Larry Gibson, the West Virginia activist who built a movement from his will to save a mountain, died Sunday from a heart attack while working on his home. He was 66 years old and had become the face of the fight against mountaintop removal. Gibson makes one of his last appearances in Chris Hedges’s and Joe Sacco’s new book, Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt. He toured Hedges and Sacco around his community and described what’s happened to the land:
“Living here as a boy I wasn’t any different than anybody else,” he said. “I thought I was the luckiest kid in the world, with nature. I could walk through the forest. I could hear the animals. I could hear the woods talk to me. Everywhere I looked there was life.… Now there is no life there. Only dust.”
When Gibson moved back to his family home on Kayford Mountain after being forced into retirement at General Motors, mountaintop removal was just gearing up. Thirty years later, 500 mountains across West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky have been stripped of trees and flattened. The constant explosions in one typical week in West Virginia, report Hedges and Sacco, equal the cumulative power of the blast over Hiroshima. The human toll from coal—from the emissions of dust, not to mention working in the mines—stands at 24,000 people a year lost to coal related diseases. Gibson told Hedges and Sacco: “That’s eight times bigger than the World Trade Center. Nobody say anything about that… Coal kills, everybody knows coal kills. But, you know, profit.”
I had a chance to talk with Chris Hedges about Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt soon after it came out. Part one of the transcript is posted below. In this conversation, Larry Gibson comes up as one of those who fights on against tremendous odds, regardless.
Over the years, Gibson’s home on Kayford was vandalized. One of his trailers was littered with gunshots. Two of his dogs were shot. He told Hedges and Sacco how in 2007, one of his family cemeteries was bulldozed in front of him by Massey Energy operators as he was giving a tour to visitors. Today, the campaign to end mountaintop removal, or MTR, has gained national attention, forcing the Obama administration’s EPA to issue new rules for protecting mountain streams. Those rules are now being challenged in court.
What kept Gibson going? He told the two authors:
I’m not a highly-brained guy here.… don’t have a lot of education. I just point at the common denominator of things: you screw up one thing, another is gonna fall, and if that falls something else is gonna fall, and how much more do we have to fall before we start saying, “Whoa, there’s something wrong here somewhere,” you know.
The Gibson family are encouraging people to donate in Gibson’s name to the nonprofit organization he founded: Keepers of the Mountains.
Chris Hedges is a Nation Institute Senior Fellow, and the co-author with graphic artist Joe Sacco of Days of Destruction Days of Revolt, just out from Nation Books. You can watch an excerpt of the interview here, or the full conversation here.
Laura Flanders: The last time I saw you, you were just setting out on this journey. You said, “We’re going to sacrifice zones.” What does that mean and why sacrifice zones?
Chris Hedges: These were the pockets of the country that were sacrificed first. West Virginia, the coal fields of West Virginia are probably the best example. Here you have the extraction of a natural resource by large corporations; these corporations are not based in West Virginia. I mean the utter degradation, destruction and the poisoning of the environment, impoverishment of those communities. Now with mountain top removal the obliteration, literally, of the Appalachian Mountains, and we flew over the Appalachian Mountains. You can’t get a sense of the devastation, hundreds of thousands of acres that have just become a wasteland.
Now you say Massey Energy has literally leveled land the size of Delaware over the last decade.
That’s right, and there’s no stop. They own everything, they own the systems of communication, they own the senators, the judges, the governors, they own everybody. And these people in this land have been sacrificed so that we in New York can leave lights on in office towers all night and use parking garage lots. They went first [the Appalachian Mountains], and as Karl Marx understood, unfettered, unregulated capitalism is a revolutionary force it has no self-imposed limits. So in business terms these pockets—that in essence they’ve harvested and destroyed—are left behind and then they move on to the rest of us. And we have to look very closely at these areas that went first to see what happens when you force human communities, families, ecosystems to kneel before the dictates of the marketplace, which, of course, is the fundamental ideology that has gripped the late stage of the American empire. It’s absurdity, but that’s it.
Is it really coming to all parts of the country? Your Appalachia story, that’s being leveled, people are inhaling coal dust, while in New York we’re getting great new anti-smoking regs.
Sure, and they’re poisoning your water reservoirs upstate with the fracking industry. And if you go up to Pennsylvania or New York and look at the lines, frackers are selling impoverished residents. They are no different from the sales pitches that were delivered to families that lived in southern West Virginia. We just want to buy the mineral rights on your ground and everything will be fine and you won’t notice anything and, of course, look what happened. So, quite literally, New York is about to feel the reverberations of this and we have not even touched upon the environmental crisis. The droughts that have ripped across the Midwestern United States, destroying huge percentages of our corn crop, this is a direct result of the addiction to fossil fuels and in particular coal. We’re not confronting it and we’re pretending it’s not happening. And so in a literal sense when you talk about not being affected, ten to fifteen years down the line, this whole sort of demented project of ceaseless exploitation and a refusal to confront the effects of an economy driven on fossil fuel is going to implode.
Why did you decide on this journey to take Joe Sacco, the graphic artist, who contributes extraordinary graphic images to this book?
Yeah, well, because all of these places are invisible. One of the fundamental points of this book was to make these people in these communities visible. We never see them. It’s the tawdry, the salacious, celebrity gossip. The few times we ever see poor people on television is when they are ridiculed and laughed, at whether that’s Jerry Springer, Jersey Shore, but we don’t see the struggle for dignity and self-respect for economic survival that has gripped perhaps now a third of the country. These people have been banished from our consciousness. Sacco can do things that a photographer can’t. He can give a kind of filmic quality to people’s lives and every time we got a great interview—one of those interviews that as a prose reporter that you cherish, I knew I had to turn it over to Joe. He would then draw it out and he would draw out people’s lives and you get a sense of the trajectory of where we began what happened where we went and where we are now.
We’ll talk about that trajectory. What you call the “days of destruction”—when did they begin?
Well, I guess what we’re dealing with is the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, which really started with westward expansion and the railroads, that’s why we begin with Pine Ridge because that’s where, in essence, America colonized itself before it went on to colonize the Philippines and Cuba, and of course, now Iraq and Afghanistan, and everywhere else. It was that project whereby everything was a commodity to exploit. The buffalo herds, the timber, the gold speculators and human beings who happened to be indigenous, Native Americans who stood in the way were slaughtered or moved into prisoner war camps. Originally, these Indian agencies were defined as prisoner-of-war camps, later became reservations. They were broken. They were made dependent, they lost the capacity to be self sufficient. I mean 95 percent of indigenous communities in the Americas were destroyed by the end of the nineteenth century. More immigrants were arriving in a week or a month in New York than were indigenous left on the western plain. So, that’s where it all started and it was this: Sitting Bull and others would ask do the white Europeans, do they hate the world? Because it was all about exploitation until exhaustion or collapse. And that dark ethic has essentially fueled the American empire since, it’s a kind of fusion of ceaseless, relentless, capitalist exploitation and empire that’s now sort of folded back in on us, and we’re watching those very forces cannibalize the country and destroy what’s left. Look at the assault on the middle class. The middle class is plunging rapidly into the kind of despair that has already been visited upon the working class. That’s the natural consequence of turning economic and political power over to forces that have no impediments on this drive to essentially squeeze every last drop of human life, and frankly, the life that sustains the planet for money.
Give us a specific. Going to your chapter "Day of Siege,” in Camden, New Jersey. George Norcross III: [the director of one the country’s largest insurance brokerages, whose company channeled most of the bailout funds that went to New Jersey municipalities. He’s also a major campaign contributor …] How does this white guy who doesn’t even live [in Camden] come to be what you described as the overlord of Camden?
Well, it’s a kind of window into the overlords that control the country. We often don’t see them. They tend to remain sort of faceless, and Norcross is a perfect example of how an oligarchic largely white power structure works. He is worth hundreds of millions of dollars. You can’t get a job, you can’t get an elected office in Camden unless you are a Norcross-approved candidate or worker. Because he is essentially the political boss of southern New Jersey, controls what reconstruction monies were designated for Camden, and he used them for his pet projects, in particular, his medical center Cooper Hospital. And then, of course, these become huge employers for construction firms, and public relations firms, and as the Philadelphia Inquirer has documented, these firms then give back to the Norcross machine to keep it running. And that’s a microcosm, that’s writ large throughout the country because on a national level it is utterly impossible for an American citizen to vote against the interests of Goldman Sachs, that’s what living in corporate state means.
Explain what you mean by that.
It means that we have devolved into what Sheldon Wolin calls inverted totalitarianism. It’s not classical totalitarianism; it doesn’t find its expression through a demagogue or a charismatic leader but through the anonymity of the corporate state. That in inverted totalitarianism, you have corporate forces that purport to be loyal to the Constitution and electoral politics and the iconography of the language and American patriotism, and yet internally have seized all levels of power, so the Supreme Court is just a wholly owned corporate subsidiary. Our legislative branch passes pieces of legislation that are written by corporate lobbyists. And if anyone so much as whispers against corporate interests or fails to pay them enough deference, which is what Obama has failed to do, they destroy them. Which is what they are doing to Obama, I mean Obama in my mind could not have been more obsequious to corporate power, but he wasn’t obsequious enough. And so they’re throwing him overboard and these PACs are very pernicious, not only in their ability to influence elections, determine the outcome of the Wisconsin recall, which was a classic example of what we shouldn’t be doing, we should have gone the other way towards a general strike and stayed out of the power system because we cannot win there anymore. But every elected official knows that once they’re in office that if they dare challenge, even in an incredibly minor way, what corporations want, they are finished.
Obama is still getting plenty of Wall Street money.
He’s not getting as much as Romney. I mean he’s not getting as much as he got in 2008. Remember the Democrats got more Wall Street money than the Republican Party.
Coming back to revolt and resistance, in every place that you go, in all of these sacrifice zones there’s a story—it’s often one of Joe’s stories—of somebody who is resisting. What is the distinguishing factor, I’m thinking of the two women Mary Miller and Pauline Canterbury in Appalachia. What makes some people decide that they’re going to do something?
Well, Hannah Arendt has a great essay about that in Responsibility and Judgment, where she says that it’s finally those people who carry out acts of moral resistance are not those who say, “I oughtn’t or I shouldn’t, but those who say I can’t.” There’s just something within them, whether their dignity or their sense of outrage, their anger, that they just won’t play the game, and that was perhaps one of the most moving parts of the book, because everywhere we went, and these were some of the pockets of the worse despair in the United States, and of course, the worst poverty. Camden per capita is the poorest city in the United States, Pine Ridge second-poorest county in the United States. The average life expectancy of a male in Pine Ridge is 48, it is the lowest in the Western Hemisphere outside of Haiti, and yet these magnificent figures rise up. West Virginia—they’re all over the place—Larry Gibson, Maria Gunnoe and the great Judy Bonds who we went to her memorial service when we were there. They fight back, primarily as individuals, but they don’t give up and yet they have stark and maybe kind of dark view of power and what their chances are, they’re not blinded at all, they’re not deluded.
But the picture that you get is of huge historic forces against a few individuals. Is there anything in the middle? What about unions, what about other institutions of change?
Well, the only way to fight back is to build movements, and institutions, certainly if there is a kind of theme certainly in the West Virginia chapter it is the rise of the United Mine Workers Union that made a tremendous difference in the lives, health and empowerment of coal miners, and its rise and subsequent destruction.
It’s only, I think, when we begin to rebuild these movements which have been decimated, I mean just in the last few weeks we saw the Supreme Court pass this ruling which severely weakened public sector unions, which are the last redoubt of union activity, there’s nothing left now. There’s no way to stop these corporate forces, and that’s why hundreds, of thousands of Americans have lost their unemployment benefits, which means how many tens of thousands are going to lose their homes. The reverberations of these consequences: cities going bankrupt, whether it’s Stockton, California, or Scranton, Pennsylvania. They will just eat us alive, and the only way to fight back is by building mass movements which is why the last chapter ends with the Occupy movement.
That really is, as Howard Zinn understood, the fundamental lesson of American history. We were never set up as a popular democracy. All of the openings within the democratic process were fought for bitterly, and often lethally between movements and those in power whether that was the suffragists or the labor movement or the Liberty Party that fought slavery, the civil rights movement, and if we don’t rebuild those movements, we are going to be rapidly—we already are very far gone—being rapidly reconfigured into a kind of neo-feudalistic state with a rapacious, corporate, oligarchic class that uses increasingly harsh and draconian forms of control, the iron heel, to keep us in place.
Going back to the foundations of the state, a lot of people would look at the American Revolution and say that was a revolution by small-business people who felt edged out by big business people meaning the East India Company and the British Empire. With slavery at the root (the commoditization of the people)—maybe democracy is not our destiny.
The disease is not so much the system—which was a system that really locked the disempowered out quite consciously, whether it was Native Americans, African-Americans, women, people without property—I think it’s the disease of empire. We’re following a very familiar trajectory of dying empires, where you expand beyond your capacity to sustain empire and yourself.
Empire’s tend to hollow themselves out from the inside. And the decay is palpable around us: closing schools, libraries, fire departments, a real unemployment rate when you count people who have stopped looking for work or people who have poorly paid part-time jobs that put them below the poverty level, most people at Walmart only work twenty-eight hours a week, you’re talking 17 to 20 percent long-term unemployment. So the response of empire—and we’ve seen it with the militarization of police forces—and a passage of a series of measures, whether it’s the FISA Amendment Act, whether it’s the radical interpretation of the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force Act which Obama thinks permits him to assassinate American citizens and their 16-year-old children two weeks later, whether it’s the National Defense Authorization Act and I sued Obama in federal court and won, but that allowed the military to arrest American citizens, hold them without due process in military facilities until the end of hostilities.
In all of this you see a decline of empire?
Yes, without question and the familiar patterns that come with the end of empire. Whether it’s the Roman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire or the Ottoman Empire—you have rapacious, immoral elites who retreat into their version of Versailles or the Forbidden City—and they end up consuming their own. One of the engines of the French Revolution was when Louis XVI started revoking the patents of the nobility and reselling them, they eat their own. In the same way that CEOs, in order for personal enrichment, are quite willing to take down their own companies and of course defraud their shareholders, when you reach that point it’s a kind of terminal point.
They decline, they eat their own, what do the rest of us do? Are we yet beyond the point where we can, as some have written, reclaim our own measure of a man, dream our own dreams? Reclaim our sense of identity, of humanity, given that we’ve let so much be sacrificed?
This is why we are going to have to radically reconfigure our relationship to each other and to the planet. [The] corporate forces that control our systems of communication—that have degraded our universities and systems of education into vocational schools—are determined that we don’t think that way. We sort of just march forward as cogs, and that’s the power of Occupy that they did begin to ask the right questions, and however imperfectly, attempted to build structures of governance where voices that were traditionally not heard were heard, and not only were heard but were given a kind of prominence. Can we pull ourselves from out of the brink, I don’t know.
This is part one of the transcript of my conversation with Chris Hedges. For part two, join the mailing list at GRITtv.org.