On Contact: People's history of West Virginia
On the show this week, Chris Hedges talks to filmmaker and journalist, Eleanor Goldfield about her documentary, "Hard Road of Hope".
Goldfield’s documentary, "Hard Road of Hope", revisits West Virginia’s long tradition of radicalism and militant unionism, including the famed 1921 armed uprising, the largest since the Civil War, by some 10,000 coal miners at Blair Mountain who fought the repressive coal owners and their hired coal company gun thugs and militias. In 2018, the state’s 20,000 public school teachers and employees carried out a strike over low pay and high health-care costs, shutting down every public school in West Virginia until their demands were met. The strike inspired similar teacher strikes in Oklahoma, Colorado and Arizona. These contradictions, and what they mean for a nation fragmenting into antagonistic tribes, are explored in the documentary.
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Eleanor Goldfield: One of the problems is, is that people walk into places like West Virginia and they say, "Let me tell you what you need to know." Nobody wants to be talked to like they're stupid, you know. And I think that this is the problem is that people talk down to people a lot of the times particularly in these pro-White communities and they tell them it's your fault because you're a coal miner. Well, no, if your choices are work in coal or watch your family starve and go homeless I think anyone of us would make that despicable but necessary decision. So I think this understanding of where our solidarity actually lies and that is, you know, together in trying to survive and ultimately thrive as oppose to trying to draw these lines or these barriers that divide and conquer us in the name of the corporate state because they just love looking down at us and seeing us, you know, throwing stones at each other rather than punching up.
Chris Hedges: Bernie Sanders and the Democratic Primary Contest in West Virginia in 2016 won all of the state's 55 counties. And yet in the 2016 election Donald Trump took 68.5% of the vote, his largest share of the vote in any state against Hillary Clinton who received a paltry 26.4%. We don't know if the 2016 win by Sanders would've been repeated in 2020 since by the time of the Primary, Sanders had suspended his campaign. But the 2020 Presidential contest in West Virginia between Joe Biden and Donald Trump also saw a Trump landslide with Trump receiving 69% of the vote to Biden's 30%. West Virginia is the second poorest state in the nation between 2014 and 2017 the drug overdose death rate in West Virginia increased from a rate of 35.5 per 100,000 to 57.8 per 100,000 far exceeding any other state in the nation. The Center for Disease Control and prevention named 28 West Virginia counties in the nation's top 220 at risk counties for HIV and/or hepatitis C due to the opioid epidemic. Much of the Southern part of the state has been turned into a toxic waste dump by coal companies. But despite the fervent support for Trump, West Virginia also has a long tradition of radicalism and militant unionism including the famed 1921 armed uprising, the largest since the Civil War by some 10,000 coal miners at Blair Mountain who fought the repressive coal owners and their hired coal company gun thugs and militias. In 2018 the state's 20,000 public school teachers and employees carried out a strike over low pay and high health cost shutting down every public school in West Virginia until their demands were met. The strike inspired similar teacher strikes in Oklahoma, Colorado, and Arizona. These contradictions and what they mean for a nation fragmenting into antagonistic tribes are explored in the new documentary film Hard Road of Hope. Joining me to discuss Hard Road of Hope is the film's director, Eleanor Goldfield. So, as you know I wrote a chapter of Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt my book out of West Virginia. And I don't think it's too extreme to describe the landscape which you show in your film as apocalyptic layout what the devastations that--that's been done, what it looks like and what its consequences have been for the people who live there.
EG: Well, thank you so much for having me, Chris, I really appreciate it. And, yeah, the destruction is absolutely apocalyptic and as one of the folks in the film says, Paul Corbit Brown, he says that if you were to stretch out all of the destruction via mountain top removal it would stretch--it would be eight-tenths of a mile wide and it would reach from the White House to San Francisco. That's how much devastation has been caused just by mountain top removal which again is not--it's not the typical mining way that it's been done since, you know, the turn of the--turn of the century and the precipitated, you know, the mine wars that you mentioned. So the destruction just recently has been astronomical and not just from coal but from fracking as well and while fracking looks not as horrific from the air for instance as a--as a decapitated mountain does. The destruction is massive when you consider the, you know, the gathering pipelines, the amount of water that is used, or the amount of water that is poisoned via the fracking process. So West Virginia is, you know, it called in the film a resource colony and that's really how it was founded that's what it continues to be. It is being absolutely decimated by the coal industry and the oil and gas industry for the sake of corporate profit. And that continues not just in terms of the ecosystems there which Appalachia is the second most bio diverse region in the world. It's not just the ecosystems but of course the people who are part of the ecosystems and, you know, there's one--there's one place Prenter Hollow for instance that 98% of the people living there got gallbladder disease because of the poisoned water due to--due to coal mining processes. So, yeah, the devastation is both in terms of the natural resources and of course the people who live there.
CH: So we wanna be clear with mountain top removal you're blowing the tops off of mountains about 400 feet. And although they talk about reclamation there really is no reclamation. The--you mentioned the toxic waste, you've got billion gallon impoundment ponds filled with carcinogens, heavy metals, and then of course the water is poisoned, cancer is an epidemic. I remember going into the elementary schools and there are just rows of little inhalers in the nurse's office for the children. It is a totally devastated environment and yet and you deal with this in your film. It is for activists who rise up even within that environment, it's extremely hostile that there's this whole notion of Friends of Coal. And, you know, I'm--I'll let you talk about it but because there are so few jobs and when they talk about coal jobs what they're talking about is heavy equipment operators, 25-foot story tall drag lines which take the tops off of mountains. But that's where I wanna look at and I think your film does a good job of that kind of contradiction but talk about it. Talk about how yet even in the midst of all of this environmental degradation and the health effects and everything else you have this fervent defense of the coal companies themselves.
EG: Yeah, it's--the psychological aspect of that is really impressive and not in a good way. And Friends of Coal the organization that you mentioned was created by big coal. To create this cultural connection to coal that really precipitates the pride and oppression. You know, there's--people take pride in the fact that they get black lung, it means that they worked hard, you know, it means that they've done a good job to keep the lights on in the United States as a nation, you know. And in the film there's also a former coal miner who makes the distinction, you know, what they should--what people should be having, you know, bumpers stickers on their car that says "It's friends of coal miners." Not Friends of Coal because Friends of Coal means you're friends with the coal corporations. And friends of coal miners is a completely different story. But the deep propagandization which of course has also lead to, you know, this being a hotspot for Trump voters suggests that we've got--in the course of a couple of generations we've gone from people who, you know, would shudder if you said the word scab to people who proudly put out a Trump flag and are--and are proud of these right to work type laws and are proud to not have any regulation and see it as a cultural connection to the coal industry. And so this is also why it's become so difficult for renewable resources to make a foothold even with the people not just, you know, in terms of the politicians, that's a whole another story but in terms of the people. Because as somebody says in the film people feel when you're saying no to coal you're saying no to them as human beings because they have been brought up with this deep--this deep connection to coal that, "Oh, you are the machine that keeps the nation running. You are the machine that--you are the epoch of this predominantly White, you know, this White salt of the Earth worker that is this Americana, this American dream, this ideal." And so this has been really hammered home for folks. So when they--when they're told that coal is bad they take it actually personally. Which is why you see when a--when a coal company for instance completely railroads their workers and basically cuts them off without a dime, no back pay, no health insurance anything like that, they'll say, "Oh, that's a bad company." But coal overarchingly is good because look what it's done for us, you know, it fed our family and put our kid through schools and things like that. So it really, really speaks to the deep propagandization and of course the amputation of the past, you know, you--again you mentioned the mind wars people aren't taught about that, people aren't taught about the radicalism that they actually come from in that region and that, no, in fact the enemy is the coal companies, the enemy is the coal industry that tries--that has continued to try to oppress us for so long. They've been totally amputated from that past and the effects of an amputated past are very, very clear in West Virginia today.
CH: We should be clear on West Virginia the coal companies most of which are huge multinationals that are not headquartered in the state have managed to buy off all the politicians they vet and largely write or censor the textbooks so as you said people are not taught their own history, they control the courts. These were just utter--I was just stunned, it's utterly complete. And of course they have the resources to pump out this propaganda that at once as you said fosters this historical amnesia but also this notion of any criticism of coal becomes a kind of attack on West Virginia itself. And yet this was one of the most radical spots in the country. You had miners picking up Winchester rifles. And they finally sent in the US Air Force under Billy Mitchell to bomb them and the US Army. And you saw figures like Mother Jones coming down to speak to the miners, she was a hero to the miners. How would you say we got from that moment to a moment where these people are backing Trump, why did that happen?
EG: Yeah, there's a great quote from Wilma Steele who's in the film, she's the--she works with the Mine Wars Museum in Matewan, West Virginia which is, of course, where the Matewan Massacre happened and was pivotal in the mine wars. She said, "If you burn a man's house to the ground he'll rebuild, but if you take away his history then you take away any sense of who he is. And then you basically take away the person, the man." And I think that that is--that is incredibly important, this is of course something that, you know, that you've done a lot of work with too, is like the history of places and the--our collective understanding of history, obviously, dictates how we view our past and how we then build our future. And so it's been, you know, as you noted it's been a very distinct attempt and, you know, one that's worked well for them by the coal companies, to amputate people from this past. And instead say that, you know, for instance "Oh, if you like electricity then you like coal." As if that's the only way that we can get our energy. Or, you know, we have to be--we have to promote--it's kind of like Support Our Troops, like support our coal miners. We want them to have jobs right? And, you know, this combination which we see with the oil and gas industry too. It's about jobs and it's about energy. And if we did--if we get rid of coal then we will have neither of those and so the--instead of blaming, you know, the coal industry for giving people black lung and cutting regulations, people have started to blame, you know, for instance the EPA for having any regulations, as if their regulations were really stringent anyway. Same thing with Obama, they blamed Obama for placing, you know, "regulations" when in reality Obama like a lot of the Democrats do is they state that they're placing regulations when in reality they're, you know, they're fluff, like, for instance Obama's coal regulation was that you can't leave coal slurry that the toxic waste from coal washing, you can't leave that in an unlined Earth and dam for more than three years. Well guess what after three years there's not that much to clean up because it's already leached into the ground and into the ground water and everything. But then Obama gets to go out there and say, "I made a coal regulation." So this is--this is--this is classic Democrats and it's also classic coal industry to say, "Oh, look we're not the enemy. Look they're the enemy, they're trying to steal your jobs. They're trying to steal your livelihood." And that deep propagandization then as you noted because the politicians are chosen by coal, that that is then parroted by the politicians themselves. So people just continuously hear jobs, and jobs, and energy, and money, and you want your kids to eat right? So it becomes this, you know, this deep connection to that. And so you've--again, like, over the course of a few generations you go from, you know, Black and White mine workers marching together and firing on their--on their oppressors to people being proud of that oppression and having completely lost that trail of the radical past.
CH: Great. When we come back we'll continue our conversation about the contradictory roots of West Virginia with film director Eleanor Goldfield. Welcome back to On Contact. We continue our conversation about the contradictory roots of West Virginia with Eleanor Goldfield. So to what extent would you say that this shift was caused by a betrayal on the part of, in particular, the Democratic Party establishment? Because I think these people were betrayed.
EG: Absolutely. I think it's a deep betrayal of, you know, by the Democrats, by the system really. And I think that it's--it also speaks to the deepening connections between corporate America and the politicians themselves that there is really no--there's no--there's no line between them anymore and, you know, as Mussolini said that fascism should more rightly be called corporatism. It is this tightening of these connections that really start mimicking this sort of--this fascist enterprise. And part of that is a deep propaganda machine that is, you know, put out there on behalf of corporate America which is also on behalf of their, you know, their chosen politicians. And, of course, this is, you know, this is a similar story which is really the kind of--the point that I also wanted to make with the film is that this is an American story. You know, you--I've had people in Ohio, Colorado, California, Washington State tell me, "Oh, I recognize my story in this story." And so this is a story that's been replicated, you know, by industries all over the United States. You might be able to say that the coal industry has done it really to a--to a T that the oil and gas industry then gets to copy, which they are, but yeah, I think this betrayal runs very, very deep. And it's even more sickening to me and also to folks that I've talked to, not just in West Virginia, but primarily in the South which is where I grew up and also where I work a lot, is this feeling that it's particularly disgusting on the--on--with the case of the Democrats because the Republicans don't claim to care. They don't--they don't walk out there and say we really believe that Black Lives Matter or we really believe that workers' rights matter. They don't say any of that. The Democrats do however, so it's actually more sickening to folks that the Democrats are willing to stand there and say we believe in you and we want you to have healthcare, we want you to have living wage, and then don't do anything about it. And I think--I think that also--that also supports this sort of shift away from the Democratic Party and the shift towards Trump, but it also speaks to why, you know, as you mentioned in the introduction why Bernie was popular because he was speaking to people and speaking to their actual needs as opposed to this lip service that the Democrats are known for. So I think this is why you see people that would've voted for Bernie vote for Trump because of this deep seated distrust in particular in the Democratic Party for their decades of betrayal.
CH: I wrote a chapter in my last book, America: The Farewell Tour, out of Anderson, Indiana which was the center at one point of the GM--production of GM cars. They all moved to Monterrey, Mexico after NAFTA. And again, you had overwhelming support among old UAW workers for Bernie Sanders but then they voted for Trump. And I want to explore that but first, I just want to ask, which I think you addressed in the film, the left often writes off people from West Virginia. Much of my own family comes from Maine, rural Maine, as to use Hillary Clinton's words, you know, as deplorables, as just irredeemable racists, and I think you ask us to look at them in a different way.
EG: Yeah, absolutely. I grew up in North Carolina around, you know, poor White folks and I think that it's possibly one of the biggest pitfalls of leftism particularly environmental and labor rights organizations and movements that they write these people off because, you know, as a--as a good friend of mine Kiilu Nyasha once pointed out we can't do this without White folks. I hate to admit it but we can't. And so this idea that we should write these people off because they are poor, because they have been oppressed by the state and because they're, you know, misguided or miseducated, well, then what part of the United States would you be able to organize with? Because we've all been oppressed in different ways. We've all been lied to by the state. And I think one of the problems is, is that people walk into places like West Virginia and they say, "Let me tell you what you need to know." Nobody wants to be talked to like they're stupid, you know, and I think that this is the problem is that people talk down to people a lot of the times particularly in these poor White communities and they tell them it's your fault because you're a coal miner. Well, no, if your choices are work in coal or watch your family starve and go homeless, I think any one of us would make that despicable but necessary decision. So I think this understanding of where our solidarity actually lies and that is, you know, together in trying to survive and ultimately thrive as opposed to trying to draw these lines with these barriers that divide and conquer us in the name of the corporate state because they just love looking down at us and seeing us, you know, throwing stones at each other rather than punching up. So I think one of the things that I've learned, not just in West Virginia, but in places like Louisiana and North Carolina is, you know, walk into these communities and ask them what they--what they need and talk to them as a--as a--as a--as an equal, not talk down to them and say it's your fault that you're in this--in this horrible position because you work with X, or Y, or Z.
CH: Well, I think one of the attractions of Bernie Sanders' platform was that it would have dealt with the health crisis that is afflicting places like Southern West Virginia, not just the opioid addiction which is massive but also Black Lung Disease and then, of course, all of the diseases caused by environmental degradation, cancers as you pointed out, gallbladder problems, and he was proposing universal healthcare. So that addressed a real need and that's, of course, something now the Biden administration has walked away from.
EG: Yeah, absolutely. Well, Biden has basically said, you know, I am the Democratic Party and the Democratic Party does not believe in universal healthcare. And actually his "expansion" of the ACA, also known as Obamacare, would be more expensive than Obamacare already is. And it would also be more expensive than universal healthcare because when one out of every three dollars you spend is going to unnecessary administration costs, of course, it's going to be more expensive than just saying, yeah, you're born until you die, you just have healthcare. And this is something--again, this is something that really spoke to people in West Virginia because another, you know, another point is that a lot of people who have to claim bankruptcy do so because of medical costs and a lot of people who do that actually had insurance. So this idea that, you know, the ACA was affordable or caring is, of course, a lie. And a lot of people in West Virginia were anti, that I spoke to, were anti the Affordable Care Act because they recognized that it was neither affordable or caring. So when someone like Bernie Sanders came in and said actually, you know, forget these--all of this. You have to be this old to do this and this. Just forget all that. You should just have healthcare. That speaks to their needs, you know, these people that have very physical--physically demanding jobs and that are suffering from things like black lung. And not only that but, you know, as you mentioned, the opioid crisis have the need for pain management and things like that. This is--this was something that really spoke to them that, you know, oh, you don't actually have to continue working. You could leave your job and still have healthcare, which is, of course, a really sick way that people end up sticking with their job is just to maintain their healthcare. So yeah, these were--these were definitely things that people resonated with, not to mention the, you know, the idea of a just transition, the idea that, oh, maybe my kids won't get black lung when they're 40. Maybe they can actually work with something that's more sustainable or more green. The idea that all coal miners want to work and they want to, you know, perpetuate, this is also just a fallacy. A lot of people want to--want to move forward and progress and do a more renewable energy kind of platform and just don't see a way and don't trust the Democrats to take them there rightfully so.
CH: I saw the film as really a kind of cautionary message to the Democratic Party that the longer you fail to address the very pressing and immediate needs of an impoverished population, we're now talking half the country, you're right, that this is replicated in communities around the country, the more you're going to see people reach out to demagogues like Trump just out of pure frustration.
EG: Absolutely. And I believe it was Ajamu Baraka who recently posted that, you know, I hate to say it folks, but neo-liberalism is fascism. And these sort of policies, we see the same thing in Europe where I also spent some time growing up. Neo-liberal policies like austerity and things like that lead to fascism. And, you know, I think that that's very clear here and you have people reaching out, demanding or begging for legitimate progress and the Democrats are just falling back on this sort of, you know, the concepts of neo-liberalism while paying some lip service to the concepts of progress and people are not swayed by it. And so instead, they go to the party that seemed to have, you know, more strength, more of a spine, and then unfortunately the only choice there because of our really rigged two-party system is that the Republican Party which, you know, really houses overt fascism as opposed to neo-liberal brand of fascism that the Democrats have, and, you know, and those are your choices, it doesn't really leave a lot of--that doesn't leave a lot of space for things and again, like, with Trump, he actually did speak to people. He spoke to people from a different angle but he spoke to people about getting jobs and he actually saw them, you know, a former coal miner pointed out to me that, you know, Hillary Clinton never cared and it was so obvious. But Trump actually went there and he seemed to care. He seemed to look out at the crowd and say I see you, I hear you. We're going to bring back coal as if that's something you could even do. But the fact is that they felt that he cared. And so this is the--this is the same thing that they felt about Sanders. They actually felt seen and heard. And when neither party is really doing that but you have a figurehead like Trump that you feel is really hearing you, you're going to--you're going to go in that direction and I think you see that happening just like, you know, people have done in the past, so I think, yeah, it's incredibly dangerous the way that our system is set up and I don't expect the Democrats to listen. But what I do hope is kind of what the film points out too is that there are ways to make it politically untenable for either party to withstand the demands of the people. And that is embedded in the history of West Virginia and it's something that is continuing to be worked on presently.
CH: Great. That was Eleanor Goldfield, director of the documentary Hard Road of Hope. Thank you.
EG: Thank you.