After years of writing histories and biographies for young readers, Tricia Shapiro found herself in the summer of 2005 in the thick of a direct action campaign against mountaintop removal. She tells that story in Mountain Justice, a compelling close-to-the-ground account of how an unlikely coalition of anarchists and people who live in the Appalachian coal country came together to try to protect these mountains. She lives now on a small farm in the mountains west of Asheville, North Carolina, and we talked in Asheville one morning in late fall. –Carol Polsgrove, November 2011
So how did you get involved with the Mountain Justice Summer campaign?
Before that campaign began, back in 2004 for something else I was writing I had come across the topic of mountaintop removal and was going to write a small piece about that in another book. And what I was reading about, I could just not quite make sense of, because I grew up in Appalachia – in the northern end of the coalfields in Pennsylvania, and the mountains aren’t huge – and I was reading about these huge minesites, so I just went down to see if I could make sense of it.
I went to West Virginia and a couple of people – Maria Gunnoe and Bo Webb – showed me around. Bo showed me a view from Kayford Mountain of mountaintop removal sites that stretch for seventeen miles. I visited Maria’s home beneath a mountaintop removal site, and I saw Marsh Fork Elementary School, which sits beneath a huge coal-waste impoundment. I was struck by how Bo and Maria perceived this not just as a local problem, but as a symptom of bigger problems in America – using up the last nonrenewable resources in ways that are not only not helping us make a transition to what do we do when it all runs out, but trashing the landscape and making it more difficult to do anything there other than mine coal in the future.
That resonated with me, and we kept in touch, and when the campaign was being started to bring civil disobedience to the coalfields around this issue – to try to stop mountaintop removal, Bo was involved in getting that started up, and at the beginning of 2005 he sent out letters or emails or phone calls to everybody he knew, saying, “We’re starting this up – come help.”
And my response was “Well, what can I do? I’m a writer.” And he said, “Well, come write about us.” And I came down to one of their meetings – it was in the middle of February 2005 – and I proposed writing this book: “Give me permission to follow you guys around and write about it.” And they did. So from then on I was in effect an embedded reporter with the civil disobedience wing of the mountaintop removal campaign.
We kind of made that up as we went along. There was one general ground rule, which was if people didn’t want their names used, I wouldn’t use their names. So there were a lot of folks not identified by name in the book.
It helped that because I was writing a book the deadline was way out there somewhere, and nobody was doing anything but misdemeanors, so presumably everybody’s legal problems would all be sorted out before the book was published. So as long as I was careful about not letting my notes and tapes fall into the hands of law enforcement before all that was resolved and was willing to respect confidentiality when asked to do so, they were fine. As it turned out, the civil suits brought against activists in West Virginia by Massey Energy, and now by Alpha Natural Resources, Massey’s new owner, are still ongoing, which has made some of the accounts in my book something of a challenge for the lawyers representing those activists.
Did you show anybody what you’d written before you published the book?
Various drafts circulated to a good many people involved in the campaign.
Did anybody ask you to take stuff out? This book is so honest, and so straightforward. You talk about conflicts between individuals. Sometimes they’re named. Did anyone say, “Oh, I think you should take this out?”
There were people in Tennessee that were not happy about me publishing how things went around the Zeb Mountain action. But the reason I was given permission to do this book was there was a strong consensus in the campaign that the truth was on their side – that they didn’t have anything to hide. They were working on the side of the angels in this and it could only help them to have a truthful version of the campaign – what I saw when I followed them around.
And because you were originally from Pennsylvania, did they feel you were one of them?
The local people – yes, because my mother’s family has lived up the river from Pittsburgh since before the Civil War, and it’s culturally very similar to the rest of rural Appalachia, so local folks who’ve had that similar family background, especially those who were somewhat older, tended to see me as understanding where they were coming from because that’s where my family came from, too. A lot of the younger people involved in this campaign were not from around there, and because I was older and at the time when I came there I had been living in Connecticut, and I wasn’t part of the activist scene, I wasn’t perceived as one of them. I was really there as a reporter .
How did you get up to speed on the young anarchists – had you had anything to do with them? Because this book seems to me to do an incredibly good job of describing the way they think and how they behave.
I spent an awful lot of time with people listening to them and sitting in on their meetings – absorbing what was going on. I was trying to give a fair and accurate representation of where they were coming from. But I had to make a special effort to do it with folks that were rather more different from me. It was a lot easier to do it with some of the local folks in the coalfields. The first time I met Larry Gibson actually [his house, at Kayford, now sits on an island surrounded by mine devastation] he said, “You know we’re probably related somehow.” When we talked about our family backgrounds – that’s sort of a typical reaction I would get. But I was fifty then, and that makes me alien to someone in college or just out of college.
You were out there when they were mounting the action on Zeb Mountain in Tennessee. Did you feel endangered personally? Did you feel in danger of being arrested, and were you ready for that?
It was a really hard slog up that mountain that night, so I don’t think anybody was feeling so much afraid as just tired. People were nervous. It was a strenuous time getting up there, and there was a lot of worry about running late and so on. The possibility of getting arrested was very real. At one point we all realized that this wasn’t playing out the way we expected, which was that I would go in and then come out, and instead we were all there after the police had started arresting folks in another part of the site, and so I started participating in the discussions about how best to get off the mountain as a participant rather than as a reporter. When I got some teasing about that, I said, “ You know, I’m standing here about to get arrested with you guys – I think I should have a say in how we’re going to get off the mountain.” And then we laughed. No, I didn’t really worry much about it. If I got arrested, I got arrested. I would have been arrested for trespassing. It wasn’t very much to worry about.
Were you worried about your safety? The possibility of violence was certainly present in some of these scenes.
Not there, then, for me. Other people elsewhere on the Zeb mountain site – there was a pretty violent confrontation with some security folks down at the part of the action on the road. As for other places, I don’t know why, but I just went through this whole book being aware that there was danger but not really feeling very afraid, and I’m not sure why that’s so.
The police are sometimes surprisingly civil in this book. Sometimes they were sympathetic. Were you surprised at that?
I was expecting, certainly, hostility from mining companies and their employees, but I really didn’t know how it was going to play out with the police. A lot of this book takes place in really rural places, where everybody knows everybody, so the dynamics of how police relate to local people are maybe different from what you’d expect if you’re an anarchist going to a big street demonstration in the city.
Did you try very hard to talk to the counterprotestors? I know at one point you said they would talk to you more frankly but not on tape.
Sometimes, yes. It was very limited what people were willing to be quoted on on tape among coal company supporters, I think because they’re chronically in the habit of watching what they say for fear of repercussions.
How hard did you try to talk to the coal companies?
I gave up somewhere in the middle of summer because by then they knew who I was and what I was doing. Early on, before the campaign started doing public events, I really made an effort repeatedly to get interviews with representatives of several coal companies including Massey, and I could not got any response whatsoever from anybody.
What political lessons have you learned from doing this book?
I think the fact that we’re now toward the end of 2011 and folks have been trying to address all the ills of mountaintop removal for decades now, but really intensively for the better part of a decade, and mountaintop removal is still going on, tells me that the political system is broken – because in truth, every mountaintop removal operation is against existing law, it’s just that the coal companies have been given a pass on the Clean Water Act. No other business in the country is allowed to just fill in streams because they need a convenient place to dump things. We don’t need any big legal changes to fix this problem. If existing law were being enforced, this wouldn’t be going on. And the fact that people persistently for years and years and years, through every legal means, as well as trying to call attention to it through civil disobedience, haven’t been able to stop this, and to get compensation for the real damage that this practice has done to the people who live with it – this tells me that there’s something broken about the political system.
I also – I’m not sure – but I kind of worry whether civil disobedience works anymore in America, the way it worked for Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement. The whole point of bringing civil disobedience to the mountaintop removal campaign was to call attention to the problem – let people outside the region know it was going on, on the assumption that if people knew that this was going on in America, they would demand that it stop. And I’m not seeing that demand, and that worries me about my country.
What was your observation about how much press attention Mountain Justice Summer did get in the national media?
That’s been one of the real successes of the civil disobedience campaign. The difference is huge. Back in 2004, almost nobody outside the coalfields knew this was going on. Even the people who lived in the coalfields tended to think, “Oh, they’re stripmining up there again and I know what that’s about.” And really what they were thinking of was much smaller minesites – the way things were done in the 50s and 60s.
During this time you were mostly observing and listening and talking to people but not really being part of the organizing. But after Mountain Justice Summer, you did get involved, and you helped set up a house in Virginia for volunteers, and you write about that. And you’ve done other volunteer work since then. How did you make that decision to move from being observer to being involved? You hadn’t published the book yet.
At the time the people I was living with were moving away so I was needing to move anyway myself, and setting up a house for volunteers was something useful I could do, so I did it. I didn’t really see a conflict because I think what matters is that what I write is truthful, not what I might also be doing to help people I’m writing about. The nature of my activism in this has generally been to provide infrastructure or give people rides or cook or share information. I do a lot of networking also – connecting people with each other.
How do you think the book is being used for the movement, or can be in the future?
It’s useful for people who start doing anti-mountaintop removal work now and want to know what’s happened in the past – how this movement came about. It’s particularly useful for people who are interested in being involved in the civil disobedience end of it. This book covers that aspect of the mountaintop removal campaign from its beginnings. So for people who want background it’s useful. I generally make sure that whenever I know there’s a campaign house there’s a copy of it there.
And then you’ve been speaking a lot about the book. In how many places have you spoken?
A few dozen.
In how many states?
Lots – all around Appalachia and also up in New England. When I was organizing the book tour, I looked at the route that the Appalachian Trail took and saw where there were colleges near there, because there would be people there who cared about mountains.
I’ve had trouble finding reviews of this book, and my guess is that because it’s because your publisher is an anarchist press and that just knocked it right out of review consideration by mainstream media and maybe even some progressive media. How did you choose your publisher? Did you go first to AK Press [in Oakland, California] or did you have to shop around?
It took quite a bit of shopping around actually, and there were a lot of editors who read it and liked it but didn’t think they could sell enough copies.
Did you go through an agent or just directly?
Are you working on another book?
No. I may not do any more books just because so few people buy books anymore, it’s hard to justify putting the amount of time and effort into it. I need to make a living.
What do you do instead?
I’m focused mostly on homestead related stuff right now – developing infrastructure for having a bigger garden and feeding us more. We already heat with firewood, get our water from a spring uphill from the house, and our electricity from the sun, and all of that takes a good bit of work to keep going. I’m looking to over the next year launch a small-scale business selling medicinal forest herb products sustainably grown, harvested, and processed on the mountain where I live.
How much land do you have?
We have eleven acres, but we’re surrounded by thousands of acres of forest as well.
You and your husband?
Yes, me and my husband.
You published your children’s books under the name Tricia Andryszewski.
That was my first husband’s name. I started writing children’s books when I was married to him.
So when you switched names it wasn’t an attempt to rebrand yourself.
No – I’ve been Shapiro for quite some years. It makes sense to keep the same name for the children’s books because it’s the same market and they get reviewed well – librarians like them. There didn’t seem any point in confusing them with a new name.
But you’re not planning to write any more right now.
You’ve been writing a long time. Do you think you can break that habit?
(Laughing) I don’t know.
Any time I stop I get sad.
Yeah, it is sad. The fact that people have become accustomed to reading things they don’t pay for is only a temporary advantage for readers, because in the long run – I worry about the state of publishing more as a reader than as a writer. If it puts me out of business as a writer, that’s sad, but also I think about all the books that aren’t being written that I would like to read. And if we don’t develop a model that pays people to do that, then we’re not going to have those books to read. If you don’t pay people to report stories, then the stories that are written will tend to be ones that are easy to write – that you can do sitting on your butt behind a computer. I worry that most of the writing that we’re going to see in the future is by people who are academics who are paid by the universities with the expectation that they’ll publish. But I’d like also to read things that come from the point of view of folks who haven’t spent their entire life in academics.