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?

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?


Posted in activism, anthropology, representation on October 26th, 2010 by Emily S. Channell-Justice

Most people who know me know my politics. And I like it that way.

Most people who know me and know that I do anthropology also know that I do a very politically-oriented sort of anthropology. Among the many parts of my life that I have been thinking about since I started grad school has been how to represent a volatile political situation in which a(n admittedly) biased researcher does in some sense want to give credence to a multi-faceted story; that is, how can I depict a situation in which I have my own political interests in a way that allows a multiplicity of voices, including those with whom I disagree?

Last week, my environmental anthropology class had a guest lecturer, Paige West, whose book Conservation is Our Government Now presents a discussion of the effects of conservation programs developed in the west and imposed in small villages in Papua New Guinea. While I won’t attempt to do her amazing and beautifully written book justice here, it does not have the overt, manifesto-like political action arguments that anthropologists have tended toward writing recently and toward which I typically gravitate. She made an active effort to explain and to problematize conservation in a way that would allow her work to be read by conservation biologists, among others – while she clearly challenges the effects their programs had on the Gimi people she works with, she never condemns their projects outright.

In her lecture, however, Dr. West discussed that she has major political opinions of conservation, of the conservation biologists she met in PNG, of the mining projects that have become common in PNG, and of broader neocolonial efforts of westerners to tell “Third Worlders” how to treat their nature as well as their selves.  But she didn’t want this to be the focus of the book, for numerous reasons, and she is working toward the idea that anthropologists shouldn’t necessarily view their research sites and subjects through our own politics.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the past week, and it came up again in our class. The facilitator of the class is Melissa Checker, whose work on an environmental justice group in Georgia has been one of the most influential enthnographies shaping my own work. Her work very clearly is of the activist anthropology genre, though she doesn’t completely exclude the perspective of the people against whom the group she write about are working. I don’t mean that these these two women are at odds with one another, but I do see two types of ethnography here. At what point do we try not to privilege one group over another, at what point do we attempt not to alienate diverging groups, and at what point do we sell out? When we’re talking about political issues, who are we most obliged to represent? Clearly, in both cases – and probably in most instances of political action and impact – one group has already been privileged. In my own work, coal companies have more power than activists or workers to propagate their own interests – but this doesn’t mean I can write them off and only talk to miners or environmentalists if I want to write an ‘accurate’ account of a situation. Indeed, I do hope that I will be able to talk to mining company representatives because this is a complex picture, and in some sense all these different perspectives are valid ones, even if I don’t agree with what a person or group is doing to achieve their ends. That said, can someone such as myself even access this group (who will surely know of my political leanings before agreeing to an interview), let alone write in a way that doesn’t simply attack them for their life’s work, which I might full well see as totally destructive? Does attempting to show all the sides take away from what I think is most important, which are the impacts of such destruction on less powerful people’s lives?

This brings to mind Laura Nader‘s seminal piece, “Up the Anthropologist”: Nader suggests that “studying up” and focusing on those in power can provide a different sort of insight than the one we gain from studying the powerless, one which anthropologists have neglected throughout the discipline’s history. This essay was published in 1972, and I think anthropologists still haven’t done justice to her idea – myself included. If our obligation is legitimate representation, then these are the sorts of complications to grapple with, no matter what our political leanings may be.

In the end, though, how much impact can an ethnography have? As Dr. West suggested, a book that doesn’t overly privilege one political agenda over another will be more widely consumed, though a more activist-style work may instigate more controversy and discussion within the discipline. If we want anthropology to leave the Ivory Tower, is it more important to be more politically loud in a more public way, or should we temper ourselves and attempt to challenge the worldview accepted by the interlocutors we view as negatively impacting a view of a group? Either way, we see ourselves as holding the knowledge of a certain kind of truth that only we are privy to and that we have to share with others – we’re really only choosing an audience.

Full References:

Checker, Melissa. 2005 Polluted Promises: Environmental Racism and the Search for Justice in a Southern Town. New York: NYU Press.

Nader, Laura. 1972 “Up the Anthropologist: Perspectives Gained from Studying Up” in In: Dell H. Hymes (Ed.) Reinventing Anthropology. New York: Pantheon Books: p. 284-311.

West, Paige. 2006. Conservation is our Government Now: The Politics of Ecology in Papua New Guinea. Durham: Duke University Press.

Repost: Blankenship vs. Kennedy vs. Tree Sitters vs. Science

Posted in activism, environmentalism, representation on May 7th, 2010 by Emily S. Channell-Justice

(originally posted January 23, 2010)

A lot of interesting things happened in West Virginia at the end of January. The CEO of Massey Energy, Don Blankenship, and Robert Kennedy, Jr. held a public debate on MTR and climate change at the University of Charleston while a tree-sit protest against Massey’s intended blasting of Coal River Mountain lasted for nine days, including the day of the debate, before the protesters descended and were immediately arrested. Earlier in the month, the journal Science published an eleven-author peer reviewed article condemning MTR, which, while significant, really only confirms the effects of MTR most people already knew. Hopefully this article does mean that a different realm of academics will take notice of MTR, but honestly I’m not sure there will be much more of an impact than that.

What I think is more interesting is the concurrence of this hugely important debate and the tree-sit protest. The debate is a long conversation but definitely worth listening to.

Now, I’m clearly not Don Blankenship’s biggest fan (if you read my last post, you can start to see why), but frankly I am not much impressed by Kennedy, either. Ever since I saw his film “Crimes Against Nature,” based on his book of the same title, in a large part I think I’ve had the same reaction to him that a lot of West Virginians have to outsiders who come into the state and think they have to speak for us because we can’t do it for ourselves. It doesn’t help that he loves to reinforce how much of a free-market capitalist he is; rather than considering alternatives to capitalism as much as he considers alternative energy sources, he’s convinced that pure capitalism would hold producers accountable for all the costs of production, and I just don’t think that’s feasible.

This debate began with Kennedy’s attempt to legitimize his presence in West Virginia in the first place, which doesn’t really extend much further than JFK’s War on Poverty beginning in the state and his own love for the mountains, and I certainly do appreciate his passionate plea to save the state I love, too. But of course, Blankenship knows the industry better than Kennedy, and he’s not a stupid guy: he’s able to talk about coal and its role in the growth of the US and that, if coal made us prosperous, we’ve got to keep mining to continue to prosper, which is something a single-industry state like West Virginia does like to hear. For much of this debate, these men are really just talking about completely different things – a lot of people have responded that Kennedy won the debate outright, but really there is absolutely no common ground and Kennedy is simply the more loquacious of the two.

This debate is just one element of a new discovery I’m having about Don Blankenship. People who are on his side like him because he’s from West Virginia, he’s worked in mining for six decades, and he’s only at the top of the coal chain because he got there himself. But he is also a liar; he also supported the apartheid state in South Africa; he also blames all the problems of the coal industry on the “enviros” like the out-of-state tree sitters. Not only did he state during the debate that strip mining causes no meaningful pollution (which was solidly disproven by the Science report on MTR), he also claimed that coal provides more to West Virginian communities than it takes away – even if that means paying people more than their homes are worth to get them to leave so Massey can blast more mountains. I’m pretty sure that mostly profits the absentee landowners who Massey leases the land from in order to be allowed to blast and mine it – there’s just about nothing in it for the West Virginia communities.

Last week I also got the chance to watch a great documentary called Mine War on Blackberry Creek (it’s only 30 minutes and really insightful) about a strike against Massey in 1984 in which Blankenship tries to justify Massey’s investment in multinationals who send jobs to South African mines to “help the people,” despite the fact that they must be paid less than American workers (otherwise why would they export the jobs at all?) and despite the fact that they are working in conditions of slave labor. Considering how he treats mine workers in West Virginia today, his statements through this documentary enlighten viewers to Blankenship’s longstanding obsession with productivity and profit.

It’s hard to tell with Blankenship: has he really kidded himself into thinking that these lies he’s telling himself are true, or does he know better and is really only speaking in the name of the coal industry and money? Somehow I think the latter is a bit more likely, especially considering that his conclusion in the debate was that the EPA’s regulations are unreasonable and that sustainable environmental policy and productivity are irreconcilable. But of course, that’s all because MTR doesn’t create any significant pollution…

But Kennedy is probably kidding himself when he says sustainability and productivity go hand in hand, at least if his definition of “productivity” is the same as Blankenship’s – which, considering how this debate went, it’s probably not. Kennedy’s correct in his facts about the coal industry’s decline as well as about alternative energy opportunities. He really does speak passionately about the destruction caused by MTR, and he certainly doesn’t ignore the human impact it has. Kennedy is more eloquent than Blankenship and probably is the best counterpart to Blankenship in this dominant-male style argument. But I think when Blankenship brings up the activists who aren’t from Appalachia who participate in direct action protests (like the tree sitters and their supporting cast, who came from as far away as New Orleans and Chicago), he’s including Kennedy in that realm of non-native folks who don’t actually get it. And this just brings me back to my first point: why does it have to be someone else speaking for West Virginia?

This choice seems to me to be a gender and class issue in large part. Why not have Blankenship debate with one of the people who has lived through the effects of his company’s practices and who knows Kennedy’s statistics equally well, if not more, and who work with organizations who aren’t just spouting rhetoric about alternative energy sources but actually organizing campaigns for them (like Coal River Mountain Watch – check out their great video)? Is it because many of them are women? Is it because many of them are poor? Is it because many of them are less educated? Is it because of his status as a wealthy white male that Kennedy is seen as of an equal to Blankenship and more fit to meet him in a direct debate (and let’s not forget the mediator, Dr. Ed Welch, president of the University of Charleston and a white man in a stable economic situation…)?

Kennedy may be smart, passionate, and a man with the means to speak out about MTR, but he’ll always be an outsider. And until Don Blankenship has the balls to get up on a stage in front of an enormous audience and on West Virginia public television and tell the people of Appalachia that Massey hasn’t polluted their communities, hasn’t forced them out of their homes, hasn’t stolen their jobs, and hasn’t destroyed their livelihoods – all without lying – then nothing has changed. And until it’s West Virginians sitting in the trees on Coal River Mountain at least alongside the “enviros” from out of state, then those actions remain ineffective. It’s time to stop putting on shows to prove how radically we all are convinced of our positions, Blankenship and Kennedy included, and actually do something to effect sustainable change in West Virginia. I also wouldn’t mind seeing Blankenship’s and Kennedy’s net worth combined and redistributed to the people of Appalachian coal towns, for starters…but I guess that wouldn’t be “purely capitalist” enough for either of them. At least there’s one thing they can agree on.

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