Escalating Sanctions Against Mountain Top Removal Activists
By TRICIA SHAPIRO
"Protesters Occupy Marfork Coal Co.'s Office in Response to Mounting Violations," said a press release from the protesters' supporters at Climate Ground Zero on Thursday morning, Feb. 18.
A news release from Massey Energy, Marfork's parent company, told rather a different story: "Environmental Terrorists Invade Marfork Coal Company Office…. Three criminals clad in fatigues and carrying chains invaded a company office and chained themselves to chairs in the lobby. A terrified receptionist went into shock and was transported by ambulance to a local hospital…. One of the criminals, Mike Roselle, was a founding member of Earth First!, which is considered by many to be a domestic terrorist group…. These domestic terrorists are part of an anti-coal group that wants to shut down mining in Appalachia and destroy West Virginia's economy."
Massey's "news release" doesn't specify who those "many" are who consider Mike and his colleagues to be "domestic terrorists." But even right-wing activist Ron Arnold, who's written an entire book on "ecoterrorism," asserts that "Roselle may be a terrible pain in the ass, but he's no terrorist." Writing shortly after Mike's first trespassing arrest on Massey property, at Marfork's Bee Tree strip mine site a year ago, Arnold scolded those who would "dilute" the meaning of the word terrorism by applying it to nonviolent protest.
"Face it," he wrote, "what he did was civil disobedience, not terrorism."
The claim that "a terrified receptionist went into shock" is equally puzzling. "She was definitely startled when we came in," says Joe Hamsher, one of the three protesters arrested that day. But soon "she calmed down. She was even laughing."
Protests are not a new experience for Massey workers. Since February of last year, more than 130 arrests have been made at civil-disobedience actions protesting mountaintop-removal (MTR) strip mining for coal in West Virginia. Several of those actions have targeted Marfork, which has begun blasting at its Bee Tree MTR site a short distance from its enormous Brushy Fork impoundment, which holds billions of gallons of liquid coal waste up above the Coal River valley. Anti-MTR activists and local residents are concerned that blasting so close to the impoundment, which is built over abandoned underground coal mine tunnels, risks catastrophic flooding that by Massey's own estimate could kill close to a thousand people.
The only violence or threats of violence at any of these actions have been directed at the protesters, not vice versa. For example, at a protest rally at the front gate of Massey's Goals Coal facility last June, a Massey supporter slapped anti-MTR activist Judy Bonds hard enough that she couldn't move her neck properly for days. Most recently, in January, workers at Marfork's Bee Tree site blared multiple airhorns, day and night, at three protesters sitting in trees there, risking permanent damage to the protesters' hearing. At a previous tree sit, last summer, a sitter was threatened with gang rape.
"We were definitely not much of a threat to her," Joe Hamsher says, referring to the receptionist at the Marfork office. "I mean, we were locked down." Joe, the first of the three to enter the building that morning, announced "this is a protest," then immediately sat down and locked himself to a chair. (That's why they were carrying chains.)
Meanwhile, Mike Roselle posted a sign reading "CLOSED: Stop the Blasting!" on the building's front door. A Marfork employee tore the sign down, while the third protester, Tom Smyth, took pictures. Then Mike and Tom entered the building and sat down near Joe. Tom chained himself to his chair.
The three protesters had brought with them a "citizen's arrest warrant" for Marfork's president. "Since 1994," the warrant read, "the Marfork Coal Company has committed over 100 documented permit violations…. Marfork's continued operations in such close proximity to both Marsh Fork Elementary and the Pettus Head Start Program are not only endangering, but also assaulting the children at these locations with coal dust and other particulates floating off of the mine sites owned by Marfork Coal…. Marfork is continuing its operations on the Bee Tree Strip Mine, placing nearby communities in imminent danger. As President of the Marfork Coal Company, you are responsible for the illegal practices of Marfork. Given the absence of any intervention from West Virginia or federal law enforcement, a citizen's warrant has been issued for your, Christopher L. Blanchard's, arrest."
Two hours after the protesters arrived, state police took them away to jail. (When they left, the allegedly terrified receptionist was still at work, showing no ill effects, Joe notes.) The three were charged with trespass, obstruction, and conspiracy– all misdemeanors. Bail was set for Joe and Tom at $5,000 each, for Mike at $7,500. The magistrate specified that the arrestees would have to raise the entire $17,500 in cash, rather than paying a bail bondsman a small fraction of the money, typically 10 percent. (Nice, artsy video from Climate Ground Zero of the occupation.)