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Everything on and about my person had been coated in a thick film of stale tobacco smoke. After 30 days, 10,000 miles and 4 cartons of cigarettes, the air inside the cabin of my car had obtained the same translucence and acridity as a backwoods bowling alley—a fact greatly aided by the fact that I had been using old energy drink cans and soda bottles as makeshift ashtrays in an attempt to not attract the attention of state troopers or start the next major American wildfire. It also didn't help matters much that I had only done one proper load of laundry since I started my road trip and that I had spent the past 10 days or so in the South, a place where folks frequently tell the Surgeon General to get bent and let you light up in their restaurant or bar or hotel room. I had just spent the night at a Super 8 motel in Fort Chiswell, a little highway exit town nestled in the vestigial tail of Virginia about 45 minutes west of Blacksburg. It would be the last time I stayed in the South proper on my trip, so I naturally spent a good two hours that evening enjoying the unparalleled sublimity of smoking in the prone position in a bed, soaking in what Richard Klein calls the, “darkly beautiful, inevitably painful pleasure that arises from some intimation of eternity.”

I woke up the next morning and hastily got dressed so that I wouldn't be late for a meeting I was having in Kanawha County, West Virginia with an environmentalist friend of mine who was going to ruin an otherwise pleasant morning by taking me off into the wild blue yonder to show me what it looks like when coal companies spend a couple of decades detonating three million pounds of explosives a day in an attempt to literally blow the tops off of mountains in Appalachia. In my haste to get back on the road and up to the meeting spot on time, I had forgotten to get my usual morning energy drink and had to drive on caffeinated fumes for the first half hour, powered only by a half-full bottle of flat Diet Mountain Dew from the night before until I reached the first travel plaza on the West Virginia Turnpike. Once there, I quickly ran in and bought the biggest, cheapest energy drink I could find and took a few swigs before returning to my car, where I found I had company. In the parking space next to mine was a West Virginia State Trooper idling in his navy blue and gold Crown Vic, with his goofy little Smokey the Bear hat cocked at such angle that I couldn't see the eyes that were probably looking over at me. Even though I had done nothing illegal, I still got all nervous and clammy-handed when I saw the trooper and gave him my best “nothing to see here, officer” nod before very slowly backing out and heading back onto the turnpike.

West Virginia State Police & Other Strike Busters in Logan, WV Circa 1921

Like many highway patrols and state police agencies, the West Virginia State Police was originally created as a paramilitary organization in 1919 to help discourage union organizing among the state's coal miners. Previous to the establishment of the WV State Police, the National Guard was the government's go-to when it came time to rein in organized labor and put a stop to all the proletarian hell raising that was going on in the coal fields, but the Guard's deployment during World War I provided the state's governor with an opportunity to successfully advocate for the creation of a statewide police force.  

Within a year, the state troopers were helping federal troops to enforce martial law in several of the coal rich counties in the southernmost part of the state—counties where the United Mine Workers Association had focused a substantial portion of their labor organizing efforts. Over the next several years, federal troops would come and go as situations escalated and deflated, but the state patrol was there to stay and they would prove to be a sort of wrecking crew designed to deny West Virginian coal miners' their sacred and unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Among some of the troopers greatest hits were:

- Sending undercover state police into Southern WV mines to try and expose all the commies and wobblies that were running about.

- Jailing miners for reading union literature.

- Appointing men with significant ties to coal companies to serve on committees responsible for the selection of hundreds of “impartial” volunteer state policemen

- Killing an unarmed man while he had his hands above his head and was asking god for mercy immediately before destroying an entire tent city and unjustly imprisoning 56 people in a single 20' x 40' room with four backed up toilets and a couple inches of filthy, stagnant water on the ground.

With that type of wanton disregard for humanity as prologue, perhaps we should be grateful that most of the injustices carried out by the West Virginia State Police today are relegated to the realm of racial profiling. To be fair to the state police, they were probably pretty far down on most miner's shit lists back I those days. Sure, troopers would try and enforce martial law every now and again, but there really weren't that many of them to deal with. In their early years, enrollment ranged anywhere from 113 to 210 troopers for the entire state and any time the miners had any considerable success against the state police and the coal company's hired goons, the governor would quite literally call in the cavalry and get federal troops to take control of the situation. No, ironically enough, the biggest threats to the livelihoods of West Virginia's coal miners were—and still are—the coal companies themselves. The only difference between then and now is that King Coal has changed their principle mode of screwing over their workforce from using the company store and hired toughs to lobbying in Washington and exploiting loopholes in the US bankruptcy code.

For example the West Virginia Turnpike exit that I was going to get off at for my meeting was situated in the southernmost tip of Kanawha County between Paint Creek and Cabin Creek—two waterways that were once home to nearly 100 separate coal mines that employed 7,500 workers and housed 35,000 people in nearby coal camps. For a miner, living in a coal camp meant signing your entire life away to the coal company you worked for. Everything—from the house you lived in to the streets you walked to work on to the water you drank and the school you sent your children to—was owned by the company. Your whole life was lived in a monopoly. If you wanted to buy some groceries or a kitchen table or a new pair of pants, there was only one option and that was the company store, a place where everything in sight is marked up well above retail price because the owners know that you don't have anywhere else to go. Oh, and if you were planning on walking 15 miles to the nearest town with a general store so you can comparison shop, you'd better think again because the coal company only pays you in their own company “scrip,” which isn't worth a damn thing at anyplace that isn't the company store.

In the spring of 1912, the miners of Cabin Creek and Paint Creek went on strike to protest the conditions they were forced to endure in the coal camps and sent their employers a list of demands that they would need to be met before they would begin working again. Included among these demands were a cessation of the scrip system that required them to use the company store, along with the right to unionize, the right to free speech and peaceably assembly, and essentially a few items that would prevent the companies from cheating them out of their rightful pay. In response to the miners perfectly reasonable demands, the coal companies hired some 300 “mine guards” from the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency, a private company who had carved a nice little niche for themselves as the muscle for King Coal. When they contracted Baldwin-Felts for a job, it was well understood by all parties involved that they were not there to guard a damn thing. They were there to beat, to maim, to terrorize and, quite frequently, to kill.

A Picture of a Miner's Camp at Mucklow, WV

The callous brutality of the Baldwin-Felts men and the coal companies that hired them was put on full display for the world to see in February of 1913, when several mine guards and a coal operator named Quinn Morgan tried to incite a riot by driving an armored train car—affectionately known as the Bull Moose Special—past the main miners tent camp in Holly Grove and spraying the residents there with machine gun fire. Only one person was killed and several more badly wounded, but it is not so much the scale of violence that is so appalling in this instance as it is the manner in which it was carried out. To drive an armored train in the dead of night with the sole purpose of firing a gatling gun at an unsuspecting community of men, women and children who have been forced to live in tents after you yourself kicked them out of their homes, is beyond unconscionable; it's subhuman. Then again, a conscience was probably a foreign concept to Morgan, who was reported to have yelled out after passing the tent camp, “let us go back and get another round.” So it was that the state that was forged in the fires of fratricidal conflict would be condemned to remain in such a state more than 50 years after its founding. As M. Michelson put it in a piece written for Everybody's Magazine shortly after the Bull Moose incident:

“There is now being waged in West Virginia a civil war. A real war. It is a war against feudalism in which five thousand armed coal-miners are opposed by the entire military organization of the state...It has been the genuine article, with a half-dozen pitched battles, an interesting quota of bloodshed, and a sufficient amount of legal quackery, official injustice and governmental despotism to make the average man wonder whether he was living in the United States or in one of the remote districts of Siberia.”
The author spends a good amount of time towards the conclusion of his piece speaking in reverent tones about the perseverance and grit of the miners and their families who had been striking for well over a year despite a dearth of substantive gains and odds that were stacked mightily against them. Among the many obstacles these miners were made to face were a governor who was openly antagonistic towards them, a court system that was determined to make an example of them through draconian sentencing, and an infinitely corruptible legislature in Charleston that was about to fill the US senate seat formerly occupied by an exorbitantly wealthy coal baron and industrialist with yet another exorbitantly wealthy coal baron and industrialist. After going through this litany of systematic injustice and oppression, Michelson was led to wonder how this could be happening now, “in the United States of 1912-13 A.D.!”(italics his).

Thankfully, the author's been dead and gone for at least half a century by now, because I sure as shit don't have the heart to tell the guy that the United States of 2012-13 A.D. ain't much better.

Originally posted to Virally Suppressed on Mon May 19, 2014 at 07:24 PM PDT.

Also republished by Hellraisers Journal, In Support of Labor and Unions, History for Kossacks, and Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  A great fictional account of this piece of ... (6+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    6412093, DWG, unfangus, Lujane, Lefty Ladig, Dbug

    history can be found in the John Sayles movie, Matewan. It's got it all: Red-baiting, religion, company gun thugs, white vs. black, native-born vs. immigrant. Even the director himself gets into the act with his over-the-top portrayal of the hard-shell Baptist preacher.

    "Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius." -- Arnaud Amaury

    by terremoto on Mon May 19, 2014 at 07:57:08 PM PDT

  •  John L. Lewis (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    6412093, mcstowy, unfangus, Lujane

    For all the vilification of John L. Lewis during his lifetime, I wish there was some way we could learn how he survived all this violence.

    Sure, after 1935 things got a little easier with the National Labor Relations Act.  But from 1919 to 1935, he must have been to hell and back.

    To his credit, he never tried to fight mechanization of the mines.  He had seen too many deaths otherwise.

    Are things better now?  Well a lot fewer miners die traumatic deaths.   Slow death, maybe still a lot.

    I'm from Johnson City.

    by Al Fondy on Mon May 19, 2014 at 08:17:36 PM PDT

    •  Our West Virginia Labor History (0+ / 0-)

      Lewis wasn't directly involved in the violence. The strikes during the teens and 20's were at the local level, particularly District 17 of the UMWA. In fact, following Blair Mountain and the Treason Trials, the leaders of District 17 fell out of favor with Lewis and were removed by Lewis. By the Depression, UMWA membership dwindled to a few thousand.

      It wasn't until WW2, when Lewis could essentially "hold up" the US government for better rights for miners, that the UMWA flourished. As for mechanization, Lewis wasn't trying to save miners' lives, he was trading off some jobs (little did he realize how many) for retirement benefits, better health benefits and more job security for the existing miners. Of course, at that time, mechanization was long wall mining machines to be used underground; later strip miners and today's mountaintop removal miners are pretty much nothing more than construction workers running shovels and trucks.

      Some useful links from the West Virginia Encyclopedia:

      John L. Lewis
      UMWA
      Bill Blizzard
      Paint Creek-Cabin Creek Strike
      The Miners' March

  •  Excellent Diary (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    6412093, TomFromNJ, Lujane, Lefty Ladig

    A story that needs to be told and repeated.

    “Without a struggle, there can be no progress.” ― Frederick Douglass

    by TrueBlueMountaineer on Mon May 19, 2014 at 08:33:02 PM PDT

  •  Great Diary (4+ / 0-)

    and it touches on just a few years of a hundred-plus-year-struggle.  The epic Massey coal wars of the 1980s also took place in those very hills.

    “The answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.” ― Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

    by 6412093 on Mon May 19, 2014 at 09:29:11 PM PDT

  •  The Stockholm Syndrome... (5+ / 0-)

    After 200 years of lumber and coal barons hijacking our government, trashing our environment, killing our workers, and impoverishing our population, West Virginians have finally woken up and realized who the real enemy is:

    Obama and the EPA.

    •  Bitter but Gospel True... (0+ / 0-)

      And I've lived here half my life.

    •  The real enemy (0+ / 0-)

      Is the very out-of-state concerns that hire and kill our workers, rape our land and ship all of the money out of state.

      The State is rapidly passing under the control of large foreign and non-resident land owners. We welcome into our State the immigrant who comes to us with the idea of home seeking and home building with all its profits to the State, with its family ties, with its clearing of the forests, its building of church and school house, its expenditure of all that is made in our State, and its exercise of citizenship. But the men who today are purchasing the immense areas of the most valuable lands in the State, are not citizens and have only purchased in order that they may carry to their distant homes in the North, the usufruct of the lands of West Virginia, thus depleting the State of its wealth to build grandeur and splendor in other States. In a few years at the present rate of progress, we will occupy the same position of vassalage to the North and East that Ireland does to England, and to some extent, for the same reasons.
      Governor William A. MacCorkle
      Inaugural Address, March 4, 1893
    •  Free market economics are starting.... (0+ / 0-)

      to play havoc with coal mining.  Gas is abundant, cheap, and cleaner than coal and utilities that have relied for years on coal burning plants and stiff-armed state and federal attempts to rein in the acidic air pollution caused by their operation are finally changing fuel sources for no other reason than it makes economic sense AND gets the government off their backs.

      Pressure is on to slow export of coal, particularly to China.  Wind and solar investments in the US, while still a small part of the picture, are steadily growing....and as was noted in a recent diary, Germany is setting a global example by relying on these sources for more and more of their energy.

      Sometimes you bang your head against the corporate wall for years and suddenly realize that you are winning.....despite yourself.  This seems to be happening here.

      Similarly, as has been noted in several recent diaries...for all the attempts to educate an ignorant public about the risks of climate change, free market forces, in the form of insurance companies, may be taking the bull by the horns there as well.

      Their actuaries and risk assessment experts are no dummies.  They need to protect their corporate interests, and not setting rates and policies that recognize the growing risk of much larger and more frequent tornadoes, floods, storms, hurricanes, drought and other disasters would be a corporate disaster.

      The public is going to start seeing the results in both higher rates, or in some cases, inability to get coverage for assets deemed to be located in really risky places like barrier islands, low-lying shorelines, steep river valleys or steep slopes.

      The deniers will keep trying to deny, but the market will still have its way.  Sorry Koch brothers....time is NOT on your side.

      Free markets would be a great idea, if markets were actually free.

      by dweb8231 on Wed May 21, 2014 at 08:07:43 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Grim times indeed. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    JayRaye, Lujane

    JayRaye does an excellent historical report on this era here and at Hellraisers Journal IMO.

    "the northern lights have seen queer sights, but the queerest they ever did see. Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge, I cremated Sam McGee". - Robert Service, Bard of the Yukon

    by Joe Jackson on Tue May 20, 2014 at 07:29:18 AM PDT

  •  Wow (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    JayRaye, Lujane

    This is really powerful stuff.

     I wrote a diary here about the West Virginia coal miners.

    "The oppressors most powerful weapon is the mind of the oppressed." - Stephen Biko

    by gjohnsit on Tue May 20, 2014 at 08:36:11 AM PDT

  •  VS - We're a Long Way from Matewan - (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Virally Suppressed, 6412093

    The transition that goes unmentioned is the dramatic shift of WV from solidly Democratic to increasingly Republican over the past 20 years.

    100 years ago they hated the coal companies they worked for. Today, the few coal miners who remain are in the companies' pocket - - at least politically. And the vast majority of others who are not working in the coal industry seem to vote similarly.

    What happened? What happened to a Democratic Party that pushed for union representation, fair wages, health benefits, mine safety, and more? Instead, a large part of the national Democratic Party has adopted a "No Coal" agenda. And, not surprisingly, West Virginians have turned Republican - - and fast.

    But the reality is that no one speaks for West Virginia coal miners and their families any more. Nick Rahall doesn't really. At one time there was a Democratic bloc that could wrest concessions out of the coal corporations. That structure is long gone.

    I simply shake my head at those Kossacks who cannot understand why West Virginians have abandoned the Democratic party. Since 2008 there have been frequent aspersions of WV racism - yet, WV had the highest percentage for Johnson of any Southern state in 1964 and only a tiny fraction of support for Wallace in 1968 - less than Ohio, Indiana, or Michigan.

    No, it's pretty clear why West Virginia no longer votes Democratic.

    •  Voting Democratic is how we get rid of Republicans (0+ / 0-)

      Obama has a lot of areas where it seems like he would like to be more liberal, but isn't because of GOP obstruction. GITMO would be one.

      I honestly think he has a pretty difficult balancing act where on the one hand we see him supporting the Patriot Act, the Detainee Treatment Act, the Military Detention Act, FISA, the NSA, indefinite detention and the assassination of American citizens without trial simply on the basis of an accusation by what well may be Bush Neocon stay behinds in the CIA and other agencies, and on the other hand has the State Department tying human rights to foreign aid.

      He seems to have convinced the military that he can be trusted when it comes to covert actions and I imagine that was an uphill slog, he manages to do START and nuclear non proliferation while staying out of Iran despite Israels best political maneuvering with liberal New York Senators and other Senators of similar sympathies and concerns.

      He has similar problems with evangelicals, Catholics, and others over a woman's right to choose, equal pay for equal work, contraception, not having outrageous waiting periods, ultrasounds, requirements to bear a rapists child.

      He can't deal with all of that with executive orders, He can't maintain a majority in the Senate and ever hope to get the House back and push Obamacare, marriage equality, marijuana legalization, woman's rights, GLBT rights, oppose privatization of prisons and long sentences for smoking pot, fend off austerity, stop the Keystone pipeline, address climate change and still get the 50 or so stalled appointments confirmed without which he still has, George Bush stay behinds running departments.

      The whole 11 dimensional chess thing seems right to me. Obama doesn't tell you what he's doing or thinking when he goes to take out Osama, but that there is a critical path is evident.

      For example the Amercian recovery and Reinvestment Act built the infrastructure to provide the healthcare that he intended to have in place to serve millions of new customers under the Affordable care Act.

      Before he can tackle the Keystone Pipeline, Carbon recapture, Climate Change mediation and environmental protection he had to get enough alternative energy projects up and running that he could point to that as an alternative to the drill baby drill chants.

      Democrats generally know all that, but for Senators and Representatives who represent Districts and States what their local constituents want may be to sell out to the corpocracy on the best terms they can get and too often that leaves Obama to fight the Republican obstruction on his own.

      "la vida no vale nada un lugar solita" "The Limits of Control Jim Jarmusch

      by rktect on Wed May 21, 2014 at 04:40:54 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Don't knock Rahall (0+ / 0-)

      He's my congressman and I like him.

      If you are saying that Even Jenkins the turncoat who is running against him would be a better pick you have your head up your you know what.

      Jenkins was my state senator, over the years I both called and wrote his office on a number of issues and he NEVER ONCE wrote back!!!  

      You write Rahall and you get a response.  

      I'm not sure if you are a republican shill or what but I did not appreciate your dig at Rahall.

    •  Trouble is WV voters appear ignorant... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      johnnygunn

      of market forces and how much the coal industry has lied to them.

      In 2012 I would drive the back roads of W. Pennsylvania and see rows of yard signs beomoaning Obama's "War on Coal."  Billboards along major highways repeated the message and rather naturally, Obama didn't do well out there in the woods.

      But nobody is telling folks there that they are on the wrong side of economics as natural gas....abundant, cheap and cleaner, is flooding the market and killing what they feel is the only viable employment opportunity available to them.

      Unfortunately there are precious few politicians, union officials and community leaders who are doing what they should.....educating them to reality and also pressing for new training programs to create new job opportunities.... especially in RENWABLE energy.  The hills are already dotted with wind turbines in PA....many more are needed and with them the jobs to construct and maintain them, and the jobs to upgrade the power grid.

      But nobody is doing that.  Instead, they are blaming it all on Obama, voting for the GOP and watching their region suffer the consequences.

      Free markets would be a great idea, if markets were actually free.

      by dweb8231 on Wed May 21, 2014 at 08:13:03 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Although I Agree with You in Principle - (0+ / 0-)

        I'm not sure the label "ignorant" will win many of them back.
        Also, retraining programs are often simply window-dressing for corporate pull-outs. And very little real help to 50-year old men without only a H.S. education - or less.

  •  excellent diary ! (0+ / 0-)

    wow.  glad i stumbled on it.   I'll keep an eye out for your
    work.
      Reminds of a less bitter Jim Kunstler.  

    ecstatically baffled

    by el vasco on Wed May 21, 2014 at 05:18:30 AM PDT

  •  Virally Supressed (0+ / 0-)

    You want to talk Shantytown?

    The next time you are in Charleston take Corridor G 119 out and get off the Alum Creek exit.

    Then drive out 119 till you see Merrit's Creek Road on your left.

    Drive out there a couple of miles and there is a shantytown that would not look out of place on the outskirts of South Africa or Haiti.

  •  Nicely written (0+ / 0-)

    and evocative diary.  There is a world of wisdom in the story of what happened to the communities of ordinary working people in the mining regions of KY and WV over the past couple of hundred years.  I learned that when I read Harry Caudill's Night Comes to the Cumberlands, a book about the Cumberland Plateau region of KY, but equally applicable, I gather, to WV or TN. Now reading Robert Shogan's Battle of Blair Mountain and learning a great deal more about a part of American history almost never taught in school courses.

    I firmly believe there would be a lot less foolishness in our politics today if more people knew something about this region and its past.  

  •  V.S- Well done, again. (0+ / 0-)

    Your diaries are valuable. Please keep writing about the history of "labor" in the Mountain State.

    My God, it's full of stars!

    by nuthangerfarm on Wed May 21, 2014 at 07:41:52 PM PDT

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