Coal hard truths
Sacramento-born activist seeks justice in the mountains
Mattie Reitman went to the coal fields of West Virginia two years ago to listen to the experiences and concerns of residents living in the heart of coal country. There, in Appalachia, with the help of an approach called “deep listening,” Reitman dug into the issue of coal mining and mountaintop removal, and what he found was a source of human exploitation and ecological devastation.
“Coal comes from injustice,” he explained. “It’s stripped from indigenous lands and burned there and then shipped away.”
Born in Sacramento, Reitman, 25, moved when he was only 4 years old, living in Colorado, Florida, then New York, where he majored in women’s studies and sociology at Syracuse University. He returns to Sacramento every so often to visit family, most recently this past November, but he now calls Columbus, Ohio, home. That’s where he moved to be at the epicenter of the coal industry—the state has one of the highest concentrations of proposed coal-fired power plants in the country. Reitman felt there, in particular, he could make a difference as a community organizer.
People have lost their way, Reitman said. “We’re off track and we’ve lost our ability to work together for common solutions. To me, that’s what community organizers do.”
He started the statewide Ohio Student Environmental Coalition and volunteers with Mountain Justice, a group of grassroots activists who combat destructive coal-mining practices in the United States.
Appalachia, an area rich in biodiversity, boasts the second oldest mountain range in the world and stretches from New England to Alabama. The region also contains plentiful coal deposits. The Mountain Justice movement began four years ago in response to a boy in Virginia crushed by a boulder dislodged by mountaintop removal, a practice that involves clear-cutting forests, then blasting hundreds of feet off mountaintops with explosives. Leftover soil fills adjacent valleys and pollutes nearby streams.
Grassroots activists conduct listening projects by going door to door in Appalachian communities to understand the concerns of residents directly impacted by the coal industry.
“Deep listening is not something we practice in our society,” Reitman said. “People want to have good lives and control over their own lives. They want access to good air and water and health care.”
Although the majority of Appalachians hadn’t heard of clean energy, he said, they all agreed that if given an opportunity for a good-paying job in that industry, they’d take it. Mountain Justice’s holistic approach connects poverty alleviation with the development of a green-collar workforce.
“The thing that makes [Mountain Justice] different is it’s very people-oriented,” Reitman said. “It’s not just an environmental project, but more of a social-justice project.”
Mountain Justice takes on the corporations and governments largely responsible for global warming. This past summer, activists held a vigil at a surface coal-mining site on Zeb Mountain in Tennessee and trespassed over property lines. Last year, activists occupied the governor’s office of West Virginia to protest plans to build a coal silo adjacent to an elementary school, which resulted in 14 arrests. Reitman thinks it was unfortunate timing that he’d had to stay behind in the basement of a friend’s house, sick with the flu. He’s currently preparing for Mountain Justice Spring Break, which will take place in eastern Tennessee in March of next year.
The action follows another big event: Power Shift 2009, during which 10,000 young people are expected to fight the climate crisis, 1,000 of whom will hold politicians accountable by demonstrating at the coal-fired power plant that supplies the U.S. capital building in Washington, D.C.
“So many people, especially young people, are dying to work on real solutions,” Reitman said. “We are desperate for something new. If you look at the history of social movements … we help to expand the scope of what’s possible. And we are fearless about it.”
Former Vice President Al Gore and famed NASA climate scientist James Hansen both explicitly called for America’s youth to engage in acts of civil disobedience and direct action to stop coal-fired power plants. Young people, Reitman said, have been rising to the call again and again.
“We’re in a crisis,” he said. “And I’m excited that my generation has the opportunity to take that on.”