Winds of Change Newsletter, May 2007 See sidebar for table of contents
Organizing Cabin Creek: A conversation about power, grit and why were gonna win
On April 18, OVEC board member Larry Gibson and OVEC organizer Abe Mwaura met with Lois Armstrong, a longtime resident of Cabin Creek. Lois, along with others in the community of Coalville, managed to stop the construction of a coal loading dock, which would have been illegally close to folks homes in the area.
The following is part of the rich conversation that took place when Larry and Lois met. It begins abruptly when Abe realized that he should probably be recording the conversation with their permission, of course:
Larry: Its got to be a human rights story, linked to mountaintop removal.
Lois: But you dont have any rights.
Larry: Thats it. Thats the whole point
Lois: We dont have any rights.
Larry: And you and I both remember the time if somebody in our area worked for a non-union outfit, they wouldnt tell anybody back then. Now, if a man works for a union, he doesnt tell anybody.
Lois: Hes afraid of being ostracized too.
Larry: Sure. I dont have the wisdom of time like you have. So Im looking to you to kind of guide me and my friend here. What were trying to do is really trying to save some lives. Were not trying to punish the workers. If these people had the choice, they wouldnt be destroying their own back yard
I cant back up from this. When I was a kid people used to tell me I was crazy. But I still gotta stay with this. This is not a jobs issue. This is not simply an energy issue. Its a human rights issue. You know that it is. Until we can strike a nerve in people, whatever the discomfort is in their lives at this point will still be there in the future.
Abe: How do we do that?
Lois: I dont know.
Abe: How did they do it in the past?
Lois: [pause] I dont think people used to be as intimidated as they are now.
Larry: No they werent.
Abe: Hmm. Whats changed?
Lois: [very deliberately] The feeling of powerlessness.
Abe: You think its more now than it used to be?
Lois: Oh yes.
Abe: Well whats caused that? Why now, and compared to when? Ten years ago, 20 years ago?
Lois: Compared to when I was a kid. Yes. My grandfather was a very strong man. Very quiet but very powerful. He didnt shout or make a big noise. What he did, he did very quietly. And he would talk to different people there in Chelyan, when people would come in and try to change things. And he would do it one on one - you know go in and talk to the old-timers. But, I think people now feel hopeless. They feel overwhelmed with the power that others have that they dont feel they have.
Abe: And now Im trying to figure out what is it that caused that. What changed in that amount of time that made them feel so powerless, so that we can figure out what it would take to make them feel powerful again. And its not just feel really, we all have some sense of power sometimes we just dont use it. What is it that changed? Theyve lost their power but why?
Larry: Could it be that the fact that the different leaders of not only the government, but even the union itself
Lois: Even the courts
Larry: even the courts have caved in to the industries. Thats my opinion. That they have caved in to the industries. The people that you and I count on to oversee our rights are the ones whove given up our rights - as far as fighting for us.
Lois: But not only on the local level, but the state level, the national level the whole thing.
Larry: Right. But it starts here. We have more power than we realize because we all have a voice if we can get it together, and start getting people back together again, and start focusing on what theyve lost. If we can do that, we can encourage them to take another look at themselves. Otherwise, like I said the miseries that they have now will only get worse.
Abe: And your father did that one on one?
Lois: My grandfather. Ya. Chelyan is still unincorporated, and it was those old timers who decided that they did not want to be incorporated. He was one of those old timers and he would say "if you give them a little bit of power theyll take it all. As long as you dont give them any power, they cant take it."
Larry: Hmm. Well thats the whole point. Thats what were saying. Its time, with whatever power weve got left we have to organize and direct it in a positive direction instead of letting it sit dormant. We can have all the power weve got now, and if its not being used, then whats the use of having it We used to have some choice in the direction we were going in, and now theyve taken that away.
When I went to New York last week I called for the rebirth of resistance, and I never thought Id hear such a roar of people saying "Yeah, we need the rebirth of resistance." Well yeah, we need a rebirth of resistance here to get back what the people have lost!
Abe: What does that mean? What does it look like?
Larry: Well right now there is not enough resistance. You know that
We are natural organizers. We live in the area called the coalfields - where the union was strong. If we hadnt organized in the beginning we would never have had anything.
We cant back up We gotta get that grit back. Thats what weve got to find in people today. Theyve got it; theyve just forgotten that they have it.