november 2009

Larry Gibson being arrested protesting against mountaintop removal coal mining. (Photo by Dave Cooper)

‘I Will Die For What I’m Doing’

Larry Gibson Won’t Back Down From His Protest Against The Plundering of Appalachia

By David McGee

Diminutive, pugnacious, opinionated, outspoken and having fervently committed his life to his cause, Larry Gibson may one day be recognized as both prophet and martyr—he’s preparing for the latter, but directs his energies to seeing the former come true while forestalling the latter. “My people”—as he refers to his blood relatives, in this case, rather than those who follow where he leads, who are also his “people”—have lived on Kayford Mountain in the southeastern Appalachians for more than 200 years. At one time their acreage totaled 54,000; today it is down to 50, and under daily assault by the immovable force of money, politics and power at the highest levels of society and government. (As Michael Shnayerson reports in the Prologue to his book Coal River, excerpted in this issue, twenty years after Gibson’s family took ownership of the land, “a land-company agent from out of state gulled an illiterate forebear into marking his X on a contract that transferred most of the land for ‘one dollar and considerations,’” thus leading to the relative sliver of Gibson property left on Kayford.) The first deed to the land was executed in 1793 by one James Woods, who lost it when he failed to pay his taxes. The second deed was granted to Larry’s “people” by wedding dowry in 1886. The land upon which the Gibsons have lived, farmed, raised children and buried their dead has a treasure far beneath its soil valued at $650 million. He has been offered and declined as much as $140,000 for it. He will not be moved. For 23 years he’s been evangelizing against mountaintop removal coal mining in the Appalachian Mountains. Now, finally, with 500,000 acres of mountainside destroyed, the campaign he and so many others, banding together and on their own, have been waging for years is gaining traction. A plethora of non-profit organizations are active across Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee, fighting MTR raising public consciousness about the economic and ecological benefits of alternative energy sources such as wind and solar power, both of which promise a far more fertile future for generations to come than coal can credibly promise or realistically deliver. These are genuine grassroots efforts, steered not by corporate priorities but by populist outrage at the plundering of Appalachia. Slowly, but less surely, because they are both protective of their security and loathe to change the status quo, the people on the ground in the Coal River Valley are coming around to Gibson’s point of view, albeit reluctantly owing to the coal companies’ use of intimidating tactics to keep them in indentured servitude. From where Larry Gibson stands, coal, in short, is a four-letter word.

“I don’t know how to explain myself to you,” he says in his thick West Virginia drawl that often has his cell phone callers saying, “Pardon me?” as they struggle to decipher it. But in person the muddled audio of the cell transmission is gone, and his enunciation is clear, unambiguous and direct. “I’ve fought all my life for what I have and for what I’ve gained. I’ve been shot at several times, but intimidation doesn’t work with me, because I believe in what I’m doing. They say I’m a dangerous man. I’m not a physical danger to anyone,” says the spry 68-year-old, whose sturdy physique and purposeful gait betray no sign of advancing age or infirmity, “but with my words, yes, I am a dangerous man when it comes to my words.”

The words Gibson speaks of are almost always aimed at one target in general—the blasting away of his beloved Appalachian Mountains to get at the coal underneath them—and at another in specific: the politically connected coal behemoth, Massey Energy, which in only four years’ time has dramatically altered the Appalachian landscape, for perhaps thousands of years according to environmental scientists who have studied the denuding of the mountains by MTR blasting. Greasing the wheels of government and regulation, Massey has operated with impunity in the Coal River Valley region of southeastern West Virginia. It has destroyed once thriving communities, running both businesses and people out of town, closing down schools, and busting the union down to almost nothing. Behind the sparsely populated Marsh Fork Elementary School loom monolithic silos packed with coal, and beyond those, an earthen dam holding back 2.5 billion gallons of toxic sludge generated by the vaunted “clean coal” process, touted by all manner of politicians—including President Barack Obama—as one of several alternative solutions to make America more self-reliant for its energy needs, which in turn has begat the mantra of those who live with and suffer the scourge of it: “clean coal is a dirty lie.”

But all available evidence, especially that observed in person by this reporter, indicates Massey is terrified of Larry Gibson and his small, still voice thundering in the night. Hired “coal thugs” regularly invade anti-MTR events and rain down both verbal and physical abuse on the participants, even going one step beyond at some gatherings and firing off rounds of pistol shots above the group, so far injuring no one but assuring that the next such gathering is sparsely attended. Gibson’s own trailer home on Kayford bears evidence of coal’s grudge against him in the form of bullet holes riddling its walls, and the trusted dog that travels everywhere with him now replaced one the coal thugs shot and killed. Naturally, Gibson takes all this very personally, exceedingly so. “This is the genocide of Appalachia,” he declares, with a sweeping gesture of his arm as he stands on Massey property that was once his, and surveys the moonscape of a once-rich and fertile ecosystem, a vista of literally breathtaking natural splendor and inherent spirituality, and, not incidentally, the birthplace of American roots music, emerging from the fusion of native musics made by English, Irish and Scottish settlers who gravitated to the mountain region in the 18th Century.

Yes, Gibson takes it all as a personal affront. Maybe anyone would if they had come home one night, as he did, to find his Kayford Mountain cabin riddled with bullets. Or witnessed, as he did, Massey’s goons destroying his family’s personal cemetery on the mountain. “They pushed 139 graves over a high wall,” he says. “But they was nice, you know,” he adds with a smile. “They left me with 11 graves.

“Massy,” he notes in an aside, spoken as casually as if he were noting the latest football results, “has destroyed over one thousand cemeteries in Appalachia.”

What do you mean they “pushed the graves over a high wall”? he is asked. You mean bodies, caskets, everything?

“I can tell you haven’t been down here much,” he replies, again in his matter of fact tone. “They don’t care about the living, much less the dead. It’s been over 40 years since anyone has been buried there. They don’t care about these people. It’s about profit, nothing else. Massey’s not from here, they don’t care about the people here.”

As if on cue, about a quarter mile ahead of us, coming our way, is a Massey coal truck. We have been riding and chatting in Gibson’s “I (heart) Mountains” sticker-covered pickup truck on our way to the top of Kayford Mountain. These wheels are well known to Massey workers. A few months back, two trucks forced his pickup off the road; it rolled twice and came to rest in the shallow creek off to our right. Miraculously unharmed, Gibson squeezed his way out of the cab to be greeted by the howls of two Massey workers standing on the roadside watching him struggle to his feet.

Gibson reaches down to his right and clicks on his CB unit. “Now you’ll get to hear what they think about me. They know I’m listening to ‘em.”

As the two-ton truck rumbles by us on the gravel road, the dispatcher’s eerily echoed voice—he sounds like he might have been recorded at Sun Records in 1954—responds to the driver’s ID of “one of those tree-huggers coming my way.”

“You should run him into the creek,” says the dispatcher.

“I would,” the driver answers as he passes us, looking down at Larry smiling and waving at him, ”but I’d have to hide the bodies.”

The dispatcher allows as to how he could spare a couple of guys to come help with the dirty deed. Both men laugh conspiratorially. Both sound as dumb as rocks.

As the truck rolls on down the road towards Charleston, the dispatcher and driver exchange small talk disparaging of Gibson, denigrating his age, suggesting he’s incontinent, and fuming that “the old man’s living off the pension he made from coal and now he’s trying to shut us down.”

“See, they don’t know the truth about anything about me,” Gibson says. ‘I never worked for coal. I worked for GM. But they’ll believe anything they’re told.”

On the dashboard sits a Canon video camera, “donated by people so I can stay safe”; a cell phone is mounted in a stand to the right of the steering wheel so he can answer calls and talk hands free, “donated so I can stay safe.

“And the .45 pistol in my pocket was donated too, so I can stay safe. If they come after me they’ll have a fight. It’s not the dying that matters to me anyway; it’s how you live that counts.”

After visiting the mountaintop, we head back to Charleston. Along the way, Gibson talks about the importance of “taking a stand, not backing down,” and vows to be true to his own credo. In 2003, when then-President George W. Bush came to West Virginia to endorse mountaintop removal, Gibson was arrested five times at the attendant rally. The first four times the local police let him go, and each time he returned, carrying a sign reading “Stop Mountaintop Removal!” The fifth time the arrest stuck. It came via Bush’s Secret Service detail, a member of which told him, “You can’t have political signs at this rally.” What Gibson learned was that the Bush Administration had rewritten portions of the Clean Water Act to make it permissible for Massey to, in effect, continue polluting the ground water with its toxic “clean coal” runoff, such as that looming holocaust sitting in the earthen dam behind Marsh Fork Elementary School; a similar sludge pit at Brushy Fork would, if it could escape its own earthen dam, produce a toxic tidal wave 40 feet high and instantly snuff out an estimated 1,000 lives.

The same year Bush came to town to give his imprimatur to mountaintop removal coal mining, Larry Gibson one day found himself hemmed in on all sides by eight coal trucks while on his way to Kayford. The drivers emerged and surrounded his truck. Gibson stopped them in their tracks when he rested two pistols on his dashboard and produced a third from his pocket and aimed it squarely at the biggest thug in the bunch, “some 400 pound, six-foot-four goon whose belt buckle was at my eye level. When I talked to him I was poking him in his belt buckle.”

Gibson defused the altercation by asking the goons if any of them had children. “All of my people have followed one another into the mines. But that was before Massey destroyed all the jobs. So I asked them guys, ‘How many of your kids will follow you into the mine?” According to Gibson, silence ensued, followed by some under the breath muttering, and one by one each driver returned to his truck and departed.

By now we are on Route 3 heading west, directly behind a fully loaded coal truck. The voices crackling over the CB indicate Gibson’s been identified. The first voice is the trucker’s, followed by the dispatcher’s.

“I got one fuckin’ chickenshit followin’ me. If I get down to about 25 [miles per hour], he’ll try to pass me and I’ll run him off the road.”

“If he’s that close, just pop a gate.” (Meaning to loose the truck’s gate and let the coal avalanche onto Gibson’s vehicle.)

“I wouldn’t do anything to endanger him. I don’t want to hurt him, but that don’t mean I have to like him.”

“Them eco-terrorists are trying to recruit people to go to that rally tonight. One came and knocked on my door.”

“Did you knock him in the head?”

“Hell, no, my wife got my .410 out and locked and loaded it right in front of him. That sent him on his way pretty quick.”

“I’m impressed with that guy not wanting to hurt me,” Gibson says of the conversation we’ve been privy to. “I bet if I could sit down and talk to him he’d understand my point of view. But he’ll get with that other bunch and just go along with whatever they tell him, never question it.

“I will tell you right now, sooner or later someone will take me out of this issue. I know that. But it’s important to take a stand and never back down. I don’t know what your purpose is in being down here, but mine is simple: the future. If we can’t put a stop to this mountaintop removal, what’s going to be left for those who come after us? The earth is 90 percent water; our bodies are 90 percent water. It’s the most precious thing we have, and these coal companies are destroying it and getting away with it. I won’t let them do that. That’s my commitment to our future.

“I will die for what I’m doing.”

Larry Gibson speaks on Day 2 of the Senior Citizens’ March against MTR

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
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