We woke up at 3:30 am, but few of us had slept the night before. You’d think we’d be groggy, but the adrenaline and excitement propelled us into action. By 5:30am two trucks holding steel barrels reading “good jobs, healthy communities: we deserve a clean energy future” and “prosperity without poison” pulled into the rendezvous point. My heart was pounding as I pulled a van full of concerned citizens and young activists to meet them, two more cars trailing me. A half hour later we all jumped out at the entrance to Dominion’s new $1.8 Billion coal-fired power plant in Wise County VA. Within seconds we had a blockade. Nine people were connected to concrete-filled barrels, two of which donned six large solar panels illuminating the sun in the background of a large banner reading “Renewable Jobs to Renew Appalachia.” Two more chained themselves to gates, keeping them closed. Our solar lit banner stretched out above the rosy smiles of visionaries young and old. It was a true privilege to work with such skilled organizers and help coordinate one of the most fluid, tight, and positive Nonviolent Direct Actions I’ve ever been a part of.
We watched the sun rise together.
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I’m not from Appalachia. I’m here because I’ve been deeply inspired by coal-field residents who have spent their lives standing up for clean air and water, good green jobs and a better future for their families. And it’s made them subject to intense harassment and intimidation. Wise County citizens have been fighting this Dominion plant for over two years; they’ve spoken out at every public hearing, filed ever paper and lawsuit possible, and gotten 45,000 people to sign a “mile long” petition to the governor. And now many took the next step and invited friends from around the region and country to join them in solidarity for the first ever protest at this plant. Nonviolent Direct Action is about risking one’s own personal safety for the greater good. It is an act of courage that can come with some severe consequences. That people travel from all around to support this local struggle is emblematic of the world we are fighting for – one in which we look out for one another and support each other, even when that comes at personal cost. 11 of the activists today were arrested and are currently navigating their way through the labyrinth that is the U.S. legal system. We have a prayer vigil setting up for them as I type this.
Alongside those who chose to put their bodies on the line, came a contingent of intergenerational cheering protesters, including a nun, veterans, schoolteachers, and students. The positive energy was infectious: there was a sense of agency and empowerment shared among all of us, even as we choreographed an elaborate and potentially dangerous dance between police and Dominion employees. The action was courteous, respectful, and residents who were new to this type of action kept remarking about how it was a “class act.” The words “classy,” “beautiful,” “reasonable,” and “respectful” were constantly heard both from Wise County residents, passers-by in cars and trucks, and even the police.
It’s no surprise people were ready to take such a step – and to take it so seriously. Wise County has already had 25% of its historic mountain ranges destroyed forever to mountaintop removal mining. We’re not just talking about saving the environment here, we’re talking about cultural survival for one of the poorest regions of the country.
Our action was visually striking. Our banners said things like: “Rise Above Dirty Energy,” “Jobs or Clean Water? We Deserve Both!” and many of us wore shirts saying “Invest in Appalachia, Don’t Destroy It. Today’s Destruction is not Tomorrow’s Prosperity.” Our positive energy and solution-oriented approach clearly had resonance, demonstrating that we were in the overwhelming majority. Most cars on the highway visibly reacted to our scene, and in a community so divided over such a controversial topic, over 85% of the reactions were enthusiastic and supportive. A record by most standards for demonstrations of any kind.
Solidarity was clearly a theme of a day. Not only did people from surrounding communities come together to take a stand, but there were actions in support organized from Coast (NYC) to Coast (CA). In San Francisco more Rainforest Action Network activists infiltrated the Bank of America annual investors’ conference and managed to secretly swap out Dominion CEO Thomas F. Farrell’s presentation with our own – full of photos from this morning’s Virginia action. It stayed up for fifteen minutes, much to his dismay.
So many of us chose to engage in this action because it made good movement-sense. Beyond the campaign itself, actions like this help move the coal conversation forward – locally, regionally, and nationally, shifting the spectrum of the political debate. Local groups declared that actions like this offer them bargaining chips – upping the ante in negotiations on a wide range of coal fights, compelling other residents to action, and most importantly raising the profile and visibility of people who are often unseen in the rest of the United States. Locals sent a clear message: we will not be silent. All of this within an international context in which a recent landmark court case determined that Climate Change was so urgent that it justified breaking the law.
It’s only been a few hours since we left Dominion, and there is already a steady stream of media – one sure to grow as the day progresses. For such a small-town action, with the nearest media outlets over an hour away, in addition to front page articles in all the local papers, we’ve already had articles in:
National Public Radio (NPR)
And that’s just the beginning!
This was the first action of RAN’s ACTION TANK, a project to incubate new strategies for change.