Our Long Memories
“The long memory is the most radical idea in this country. It is the loss of that long memory which deprives our people of that connective flow of thoughts and events that clarifies our vision, not of where we’re going, but where we want to go.”
-Utah Phillips (1935–2008)
Politics and the outlook for the future looks pretty bleak these days. Pandemic, war in Ukraine, a new Gilded age of inequality and misery and climate change are a few of the crises presently crashing into our daily lives.
The poet Allen Ginsburg said “poets are damned… but see with the eyes of angels.” I’d argue organizers fighting the rich and powerful are equally damned with the sight of seeing not only what is happening, but where we want to go and being stuck in damage control of these crises.
Confronting Joe Manchin is a prime example of damage control in these strange and troubling times. While elected by 300,000 West Virginians he wields power over the other 329 million of us. He’s literally shut down the Biden administration’s Build Back Better (BBB) agenda in December.
While chair of the Senate Energy and Resources committee, he’s stopped climate legislation that would give federal grants to utilities that increase electricity production from renewable energy just as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said it’s “now or never” to stave off climate disaster. He’s also opposed the Child Tax Cred and other anti-poverty measures in Biden’s BBB.
Calling his cynical brand of corporate politics “bleak” isn’t even a proper description of Joe Manchin. His goal is the enrich himself and his family. His goal is to protect his donors from Wall Street, Big Oil and King Coal while claiming to care about regular working people. If Joe Manchin were removed from power, it’d be akin to finding a cure for a life threatening disease.
It’s worth noting his votes in Congress and new found notoriety has stirred the curiosity of big media outlets. It led to several investigative articles on his business dealings in West Virginia. Most notably, the New York Times exposed how Manchin aided a coal plant near Grant Town, WV that was the sole customer of Enersystems, his son’s private business, that supplied a nasty type of low grade coal, mixed with rock and clay, called “gob.”
Manchin doesn’t just give aid and comfort to the coal barons of Appalachia, he’s one of them.
The Coal Baron Blockade
West Virginia has a long history of resistance to the coal industry. The West Virginia mine wars of the last century began with strikes at Cabin Creek and Paint Creek in 1912 resulted in the Battle of Blair Mountain in — the second largest armed insurrection in U.S. history after the Civil War — in 1921. The mine wars were confrontations between mine workers trying to organize through West Virginia counties and the coal companies and their gun thugs resisting those organizing drives. It created a legacy around organizing and unions in West Virginia even as the industry waged never ending war on those institutions.
More recently, we saw community-led campaigns against mountaintop removal (MTR) coal mining companies and then West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin in southern West Virginia. During those years when community members and environmentalists fought to end the practice of mountaintop removal coal mining, we often went after Manchin since he could regulate and even end the practice. In those days, his rhetoric spoke to communities, his actions served the coal companies. Just like today.
My first experience with Gov. Joe Manchin was disrupting a speech he gave at the Charleston, WV Chamber of Commerce breakfast in 2007. I joined a small group of Mountain Justice activists that bought tickets to the event, dressed up in suits and ties (“corporate drag,” as we called it) and snuck in a banner. When Manchin had the spotlight, we took it with the banner and an activist confronting him over his lack of action on ending MTR. Every time I see social justice and climate activists confronting him on Capital Hill, in his Maserati or outside his yacht parked in the Potomac, I think of that morning and, despite everything, we’re still having to fight him.
Today, Senator Joe Manchin has caused such outrage to social justice and climate movements that this weekend direct action organizers blockaded the coal plant in Marion County, WV that gives him about $500,000 a year in income. Anti-pipeline fighters Appalachians Against Pipelines have waged a backwoods campaign in West Virginia and Virginia to stop the Mountain Valley Pipeline since February 2018. Manchin is a top recipient of oil and gas money. Rev. Barber and the Poor People’s Campaign have been marching across West Virginia to highlight Manchin’s death grip on any semblance of progressive legislation in Washington. These groups joined with West Virginians, regional and national groups under the umbrella of “West Virginia Rising” to challenge Manchin at one of the sources of his income — the Grant Town Power Plant.
On 9 April 2022, hundreds showed up to the Grant Town Power Plant. West Virginia state police moved in immediately to arrest protestors as they began to blockade the plant. 16 were arrested for crossing onto the property.
The protest called on Manchin to abandon his support for fossil fuels and support green energy legislation. Demonstrators also urged Manchin to support legislation to lift up families living in poverty.
“Joe Manchin has spent his career making a very lucrative living off the backs of West Virginians while talking about how resilient we are,” said Maria Gunnoe, protest organizer, director of the Mother Jones Community Fund and Goldman Prize winner. “West Virginians are tired of struggling only to see others prosper. We deserve opportunities to build a future that our kids can be proud of.”
Michael Whitten retired WV coal miner told the crowd, “If there is one thing we have to deal with it’s climate change. And it will take years but Manchin is stopping us. Where does he think his grandchildren will live?”
Reverend Dr. William Barber said, “Instead of passing legislation and standing with those things that would help the climate and protect our water, Sen Manchin has blocked those things. When you block health care, people die. When you mess up the climate, people die.”
Blue state Democrats aren’t any less captured by fossil fuels than red state Democrats. California Gov. Gavin Newsom comes across greener and less beholden to the fossil fuel lobby, but if you look closely it turns out politics in California state government is also for and by the oil and gas lobby. It comes in the form of carbon markets and continuing the issuing of new drilling permits.
Across California on 8 April 2022, groups marched, protested and paddled under the banner of “No New Fossil Fuels” demanding that Gavin Newsom fight Big Oil and end new fossil fuel projects. Californians signaled their frustration with a governor who calls himself a “climate leader,” but continues to allow oil companies and lobby groups like the Western States Petroleum Association to prioritize profit over kids’ health and the future of the planet.
“Governor Newsom is uniquely positioned to start California on a path toward climate justice and a future where our state becomes the model for subsequent energy revolutions. Oil is a finite resource. If not now, when?” said Paige Thionnet, climate organizer in Sacramento.
Meanwhile, California’s fire season looms amidst a crushing drought. So, once again, state residents face rolling blackouts and a public health disaster of smoke and fire while Democratic politicians and oil lobby only look towards profit.
Royal Bank of Canada
This past week, Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) had scheduled its annual general meeting. The Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs had traveled to attend the meeting over RBC’s funding of TCEnergy and the Coastal GasLink (CGL) pipeline. Then, RBC abruptly cancelled the in person part of its meeting less than 24 hours before it was supposed to happen.
Coincidence? Unlikely. They wanted to avoid an in-person confrontation with critics of their funding of fossil fuel projects.
TCEnergy has been building the Coastal GasLink pipeline in northwestern British Columbia (B.C.) The pipeline will feed LNG Canada’s Kitimat facility with fracked methane from the Dawson Creek area of B.C. The resistance to the pipeline has been fierce amongst First Nations. Canadian police have arrested land defenders at gunpoint along the pipeline route. In 2020, First Nations groups blockaded railways across Canada in protest of the construction of CGL and heavy handed response from the Canadian state.
There are 27 financiers of CGL including all five of Canada’s big banks, JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Bank of China, Japanese banks Mizuho, Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group and many others.
We can say the bankers are cowards and racists, and they are, but also, they just don’t want to be bothered to be told about it.
Starbucks + Amazon
Labor has new life being breathed into it by unionization campaigns at Starbucks and Amazon.
A new labor union, free of entrenched bosses in Big Labor, formed around the workers organizing to speak as a collective voice at Amazon’s only fulfillment center called JFK8 in New York City. The Amazon Labor Union organized JFK8 using methods going back to the Wobblies, but also used everything from TikTok to serving home cooked meals to retail workers.
At Starbucks, the company is waging an unprecedented campaign of union-busting against a viral movement of unionizing Starbucks stores. The campaign includes illegal firings, wage abuse and harassment. CEO Howard Schultz bizarrely evoked the holocaust while touting employee benefits at a Buffalo, NY store (the first Starbucks to unionize) trying to dissuade labor activism.
Despite, Starbucks’ efforts, workers at 18 stores have voted in the union. 119 have filed petitions to vote on a union.
Expect the friendly corporate smiles at Amazon and Starbucks to get uglier as they try to contain the virus of freedom and liberation.
Fighting those always wanting a few dollars more.
This week was the birthday of noted Italian anti-fascist actor Gian Maria Volonté. Here’s him getting arrested for supporting striking Coca-Cola workers in the 1970s:
While our politics seem bleak, the long memory is what keeps us in the fight by remembering these struggles. More to come later.