started the blockade say about environmentalists and anarchists being there with them?
They love us, though it did take some time to build trust and talk through political differences. Sometimes we stay up until 6 am having conversations about reparations and how gender isn’t real. Most of us are trans and the miners think that’s really cool. Most of them have never heard of the LGSM from 1984-1985, so we’ve been trying to [talk about that and] build on that history that’s already there. [Note: LGSM is an acronym for Lesbians and Gays Support Miners, a campaign out of Britain that was featured in the film “Pride,” released last year.]
I came down to camp not expecting to know anyone, but I already knew some of the miners and their wives or other family members from being from an adjacent community. We’ve talked about other camps we’ve been a part of. They don’t care if we are treehuggers. They are just thrilled that people want to be there with them and help maintain things at camp, that people with training and experience in protest care and want to help. It is not like most people would expect at all.
What do the miners want from Blackjewel?
They just want to be paid what they’re owed. And they’re not going to just take someone’s word for it―we’ll be here until that actually happens. We hope that we’re building more long-term relationships with coal miners, who whether you want to admit it or not, along with their loved ones feel the effects of the coal industry most intimately.
How does the miners’ blockade compare to other action camps you’ve been a part of? Can you describe some similarities and differences?
The biggest difference is probably the ratio of local folks to so-called “activists.” Our camp is full of miners, children, babies, teenagers, wives, grandparents; and then some of us supporters and our dogs. We’re definitely the minority, and we like it that way. We are building solidarity with folks who aren’t necessarily just like us―though we’ve found that we have a lot more in common than we don’t.
You were recently a part of a victory against a proposed maximum security federal prison in neighboring Letcher County, which would have been built on a former strip mine site. Have you spoken to the miners about that? If so, what sort of response have you gotten about it?
We have certainly talked about that. We talk about how we don’t believe in jails or prisons or cops to the miners and their families. We have asked for a hard rule of letting us deal with problems at camp in-house, no cops. I think like many folks in central Appalachia, the miners have questions about what jobs they could get that aren’t a CO (Correctional Officer) or coal mining jobs, and those questions are valid.
No one is in denial that the prison and jail system are super messed up, and, like most folks here, many of these folks have been touched by the opioid crisis and the criminalization of addiction, particularly. You almost wonder if these big opioid pharmaceutical companies target coal miners in particular, because of the danger and likelihood of injury at their jobs. We have been and will continue to talk about racism and white supremacy, prison abolition, and how we are wrecking the planet.
At camp, we know that we are gonna have to step outside of our comfort zone and build with people who haven’t had access to the same spaces as us, and we are happy to do it. It’s pretty beautiful to see actually. We’ve also been surprised a few times. For example, one of the miners spent a lot of years of his life at protests in support of Mumia Abu-Jamal. I can’t reiterate enough that people from eastern Kentucky are full of complexities and painting us with a broad brush of conservatism is just classism.