We were out filming a site with Chuck Nelson and Vivian Stockman for Brady and Brandon’s film. The site was a Mountain Top Removal mine way in the backwoods of West Virginia. As they were all setting up for an interview outside the mine’s entrance a group of three four-wheelers comes riding down a trail. The first two go by, but then the last slows down. I was standing by the car and I knew he was going to say something to me. There was that sensation of impending conversation that no amount of well wishing can avoid. Oftentimes this happens to me with rappers and fake Buddhists pedaling “free” good luck mixtapes in Manhattan, but this time it was a stocky West Virginia native who asked me, “Ya’ll Treehuggers?”
At first I thought it was a joke because I had never associated the term “Tree Hugger” in any seriously negative way. Mainly because it’s a ridiculous term, but also because it’s now more of running joke left over from the 60’s. So I smiled and said, “what?” But when he asked again it became apparent that this was not a joke and I was seriously mistaken. My mind raced through all the clever things I could say, but ultimately I just answered, “Oh, no, we’re just making a movie.”
This was apparently an unsatisfactory answer. After rounding up his posse, the three of them spread out across the road and blocked our only exit from the mine site. I weighed our options. I suppose we could ram them. But this is Appalachia and they might be armed. Vivian stepped in and suggested we get in the car and see if they’ll move, pointing out that there was no form of protection here. We didn’t have phone service, there were no security cameras, and ultimately they were still blocking the exit.
Once we were in the car they moved on and we headed to a family’s house that were friends with Vivian and Chuck. I wasn’t sure how I felt. On the one hand I don’t like being intimidated. On the other hand I really don’t like guns. Before we could reach the house we bumped into the trio on four-wheels again barricading the only bridge across a stream. I felt trapped in a southern Gothic fairytale in which we needed to answer a series of riddles to get across. But it seemed as if they just wanted to make sure we were leaving because when they saw our car they drove off again, but we turned in the opposite direction.
The house was a fenced in compound with surveillance cameras. Since this family was notably anti-coal and had been embattled in legal suits with the mining company to keep their land they needed the extra protection. But it was clear to me that Vivian chose this spot for a reason, here was the security she had been referring to before. This wasn’t amateur hour. Vivian is a woman who goes out alone onto these mining sites and into adamantly pro-coal communities to do the work she believes in. I’ve only met a handful of people who have suffered worse abuses than this woman and yet she remains in the field, even taking the time to lead greenhorns like us and ensure their protection. I’m beginning to believe this mine was chosen for more reasons than just its easy access.
At the house was a rope swing and Chuck, a veteran of picket lines, strikes and environmental protests, was swinging on it. He swung with a kind of a child like happiness that made it clear that this wasn’t a situation worth worrying over. Chuck has been in strikes where federal marshals were called in, protests for a new school with police snipers on rooftops, and hearings that ended in his forced removal and arrest. So while he stayed alert and aware, he also had a blast on that swing. I’m not a veteran of anything. I’m a novice activist who came down with a cool idea for a blog, I want to not worry, but I worry all the same.
Once leaving the house we continued down the road to get one more shot of the mining operation. Vivian picked a spot by a guard tower, once again showing off her expertise by keeping to places with video cameras and other people. The guard was a surprisingly kind woman who gave us a half-hearted hard time about filming. Then up the road we noticed that the three amigos were back and this time they set up a full road block just around a bend in the road. We only noticed because one of them drove up a little too far, and then after he backed up a truck that had driven by had to stop and wait before pressing on. Fortunately, Chuck and Vivian knew a round about way off the mountain that would bypass the blockade and we made it down unscathed.
I’m aware that in writing this story I should remain objective. The stories of these people and their relationship to technology are just as meaningful to my project as anyone else living in this part of the country. Furthermore, we were in their community and they had every right to protect it. When we got down here on Friday the local news announced large mine closings throughout the state and journalists and filmmakers are associated with negative publicity so to them we’re the enemy. I should acknowledge that they were doing what they thought was right for their friends and loved ones.
But fuck that.
This is also Chuck and Vivian’s community. Activists who call West Virginia their home have to put up with this kind of abuse and intimidation everywhere they go in a state whose law enforcement and political hierarchy don’t adequately protect them or defend their rights. I want The Frontier to be a lot of things, but it will not be an apologist blog excusing bigotry.
Ultimately, we get to go home tomorrow and return to a city and community that on the whole will laud our efforts and be enthralled by our stories, but Vivian, Chuck and others working in West Virginia for clean air and water will still be here fighting for what they believe their home needs. Is changing the economy and environment of this state, of their home, worth it? I’ll let you be the judge: