Activists have called for probes into allegedly brutal police conduct during the break-up of a protest at a West Virginia mine last month where Dorian Williams ’12 was among those arrested.
The July 28 protest was designed to stop production at Hobet Mines in West Virginia. Twenty protesters were arrested after refusing to leave at the orders of mine employees. It was organized by Radical Action for Mountain Peoples’ Survival (RAMPS) in order to draw attention to mining practices that damage the inhabitants and environment of Appalachia, as well as to governmental and company practices that harm workers and members of surrounding communities.
Williams described the treatment by police as the “historical response.”
“Coal has a very big sway in West Virginia, and that includes the police. They felt a lot of pressure from the industry and the state,” she said in a phone interview this week.
First Sergeant Michael Baylous, a spokesman for the West Virginia State Police disagreed.
“The West Virginia State Police is a law enforcement entity which has no desire to enter the political debate on surface mining,” he said.
In a West Virginia University study, researchers found that “environmental influences in mountaintop mining areas may be contributing factors to elevated birth defect rates.” According to a 2008 study from Washington State University, people in coal mining communities have a 70 percent increased risk for developing kidney disease, and a 64 percent increased risk for chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases, like emphysema.
West Virginia and coal are inextricably tied. With 4 percent of all coal reserves, West Virginia leads the nation in underground coal reserves. Surface mines and mountaintop mines like Hobet Mine produce nearly 60 million tons of coal each year. The industry directly employs about 30,000 people in West Virginia.
Coal is responsible for more than $3.5 billion in annual gross state product. The Hobet mine is owned by Patriot Coal Co., which is currently in Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings, putting pensions and union contracts in jeopardy. The Obama administration granted it a permit two years ago as the largest surface mine in West Virginia.
The protest was unpermitted and kept workers from entering the mine on a work day.
In order to keep the location of the protest from being leaked to the police, RAMPS activists were driven blindly to the site.
Williams describes how the protest began, “We got out of the cars and walked very quickly onto the mine site.” The protesters put rocks in the road and climbed onto trucks that belonged to the company. They had a banner drop from the top of the truck, and chained themselves to the machinery.
Police arrived shortly after and ordered the activists to desist. When the protesters refused, police cut them out of the lockdown and, Williams said, “put us in cuffs on the ground.”
A number of them had cameras or cell phones confiscated.
The protesters claim that police cooperated with mine employees and citizens who came to harass protesters. The RAMPS van was kept behind a roadblock, preventing it from picking up the protesters.
In a video posted on the RAMPS website, sympathetic members of the community told them that a roadblock that police claimed was only open to residents of the area, which was also keeping out the van, was allowing people who did not live in the area to come through and heckle the activists.
Protesters walked for hours on the side of the road to meet their vans, which were not allowed nearer to the site, while hostile members of the mining community drove alongside them.
“We were very lucky nothing happened,” said Williams, who thought it was “irresponsible of the police to put them in that situation.”
“Our job is to enforce the laws of the land, which we do in a professional manner,”Baylous said. “In this particular instance, the West Virginia State Police simply responded to a radical action group’s organized and calculated efforts to violate the laws of the State of West Virginia and deprive others of their Constitutional rights.”
During arrest and processing, Williams said, “a number of people on the mine site practiced noncompliance and they would not walk.” When they were taken to data processing, they were told that they must now comply. When protesters again refused, Williams said that police began to use greater force.
“I was very alarmed,” Williams said, explaining that while some of the men were mistreated, the women were held together during their jail time, and were treated well.
Williams and other protesters found some of the treatment of the men who refused to walk or assist police, as questionable or even “brutal.”
“Two of the men were treated roughly,” Williams said. When a protester named Dustin Steele refused to walk, “police dragged him across gravel from the van to the data processing center.” She says that police caused him to “hit his head on the side of the door frame incredibly hard,” which confused matters further when a police officer said Steele kicked him in the process, opening a police assault complaint.
Dustin Steele is now meeting with lawyers to file a formal complaint against West Virginia police for injuries during the arrest. On the RAMPS website, Steele is quoted as saying, “While the State Police in conjunction with the coal companies tried to break our spirit and our resistance by using violence to quell the fire of our movement, this attempt has failed.”
Baylous claimed, “To my knowledge, nobody has filed a formal complaint.”
“Any attempts by this radical action group to use the West Virginia State Police in an effort to advance their political agenda will be unsuccessful,” said Baylous. “Therefore, we have no further comment to make on the allegations which have been reported in the media.”
The protesters are now all out on a plea deal. The initial charges of trespassing and obstruction were reduced to a charge of trespassing, a $500 fine and a one-year probation, as long as they do not return to the mine site for a year. If they do, the obstruction charge can be reinstated.
Mining is the largest industry in West Virginia and a majority of the state residents are employed by or in some way involved with mining. Organizations like RAMPS believe that the coal companies are taking undue advantage of the state, as well as its inhabitants.
The RAMPS mission statement includes the following, “We are fighting the inept, if not corrupt, regulation agencies and government. We are fighting out-of-state land companies who hold this land and therefore its people’s lives as a commodity to be auctioned off. We are fighting national ignorance and indifference to the oppression of the Appalachian people.”