What does a rural occupation look like?

Posted in activism on November 17th, 2011 by Emily S. Channell-Justice

I wasn’t at the N17 day of action today. I taught a class. And nearly all of my students showed up.

You may not think this is particularly radical, and perhaps it’s not and the 15 of us have jeopardized the entire movement. However, in our last class, we discussed how feasible it was to go to the protests this afternoon (our class has already made one group visit to OWS, and several students returned multiple times after that). Most of them had other classes before and after mine, and they said they’d be at school anyway. So, rather than wasting their evening, we had one of the most productive discussions I’ve heard among any students in my time at CUNY.

Many of them expressed their support, admiration, and hopefulness about OWS. Last month, we discussed in great detail the potentials of this leaderless, non-hierarchical movement. Now, many are wondering where OWS is headed — without demands, will it fall apart? Will it take violence before any real change can happen? How exactly can students participate in an effective way without jeopardizing the education they have worked to hard to get?

Somehow our discussion shifted to the New York- and urban-centric nature of the entire global movement. It seems to me that this movement is relevant only in places where geographically and demographically, large numbers of people can amass in central areas to be noticed and to take their protests to sites of power. While there is an ongoing Occupy Charleston movement in West Virginia’s capital, and Occupy Pennsylvania has spread across the state, I feel that a large majority of states’ populations are being left out simply because they are too spread out. There’s no subway to hop on to get to the protest for a few hours. It’s even questionable if there’s a place to occupy. Would Martinsburg occupy the library? the mall? the Wal-Mart?

Of course the issues that OWS raises impact rural populations. However, Occupy movements in big cities are neglecting to connect those issues to the plights of rural folks. Bank of America has been a target of protests — why not connect to the bank’s financing of mountaintop removal, which is an issue here in New York as much as it is in rural areas? One of my students suggested that we in Martinsburg occupy City Hall. But what about the even more rural places like Marlowe, Falling Waters, and the hundreds of other places that you can’t get to without a car?

Both because of access and because of the way issues are being tackled, rural communities are being excluded from what is being touted as the new global social movement. However, the exclusion of rural people from urban visions of Democrats and leftists — despite the radical histories of places like West Virginia — is what often pushes them towards right-wing politics. These rural communities are also part of the 99%. How can OWS start to include them?

Am I For Real? Academic authenticity and the future of anthropology

Posted in anthropology on September 12th, 2011 by Emily S. Channell-Justice

by Emily S. Channell and Kara Newhouse

Last week, I did an interview with my anthropology life partner, Kara Newhouse, on the future of anthropology. I’ve decided to share it here in full, and you can read the original post at Rogue Anthropologist.

Last week an anonymous person using a fake email address left a comment on one of my posts declaring that an undergraduate degree does not make me an anthropologist. In fact, I agree. A degree (bachelor’s or graduate) doesn’t necessarily mean a person will adopt and utilize anthropological perspectives. Rather, it is my ability to employ critical thinking about culture, socialization, power, and human relationships in my life and work that makes me an anthropologist.

Nevertheless, the comment did bother me. I am open to discussion and debate but not with people who leave derogatory comments anonymously. (Leaving a fake email means that the person wouldn’t receive notifications of any follow-up comments.) I find that to be as petty, offensive, and unproductive as the jerks who shout out truck or car windows at bicyclists just for the thrill of scaring them.

But rather than dwell on that negativity and waste my time defending my authenticity to an audience who likely agrees that education is about what you actually learn not the letters after your name, I decided to have a more positive conversation with my dear friend/anthropology life partner, Emily Channell, about the relevance of anthropology as well as its future. Emily is a PhD candidate at City University of New York, where she also teaches undergraduate anthropology courses.

KN: In our initial discussion about the comment on my blog, you noted that anthropology is seen as a dying discipline and said, “If we reject all the various forms of anthropologists, then we condemn anthropology to death.”

Why is anthropology considered a dying field, and what non-academic forms of anthropology do you find exciting?

EC: The question of whether or not anthropology is a dying field has been through a lot of debate. If we think of anthropology as the study of “culture,” then I think we can see both how it might stagnate and also the potential for non-academic forms of anthropology. If it remains exclusively for academia, then eventually anthropologists will run out of places to go, people to study, and things to say. But it also has an incredible ability to change over time.

I think kinship is a great way to look at the way anthropology can change. People studied kinship since the 19th century, then in the second part of the 20th century people considered it dead until David Schneider studied American kinship in 1968 (somehow no one had really thought of doing that before) and then critiqued the whole idea of kinship in 1984. And now kinship has been revisited over and over again to make it still relevant.

So anthropology has this amazing ability to reinvent itself. But, most of the time that reinvention remains in the ivory tower. This means that the image the public typically has of anthropologists is still that of Margaret Mead or Bronislaw Malinowski, even though our ideas are significantly different than theirs. I think anthropology is a dying field because it insists on being so bounded and remaining within academia—as if people on the streets can’t understand culture!

So the non-academic forms of anthropology that I find exciting are the ones that challenge any understanding of “culture” that anthropologists might have. It’s the way that any person can become an anthropologist if they look at the world with a critical eye. You don’t have to be able to draw a genealogy to do that—but you can understand that being “related” often more frequently means relying on someone when you need them, even if society doesn’t consider them your “kin,” for example.

KN: Hmm, so perhaps anthropologists a hundred years ago wouldn’t have considered David Schneider’s kinship studies legitimate?

EC: No, because they didn’t see studying the U.S.—except for Native Americans—as anthropology. Anthropologists then only wanted to study the “other,” the “exotic.” Studying the developed/urban/industrialized U.S. was the domain of sociology. Which leads to the point that only when anthropology and sociology stopped thinking of each other as mutually exclusive did studying the U.S. as an anthropologist become legitimate. And this led to very different conclusions than sociologists ever made.

KN: Trying to say what a field of study is and isn’t is so limiting! What do you think recent technology developments (video, blogging, etc.) have brought to anthropology? Besides new human behaviors to study of course.

EC: I think blogging is great! For me, it gives me a forum to have fulfilling and inspiring conversations with people—both academically trained and not!—in a way that I can’t do in an academic setting. It’s not to say that academic conversations are bad, but they can be frustrating because there’s always a sense of competition, even with your best friend, because you’re all trying to get the same publications and mentors and tenure. With blogging, you get a broader spectrum of opinion without the same focus on name-dropping and jargon.

As far as video technology, anthropology has relied on that for a long time, but as with other parts of the discipline, the significance of it has changed a lot. For people like Mead and Malinowski, it was another way of proving “they were there,” which was the basis for the authority of anthropology for a long time. Now I feel like people use visuals like video and photo to delve into another realm of anthropology. It’s yet another way we use our senses to critique the world around us, which I think is really integral to the continued relevance of anthropology.

KN: Good point about the long-time use of video and how it’s changed. What do you mean when you say people today use visuals to “delve into another realm of anthropology”?

EC: Previously film and video was used to prove authority and also the “exoticness” of people. Now that anthropologists have recognized the problems associated with that kind of voyeurism, photography and video have to be used as critique. So for example, in an ethnography about Native Alaskans, a picture of a “totem poll” and “cabin” aren’t used to show primitive dwellings—it’s a photo that shows state-sponsored “nativism” as tourist attraction because the house was built in the 1990s in a place where Native Alaskans don’t even live. So photos are used to enhance the arguments made by texts. It’s still used as another kind of proof, but proof of critique rather than strangeness.

KN: You noted that writing your blog gives you chances to have different conversations from the ones you have in class—are there ways that things your read from other blogs (anthropologists or otherwise) influence how you think about anthropology in the academic setting?

EC: I wish I could answer yes to that question, but if I’m honest then not really. Reading other blogs does two things for me.

The first is that it makes me think about my work in different ways, but these ways are often at odds with what academic anthropology thinks I should be doing. For academic anthropology, my ideas are my own until I publish them in a book or maybe share them in a small forum of other like-minded people. Putting my precious ideas on the internet for everyone to see is completely counter to the really possessive nature of academics. And I don’t really feel comfortable in classroom settings bringing up blogging or the conversations started there because you’ll inevitably get into a debate about whether blogging counts as anything at all. The academics who consider blogs anywhere near legitimate are very few and far between.

The second thing reading blogs does is just make me mad that academics have this attitude of superiority—that no matter how many blogs I write that are well-received or start great conversations, they are never going to “count” in the way publishing does. So it can be frustrating to get too excited about blogs sometimes, because for academic anthropology I think it’s a dead end. For anthropology in general, though, I think blogs are playing a significant role in keeping the discipline vibrant.

KN: That’s sort of depressing, but your distinction between academic anthropology and anthropology in general is really important, and that’s the part that’s optimistic! Can you elaborate more on the importance of an anthropology that isn’t limited to the academy?

EC: I always see anthropology as the study of the world around us — but the “around us” part doesn’t have to mean around the high-ranking institution.

Anthropologists are one set of people who are critical of inequalities. But even as we recognize that the U.S. doesn’t have equal access to education, we keep anthropology for ourselves, making it exclusive to those who have the means to access it. To me, this runs counter to the fundamental motivations of doing anthropology, and this is what has the potential to kill the discipline. If anthropology remains in the hands of those who are most powerful now — which, let’s face it, are white men, with a few women and people of color thrown in for equality’s sake—then it will become stagnant.

But opening the idea of anthropology to be something that anyone can use and do not only makes the discipline relevant, but it keeps it constantly shifting, changing, dynamic—all words anthropologists have used to describe culture, people, and history. I think we need to apply our own ideas to our discipline—we can absolutely believe that anthropology has its own epistemology, but that epistemology tells us that there isn’t one right way to think about the world. So letting more people “be” anthropologists is just one way to keep the discipline going, and going down an interesting path.

KN: Hell yeah! I sometimes forget that our undergrad training was uniquely rooted in the perspective that anthropology can and should be used to address the inequalities we study. I’m really grateful that we had professors who support and fight for that.

EC: Me too—they are a lot more difficult to find than I realized.

KN: Now that you’re a professor, what are some examples you like to share when talking about public anthropology with students?

EC: Well, mostly I start with trying to relate what anthropologists write about with their daily lives. I always try to focus at least partly on the U.S.—exotic examples can be fun, but only if students also make the connection between those “weird” people and the people they see every day. I try to recommend using an anthropological lens to look at problems they see with the world, to look at the structure that creates inequalities rather than just making generalizations about this type of person or that type of person.

As far as translating that into action, this is a dilemma I feel like all students right now are facing. They can see the uses of anthropological critiques, but where do they—and we—go from there? I think anthropologists of all shapes and sizes need to work on answering that question together, because not having a direction to apply what we learn can also really threaten the discipline.

KN: Yeah, I see what you mean about the dilemma students face over how to use their critical thinking skills. I like to tell the story of how when people asked what I would do with my anthro degree I’d respond “whatever I want!” Which was partly me being feisty but also partly that same crisis of not really knowing.

Now, two years later, I have followed that idea and found my anthropology training highly important to being a reflective journalist and teacher, but my younger self probably would’ve benefited from hearing from someone like me who still identifies as an anthropologist but isn’t in academia (or working at an international development agency, *shudder*).

In other words, attention public anthropology professors, I’m totally willing to be a guest speaker in your class!

EC: Haha, I really like what you say, though, and that it’s feisty. That’s a huge reason I want to do anthropology. I love teaching and research, but I can teach and research anything I want! And that’s amazing! That’s the greatest thing about anthropology.

But the biggest lack is the detachment between “academic” and “applied” jobs, the latter of which tend to just be development organizations or NGOs, like you say. And that can be really limiting to people who think through anthropology but don’t want to remain in the academy—they don’t get much respect from academics, so they’re resigned to a minimal variation in jobs they can actually use anthropology for. We need to make that change.

KN: Amen/women! Maybe we should write a paper about it.  …Just kidding!

EC: It’s funny you say that, because it’s so often the go-to answer for academics. Think outside that box!!

KN: Maybe I should start interviewing folks who studied anthropology and are doing other things and compile the responses here on my blog…

EC: That’s an interesting idea.

KN: Yeah, I think I would’ve appreciated it as a student.

EC: Doubts about anthropology are so often about relevance, and people in academic anthropology need to think about that or they will be really marginalized, no matter how smart and prolific they are.

KN: Powerful. Any other final thoughts or issues to address?

EC: Just that I think it’s a collective task—no one anthropologist is going to revitalize the discipline and bridge all the gaps that exist. We have to recognize the situation and think about how to make positive change together. And that future has the potential to be really, really bright!

KN: I agree. My rogue side has a tendency to strike out as an individual, but that doesn’t mean I’m not thrilled when I find others who are trying to accomplish the same goals…with our powers combined, and all that Captain Planet jazz.

EC: Yeah! And I think there are a lot of us who have the same goals.

KN: Here’s hoping that some of the others chime in on this discussion—and continue it in their corner of the world.

The Future of the Left, and a Tribute to Fernando Coronil

Posted in Uncategorized on August 29th, 2011 by Emily S. Channell-Justice

originally published at Facile Gestures

Last week, the world lost yet another incredible scholar far too soon. Fernando Coronil was more than an anthropologist: he married ethnography with Marxism and magical realism in an incomparable way. I was lucky enough to have a history of anthropological theory course with him my first semester of graduate school. Although I didn’t always see it that way at the time, in conversations we had over the next years I realized what a tremendous scholar Fernando was and the passion with which he saw the world. I’m not going to try to write an obituary — you should read Gary Wilder’s beautiful sentiments instead — but I do want to honor Fernando by discussing his last essay here.

It’s a contribution (includes PDF) to a series of books about Possible Futures, and it evokes some inspirational but also disheartening sentiments. Through an assessment of leftward movements in Latin America, Fernando analyzed the meaning of such a shift to the left and what possibilities it opens up for our ideas about the future. In the spirit of Fernando’s love of discussion and critique, I hope by summarizing his main points I will provide a small but vibrant forum for a conversation about the future of the left.

First, it’s important to highlight that the “left” is no more a static, bounded notion than “culture,” “women,” or “activism.” Fernando described it as “a fluid sign to identify actions directed toward universal equality and well-being and thus toward forms of political life without which these goals cannot be achieved, including democracy, diversity, justice, and freedom” (233). The “left” is always situated in and changing with time and space; there can be multiple “lefts” at a time. These “lefts” challenge the dominance of a Western narrative about capitalism and development because they suggest that capitalism isn’t always the best ensurer of justice and equality for all. A thriving democracy, in which all people have an equal say in what is best, will bring about the well-being that we desire.

This conception of the “left” posits what I see as two important points. The first is that the “left,” in whatever form it is realized, is more interested in the well-being of populations than is the “right,” in whatever form it takes. The second is that democracy is not a means to end but is the end in itself. The ideal of democracy is not flawed in itself (much like the ideal of communism, perhaps?) but it has been manifested falsely in the service of capitalism. If the “left” can successfully appropriate democracy from capitalism, then theoretically, “left” and “democracy” may begin to coincide and work as a political system. Democracy would serve as the mechanism of equality in such a world.

If this “left” recognizes the problems capitalism has imposed on democracy — which Fernando claimed leftward movements in Latin America did — then this leftward shift opens up a significant and legitimate space through which to challenge the power of global capitalism. But, as Fernando wrote, this critique of capitalism paradoxically accepts the necessity of capitalism for the time being. The future, while it is imagined as a “better place,” offers no more concrete suggestion than riding the tides of capitalism until things can change. We don’t know what the particularities of the future will look like: “there is a pervasive uncertainty with respect to the specific form of the ideal future. While there is an intense desire to change the nation, it is not clear what to desire — what are realistic aspirations, how to connect desire and reality” (234).

We know that the future won’t be capitalism. But what feasible options do we have for the here and now to get to that point? How can we work toward the future if we aren’t sure what the future looks like? Furthermore, how do we keep our faith in the “left” and democracy and social equality if we don’t know how to put all three together in the name of well-being for all? And how long must we remain in the rut of capitalism until that future arrives?

I want to bring up two final points of contention. The first is in Fernando’s faith in democracy. For a long time I have wondered if there is a way to make democracy work. I still don’t know the answer, but I was surprised that Fernando was so convinced — are you?

Secondly, Fernando seemed to think that the interests and goals of the “left” will triumph someday. This is absolutely not to say that the Left will become the new form of hegemony, as global capitalism is now, but that concern for equality and well-being will win out over amassing wealth in the hands of the few. But nowhere did he make a suggestion about reconciliation between “left” and “right” in the name of equality. I’ve always had the idea that we need to come together in some capacity in order to create a better political system. Does a shift leftward exclude the people who previously excluded the left? Or is a reconciliation between left and right assumed in the recreation of democracy?

I imagine that Fernando left some of these questions unanswered — I think he wrote to provoke debate as much as to make a contribution to scholarship. And there certainly isn’t only one answer. So, in memory of Fernando and from all we learned from him, I end this post with his words:

“Politics will remain a battle of desires waged on an uneven terrain. But as long as people find themselves without a safe and dignified home in the world, utopian dreams will continue to proliferate, energizing struggles to build a world made of many worlds, where people can dream their futures without fear of waking up.” (264)

Are You an Environmentalist?

Posted in activism, environmentalism, politics, race on July 10th, 2011 by Emily S. Channell-Justice

Am I an environmentalist?

It depends on what you mean by that.

Going to college at American University — a school on environmentalism overload — I was under the impression that most university-aged students were concerned with “the environment.” However, twice since starting to teach at CUNY, I’ve attempted to get my students reading and talking about environmentalism of different kinds, and both times it has fallen pretty flat.

The first time, I assigned articles about corporate exploitation of environmental disasters (the Upper Big Branch mine disaster and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill). Initially, I found their lack of criticism about either event disconcerting but understandable, since both had happened far away from their urban New York homes. But one student’s assertion that they just didn’t really care about the environment — not even considering that there isn’t one single “environment” — made me angry.

This summer, I tried to make environmentalism more relevant, and I asked my introduction to cultural anthropology students to read an essay by Melissa Checker, whose work about an urban, African-American environmental group (HAPIC) from Georgia seemed like it would speak much more directly to my students. But I received a similar lack of response from most of them as I got before. One reason I think Checker’s work is so interesting is because of the way her interlocutors characterize the environment: it’s “where we live, work, and play.” Furthermore, they see their group as distinct from the mostly white, middle-class groups that typify environmentalism in the U.S. These groups are generally based more on an interest in conservation and “green” consumption practices — two activities that most members of groups like HAPIC can’t afford. They are concerned about environmental justice, in which improving the place where they live, work, and play will counter some of the inequalities they’ve suffered from for many years.

I felt that this description of the environment and who should be concerned about it would be much more interesting to my students. After all, this is the kind of environmentalism that concerns me. Interest in making places that people live healthy and safe for them and their families is relevant to all sorts of environments. But my impression of New York-style environmentalism is that it mostly revolves around bike lane controversies, organic restaurants and local food movements, and Greenpeace volunteers in your face asking for money all over Manhattan. Environmentalism in New York is not presented as a working-class issue. This isn’t to say that people of all backgrounds aren’t or can’t be environmentalists (check out Melissa Checker’s newer work on Staten Island), but it makes it understandable that the environment doesn’t resonate with most students. Most of their families are working class, and many are immigrants — environmentalism here is still seen as a bourgeois issue, and they don’t see themselves as participants.

So, what does it mean to label oneself an environmentalist? Several of the activists in the anti-mountaintop removal movement who I so admire — and who have been recognized by worldwide environmental organizations — have been hesitant to call themselves environmentalists because of the term’s association with exclusively white, middle-class clubs. A concern with environmental justice isn’t quite the same thing. If it’s not characterized as “environmentalism,” would it seem more approachable to my students? In the end, I think it’s impossible to convince them they should think about the environment in one or two classes; it would take a long and critical look at the different manifestations of the movement over time to move away from the assumptions people make about environmentalists. This is a project that I’ve been working on for years, and I still can’t decide if I’m part of that group.

Here’s where I ask for your input: do you consider yourself an environmentalist? Why or why not?

There’s still no such thing as a natural disaster

Posted in anthropology, law, mine safety, politics, union on April 5th, 2011 by Emily S. Channell-Justice

Not in the mines, anyway.

Today is the one-year anniversary of the explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal, WV, in which 29 miners died. As I wrote then, the investigation is ongoing – there is no consensus on what caused the explosion, nor on what should be done to prevent another. The chairman of Massey Energy, the company responsible for the Upper Big Branch facility, called the explosion a “natural disaster”.

Whether such a thing exists at all is up for debate (on this, I highly recommend Neil Smith’s article pertaining to the “naturalness” of the effects of Hurricane Katrina). But in the coal mines of West Virginia, where production is still valued over miners’ lives, this disaster is the furthest thing from natural. Describing it as such is just Massey’s most recent attempt to absolve itself of accountability for miners’ deaths.

Exactly a year after the explosion, my article critiquing mining disasters, safety laws, and corporate responsibility has been published in the April 2011 issue of North American Dialogue, the journal of the Society for the Anthropology of North America. For those who wish to read a condensed version, here is the short article I attempted to publish in online news journals (you may recall my failure on this account) which comes from the same research.

I won’t invoke the “never again” that has become a cliché in times like these, because, unfortunately, this will happen again. It will happen as long as we consume coal. More important, I think, is that these men never be forgotten and their deaths never, ever be erased by being called “natural.”


Martinsburg, WV (my hometown), photo by author

Mine! mine! mine!  How corporate self-interest trumped civic responsibility in Montcoal

by Emily S. Channell

Millions of gallons of oil streaming into the Gulf of Mexico since April 22 quickly swept aside news of the deaths of 29 miners in the April 5 mine explosion at Montcoal, West Virginia. Outside of the state, reporting on the details of the explosion and its causes has been minimal. A May 17 Newsweek article on the Deepwater Horizon spill even misreported the number of dead miners at Upper Big Branch to have been 25. The bad behavior of BP executives has trumped that of the top dogs at Massey Energy, the company that owns Upper Big Branch, even as a criminal inquiry into the explosion unfolds.

Industry executives present coal to energy consumers as a cheap, clean, domestic power source. This ignores the danger coal mining creates for miners and the destruction it causes to the natural environment. The demand for coal in the United States is enormous. According to the National Mining Association, half of U.S. electricity is coal-generated, and 90 percent of coal mined in the U.S. is used domestically. Mine owners stand to benefit from increasing production as the U.S. becomes more dependent on coal, and safety laws remain a barrier to their operations.

The explosion at Upper Big Branch was the worst mining disaster in the United States in 40 years. How can a coal mine, particularly one owned by the largest, richest coal mining company in West Virginia, allow such a disaster to happen? Both corporate leaders and government agencies benefit from a culture of impunity in mining regulations. The people who control the coal industry, like Massey CEO Don Blankenship, are above the law and are not held accountable for their actions. Furthermore, the law itself is not working. Miners have little power against such huge corporations, and the miners’ union is largely absent from underground mines in West Virginia because of company-led anti-union practices. Neither the government agency responsible for the laws (Mine Safety and Health Administration) nor the miners themselves can hold owners and operators accountable for their practices. This impunity is directly responsible for mining disasters and disregard for miners’ lives throughout Appalachia.

The Legacy of Archaic Regulations

The Federal Coal Mine Safety Act of 1969 and its 1977 amendments remain the standard for safety regulations in coal mines today. These laws require annual inspections for both underground and surface mines to monitor ventilation, methane levels, and coal dust prevalence, three factors that likely contributed to the explosion at Upper Big Branch. Coal production has tripled since 1970, but these standards have not been revised to reflect increased coal production. Additional laws created in 2006 in response to the Sago Mine disaster that killed 12 miners in West Virginia institute emergency planning and preparation standards in underground mines but do not change any regulations for coal mines. As coal corporations have consolidated into near-monopolies in Appalachia, owners and operators find numerous ways to get around safety laws both old and new.

Mine disasters still happen largely because federal mine safety regulations are insufficient and unenforced. The Upper Big Branch mine has received 124 citations from the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) for safety violations so far in 2010, on top of 515 citations in 2009. Most of these citations remain unresolved. Massey Energy contests 74 percent of the violations its mines receive from MSHA. The appeal process takes around 500 days to settle. During this process, the owners pay no fines and are not required to deal with the problem the citation targeted. Massey Energy amassed almost $1.2 billion by March 31 of this year, and the company was only charged $1.1 million in fines since January 2009. Because Massey can easily afford to pay the fines, its owners are not pressured to make their mines safer for workers.

The State of the Union

In West Virginia, where most people’s income is 24 percent below the national average, coal mining is still the most lucrative industry. Even for people with college degrees, coal mining offers the greatest income and benefits among available jobs in the southern part of the state, while most service-sector jobs are concentrated in urban hubs or in the Northern and Eastern Panhandles. Corporations such as Massey take advantage of this situation to keep their mines anti-union because they know people need the work and the money mining jobs provide. Miners who show interest in unionizing are frequently threatened or lose their jobs, as several miners testified at Congressional hearings in May of this year. Miners fear reporting obvious safety violations and taking measures to fix them for the same reasons.

Upper Big Branch was a union mine until 1993, when Don Blankenship bought it for Massey Energy. Blankenship disbanded the union until 1997, when the option to unionize was put to a vote. Massey ran a successful anti-union campaign, wherein the company threatened to fire miners who supported the union. The miners voted against union affiliation. In this climate, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) faces dwindling numbers of underground miners in West Virginia and across the country. In most of Massey’s 23 coal mining operations, where only four percent of miners are unionized, the UMWA has lost much of its power to protect laborers and to demand better practices from mining companies.

Will Further Inquiry Yield Change?

It would be far too hopeful to suggest that Massey risks going out of business based on a few criminal trials, but the company’s safety record is currently under serious scrutiny by West Virginia lawmakers as well as the federal government. The FBI has demanded a criminal inquiry into the explosion at Upper Big Branch. This investigation will examine the existence of negligence or reckless disregard on the part of Massey, potentially targeting the corporation and Don Blankenship directly.

As the inquiry plays out, the potential for new mine safety legislation and a real questioning of corporate impunity in West Virginia presents itself. The current administration should consider rewriting the 1977 mine safety laws to target insufficient legislation and loopholes that make enforcement nearly impossible. The laws should not let corporations and their leaders get away with unsafe practices that put miners’ lives in danger daily.

Lest We Forget

How quickly we forget, however, the relevance of the coal mining disaster to our daily lives. It is easy to rely on coal. It is easy to demand that West Virginia continue to produce coal because Appalachian coal is understood to be domestic, cheaply mined, and an efficient energy source. It is easy to forget that many in West Virginia may have no other option than to work in the mines and to encourage their family members to work in the mines.

It is easy to forget that miners in the 1920s gave their lives to win their right to form a union and that miners today give their lives because they do not have the right to challenge the safety practices of a gigantic corporation that is their best source of livelihood.

It is easy to ignore the structures of corporate power that make men such as Don Blankenship immune to justice. It is easy to see the human and environmental destruction done by Massey and BP alike as accidents rather than predictable results of the power of corporate capitalists to neglect people’s interests and escape governmental oversight. When we fail to challenge the structures that lead to these disasters, when we erase these memories, we contribute to the culture of impunity that caused 29 men to die at Montcoal in an entirely preventable disaster.


Building rapport with research

Posted in anthropology, Labrador, research on March 19th, 2011 by Emily S. Channell-Justice

Labrador flag

I returned from my travels at the end of February. It has taken me almost the entire month of March to readjust to the life of a student (as well as to non-freezing temperatures), but I finally feel ready to share a little bit about my experience and the post-return processing I’ve been doing. Not many graduate students get the opportunity to do research in their second year of work, if they ever get such a chance. While to some, it might seem useless to go to a place where I don’t want to focus my dissertation, I learned many valuable lessons about research in general. This is a tremendous insight for me to have, because it’s one of those aspects of being in academia that no one ever really tells you about. All the methods classes and mini-ethnographies in the world can’t actually place you in a funded, rigorous research setting in which the work has real impact on multiple levels.

The project I worked on in Canada is a social networks analysis of people’s connections to one another. In the two weeks I was there, I did nearly 50 interviews with people from all walks of life, some with lots to say and some with nothing to say. Spending 30 minutes in a room with a stranger who you, as researcher, have decided has something to say is an incredibly useful skill to develop. Many of the people we interviewed were a bit flabbergasted that anyone, especially a bunch of New Yorkers, would care at all about what they had to say. And some of them didn’t really have much to say. Here is the value in doing such a huge number of interviews: while there certainly are people who don’t share a lot of information, more people, who might shy away from interviews because they think their opinion is insignificant, actually have a lot to say if you can figure out how to get them to open up. We call it “building rapport” in anthropology, and it’s one of those things that you develop in a context like this one. Our interviews used the same form each time, but the best interviews weren’t from the people whose answers filled in the boxes best. They were the ones who told me a little about themselves, and then I picked up on something to get them to open up. Then, you’re  just having a conversation.

Those conversations are the spaces in which your ideas about a place develop. Doing research for someone else’s project, I don’t get much say in the direction of the work. But some of my better interviews showed me that sometimes, asking the same structured questions over and over aren’t actually going to get you anywhere, even if that’s “the project.” Part of doing research is allowing the research to do itself: why force someone to tell you who they drink with when what they really want to tell you is how they stopped drinking, got out of their bad relationship, and are now bringing up their daughter and taking care of their mother? Sometimes, it’s better to know how to maneuver a question to get someone to talk rather than how to utter a series of words so that you get an answer. That is when you actually learn something. And no one ever tells you that in class.

sunset over the Churchill River

While developing interviewing skills was a big part of the trip, simply being in a small town as a researcher is itself an experience. Going to the grocery store and seeing people you interviewed is itself a unique part of research. Setting aside your critical mind to go skiing or explore the country a little is also part of research, even if you’re in a place you already know. And for someone like me, who wants to do research in the place she came from, this could prove to be particularly interesting. How are things there going to seem different when I’m looking at them through the eyes of a researcher? What kind of relationships will I build with people there?

It’s important to note that I struggled with adopting the researcher’s eyes. No matter how “postcolonial” anthropology may think itself, the work that we do is still skewed by our interests, and we impose those interests where we do research. The questions we ask out interlocutors are informed by our biases, and learning how to ask questions better once you’re sitting across a table from someone doesn’t change the fact that the questions often don’t make sense to them and they way they live. Questions about traditions and customs are second nature to anthropologists, but when was the last time we thought of our lives in those terms? I enjoyed working as a researcher, and I’m looking forward to doing more of it in the future, but I’m also still coming to terms with what that means. I hope that most young anthropologists think about this process, though: we can’t just put on our researcher suits and churn out knowledge. Becoming a good researcher is a complex process, and it takes a lot of self-inquiry. I can’t say that one project has gotten me there, but I think I’m off to a good start.

Labrador Networks Project

Posted in Labrador on February 15th, 2011 by Emily S. Channell-Justice

As I mentioned before, I’m currently in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador, Canada until the end of the month. I’m working on a research project about people’s social networks here, and I’ve taken over the blog for the project for the time being. You can check it out here. It’s even got a link to some photos of the frozen north! Enjoy, and stay tuned for some big news in the next few months…!

Northern Lights

Posted in anthropology, Labrador on January 11th, 2011 by Emily S. Channell-Justice

The new year started with sad news, that of the death of Judy Bonds, one of West Virginia’s most respected, famed, and generous activists. Unfortunately I was never lucky enough to meet Judy, but her spirit and dedication permeate the movement against mountaintop removal in Appalachia – her memory will be a guiding light for the years to come.

There are a few West Virginia-based issues I’m thinking of writing about in the coming weeks, but for now, my energy has been focused north. Just about as north as you can imagine, really…

This semester, I have the great opportunity to travel with Professor Kirk Dombrowski (who I’ve worked with at John Jay College for about a year and a half) to Happy Valley-Goose Bay, the “hub” of Labrador, Canada, where he’s doing a research project in the town of about 8,000 people. Last spring, Kirk was in Nain, the northernmost town of Labrador, doing a study of social networks among a mostly Inuit population. In Goose Bay, we’ll be doing a similar study where we discuss different types of social networks – food sharing, traditional knowledge, kinship, alcohol co-use, housing, etc. – that people have in a bigger town with a much more mixed population (Innu, Inuit, Inuit Metis, white, etc.). I’ve been generating background research about the region for the entire time I’ve been working with Kirk, and now I’m in the process of analyzing the kinship data from the Nain project. Now I’ll be adding data from Goose Bay and hopefully expanding this network study.

I’ll be doing interviews with folks in Goose Bay for two weeks in February, which is not only a great chance to stretch my researcher wings but also to experience a really remote and misunderstood place. I say this because anthropologists have been dealing with Native American groups for nearly two centuries, and it’s only really maybe in the past two decades that we’ve really been able to portray them in a way that reflects the impact of white settlers on their populations. Because of relocations and land claims, most native groups in the US and Canada have been uprooted and squeezed onto small tracts of land with government-run schools and minimal job opportunities – rates of unemployment, alcoholism, domestic violence, and suicide are all quite high. Furthermore, extraction companies are recently attempting to come up with new land use agreements with native groups and the Canadian government that will allow them to mine for resources like uranium and nickel, providing some jobs but greatly impacting land and environment. By looking at people’s social networks, we’re hoping to try to understand a community based on the way that they see and use it, not the way that the Canadian Government has decided it should work.

While I doubt I will have much time for blogging while I’m there, I will definitely put a write-up of the experience here when I return. In the meantime, I highly suggest reading Anastasia Shkilnyk’s A Poison Stronger Than Love, which is about the Canadian Ojibwa and is an amazing book depicting the changes this group faced and the truly hideous things that happened to them again and again.

Shooting Blanks

Posted in law, mine safety, politics on December 5th, 2010 by Emily S. Channell-Justice

Being away from West Virginia sometimes means I am not up on the news. But yesterday I got a tip off and am reporting a breaking story: Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey for the past 10 years and a 30-year veteran of the company, is retiring at the end of the year. The cynical side of me thinks this is just a ploy by Massey: if they chance the face of the company, maybe the lawsuits and investigations will lose their energy and not much will change. The more optimistic side of me hopes that Massey will lose its clout without its miner-killing, law-breaking, Apartheid-supporting CEO.

Considering the year Massey has had, I guess I’m not surprised about this development. Since the April 5 Upper Big Branch disaster, Massey paid millions of dollars for a lawsuit after two miners were killed in a 2006 fire in the Aracoma Alma No. 1 mine; has another lawsuit ongoing from hundreds Mingo County residents whose water was poisoned by coal slurry chemicals, resulting in myriad health problems; and is closing the Freedom Energy No. 1 mine in Kentucky in response to MSHA’s lawsuit against the company’s ongoing safety violations, the first time ever that MSHA has taken this step despite the fact that this law has existed since the 1970s.

Before too much celebration commences – after all, Blankenship may well retire quietly without actually being held accountable for anything – we should recognize that none of these events actually fixes systemic problems.

Yes, they are unprecedented and, along with the changing face of West Virginia legislature after Robert Byrd’s death, open up a really incredible opportunity to make changes in the structure of mine safety legislation. The right combination of factors is here: the law is enforced, Massey is paying large sums of money to citizens affected by their poor practices, Blankenship is stepping down, and a new Senator represents the state to Congress.

But I remain concerned that each of these events will allow MSHA, Massey, and the US government to pretend like new faces and enforced practices mean turning over a new leaf when what they really signify is power being solidified in the same hands that already held it.

Is the closing of the Freedom mine a feeble attempt by Massey to show that they will respond to MSHA, calculating that once will be enough? Will the closing of this mine, which received over 2,000 MSHA citations since July 2008, be enough to get Massey back into MSHA’s good graces so that the status quo doesn’t actually have to change? The problem with this mine closing is that it means that many will be able to convince themselves that the laws do work. If the system doesn’t appear to be broken, then there is nothing to fix, and the laws will remain. Yet these are laws that haven’t been enforced since before they were created, so this one example of effectiveness doesn’t reflect the ease of corporate noncompliance built into the system.

This problem is exacerbated by the fact that Massey Energy is much bigger and much more terrifying than Don Blankenship alone. Blankenship is not the only reason Massey has poor practices. The company is worth millions, and their mining operations stretch all over Appalachia. Baxter Phillips, Blankenship’s successor, has been with Massey for longer than Blankenship, leading me to believe that this retirement isn’t about revamping the company.

This is all the more interesting because it comes just months after former governor Joe Manchin was sworn into West Virginia’s Senate seat that was previously occupied by Robert Byrd. Manchin has always been in the coal industry’s pocket, just like every other governor of West Virginia, and I doubt much will change in his term as a Senator. While anyone succeeding Byrd would have big shoes to fill, the aftermath of the Upper Big Branch disaster means Manchin will be making a name for himself early on, no matter what positions he takes on future legislative changes for mining. Will Manchin be more inclined to assert himself against the coal industry’s problematic behavior if he’s not working against Blankenship? Or will he remain the coal industry’s pushover, pro-corporate Democrat, lacking any kind of guts to stand up to Massey?

The bottom line is that the law needs to change. Regulations from the 1970s are no longer enough. The timing is auspicious, but will the new powerful few commit themselves to real, systemic change? I want to hope so – I want 2011 to be the year that goes into the legislative books with new coal mine safety regulations. So I won’t say no just yet.

Giving Thanks for Letter Writing Campaigns

Posted in Uncategorized on November 20th, 2010 by Emily S. Channell-Justice

I’m typically not too taken by letter writing campaigns. However, I was recently sent an email asking for urgent action against the proposed surface mine that would affect Blair Mountain, where the largest uprising in US labor history took place in 1921. If you have the time to print, sign, and send the form letter linked here or even write your own in the next few days (to be received by November 26), hopefully the WV Department of Environmental Protection will receive enough letters to think twice about issuing this permit.

Blair Mountain - from ilovemountains.org

The Aracoma Coal Company, a subsidiary of Massey Energy, is currently applying for a 554-acre surface mining permit that borders and intrudes into a section of the Blair Mountain battlefield. The application is in the public comment period, letters must be received by November 26th, and Friends of Blair Mountain is asking for your help in generating letters.

The group is pursuing a multi-faceted strategy in stopping this permit from being approved, and yall’s voices are essential. Below is all the information you’ll need to write a strong letter against this application being approved. Letters must be received no later than November 26, 2010.

Four main points:

–       Blair Mountain battlefield, site of second largest insurrection in US history, is a major part of American culture.

–       The Pine Fork surface mine would negatively impact both the battlefield and the viewshed area of the battlefield, both of which are protected due to the battlefield being eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

–       The area has not had any archaeological investigations undertaken, and has a high potential for containing significant archaeological resources. A full archaeological survey is needed to assess the extent of archaeological resources in the surface mine permit area.

–       With all the other mines in the area, the overall cumulative impact on the Blair Mountain battlefield and surrounding landscape would be severe.  Because the topography is integral to understanding the combatant’s movements, it is an archaeological ‘artifact’ in itself and should be protected.

Personal letters are always better, with your own perspective and reasons why you disagree with the permit being issued. But we know that time is limited, and writing letters can be a pain. For those who would rather send a form letter they can print out and sign, then click here.

Letters must include the applicant’s name (Aracoma Coal Company, Inc.) and the application number (S-5035-08). See example here. Letters must arrive no later than Nov. 26, 2010, and should be sent to:

Permit Supervisor

WV DEP Division of Mining and Reclamation

1101 George Kostas Dr.

Logan, WV 25601

Like I said, I’m typically a bit cynical about letter writing, but this site is tremendously important both in terms of historical memory and in its archaeological potential. Anything that can be done to protect Blair Mountain should be, and if letter writing is where we start, I think it’s frankly stupid not to contribute.

Here’s a segment from my paper on WV labor history discussing the Battle of Blair Mountain:

At the beginning of 1921, Sid Hatfield (the pro-union chief of police in Matewan, WV) and fifteen others were tried for the murder of Albert Felts in the Matewan Massacre, but a union-friendly jury acquitted all of them (Corbin 215); the only way the Baldwin-Felts men could see to get revenge was to take matters into their own hands, and, on August 1 of that year, two Baldwin-Felts guards gunned down the unarmed Hatfield on the steps of the McDowell County Courthouse (Batteau 112). What Batteau refers to as “the murder of this hero” (113) set off a string of protests in the miners’ camps in Mingo County, and armed miners began marching toward Blair Mountain, south of the state capital of Charleston. Estimates of the numbers of armed miners range from 5,000 to 20,000: Batteau suggests 10,000 (113), while Corbin increases this to between 15,000 and 20,000 (219). The previously mentioned blending of class and racial consciousness played out here among the “estimated 2,000 black miners, mainly union men from the Kanawha-New River Field” (Trotter 112) who marched on Blair Mountain.

The march to Blair Mountain was directed in large part toward Don Chafin, the sheriff of Logan County whose vehement anti-union activities, including commanding the army pitted against the miners at Blair Mountain, had earned him the ire of miners throughout the state. Chafin’s army was equipped with machine guns and bomber planes, as well as over 2,000 men. Yet the miners were not only organized across racial lines, they came together as disparate communities to form one, united group: “Exploitation, oppression, and injustice had created a common identity and solidarity among the miners, and their geographic mobility had turned the hundreds of seemingly isolated company towns into a single gigantic community,” writes Corbin (219). It was this mass combined with the complete secrecy about organization and leadership that allowed the miners to hold off Chafin’s army in a week-long fight to ascend Blair Mountain (Corbin 221). At the point that the miners were preparing to descend the mountain to Mingo and Logan Counties, the federal government was finally convinced to act, and President Harding ordered an additional 2,500 troops plus machine guns, bombs, and bomber planes to the region, and the miners were forced to surrender (Corbin 224). Though bombs were dropped, there were only around 100 deaths (Trotter 112) in what has been termed the largest armed labor uprising in United States history. Chafin kept his power, and the union was defeated, but this event remains one of the most significant moments in this country’s labor history.

Miners from all races and ethnicities as well as from widely unconnected geographic locations were able to come together to fight the dominant power, and the fact that they were unable to win simply proves the entrenchedness of the coal operators’ power structure, which has grown since the 1920s. In all the accounts I have encountered, writers insist on the sobriety and seriousness of the miners – this was not simply moonshinin’, guntotin’ rednecks’ attempt to fight the law, it was a highly organized battle that had a clear goal, and its fighters were outgunned and overpowered. Because the coal operators won, they were the ones who established how the story of Blair Mountain was retold and later how easily it was forgotten. Even today, coal owners would rather West Virginians forget this part of our history, because, without this event in our minds, it is easier to exploit the state and its people for coal – if we do not truly understand our own history, we have no real inspiration to stand up to coal companies today.

Please do show your support for the protection of this site. Thanks in advance to all of you who take the time to do this.

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