This past weekend I went to West Virginia to say goodbye to my friend Larry Gibson.
He passed away on September 9th on his home on Kayford Mountain, West Virginia. Hundreds turned out to Charleston’s civic arena to pay homage to this simple man who decided, 25 years ago, to take a stand against one of the biggest, most insidious industries in the history of the United States—Big Coal.
My first visit to West Virginia in 2006 ended up on Larry’s home on Kayford, where he walked me around the property. The most devastating views were at Hell’s Gate. Hell’s Gate was the property line from where you could literally look down on massive mountaintop removal operations. It was stunning. I’ve seen clear cut forests, oil spills and an industry polluted lake near Butte, Montana, but nothing prepares you for mountaintop removal. It changed me. At that point, I wanted to do everything I could to stop it.
Back in May, he and I both attended the Bank of America shareholder’s meeting in Charlotte, NC. He joined other shareholder activists inside to speak some truth to CEO Brian Moynihan’s power. That day Larry was especially fired up and fed up. His house on Kayford had just been burglarized by the opposition. He wasn’t in any mood to back down from any bankers’ double-talk on their support of the hate and violence in Appalachia. He didn’t. During that week, he told us: “They tell us we’re collateral damage. Well, I ain’t collateral damage. I am somebody. My name is Larry Gibson.”
Larry was a fighter. He wasn’t always an activist and didn’t want to be. But when faced with mountaintop removal coal mining, he embraced these movements and fought with them shoulder to shoulder every day until he passed away. Larry realized that much of Kayford was lost to strip-mining by companies like Massey Energy and Arch Coal. He continued to work to prevent other environmental crimes in other communities in Appalachia and beyond.
Larry continuously called for building bigger, more inclusive cross-issue movements. He’d talked about how everything needed to “get bigger.” He participated in last year’s Tar Sands Action in front of the White House. Last year, he joined US Uncut in a Bank of America branch in San Francisco. In his final days, he was outraged by Patriot Coal’s robbing of union retirees of their pensions and medical benefits and urged others to take action.
When Goldman Prize winner and longtime mountain justice activist Judy Bond passed away last year, her parting words to us were “Fight harder.” Larry’s could have been “Fight together.”
The week after I’d heard Larry died, I went to Texas to train and organize with the Tar Sands Blockade. TransCanada is cutting a monstrous gash in the East Texas countryside from Cushing, Oklahoma to Port Arthur, Texas to lay the Keystone XL pipeline. The company plans to flow billions of gallons of toxic bitumen (heavy tar sands crude) through communities and vital watersheds to line its executives’ pockets with more profits.
In opposition, a diverse, unusual coalition of environmentalists and Texas landowners have banded together to resist the oil giant. It’s a bit in the spirit of what Larry talked about: diverse, unusual groups banding together in the face of corporate power and environmental destruction.
Since July, the Tar Sands Blockade has launched action after action on TransCanada’s clear-cutting operations up and down the pipeline route. A tree-sit has lasted over four weeks. TransCanada has responded by allowing its employees to operate their heavy machines with reckless disregard for the safety of protestors and tree-sitters. Police have responded with brutal means such as pepper-spray and Tasers against peaceful protestors. Prosecutors have responded with elevated charges. TransCanada has now also filed lawsuits, aka Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP), against activists and organizations to impede the progress of the campaign and begun to hire off-duty local police as private security at $30 an hour to protect its operations.
When Obama and Romney’s debate around energy issues neglects to mention climate change and turns into a back and forth about who loves drilling and mining more, it’s obvious that the political system has failed the environment and the climate. Beyond politics as usual, we are now seeing popular uprisings to protect people’s homes and the natural world around them.
The blockade is composed of youth and elders from across Texas and the country. Word is that more new activists arrive every day to join the blockade. Some have heard the call of mainstream environmentalists like Bill McKibben urging us all to take action. Some are from environmental networks like Earth First!, Rising Tide and Mountain Justice that have fought with frontline communities for many years on these issues. Some are from Occupy manifestations that popped up all over the world last year.
Writer Chris Hedges recently remarked that the latest incarnation of Occupy “may not take place in city parks and plazas, where the security and surveillance state is blocking protesters from setting up urban encampments. Instead it could arise in the nation’s heartland, where some ranchers, farmers and enraged citizens, often after seeing their land seized by eminent domain and their water supplies placed under mortal threat, have united with Occupiers and activists to oppose the building of the Keystone XL tar sand pipeline.”
It’s not just in Texas that action against extractive industry is happening. Over the summer, we saw climate activists embrace climate action with a new fervor in different parts of the country to challenge the fossil fuel industry. From mountaintop removal in Appalachia to fracking in the northeast to coal exports in Montana to this god awful pipeline in Texas and Oklahoma, a patchwork of anti-extraction fighters is growing and growing.
Other events are happening in West Virginia, North Carolina and Pennsylvania. This weekend, Appalachian mountain fighters are bringing together more like-minded people in Rock Creek, WV in opposition to the continual destruction of Appalachia by the coal industry. Nearby in central North Carolina, environmentalists with Croatan Earth First! are convening the Piedmont Direct Action camp as momentum and energy builds in the state against natural gas extraction, aka “fracking.” A few weeks later, anti-fracking activists in Pennsylvania are holding the Shalefield Justice Action Camp. In New York City, a group called “Occupy the Pipeline” has launched a campaign against the Spectra natural gas pipeline.
This is everywhere and it’s only getting bigger. Larry’s powerful voice guides us and I have no doubt that he watches over us from wherever he’s sitting with a smile and nod.