Coal not only fuels power lines, coal has power. Especially in Appalachia. After conducting a two-week, nonviolent but illegal tree sit in July 2011 that "interfered" with blasting apart Coal River Mountain (WV), twenty-something becks kolins was arrested. A co-tree sitter, Catherine MacDougal (aka "Squirrel"), tree sat for a month.
The coal company, Alpha Natural Resources / Massey Energy, now wants a West Virginia judge to silence becks, an energetic New York State college student. Now awaiting a trial date, if there's a loss before a coal-state judge, becks will likely face civil and criminal penalties of a $150,000 fine (as if college loan debt wasn't enough) and two years in jail. Three colleagues (Catherine, Eli, and Junior) will likely also be fined.
But coal's power doesn't stop there. When becks returned to Skidmore College last year, the arrest triggered an appearance before the Honor Board. At the Skidmore hearing, a hearing board member read aloud a letter from Alpha Natural Resources calling upon Skidmore to punish its student for interfering with business. More on that incident below.
In West Virginia, becks could have taken a plea bargain, for a few weeks in jail. But becks has a larger vision in mind: to publicly question - and hammer away at - elite privilege and power and, in the process, challenge the the right of coal executives to trample underfoot men, women, and children in central Appalachia.
- Paul Ciavarri
NYLM: What are you studying at Skidmore and why? Has your protest influenced your studies?
becks kolins (bex): I study gender studies, environmental studies, and sociology. All of these have played critical roles in my lifestyle, politics, beliefs, and actions.
I find that critically interrogating social identities, [personal] privilege, and systematic and institutional oppression has allowed me to better understand others and my relationship to the constant injustice we live under and within.
And certainly the tree sit has influenced my studies and my interactions with others here at Skidmore. It has allowed me to speak directly and personally about the amount of control that these large, powerful industries have, while also providing greater context towards my more radical politics and ideologies around direct action and civil disobedience.
NYLM: Where are you from (what community)? Does that relate to your work in Appalachia?
bex: I am from Ardmore, PA, a generally white, middle-class suburb of Philadelphia.
Honestly my background has related to my work because it allows me to recognize my privilege. I’m able to very obviously see the difference between growing up in a relatively wealthy Northeastern suburban neighborhood with that of an Appalachian community; I can see the systematic reasons that have allowed for places like the Coal River Valley to remain poor, to be blown up and poisoned, and to be treated like second-class citizens. That is something I never had to deal with growing up, because of my economic privilege.
Because I am able to see my privilege (and obviously am constantly learning and questioning that privilege) I’ve been able to better approach these communities.
NYLM: What is the story of how you spell your name (small caps)?
bex: Ha, yeah you’re certainly not alone in asking that. Well it’s several fold.
Firstly, my preferred pronouns are they/their/them. I find that most of society does not recognize and acknowledge them because it is “grammatically incorrect” to use they pronouns for a singular person. So to some degree I like to challenge this idea that my name has to be capitalized because that’s what the English language says, while also having that same rhetoric used to delegitimize my pronouns preference.
I also think it’s just another way for me to sorta “[monkey] with” the system. On all legal documents my name will be lower case and to me it’s just a big [gesture of defiance]... to all the powers that constantly work to keep all of us down. Lastly...while lower casing my name to some degree makes me stand out, I think that when put in a sentence, my name isn’t standing out and it sort of challenges that individual-mentality capitalism forces on us.
NYLM: Alpha wrote a letter to the college administration – what was your reaction when you heard it read out loud?
bex: Honestly, when it was read aloud to me, I laughed. I think it’s funny when I’m accused of acting maliciously, when I’m accused of acting carelessly and recklessly when they are literally killing people.
It’s so transparent how backwards their sense of “right and wrong” is. While what I did may be considered “illegal,” our (in)justice system is clearly flawed when it allows for the irreversible and permanent destruction of communities’ land, culture, history, and lives, without so much as a slap on the wrist, while I occupy a tree on a piece of “private property” and am looking at 2 years in jail.
Clearly something is wrong and I think it’s funny that Alpha felt the need to tell Skidmore that I am the one without morals, that I have violated Skidmore’s Honor Code by being immoral, when it is very clearly the other way.
NYLM: Any idea how Alpha figured out you went to Skidmore?
bex: One of the wonderful “Integrity Board Members” told them. They wanted to make sure that Alpha was “fairly” represented and got to say their side of the story.
NYLM: How did you feel about the support you received before your hearing with the student honor board? What do others on campus say?
bex: The support I received from my fellow students was actually pretty incredible.
Everyone I talked to was extremely angry about my morals being called into question (because really that’s what it was about). I also received a lot of support from faculty and staff; at the hearing, a professor, and friend of mine, read a letter he wrote to them in my support and it was an incredible thing to hear.
Most people felt...that comparing my arrest to that of previous students who went before the board, usually for drug-related offenses and assaults, was rather insulting to me and an inaccurate and unreal representation of what I did. In general the student body...have been really supportive of my case.
NYLM: How did you go from Skidmore to the Coal River Valley - was that related to your studies or to a side interest?
bex: I first went to the Coal River Valley two summers ago (the summer of 2010). I had been involved with some youth environmental organizing and became aware of some anti-MTR organizations in West Virginia. I decided to spend about a month there before leaving for other obligations. The second or third day I was there I visited an MTR site—the first time I had seen one—and knew that this was something I needed to fight against. I had made a commitment to that Fall semester, but immediately after seeing that MTR site, decided to take the Spring semester of college off and move down to the Coal River Valley.
NYLM: What was your protest (tree sit) about and why was it important? How do you relate it to your previous actions to stop surface mining in the Coal River Valley?
bex: Mountaintop Removal coal mining is poisoning and killing people, destroying communities and a history and culture that have been around far longer than any coal company while literally blowing up mountains, forests, and an incredibly rich and biodiverse environment. There have been countless attempts at ending MTR through other means, through other more “in-system” tactics, but the coal industry is way too powerful and dominates every aspect of Appalachia. We took to trees on Coal River Mountain, the mountain both squirrel (Catherine-Ann) and myself lived [on] prior to the action, because it’s one of the last mountains intact, [though less so with every day of blasting].
NYLM: What training did you get before taking this action? What inspired you to do this action rather than a simpler one-day, civil disobedience protest?
bex: I unfortunately cannot answer the first part as I have a trial coming up and that will definitely incriminate me. We wanted to do this action for several reasons. Firstly, the longevity of this tree sit allowed for more work to be stopped. While one-day actions are useful and valuable, they only stop action for several days; we stopped blasting on this site for 30 days. Additionally, this was the first action with RAMPS and we wanted to make sure to “go big” so to speak. We were able to stop work for a month and gained a lot of press that we probably wouldn’t have had the action been much shorter.
NYLM: What is a SLAPP suit? How does it apply to your case? What does a SLAPP suit suggest about the influence of the coal industry on the justice system?
bex: SLAPP suits stand for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. Alpha Natural Resources has sued squirrel, Eli, Junior, and myself, trying to seek a permanent injunction against us, including monetary damages to compensate for the losses we caused to them (which, interestingly enough, during the tree-sit were denied).
Basically, it’s a way for the coal industry (and other corporate entities who use SLAPP suits) to intimidate us. Obviously none of us have the hundreds of thousands of dollars that were lost as a result of the sit. So it’s simply a way for the coal industry to exert their power and control and to let others who may be interested in taking similar actions to us, to be scared of them. And, perhaps even scarier is how they are “allowed” to do this within this (in)justice system, showing even more control the coal industry has.
NYLM: How are you mounting your defense? Who’s supporting or representing you? What are the possible outcomes and consequences – and what’s your attitude about what the future may bring?
bex: In terms of the SLAPP suit or criminal suit? I will answer both!
Civil suit- We have an incredible legal defense of several out of state civil rights lawyers who are fighting this for us extremely hard. The outcomes if we go to trial could result in us having to pay thousands of dollars (that of course none of us have) and having all our records subpoenaed, perhaps resulting in incriminating other allies of ours. In many ways the incriminating of my friends and allies is what scares me the most. There are so many ways that these huge interests are able to divide movements and it’s terrifying to see how visible that is; by gaining access to our emails and other records, they’d theoretically have the ability to go after other people within the movement.
Criminal suit- My lawyer [is] a public defender....I believe I’m looking at 2 years in jail combined with possible fines. I’ve never spent time in jail, so that’s certainly daunting, but I feel pretty good about this. From the beginning, I have planned to take this to trial and have no desire to negotiate or work with the coal industry in any way. I am privileged enough to take this to trial and while I know my sentence will be far harsher as a result of that, I know that I can’t let the coal industry intimidate us more than they already are. Gotta fight back.
NYLM: There was another tree sitter, Catherine MacDougal, and two ground support volunteers. Are the police and courts treating your colleagues essentially the same as you?
bex: We are all being treated the same. Squirrel took a plea deal and served one week in jail, pleading no contest to trespassing. Eli and Junior each pled no contest to trespassing A and had small fines to pay. And in terms of the SLAPP suit we are all co-defendants being sued for the same thing (look at that nice justice!).
NYLM: I understand you spent close to a year in Appalachia. What did you learn about the Coal River Valley and the people? The culture? The coal industry?
bex: I think this is a terrific question and I just want to make sure before I answer anything about my experience in Appalachia, my feelings/thoughts about the people and culture, that it’s clear that I am an outsider, from a culture and area very different from Appalachia, and I am, in no way, ever trying to paint Appalachia or Appalachians as “other.”
I recognize how detrimental that has been for so many cultures that are deemed “less than,” and in no way do I feel that Appalachia or Appalachians are less than. Nonetheless I do understand the historical significance that has left Appalachia in the state of “otherness” that it currently is in.
I spent about 10 months straight in the Coal River Valley and a month before, so yes close to a year. Honestly, I found my experience to be incredible and in many ways I consider the place I lived to be my home. There is a history and connection to the land and to one another that I have never experienced before.
I think growing up and living predominantly in the Northeast, I’ve found that people aren’t connected to the land and aren’t connected to one another; I know that in my neighborhood growing up, I knew maybe two of my neighbors and that’s it. In the Coal River Valley where I lived, our friends would know everyone up and down the hollers, much of that having to do with their families being connected generations and generations back. To me, that’s an incredible thing.
People and their families have grown up on that land for hundreds of years and know the land so well because of that. Where else does that happen?
I think, you know, that my idea of a better society or place to live does revolve around small communities or people who know each other, trust each other, and look out for each other and that’s what I found. It devastates me to see how the coal industry has obviously exploited that kindness (at least initially) and now has become this unfortunate figure in Appalachia. You can’t drive down a road in Southern West Virginia and not be confronted with some mine site, some coal truck, some sort of reminder that the coal industry is here, and in such a large number. It’s sickening.
NYLM: For readers who are concerned about mountaintop removal, but don't know Appalachia, how would you describe what there is to love about the region? What do you love about Appalachia and why?
bex: I hope I didn’t just answer that in the above question (ha!). I will try to just speak on my experience, as I stated above I don’t want to paint Appalachia as “other.” What I found was just plain old friendliness. It seems like such an easy quality to find, but in reality, especially living in the Northeast, it’s so challenging. People don’t smile at you when you walk down the street, people don’t ask you how your day was if you don’t really know them—it’s sort of this very visible divide of who a stranger is and you don’t approach or talk to them.
I found this sense of no-one-is-a-stranger. While not everyone who I didn’t know approached me, strangers would smile at me and ask me how I was doing. It was just very warm. I also just found so much respect for a lot of the people who I met, saw, and got to know, who just worked so incredibly hard to support one another, whether that was financially or emotionally. I think there was just a great deal of love in the communities, much of which having to do with the people really knowing each other or families having gone generations back with one another.
The last thing I loved, and I touched on this before, was just how the people really know the land. We are on this earth and so few people really know it. Instead, so many people I met have spent their youth growing up in the hollers, running around the mountains (which of course are currently being blown up), and connecting in ways I have only now begun doing.
NYLM: What did "solidarity" and "community" mean during your entire stay, and your protest, in Appalachia?
bex: Well in a resistance movement, such as the anti-MTR movement, solidarity and community, really, are so incredibly necessary, and to me, fundamental. As an outside activist, I do feel like it was imperative that I support these communities in whatever ways they needed support, by communicating with local activists and community members and other activists who have been there for extended periods of times. For me, that was a first step of solidarity.
I also felt a sense of solidarity, obviously amongst the activists who were and are fighting mountaintop removal coal mining, but also amongst the communities for whom I was putting myself on the line for. I know there is a sense of egoism that does go into direct actions like the one squirrel, Junior, Eli, and I did, but I also know that we all did this in solidarity with those who can’t put themselves on the line because their job or their families’ jobs may depend on the coal industry; in that sense, we are using our privilege (which obviously an action like this utilizes) as another statement of solidarity.
I think that “community” also has a lot of similar meanings for me there too. Although I am considered an outside activist, I found a sense of community where I lived that I hadn’t found before and a lot did have to do with a solidarity and support we all had with and for one another.
NYLM: Given your experience, have you learned anything to pass on to both students and activists about regulation of corporate power? About fighting oppression? About building democracy or democratic institutions?
It seems as though there are broader implications from the struggle against mountaintop removal to the struggle against hydrofracking, for example.
bex: Spending time in Appalachia where the coal industry so blatantly dominates definitely showed me how incredibly powerful, corrupt, and just terrifying these corporate entities are.
It also showed me how, though it’s unbelievably difficult to fight back against such powers, you really just have to. I think it’s easy, and I see it so clearly on a college campus, to settle into apathy or boredom, but I think what’s most important is too just stay angry. Anger, for me at least, is a driving force in fighting these systems of control, power, and oppression.
While I know that the action that I was involved in last summer only stopped blasting on one part of Coal River Mountain for a month (which actually is pretty incredible), it sent a powerful message of resistance.
As long as we keep fighting, we keep showing that there are communities, movements, individuals, collectives of people who are not intimidated and who wont back down. Basically, we have to keep them scared.
For me, the only system I see that is ridden of oppression, and is democratic, in the way a real democracy is, would necessitate a complete dismantling of our current economic, political, and social systems, and a restructuring of how our society functions. I think that capitalism is inherently oppressive and thus, under a capitalist system, I think it is impossible to have a society without oppression, without corporate greed, without a profit over people mentality that results in the clear eradication of minority identity groups.
I think that there is a lot of potential with connecting the anti-fracking movement with the anti-MTR movement, and along with that, all movements to end extractive resource industries. These corporate entities are incredibly aware and are able to keep these movements divided, but if we were able to build a collective resistance movement away from extractive resources, those in power would have a significantly harder time.
Ultimately, I think we need to stay together, fight together, and liberate one another; it’s important, also, to recognize our privilege and to use our privilege in a way that works with those who are less privileged.