It looked like your classic summer camp with the moon reflecting off the lake, mountains standing guard, a spacious dining hall and cabins.There were bonfires at nights and a talent show at the end. But I’d never heard of a summer camp that skipped hot dogs for vegetarian pizza, demanded references from campers, and had a security post to deter possible intruders and where you could spend the week for $80, in part because you were expected to help staff the camp.
There were no kids at this gathering last May, and no sports beyond hiking and fishing. Instead, it featured a jam-packed schedule of workshops and speakers on subjects such as underground coal mining, community organizing, civil disobedience, blockades, the nature of oppression, tree climbing and Appalachian culture. This was a training ground for activists.
I was at the fourth annual Mountain Justice Summer (MJS) Camp, held near Harlan, Ky. – “Bloody Harlan,” in the heart of the coalfields. It drew some 200 men and women from as far afield as Maine, Florida, Texas and California. While most were college students, who slept in tents, their ranks were leavened with professional people (nurses, teachers, a lawyer, a chef) and full-time activists in their 30s, 40s and 50s. They’d all come to learn more about Appalachia, and the philosophy and tactics of resistance and to make plans for continuing the fight against mountaintop removal coal mining, which one camper termed “the greatest environmental catastrophe of our time.” When asked one morning how many planned to spend the summer in Appalachia, a lot of hands went up.
Mountain Justice Summer is a nonhierarchical group, a collective composed mostly of young people trying to save the Appalachian mountains and their streams and forests from destruction by coal companies. The means range from grassroots organizing to nonviolent direct action. Since 2005, MJS has staged numerous dramatic protests, occupations of offices and a mountain blockade, some leading to arrests. The targets have included Massey Energy Co. and National Coal Co., a coal-fired power plant, West Virginia’s governor, and Bank of America. MJS wants a non-coal based economy for Appalachia.
When a dozen campers climbed one morning in the dark to the top of Knobby Ridge on Pine Mountain, none of us one seemed surprised to find what the dawn’s early light revealed: far off in the rolling waves of green mountains, a ridge defaced by a brown blanket of debris churned up by mountaintop strip mining.
“It’s good to be reminded of what we’re fighting for and what we’re fighting against,” a young woman remarked.
Campers were reminded of this by many speakers, including residents of the Eastern Kentucky coalfields and a woman from West Virginia, Maria Gunnoe, who has been a thorn in the side of mountaintop removal operations behind her family’s home place for years (Gunnoe was profiled in Blue Ridge Country’s July/August 2008 story, “The Future of Appalachia”).
“When is enough enough?” Gunnoe asked. “How many mountains must they take?”
Gunnoe’s resistance has brought her the enmity of some of her neighbors and some miners, worried about losing their jobs. She and her children have been threatened and her face appears on homemade wanted posters. She travels with her “protection dog.”
When I watched individuals learn how to rope in and scale trees in the forest (fear of heights kept me on terra firma), it all seemed like a kick until I thought of the sober point of the lessons – a way to hang anticoal banners from high bridges, highway overpasses and buildings and to make onlookers think about why people are willing to take such risks.
I saw the seriousness with which the campers, even the most fun-loving, took their cause. No matter how early or late I went in the kitchen, an underchef in a classy French-English restaurant in Nashville, was there. He worked close to 20 hours a day to feed everyone, arising at 3:00 or 4:00 each morning. It’s not the first time he’d cooked for MJS.
People took time out to work on community projects, such as water testing. One day the camp learned about a Harlan woman, whose house desperately needed repair. Campers took up a collection and raised $300 for building supplies. The next day a crew of carpenters and a union electrician in their ranks rebuilt the back porch and the floor in one room, put up kitchen cabinets and did some rewiring. These folks didn’t waste time.
The campers were an impressive bunch. They paid close attention and spoke their minds. Different people volunteered to lead morning meetings, held outdoors standing in a giant circle. Most were students with the aplomb to deftly direct a group of scores of people, most strangers to them.
The camp was a place of music making, good conversation and good cheer. After midnight one night people could be found square dancing in the kitchen, picking in the dining hall or circling a bonfire by the lake to mark the full moon. The camp seemed to help people draw closer for the work of MJS that lay ahead.