(This entry is a little more recent than most of my previous posts. One of my first efforts to watch civil disobedience in action. Very inspiring some 13 years ago or so.)
I tossed and turned all night as I pondered the tasked ahead the next day.
For months now I had kept up on the news concerning the United Mine Workers' strike in Southwest Virginia. I felt helpless in lending any real support other than a letter to the editor on behalf of my local Pax Christi group.
But then Sunday I went to an Appalachian Peace Education Committee annual meeting and discovered that volunteers were needed behind and in front of the picket lines outside St. Paul, VA.
I loved the idea. I adjusted my schedule and took a day of leave from work. Called to cancel my reservation to an appreciation luncheon. My husband would take the kids to school Wednesday.
Yet I struggled. Was I really "just a mom still trapped in the 60s" as one of my son's friends said? Hell, it didn't matter.
Up with those noisy birds at six after listening to them since five. Baby's bag packed, breakfast on, teeth brushed and makeup on. I was waking up. The door bell rang at 6:50, while I was still in my pajamas. A rush to get my faded jeans and peace shirt on, map, lunch and cup of coffee grabbed and we were on our way!
The Finucane's were driving their station wagon. Accompanied by two dogs in the back seat, we talked small talk for the hour-long picturesque drive through the Virginia mountains, poking their heads out of glossy white fog. A beautiful time for looking and thinking.
In St. Paul we found the meeting place --- St. Mark's Episcopal Church. Quiet surrounded the town as a few struggling students rambled through the town to school.
An alternative press writer and hunger worker from Blacksburg, VA., met us at the church. As the minutes ticked by, others arrived. A couple just returned from Nicaragua, clergymen, concerned citizens, all joined in purpose.
There was an air of confusion and anticipation in the air. "What do we do now?" "Let's get out of here and get started."
Finally directions to the some 35-40 congregated people were given and a car caravan began.
More winding and roller-coaster hills until at last little signs of approaching strike territory were seen. A long string of cars pulled off the side of the road greeted us. I got antsy to get out and explore the center of strife.
Camera in hand and feet in first gear, I headed on while Charlotte and Tom came behind with one of the dogs. Both past 60 and probably in their 70s, they were FDR activists who were always ready for a little bit of dissension.
We all gathered around the strike spokesman Marty Hudson of the United Mine Workers (UMW), who gave us a little background and encouraged us all to commit civil disobedience (CD) by sitting in the entrance of Pittston's Moss #3 Preparation Plant, disrupting the steady flow of truck traffic in and out of the facility.
I had promised both the Finucanes and my family that I wouldn't get arrested. I felt like a chicken, but at least I could offer support to those who were willing to be arrested, bussed off to a precessing center and then returned to the site some four to five hours later.
The strikers clapped and cheered when they saw us walk by. Most had already been arrested up to two times each. Third offenses were felonies with fines up to $10,000each. Few could risk that, so we were a sight for sore eyes.
I saw no violence while at the plant. (Perhaps they were on good behavior for us. I don't know.) The men were widdling (weapons, Charlotte said). Some were giving their figures away for the asking, so I asked and got myself a souvenir for the day.
All volunteers were given camouflage bandannas, to identify whose side they were on. I was too busy taking pictures when these were handed out.
A coal truck pulled into the entrance. Four miners got down and sat in the middle of the road in front of it. The truck stopped. Virginia State patrolmen recited penalties for such action to the law breakers. No one moved. Instead they each were picked up by the patrolmen and carried to a waiting van at the entrance. From there the van would carry them to the processing center about thirty miles away.
The truck tried to approach the entrance again, only to be greeted with the same resistance. Again and again the same actions were taken and vans filled up quickly while strikers and sympathizers sang, cheered and clapped for their heroes.
The atmosphere was desperate, yet joyful. Hopeful yet hopeless; the big and powerful against the small and kicking.
Some Episcopal clergy and a Catholic nun, along with other supporters, spoke to the crowd from a flatbed behind the picket line.
Encouragement and support letters were read from the Presiding Bishop of the U.S. Episcopal Church, the Most Rev. Edmund L. Browning; the Bishop of Southwest Virginia, Rev. Walter Sullivan.
All stressed the importance of justice, but a justice that could only be achieved through nonviolent processes.
The letter from the Presiding Bishop said in part: "....We know that psychological violence has been done to those who now suffer from the unbearable anxiety and desperation of being cut off from support systems which they counted on to be there for them in their sickness, their disabilities and their retirement. But if that violence, as well as the physical violence which some would incite for their own purposes, is to be overcome, it can only be through the non-violent way of the peacemaker.
"We therefore urge you to be steadfast witnesses to the abiding truth of that Gospel claim. Through non-violence, you will permit others to participate and assist in the healing and reconciliation of all people in this place. By your actions, you can give all those affected by these events the grounds for hope because your commitment to nonviolence will be rooted in the only power that can ultimately bring reconciliation, the power of God's eternal love."
I stood by Gail Gentry, a disabled miner who had worked seven years in the mine before an accident that put him in a wheelchair the rest of his life. He lives on workman's compensation and Social Security Disability. His wife and children have no benefits. Like so many of the other strikers that day, he too wheeled his chair out into the middle of the entrance to become the 2,000th person to be arrested since the strike began April 5th.
As Gentry parked his wheelchair there in front of an oncoming coal truck the crowd knelt and prayed for justice for the miners, their families and retirees. The truck stopped. Gentry was arrested and wheeled into a waiting patrol car and driven away while proud wife snapped pictures of him.
Tears filled the eyes of some of the more sentimental strikers' wives as they chanted, "We won't go back, we won't go back" over and over.
By now trucks were passing into the plant and out of it while management and union people filmed everything the other did.
After a short walk back to the car for our packed lunches, we strolled back to the strike site as the union sympathizers (most of my contemporaries) organized to take their turns sitting in the oil-soaked road in front of the oncoming trucks. My soul went out to them as they put their actions were their faith was --- on the line.
And they too were carried off by the troopers in a waiting buss (this time). two groups of sympathizers sat in for the strikers and were prepared to pay their individual fines later when they would have to return for a hearing (now scheduled as far as December).
The clergy were questioned by TV news personnel as they climbed aboard the bus. One said this was an action he had to take, comparing his action to those of the Biblical Issiah.
As the bus pulled off, the Rev. Jim Lewis of Raleigh stuck his thumbs up out of the bus window, grinning from ear to ear, like perhaps there was hope after all.
I could see that tom and Charlotte were getting hot and tired by now. I wanted to stay, but I did feel a little like a fish out of water.
I could sympathize with these strikers and their families. But could I empathize with them? Could my family live on $200 a week strike pay (and that may run out) while continuing to make mortgage and car payments and buy food (Strikers aren't eligible for food stamps.)? Could I come out there and strike day after day, rainy days or scorching days? Could I keep in my frustrations and remain nonviolent day in and day out?
I was a spectator, cheering for my team, but not participating in the game. What was worse, they wasn't a game. This remains Appalachian life.(Sit-downs have now been discontinued due to a hefty $3 million fine imposed on the union. Other means of civil disobedience and resistance have been implemented since the time of this writing --- 1989.)