The Crumbling of the Mountain State
Donald Trump’s promises to bring back coal jobs to West Virginia tapped into sentiment which the dispossessed of West Virginia had longed to hear – that, if only for a few seconds, manual labour could once again occupy a standing of nobility in antithesis to the vexing realm of automation. West Virginia remains a woefully underfunded state – it bears disreputable statistics from the highest obesity rate, the highest smoking rate and the highest level of drug related deaths in the U.S. Throughout the twentieth century, West Virginia had been location of the most intense episodes of industrial strife, testified by such incidents as the Paint Creek Strike of 1912 and the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921. Following the Great Depression and World War II, union activity continued, yet the environmental implications of contemporary struggles have shifted the debate dramatically. The development of mountaintop removal mining practised through automated technology has caused myriad problems for local residents. During the process waste is often disposed into nearby rivers leading to reservoirs, polluting drinking water and causing floods when these blockages break under heavy rainfall.
During the first week of February, myself and a group of Middlebury College students set out for the Appalachian South Folklife Center in the small village of Pipestem to work with local communities and activists and learn the contemporary struggles facing the state. The site is run by Tim, who is originally from Santa Barbara, California, who came to West Virginia during the Civil Rights struggle, where he met Don West, a radical unionist and preacher who founded the ASFC as a hideout for Left dissidents. The ASFC typically receives students from colleges across America during the spring and summer breaks, so our group largely had the Center to ourselves.
Tim teaches music at a local elementary school and can often be found playing the banjo with his wife at an open-mic night in the local town of Princeton. Tim however works intensely at establishing cooperative relationships with community organisations; the Princeton Arts Collective, The Wade Center (a non-profit school for children) and the Bluefield Union Mission (a food bank and community welfare organisation). Tim seemed optimistic about the progress made in Princeton. Once a declining mining town, a group of local artists and musicians organised arts projects to stimulate the town’s economy. Down side alleys, they painted murals, and encouraged contributions from local painters. A common haunt is the Riff-Raff, the bottom floor a shop dealing in sculptures and crafts, and upstairs a club showcasing musical talent in the neighborhood.
Much of the ASFC’s work, however, is devoted to home repairs for locals who are unable to afford ordinary repair services, often including households damaged as a result of mountaintop removal mining. The repairman Greg exudes enthusiasm for his job, at being able to work alongside students not only from elsewhere in the US but across the world. ‘Most of the people I get come from around Chicago, but I get people from all over’ he tells us, ‘even from China and Japan’. He set us off repairing the roof of a woman’s trailer which had been damaged from heavy rainfall, which we managed to fix in 5 days.
The next day, Tim introduced us to the Bluefield Union Mission, which donates food and blankets to struggling families. The Union Mission had been functioning since the Great Depression, though its diner dining hall had gradually transformed into take-away shelter. In the rear of the building, the Mission held services and allowed meetings with local activists and trade union leaders. As our group supplied the visitors with food, it was depressing to realise how much work the staff members would have on their hands at times when volunteers were unavailable, work that would go largely unnoticed by local authorities.
Afterwards we met with Tina, an activist who has campaigned vigorously for healthcare rights, though abortion laws in particular are the focus of her efforts. ‘There’s only one place in the state that can offer abortions now’, she tells us. ‘Most cross the state line into Virginia’. With recent Democratic victories like Doug Jones in Alabama, Phil Murphy in New Jersey, Ralph C. Northam in Virginia and especially Danica Roem, the first openly transgender person elected to the Virginia state legislature, she maintains an admirable degree of optimism. When asked about the prospects for Bernie Sanders in 2020, she replied ‘I like Bernie – I think it’s promising that he won more votes than Hillary in West Virginia, but I think we need some new blood’.
On the final day I visited the Wade Center in Bluefields, just a few miles from Pipestem. The Wade Center began as a conventional state school at which Tim formerly taught music. Eventually the school closed and the building was bought up to establish a non-profit school for disadvantaged children. The lack of employment opportunities coupled with opioid addiction leads many parents to delegate their roles as providers to day-care services like the Wade Center. Here, the children are fed in the evening and are given packed dinners to take home with them for the weekends. They also have a space to concentrate on homework given from other schools, and a safe recreational environment, although the playgrounds were mostly out of bounds. When staff members began to find syringes in the grass, they cordoned the space off. There were even bunk-beds where children could sleep for a few nights if they needed to. Nevertheless, In spite of the valuable support the Wade Center offers in every aspect of their lives, the next chapter leaves little reason for optimism for those without reliable home support to prepare them for high school.
West Virginia is a state forgotten by those who govern it. Governor Jim Justice’s investment in the Russian coal and steel company Mechel using state funds have led to immense debts of $4.6 million which Justice shows little indication of settling in the near future, despite the state’s dire need of reformed infrastructure. Yet discussions of rural poverty in America are overshadowed outside the state – on college campuses and among Northern state activists. The awakening of activists such as Tina have indicated a growing momentum among the formerly disengaged. But we have yet to see a similar awakening in the Northern states – of the disinterested geared into motion with progressives prepared to communicate with senators and party candidates to shape an agenda for a presidential candidate of 2020.