No Laughing Matter

Mountain Justice Summer takes it out of the woods and onto the streets

City Beat

If last week's Mountain Justice Summer Training Camp was a crash course in socio-environmental action, Saturday's hate rally in downtown Knoxville was its final exam.

Chris Irwin, the local environmental activist/lawyer who helped coordinate the United Mountain Defense-sponsored camp, says it was serendipity that a white-supremacist hate rally was scheduled to take place on the last day of MJS's camp. Held Monday, May 21 through Saturday, May 26 at the Narrow Ridge Earth Literacy Center in Norris, about 30 miles northeast of Knoxville, the camp was attended by about 150 volunteer activists from East Tennessee and across the country. Throughout the week, intensive workshops focused on subjects ranging from conflict resolution to environmental law, cultural sensitivity to sustainable activism.

The hate rally, staged by Vanguard News Network founder Alex Linder, gave the camp's participants an opportunity to put their skills to work in a real-life setting. â“Our people kept their code of non-violence in direct action,â” Irwin says. â“It was great training for everybody.â”

Their strategy? Show up dressed as clowns and literally laugh the demonstrators out of town.

Irwin recounts that every time the demonstrators shouted â“White power!,â” the clowns responded with confusion. â“White flour?,â” they'd ask, running in circles and throwing flour into the air. Visibly frustrated, the demonstrators repeated themselves, to which the clowns again intentionally misunderstood their wordsâ"â“White flowers?â” â“Wife power?â”â"and responded with smiles and merriment rather than anger, as though the rally was just an act the demonstrators were putting on for the clowns' own amusement.

Eventually, rally leader Linder was arrested for disorderly conduct, assault, resisting arrest and vandalism; his arraignment is set for June 4. The other 30 or so (estimates vary) demonstrators peaceably departed sometime thereafter.

It was a fitting end to a week of hard work and education, Irwin says. â“Everyone left with an incredible high,â” he explains. â“The camp went off without a hitch. It was just flawless.â”

In addition to workshops, the camp focused on actual fieldwork, taking participants out into the coal mines themselves. A flyover of the coalmines, sponsored by the Asheville-based non-profit conservation organization SouthWings, gave the campers a bird's-eye view of mountaintop removal's impact on the mountain landscape, and a morning spent testing area streams for toxins cultivated some disturbing results. â“We found a new, bright, electric-orange stream,â” Irwin says, shaking his head.

United Mountain Defense's ongoing Listening Project took campers out into communities impacted by mountaintop removal as well, going door to door to ask residents about how the mining practice affects their lives. Irwin clarifies that they're not pushing any environmental agendas on the residents but merely collecting their stories and letting them know that if they need help or information, UMD's door is always open. Irwin says UT Press has expressed an interest in publishing their stories in book form at some point in the future.

Irwin is proud to note that this year's camp was completely â“off the grid,â” meaning it didn't use a single watt of electricity or coal power, as Narrow Ridge's buildings are solar-powered. A note on the training camp's flyer warns campers not to bring anything that may need to be disposed of because trashcans would not be provided. Because the camp wasn't just talking the talk, with no action to back it up, Irwin says, â“It lent an additional element of credibility to what we're doing.â”

In its third year, MJS seems to be experiencing its most organized and mature incarnation yet. With footholds throughout Appalachia, the project stretches beyond Tennessee into Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia, each of whose mountain-range ecosystems have felt the impact of mountaintop removal. Irwin points out the diversity of this year's campers, who hailed from a broad range of professional and activist backgrounds and ranged in age from a 17-year-old to activists in their 50s.

This year's MJS calendar (available soon for viewing at www.mountain justicesummer.org) is packed with actions, benefits and additional educational opportunities. â“It's going to be a busy summer,â” Irwin says. â“But we're not going to quit until they quit strip-mining.â”

â" Leslie Wylie

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