Us at what I think was the 2010 Changing of the Leaves Festival
Do I want to write about Larry? Do I want to write about the life-altering impact that he had on my life? Do I want to write this publicly?
I feel that it would be therapeutic to write and it would add to the growing public collection of stories to share it publicly. I want to start where it all started, with the first time I remember meeting him nearly a decade ago.
Although I feel that I should, I do not remember the first time I met Larry on Kayford Mountain in 2003. I know the visit made a huge impact on me, as it was a big part of my dedicating my activism efforts into fighting mountaintop removal back in 2004. I do not, though, remember if Larry was there or not. That simple fact of not remembering if friggin Larry Gibson was there seems to make it obvious that he was not. Larry Gibson was a fellow who carves out a piece of your memory and makes a home in it.
The first memory I actually have of Larry was back in mid-2004 when the Friends of Coal decided to have a meeting with the Department of Homeland Security about just how danged important coal is to our national security. Apparently they either didn't want the DHS to travel very far or they didn't want much protest from those annoying community members in Southern WV so they scheduled the meeting in Shepherdstown, WV (I went to college in that town at the time). While there's a lot of parts to this story - of how Judy Bonds had a boombox blasting AC/DC's Highway to Hell because the coal industry was arguing that they're a "Roadmap to Energy Security" or how my Aunt Becky Lorenz kept blocking traffic to put her sign in front of cars going in / our of the conference location - the most relevant part is my interaction with Larry.
The counter-event that we had was across the road from the industry event (which was in a fancy schmancy hotel) where after speakers and music, we marched up to the fancy hotel to make our voices heard. I remember pretty clearly Larry putting himself right in the front of the march demanding that we press on into the hotel and maybe get arrested. I remember being like…"uhhhh…this isn't in the plan…" and talking him and some other people down since I didn't really know what good it would do. Although I didn't know it then, this interaction of Larry's "torpedoes be damned, let's press on", and my own "what are we doing, what difference will this make", personalities would be repeated daily within a decade.
I remember planning my first July 4th "Mountain Keepers" Music Festival up there and working with him the whole way. This was a badass weekend back in 2007. I remember planning that festival the next year too. While those festival were awesome and amazing and fun and all of that good stuff, I remember much better getting a message in July, 2008 when he asked me to plan the music for his wedding. I remember having to pull over on the shoulder of I-79 because holy shit, I'm planning the music for Larry's wedding and it's not good to drive while I'm crying. I also remember driving to the wedding with friends and being really sure I knew where it was and I didn't need directions and then getting hella lost only to find it when the whole thing was done. The reception was really nice and fun though.
I remember the job interview where I showed up with holes in my sandals and he hired me anyway.
We chatted logistics A LOT, this time after a rally at the WV State Capitol
I remember working with him. Directly. Hella directly. He was a President of the Board beyond what any other President of a Board could be or could ever wish to be. How many Board Presidents call their Directors daily, and probably hold themselves back from calling more often, just to find out what was going on? How many board presidents respond to every single phone call - no matter what time it is? How many board presidents act and think with the aggressive wisdom that Larry did? Yeah, board president is the wrong phrase - soul of the organization is the right phrase.
I remember frustration with him, in times of trial, when at the end of a sometimes tense discussion about how shit should run in the organization, he would assure me that things would work out because they had to work out. There was no other alternative to him. He wasn't going to quit, he wasn't going to back down, he was going to do whatever he had to do so that the Keeper of the Mountains Foundation would succeed and Kayford Mountain would be protected.
Is that a loudspeaker in his hand? Yup. At Appalachia Rising.
I remember the daily inspirational speeches that he would give after I got hired. In the first six months, these were awesome. In the next six months, it became something I would work through when I had time-sensitive conversations that had to be had within a certain amount of time with him. Whether it be one on one conversations, board meetings, speakers meetings, community meetings, or just plain hanging out - Larry could be counted on for an inspirational talk. This work was his life. Not his life's goal or his life's work or his job or something he was volunteering for - this work was his life.
I remember lots of things. But, there's not simple memories. He cannot be confined to memories. He's not a person who exists in the past tense. He is a person who is a part of us. His home is on Kayford Mountain, but his home is also in each of us. I cannot imagine a day in my life where what I learned from him doesn't make an impact, whether it's known or unknown, on what I do and how I think. There have been so many, so many, stories and photos shown of Larry that are the best testament to the place he's had in thousands of peoples' lives. The image that sticks in my mind the most, though, is a simple image that has a picture of Larry that says, "We are all now Keepers of the Mountains."
Y'know, I always catch myself pluralizing the word "Keeper" in our organization's name. Now it's true. It's on us. It's on all of us. In whatever way we can - whether its through our organization or not - to be Keepers of the Mountains.
There is so much more that can be written. About his deep love for his wife Carol. About his time on Kayford Mountain. About our relationship. About his starting an organization. About the role he's had in escalating direct actions within the Mountaintop Removal Movement. About his push that we're not just against Mountaintop Removal, but against coal. About his outlook on organizing as a whole. About his life - pre movement - in Cleveland and Youngstown. About how the hell a mountain man with a fifth grade education and his family managed to keep the coal industry from taking their land. THERE IS SO MUCH MORE TO WRITE AND RECOLLECT THAT IT'S MIND BOGGLING.
For write now, though, this feels right. This will do. There is no end to what we remember about Larry and no end to home Larry's made for himself in our life. Larry's not a memory, he's for real. He's passed away, but he lives on. Our movement is forever affected by him. We, as people, are forever affected by him. His body has passed on, but he lives in all of us. I say goodbye now to the ability to call him, to see him, to receive guidance from him, to hear funny jokes from him. I say hello to living with his voice inside me until I draw my last breath.
Yep, that's me dressed up as Larry and my buddy Rory dressed up as Don Blankenship. Don't worry, this is for a Keeper of the Mountains Foundation fundraiser.
YELLOW = 1-4% DEMOCRATIC PARTY TURNOUT LIGHT BLUE = 4-7% DEMOCRATIC PARTY TURNOUT BLUE = 7-10% DEMOCRATIC PARTY TURNOUT DARK BLUE = 10-13% DEMOCRATIC PARTY TURNOUT GREEN = 13-16% DEMOCRATIC PARTY TURNOUT ORANGE = 16- 19% DEMOCRATIC PARTY TURNOUT
WEST VIRGINIA REPUBLICAN PARTY TURNOUT
YELLOW = 1-4% REPUBLICAN PARTY TURNOUT PINK = 4-7% REPUBLICAN PARTY TURNOUT RED = 7-10% REPUBLICAN PARTY TURNOUT DARK RED = 10-13% REPUBLICAN PARTY TURNOUT GREEN = 13-16% REPUBLICAN PARTY TURNOUT ORANGE = 16- 19% REPUBLICAN PARTY TURNOUT
"Oh Say, did you see him; it was early this morning. He passed by your houses on his way to the coal. He was tall, he was slender, and his dark eyes so tender His occupation was mining, West Virginia his home
It was just before noon, I was feeding the children, Ben Moseley came running to give us the news. Number eight was all flooded, many men were in danger And we don't know their number, but we fear they're all doomed"
- Jean Ritchie
Coal mining is dangerous business and the people of the Appalachian Coalfields, from Tennessee to West Virginia to Pennsylvania, have come to expect disasters out of the mining industry. Mining is a job that's full of risks and packed with hard work. Miners have come to be proud of the work that they do which truly has had a great role in powering the United States for more than the last century. It's been work that's populated Appalachia with amazing people but has kicked up a lot of coal dust in the process all over our great state of West Virginia.
After 9/11, where I was less than 10 miles from the Pentagon and remember hearing fighter jets & helicopters flying over my house throughout that tense night. I never thought I would feel that tragic emotion that brought anger, anticipation, fear, mourning, and pride together into one horrendous stomach ache again. Then came the disaster at Massey's Upper Big Branch Mine.
I could not work all week. I could not stop refreshing the WSAZ news page and the Coal Tattoo Blog for updates. I could not get my mind off the basic question of whether there is good in the world where 29 hardworking men are killed because of Massey Energy's disregard for miner safety. I could not get off the phone talking with students I work with and my own family members who were grieving like I was for these men and holding out hope that the four "missing miners" would be found alive. They were not. And we continued to mourn through the weekend.
Both my great-grandfather and grandfather helped to pull 11 bodies out of the Nellis mine which is a hair under 33 miles away from the Montcoal mine. On November 8th, 1943, which was a Monday, his family was watching a movie in Whitesville and they were rushed out of the theatre to Nellis. His Mother and sisters were sent home to pray for survival, his father hurried down in the mine to search for life and my grandfather stood sentry at the mouth of the mine with not much to do but hope to see those men walk out of the mine. He was 13 at the time and he saw those 11 bodies come out of the mine in a railcar without a breath among them.
He is now the ripe age of 80, and once again mourning, this time for the 29 miners that were killed in the Upper Big Branch mine. He and no one in the coalfields should have to witness a disaster like this and be reminded of a disaster they lived through 67 years ago. We have the means and technology to make these kind of massive disasters a thing of the past that exists only in our memories and history books.
Worker deaths should not happen, and we should be pushing to prevent them whenever possible. The debate becomes about what is the safest method of mining coal, since we will be mining coal for a long time coming. Even if we quickly transition from burning coal for electricity, there are a ton of uses for coal (including using metallurgical coal for the production of steel which is needed for wind turbines) which will keep it as part of Appalachia's economy. For a point of information, the Upper Big Branch mine was mostly a metallurgical coal mine and the coal mined is used for steel-making, rather than electricity, production. Massey is known to export their metallurgical coal overseas, so the 29 miners probably lost their lives not to power the re-industrialization of the United States with renewable energy, but to power the industrialization of countries like China and India. So, even if we run a completely renewable energy economy, we need to keep a focus on how we can mine coal in the way that's most beneficial to the communities under the safest possible conditions.
Flying in the face of these horrible realities,there has been the disturbing development that Mountaintop Removal proponents have been coming out with recently. From Don Blankenship Supporters to Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito, there has been an effort to use this horrible mining disaster to spread support for strip mining and mountaintop removal.
Countering this opportunistic assertion is the main point of this piece.
Nevermind the horrible leveraging of this disaster to increase support for the form of mining that employs the least number of people and causes the most damage to Appalachia. While there is truth in the statement that surface mining is safer for workers than underground mining, the Blankenships and Capitos of the world would have you believe that everything is hunky-dory and safe as grandma's apple pie on a strip mine.
The way that the Blankenships of the world make the argument is that we could simply shift from underground mining to strip mining is a total oversimplification of the realities of mining. The Upper Big Branch mine was more than a thousand feet underground. To get that coal, it takes underground mining, plain & simple. I know that Don Blankenship knows more about coal than I do, he's just more comfortable with lying than I am. So, we need to talk about what the safest ways of mining are and what makes the biggest impact on increasing worker safety.
As I've heard more of the pro-mountaintop removal opinion getting out there, I became more interested in knowing the facts. I've been hearing that strip mining was dangerous work, but I've never really known how dangerous. I came to the point of wanting to counter the claim that the Blankenships of the world were making, but I didn't know the facts. So, I started crunching some numbers, making excel spreadsheets and asking friends for help. What I found didn't really surprise me, but it gave a sense of concreteness to talk about how important unions are to worker safety.
What I found was that union strip mining was the safest for miners and that non-union underground mining was the most dangerous. That said, there is little way that we can or should be using that as a justification for more strip mining. Seeing as how coal that's mined a certain way is generally mined that way for whole host of reasons, the Blankenships of the world are oversimplifying it. If we look at the two forms of mining independent of each other, because strip vs underground mining is generally not interchangeable, we can easily see that whether a mine is union or non-union is incredibly important to worker safety.
Here are the stats that I developed using statistics from 2002 - 2008 (it's pretty obvious what the stats would be for 2010 with the Upper Big Branch disaster, but it's too early in the year for good statistics to be out there). The following chart summarizes the comparisons that I wrote about earlier...
Deaths Per 10,000 Underground Union Miners
Deaths Per 10,000 Underground Non-Union Miners
Deaths Per 10,000 Surface Union Miners
Deaths Per 10,000 Surface Non-Union Miners
So, what you can see is that in each form of mining, union mining clearly makes for safer mining than non-union mining. Underground non-union mining is the most dangerous forms for five out of the six measured years. Underground union mining is about even with non-union strip mining in terms of worker safety – with non-union strip mining having a higher worker death rate than union underground mining.
The most important thing is for unions to be able to organize mines, whether they be strip mines or underground mines. In almost every case, union mines are safer than non-union mines. Worker safety depends on the unionization of the workplace, not on a largely fictitious choice between strip & underground mining.
The United Mine Workers of America have been longstanding leaders for coal miner safety. One of the most important things that the media is missing in covering this disaster has been the discussion about the UMWA. The UMWA had 3 different attempts to unionize this mine and Don Blankenship personally visited this mine to break the union drive. One drive in particular had more than 2 out of 3 workers signed onto a union card, but the official vote failed. If we had the Employee Free Choice Act as law, the Upper Big Branch mine would be a union mine as 2/3 of the workers supported a union before they were intimidated. We need to see this law passed so we can see safer mining through a unionized workplace.
When workers knew Blankenship would have them fired if they voted for the union, they stepped back from voting it in. Workers need a united voice in the workplace. We can have the best regulations in the world on the books but if workers are not organized to be able to speak up - those regulations are worthless. As far as I'm concerned, miner unionization is the best possible solution to preventing disasters like this in the future.
We’ll be mining coal for a while and we need to be real about what makes the biggest impact on worker safety in the mines. We don’t need another Monongah (1907, WV, 362 killed), Farmington (1968, WV, 78 killed), Sago (2006, WV, 12 killed), Crandall Canyon (2007, UT, 9 killed), or Montcoal (2010, WV, 29 killed).
Had to take the last part of today for myself just hanging out and being human and getting space away from work with Abe and Dana and Jordan and Matt. I went in early today ready to grind out some great work and started out that way - but got hit with some pretty big and disappointing news this afternoon. Madeline (SEAC staffer) is heading out this semester to work for the Energy Action Coalition and that puts SEAC in an odd spot with her being so important to us these past few months. So - I definitely needed space after hearing that.
This past weekend was great. Going fishing was where its at - we hit up the Buckhannon River Saturday afternoon and went trout fishin. Didn't see any fish, didn't catch any fish, no nothin, but it was a gorgeous day on a gorgeous river. Hanging out with Sarah and Tadd rocks.