A report from inside the Manchin Blockade
Taylor Dorrell/PW

GRANT TOWN, W.V.—Grant Town lies buried twenty minutes outside of Fairmont in the rustic hills of Appalachia and is, in most respects, an ordinary West Virginian town: a former coal town leveled by the mine’s closure with a population not exceeding 600, only 17 of whom are now employed by the fossil fuel industry. Grant Town, like much of West Virginia, has spent the good part of the past decades in decline.

At 9:00 in the morning, April 9, a smooth mist glided over the side of the camp’s ridge as some 200 activists gathered in preparation for the blockade. It was, relative to more casual facilities, a fairly large campground. Many slept in bunk beds under the roofs of a series of lodges with concrete floors and plain wood walls.

Taylor Dorrell/PW

It was a warm shelter against the freezing April rain, but a snoring neighbor left me without a full night’s sleep, leaving me weary in the morning haze. An organizer sat calmly at the edge of a picnic table.

“Everyone has family in the coalfields, everyone knows a friend of Joe Manchin,” he warned. Texts had already been circulated locally claiming that a “violent” blockade consisting of “outside agitators” was going to take place at the Grant Town power plant, warning locals to “stay indoors” as though an unprecedented tornado was projected to sweep through the mountains – although climate change has made tornadoes more common in the state. Two tornadoes had swept through the outskirts of Fairmont in 2021 alone.

In fact, there was something unprecedented about it. At least for the recent history of the small town. Hundreds of people gathered in the hills to stand up to the most powerful man in West Virginia, blockading his largest source of personal wealth, advocating for clean energy in the depths of the country’s abandoned fossil fuel extraction region, a sacrifice zone.

Back in October of 2021, Peoples World reported on how Manchin, who pockets $500,000 a year from dirty coal, killed Biden’s climate deal.

We were assembled loosely in lines on the cool muddy clay of the camp; rain ponchos were unfolded, a few umbrellas were opened when a violent storm of hail set in, and drivers held up their fingers to signal how many seats were vacant in their cars. The top of my dark green poncho pinched my throat as the hail battered the hills and the sun shined through the clouds scornfully.

Our boots muddied the interior of a Subaru as a convoy expanded across the hills, bouncing along the pothole-ridden roads, exposing passengers to a landscape of collapsed shacks, trailer homes, and insurgent mountains. The driver, a young man with long hair, proudly wearing a Bernie Sanders beanie, asked about the dozens of homes gliding by, folding in on themselves like a slow implosion. A younger passenger, a TikTok creator and local West Virginian, responded soberly, “Landslides ruin the foundations and nobody can afford to fix them.” Police cruisers sprinkled throughout Fairmont sat watching as we rolled through like an Easter parade.

A Sleeping Dragon

The campground in Grant Town, W. Va. | Taylor Dorrell/PW

The promise of coal, the pioneering resource: enriching; damaging; temporary. Coal is neither absent nor entirely present today. Since its decline, the sweeping and far-reaching pains of coal are stretched and pulled throughout the landscape so that not even a mundane shopping center can be viewed outside of it – one asks whether it’s on top of an old mine or in the absence of one. The past resides within the altered landscape, the decapitated mountains, the decaying company towns, and contaminated bodies of water. It is a crude caricature of the destruction of the lowly symbols of capitalism.

A series of tall, ominous hills stand behind the fence of the Grant Town power plant, shielding the condemned structure from vision. It is common practice in the state to set up strip mines on the side of mountains facing away from the roads, hiding the harsh realities from passersby.

This hidden coal-powered plant is the sole customer of Sen. Joe Manchin’s family company, Enersystems. He personally receives half a million dollars annually from the company although he has no practical function or position in its lonely ranks – when a journalist went to the listed address for the company, he was met with hostility by a single occupant, Manchin’s son, who runs the company.

The multi-millionaire senator has embraced his role as the sole disruptor of major climate legislation. A Democrat, he receives more money from the fossil fuel industry than any Republican, partially responsible for the major cuts in Biden’s $1 trillion infrastructure bill and the current holdup of the Build Back Better Act even though 68% of West Virginians support the legislation.

Protesters form the “Sleeping Dragon” | Taylor Dorrell/PW

It was gray and drizzling as a small line of protesters seated themselves in front of the main gate, forming what’s referred to as a “sleeping dragon.” They chained their hands together, arms covered with a pvc pipe, drastically delaying the time it takes for police to pry them out. A larger group shielded them in front with a banner reading “Manchin: stop burning WV’s future for profit” as they chanted passionately, “Show me what democracy looks like, this is what democracy looks like.”

For a brief moment, the sleeping dragon sat dormant behind chanting protesters, guarding the fence and what lay behind it. It was a short-lived moment of anxious calm. A series of West Virginia state troopers, dressed in olive green uniforms, stately hats protected by fitted plastic, and a tense character akin to American police, walked swiftly to detain them. But what could the police do but assess the PVC pipes that bound them? They did, defeatedly, inspect the PVC pipes, but the dragon was eventually towed off like a long train, their arms linked together in some unified nexus. I was shooed off with a group of journalists photographing the arrests as the police drew an imaginary line that separated the public section of the entrance and the private. Protesters that strayed past the line were quickly arrested.

Endangered Species

The police, like most West Virginians, know the land’s getting poorer. They know what mountaintop removal mining does to the land: strips it, sucks all the life out of it. They know it is a toxic, dying industry. They know this and nonetheless, there is a force that drives the fossil fuel industry and its protectors almost autonomously. The people of West Virginia can survive if they can just eat and drink. They can work until they lose their jobs and go into debt to the bank. Many will die young from cancer, others will be forced to raise their children in poverty. But a company cannot do these things, because a company cannot breathe air or drink water. It cannot catch contaminated fish or develop migraines from the tap water or mourn the loss of endangered species. A company is not a person. Although it can hear the protesters, their chants for a better future, it knows their calls would lead to the death of its true lifeblood, the only source of its survival, their quarterly aims, their profit margins. It is sad, but it is so.

The few cars that drove by to condemn the blockade, giving protesters the finger, shouting “get a job,” have likely already witnessed the devastating effects of climate change in their small slices of Appalachia. Increased flooding, extreme weather events, and impacts on wildlife are already being observed throughout the state.

Taylor Dorrell/PW

The West Virginia spring salamander, endemic only to the state of West Virginia, is but one wretched example of a species endangered due to the climate crisis and pollution. And so, a mother somewhere in the hills weeps when she finds a motionless salamander lying dead in the mud. She weeps for her future grandchildren who will never see one living. She goes by Dee, a local West Virginian who lives a few miles away from the plant. She spoke of the realities of local pollution, catching fish with tumors, developing health issues from consuming the tap water, witnessing the declining population of her favorite amphibian, the salamander. Her speech, heartfelt and charged, moved listeners to tears. “[Manchin’s climate decisions are] not for my 7-year-old daughter, not for my future grandchildren.”

The rain picked up as two large SUVs, one black and one white, approached the front gate curiously. In the passenger seat of a black Chevrolet, two folded hands were elevated, highlighted by the dim natural light from above. Behind the hands, hidden in the shadow, was a relaxed Rev. William J. Barber, a prominent activist and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign. He walked humbly with his cane and a series of companions who sheltered the Reverend with their wide, sprawling umbrellas, waiting patiently for a local West Virginian and former coal worker to finish his speech.

Rev. Barber makes his speech | Taylor Dorrell/PW

“Now brothers and sisters,” he prefaced in that recognizable voice that could only belong to a southern preacher, “You know they say in Africa, when it rains, it’s a baptism.” He conducted the crowd with his words, just as a composer does a symphony. “It’s time,” he yelled as the crowd echoed, “to come together… It’s time… to stand together… It’s time… to fight for this democracy!” In his pauses, he lifted his eyes to the hills beyond the fence.

In the back of the plant, protesters were cut off by police shortly upon entry, resulting in three brutal arrests followed by trumped up charges. They’d been chosen as examples, to strike fear, to defend the private property of American Bituminous Power LP. Those who weren’t arrested joined in the front with a long banner reading “Manchin stop burning our future.”

Police had largely backed off the site until the evening. Then dozens of state troopers descended on the gate warning that every car in the vicinity would be towed if not moved in the next minute. The group, already packing up, began to sing in unison. The olive troopers stood insecurely, reclaiming the plant’s entrance as a line of cars slowly exited.

Taylor Dorrell/PW

Freedom Industries

In a state of less than 2 million, some 60,000 people fled West Virginia between 2010 and 2020, the highest percentage in the country, taking to DC, Richmond, and New York City. It has become the country’s exploitation belt, where jobs and capital are created, deprived, and promptly exported as the pollution remains perversely within. The state is among the highest in cancer rates, residents dealing consistently with pollution-caused diseases.

Black communities are often used as sacrifice zones as is the case with the South Charleston community, whose air is pumped with the cancer-causing chemical, ethylene oxide. Chemical spills and “incidents” are common and often go unaddressed or shoved under the rug. The 2014 Elk River chemical spill by Freedom Industries was only one of many spills in Elk River in the past decade, but almost a thousand people reported symptoms, and more than a dozen were hospitalized as the state issued an advisory not to use the tap water, causing the closure of schools, hospitals scrambling to take emergency measures, and lines of people forming to get packaged water trucked in by Homeland Security.

The state also has one of the country’s highest poverty rates with almost 300,000 living in poverty before the pandemic, that number likely to be higher now, while almost half a million children live in a family struggling with hunger or behind on housing payments. There is no individual responsible for these facts. If one were to call Freedom Industries to get their hands on someone responsible for poisoning the river, the operator would say confusedly, “this is a company, not a person.” Here in West Virginia, it is not the owners, wherever they might be, who are dying, but the working class and whatever future they dream of.

Taylor Dorrell/PW

Later that night, as the rain settled and the cold descended, a group waited in the dimly lit parking lot of the North Central Regional Jail for the last three who were being held. That one was a photojournalist, a member of our cherished free press, did not seem to deter the police from violently arresting him – being tackled and held down by multiple officers – and subsequently charging him with a felony. In fact, each of the three was charged with a felony, two were given a $10,000 bail, and one $15,000. It was a natural conclusion to a rally confronting the private profits of an elected public official that the protesters be squeezed for municipal funds.

In the local paper the next morning, the front page listed the ways in which reforms were saving the regional jail money; how the Easter egg hunt went along swimmingly, just as it had in the years before the pandemic; and how a local veteran survived the war. Noticeably absent from the paper was any mention of the blockade, which had already spread widely across international publications.

In the town, resistance remained muffled, hidden behind the hills. One speaker from a local nonprofit told of the fear of locals to speak out against Manchin, against the power and sway he holds in the state. But there is no doubt that, just now, a new, defiant action is being planned to save the disputed destiny of West Virginia and, perhaps just as consequentially, the world.


CONTRIBUTOR

Taylor Dorrell
Taylor Dorrell

Taylor Dorrell is a journalist, essayist, photo person, and great lakes "megaregionalist," based in Ohio. He is a contributing writer at the Cleveland Review of Books, a reporter at the Columbus Free Press, and a member of the National Writers Union.

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