Archive for April, 2009|Monthly archive page

Duke’n it Out with King Coal: Victory on the Other Side of Cliffside

War takes many forms on this imperiled Earth. King Coal is one of the most profitable and destructive, particularly in the mountains of Appalachia.


As the storms of Climate Change gather strength, resistance to the War against Nature is rising and gaining power on all fronts. When presidential candidate Obama spoke in Asheville last October, his earnest campaign workers were careful to keep out any critical signs or banners.  As thousands gathered in the outdoor stadium, a large van painted with a Clean Coal message pulled up and parked close to the entrance touting the dirty lie.  Not to be daunted or censored, local war resisters secreted in a large banner:  “Appalachia Says, Don’t Betray Us—Clean Coal Kills.”  We unfurled it and held it high in full view of the candidate and thousands of his avid supporters. It took twenty minutes before Obama’s crowd controllers demanded we fold it up. Only when Barak left the stadium, did we comply and fold up the banner.

The movement to halt Mountaintop Removal coal mining and the deadly coal-fired energy plants, which it feeds, is growing rapidly. It is a movement of persistent activists who are increasingly willing to take personal risks on behalf of their planet. The Cliffside Climate Action Call to Conscience, in Charlotte this past weekend, should be a wake up call to King Coal that such crimes against the Earth and future generations will not be tolerated.

Its about power. It’s about money. It’s about who gets to decide, said Jim Warren of NC WARN addressing the crowd following an afternoon of Direct Action Training. The determination to stop Mountaintop Removal and Dirty Coal is uniting activists across many areas of struggle. There are some very powerful voices calling us to action.

 Mountainkeeper Larry Gibson is one. His family has lived on Kayford Mountain in West Virginia since the early 1700s. I’m against coal. Coal kills, he told the crowd assembled for Direct Action Training at the Unitarian Church in Charlotte. “I’ve been told I should be arrested for treason, I’ve been told that I was a radical, an extremist.  But how should I react to what has been happening around me all my life!

A 12,000-acre flattened moonscape, that used to be mountains, now surrounds his home. Where once he looked out on a panorama of mountain ridges above his home, his house is now the highest point around – amid the devastation of this strip-mine. His 50-acre property near Charleston is an oasis he regularly opens up to students and activists from throughout the world who come to witness the cost of our reliance on coal for electricity and to join the battle against King Coal

 I fully expect to get arrested tomorrow, Gibson continued, referencing the planned civil disobedience at Duke Energy.

I fully expect to lose my life in this struggle. I do it for you. I do it for the people coming behind me. I do it so they won’t take it all. I do it because it is right. You people now—you can change it.

 Gibson’s words stirred many in the audience to risk arrest, including Asheville residents Laura and Ole Sorensen, who we traveled with to the rally. Also in the van from Asheville were Michael and Jessica, two young activists from the east Tennessee communities of Seymour and Gatlinburg. We first met them at the nonviolence training we facilitated for the Capitol Climate action in D.C. They braved the snow and cold on that adventure, and we caught up with them again in Oak Ridge, on a sunny-day vigil at the Y-12 bomb plant. Debralee from Black Mountain, an advocate of the Department of Peace, took time off from her household cleaning business to join us. We seven were offered gracious hospitality in the Charlotte home of retired banker Pat Brugh and his wife, Molly.  The coalition of organizers saw to it that everyone who attended was well cared for throughout the event.

The nonviolence training drew more than sixty people. Greenpeace Action coordinator James Brady and Hendersonville, N.C. activist Bruce Turk co-facilitated and helped prepare folks for the peaceful confrontation with Duke Energy. This corporation profits from the extraction and combustion of coal—the most urgent environmental issue threatening the world today. It’s the money. Current data on supply and demand for electricity reveals that eight coal plants could be taken off line today. But, at a combustion rate of 50-60 tons per minute and at $80 to $95 per ton, one can see that the construction of the Cliffside facility is not motivated by future demand. As society learns to conserve more and more there will be even less of an energy demand.

At the Sunday potluck supper, the food, music and camaraderie showed the heart of this movement. There was some persimmon pudding from an old mountain family recipe, lively tunes from a string band, and rousing protest songs from Asheville songwriter and street musician Ginnie Waite.

Peacekeepers consult at MLK,jr statue in Charlotte

Peacekeepers consult at MLK,jr statue in Charlotte

The march stepped off from Charlotte’s lovely Marshall Park, where green-helmeted peace-keepers gathered around a bronze statue of Martin Luther King, Jr., and prepared to assist the 350 to 400 walkers moving along sidewalks into the heart of downtown.

Stop Cliffside Rally Outside Gov. Bev. Purdue's Charlotte Office

Stop Cliffside Rally Outside Gov. Bev. Purdue's Charlotte Office

Police on bicycles, Segways and motorcycles kept the marchers on the sidewalks while thousands of Charlotte’s lunch crowd watched the passing parade, including scores of workers sitting on a low wall across from the Duke Energy headquarters where a new building is under construction. 

Various speakers took the microphone in the park, others spoke at the door of Governor Beverly Perdue’s office.  Earth First! , RAN, and The Ruckus Society founder Mike Rosselle,  and the Rev. Nelson Johnson of the Greensboro, N.C.  Beloved Community Center rallied the crowd to action on the corner across from Duke Energy. Forty-four modern heroes stepped over a line painted along the sidewalk in front of the offices of Duke Energy. Rather than coming out to address the crowd, CEO James E. Rogers authorized the arrest of these peaceful protestors, including teachers, students, nurses and doctors, workers, organizers, young and retired persons. Many who were participating in this act of  civil disobedience did so for the first time.

Be strong, be courageous, know that you’re doing the right thing and victory will be ours, Rev. Nelson Johnson called out as those risking arrest prepared to approach the line. “There is victory on the other side of Cliffside. There is victory on the other side of darkness.”

The actual arrest went peacefully. The police seemed unprepared for the large numbers of protesters and persons willing to “cross the line”. They were quoted as being, “appreciative of the organization and orderliness” of this mostly symbolic stand. The result was a virtual media coup. Local and national print and radio picked up the Associated Press feed and mobile satellite units made sure it was on national TV everywhere. Kudos to our media spokespeople for a great job!

The vigil at the jail went well into the night. Arrestees were released in batches. The final ones out the door included our van-mates Laura and Ole Sorensen, Asheville physician Richard Fireman of the N.C. Interfaith Power & Light, and Larry Gibson of Kayford Mountain. It had been a long day and an even longer night for those confined in the 2,000 capacity Mecklenberg County Jail . Those doing jail support, waiting outside, breathed a collective sigh of relief- 44 IN & 44 OUT.


Duke Energy’s Cliffside power plant has become a national symbol as one of the last bastions of dirty coal and corporate irresponsibility in ignoring economic, health, climate change and other environmental consequences, said Donna Lisenby, North Carolina Riverkeeper of the Upper Watauga River and one of the organizers of the Cliffside Rally. 

Laura & Ole free at last! The crew heads back to Asheville

Laura & Ole free at last! The crew heads back to Asheville


Taxes, TEA and Fireside Conspiracy

garden-0075The nettles are knee high in my backyard garden and still tender enough for a nutritious meal. The potatoes I buried last month are pushing dark green leaves up among the Jerusalem artichoke shoots that want to take over the yard, and the leeks are fat-stemmed with a firm grip in the earth.  All the garden life is seeking the sun that the tulips have caught in bright golden and purple cups. The lilac scents the afternoon breeze as I write, and myriad voices of birdsong mingle with conversations of neighbors as the church bell at St. Lawrence Basilica tolls the hour. Coleman is on a conference call now with the organizing task force of the War Resisters League, and I feel I’ve got the easier work taking to the garden to write.
The cinders from our tax-day fire circle are cold but I’m still fired up from a week of action and discussions on justice and peace, activism and apathy, along with workshops on successful strategies for nonviolent direct action.  On Tuesday, Asheville Area War Tax Resisters joined with Veterans for Peace and other advocates for justice in a remarkable Interanational Studies class at  UNCA called “Negotiating Peace,” led by Professor Elizabeth Snyder. Among the mix of local activists was Mike Robinson, an Iraq Veteran Against the War, and Elliott Adams, former President of the national Veterans for Peace who arrived that morning via Greyhound after 28 hours travel from New York. 

Elliott Adams Addresses International Studies Class

Elliott Adams Addresses International Studies Class

We elder activists shared stories of our lives and motivations for continued resistance against war. As powerful as these are, I found most poignant the stories the students shared—many were trying to find ways of relating to friends or family members who were actively engaged in the wars and occupations.

“It’s so hard to sit across the dinner table from my father,” one student said, her tears close.  “Both he and my step mother have been in the military a long time.  They believe what they are doing is right. He can’t even remember how many people he has killed,” she told us. “It’s hard to know that he makes his living this way, and that is how my tuition is paid,” her tears now streaming.  

Another young man, soon to be released from reserve service, had been a soldier in Iraq. He had been to the battlefields and was enrolled in the class as a way of reevaluating the role of the military in solving world problems. After his discharge, he said, he returned as a contractor. He then re-enlisted to work with Civil Affairs as a liaison between the military and civilians in the war zone.  “I found out that they don’t really know what they are doing there,” he said.  

Future Peace Negotiators

Future Peace Negotiators

A community guest, Iraq Veteran Mike Robinson, told about the non-combatant he killed while on patrol between two villages. “We heard a noise and I was ordered to shoot,” Mike recalled, as he pointed out the places on his own body where the Iraqi man had been hit by his bullets. “You need to remember that these people have been fighting in one way or another for generations and carry AK-47’s for protection against bandits and warring factions. He wasn’t an insurgent or terrorist. He was a father of eleven, simply out checking his farm and his animals” Robinson said.  “We put him in the back of the truck but he bled out. It’s why I’m against this war.”  Robinson is a member of the local Iraq Veterans Against the War, and though he has told his story before, it was obviously a difficult one to relate. You could sense his struggle with tears as well. He showed photos from his website of his woodworking art.  “It helps when I can use my hands to create something beautiful,” he said. Explaining that he has made more than one suicide attempt.  

Stepping Out on Tax Day

Stepping Out on Tax Day

On Wednesday, Asheville Area War Tax Resisters, along with Elliott Adams, stepped out from Woodlawn Wilds, an activist gathering place, and walked into town behind a magnificent banner, the handiwork of designer and activist Coleman Smith. We leafleted at the library and post office, engaging the police foot patrol. At one corner, as a driver stopped and leaned out her window to take a picture, holding up a line of traffic, the chief of police stepped out of the unmarked car behind her, gave me a knowing glance, and told the driver, “You’re holding up traffic, Ma’am. You’d best move one.”

“Most of the local tax resistance crowd was headed to city-county plaza as part of the nationally organized “TEA-party.”
We soon left the post office to the donut lady who was handing $1 coupons for “Dunkin Donuts,” and thanking folks for paying their taxes. We headed down to join the other tax resisters.

At the county building we raised our banner high in front of a crowd of at least 500 citizens fed up with bailouts and pork-barrel spending. It was an eclectic mix of mostly right-wing, good conservative Americans, including folks fired up by Fox News, Libertarians, out of work workers, and young families. Anti-Obama sentiment was widely expressed. These are our neighbors – some strongly opposed to everything we might be advocating. Yet many of them are simply struggling with why and how did it get so bad? We quickly distributed 400 or more War Tax Resistance Pie Charts among the crowd. Only a few were returned—one torn to shreds. “Here, use this a toilet paper,” one woman said as she handed the crumpled paper back to me.
“Ain’t Democracy great?” I retorted.
“Yes, it is,” another spectator said, taking a flyer.
“Wait, don’t take those,” a woman shouted as I passed through the crowd. “It says to not fund the military!”

Later that evening at a potluck and fireside gathering at Clare’s Asheville home, we were joined by WRL interim staff Clare Bayrd and her traveling companions, Ingrid and Ari working with a California group known as Catalyst. As usual at our Woodlawn Wilds gatherings we had lots of good conversation over a generous amount of food. Coleman took charge in the kitchen and prepared the backyard fire circle; Clare welcomed guests as Redmoonsong continued to prep food. Steve and Rusty sat side by side on the couch working out last minute details on Rusty’s belated decision to get his 1040 filed. Elliot downloaded photos from the day’s action as everyone began filling their plates.

Local Veterans for Peace, war tax refusers, Women in Black, working folks, Raging Grannies, and an assortment of neighbors filled the house and flavored the tax day festivities. Elliott noted that in a survey of successful versus not-so-successful peace action groups, it was those who had pot-luck gatherings who thrived.

Resistance is a Class Act!

Resistance is a Class Act!

Thursday, Elliott Adams led a small group of Veterans, joined by War Resisters League members in a workshop about the ways the national VFP works to support local chapters and to encourage input into policy making decisions. We then discussed specific local actions and debriefed on the Asheville VFP’s “Rolling Vigil” atop a local veteran’s flatbed truck. Elliot finished out that session with techniques to determine efficacy and target audience response. Later the evening he spoke at the University for a public event sponsored by Asheville WRL, VFP Chapter 099, and UNC-Asheville SDS on nonviolent direct action.

Elliott shared his bias that national organizations need to come full circle to restructure themselves from the bottom up with a spokes council approach. This echoes much of the common wisdom from the ground here in the Southeast as well as the intent of WRL National’s new structure and movement to realign itself with a more community-based local network of chapter’s, affiliates, and contacts.

Building connections, bridging issues, supporting each other in this work…that is what will nurture us into a springtime of hope and new directions in this world at war.

Our "Neighbors" at the Buncombe County TEA Party

Strategies for Direct Action: VFP’s Elliot Adams in Asheville

Elliott Adams was a paratrooper in the infantry and seved in Viet Nam, Japan, korea, and Alaska. He is a Nonviolent Training Coordinator for Veterans for Peace.  Join with WRL Asheville, Veterans for Peace, Chapter 099, and UNCA Students for a Democratic Society in a workshop and presentation by this seasoned nonviolent direct actionist.

UNCA Whitman Room, Ramsey Library.
7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 16, 2009

Elliott Adams

Elliott Adams

Atlanta to Asheville: Where Do We Go From Here?

Coleman and Clare at MLK,Jr.'s Eternal Flame in Atlanta

Coleman and Clare at MLK,Jr.'s Eternal Flame in Atlanta


Soul Force Gathers at Oak Ridge

Soul Force Gathers at Oak Ridge

…and I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace.  But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.  It means that questions must be raised. And you see, my friends, when you deal with this you begin to ask the question, ‘Who owns the oil?’ You begin to ask the question, “Who owns the iron ore?” (Yes) You begin to ask the question, “Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that’s two-thirds water? These are words that must be said.”

–Martin Luther King, Jr., “Where Do We Go From Here?” Annual Report Delivered at the 11th Convention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, August 16, 1967, Atlanta, GA.

The Eternal Flame at Martin Luther King, Jr. and Corretta Scott King’s gravesite was burning bright when we arrived in Atlanta.  Just as in Birmingham, not knowing our way around didn’t seem to hinder our getting there. It was late afternoon and we wanted to spend what daylight hours we had at the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site. The map did point it out, although moving from I-85 into the city was part dead reckoning and part orienteering.  Once again, the wind was to our backs and in our sails, with our intent programmed in, as we simply let the universe pull us into the perfect parking place adjacent to Martin’s and Corretta’s grave site. It was as if they were waiting patiently at the mountain top saying, Come on up and take a look…see what we’ve done…think about what you can do.

A wheel-chair mobilized resident from the neighborhood approached to let us know that the Eternal Flame, which centered on an elevated circular pedestal surrounded by a grove of oaks, was new. “It was re-lighted just a few days ago,” he said. We had to put aside the metal barricades to sit near the Flame situated directly opposite Dr. and Mrs. King’s gravesite– a raised white marble sarcophagus. A shallow reflecting pool, with its aqua green paint peeling off a concrete bottom littered with fallen leaves, detracted from the otherwise beautiful water feature that cascades down several levels to the gravesite. As we stood for a time reflecting on the life and work of Dr. King, another passerby, Ms. Glonavary Rasheed, agreed to take our picture.  “I’m a pretty good photographer,” she told us and insisted on taking several shots from various locations about the park. Ms. Rasheed, who spent sixteen years with the I.R.S. and is now a school inspector for the U.S. Department of Education, was volunteering at a nursing home across the street.  As we talked, listened, and exchanged stories about our trip and observations on racism in both white and black America, Ms. Rasheed seemed to accept us, and our interest in her, as genuine.  Coleman asked a question that we have been keeping in mind throughout our journey: “How can historically white-led organizations best work with traditionally African-American ones on issues of common interest?”georgia-053

The most important part of the journey has been taking the time to let others tell us what they are working on in their own lives and communities; how they perceive the need on the ground; what areas of activism draw them and which do not. What do they believe will make a difference?


Ms. Rasheed replied, “It’s mainly the older folk who seem less able to let go of their bias and stereotypes. Acceptance and forgiveness are hard to come by. This younger generation, who’ve been exposed to mixed culture all their lives, are quite willing to work together, especially when there is a clearly stated goal.”

We realized how fortunate we were to have met her. As she talked more about her life she emphasized the importance of listening to what each other has to say and drawing comparisons about how we, as different peoples, have arrived at the same place today. “When I want my grandchildren to look like me, that’s racist, and it’s normal. When I can’t accept that same grandchild, loved and parented by a racially-mixed couple, and I assign all manner of prejudice because the child doesn’t look like me, then that’s racism and part of the social disease that America must cure in order to survive.”


 As a school inspector Ms. Rasheed shared many examples of young children struggling to achieve against huge odds — she told stories of racial profiling and wrongful death, heart-wrenching tales of a social and political system that just doesn’t seem to care about it’s disenfranchised citizens. “Ya’ll are gonna’ need money to keep doing this work, ya’ know,” she said as we turned to leave. “Thank you for taking the time to hear what I had to say.”


We left the King Memorial and took a quick look around Atlanta’s business district. Only after leaving the high-priced side of town were we able to find a cool little bistro for sandwiches before heading on to Asheville. Sil and Marcus, the two young men running the café that night, told us that their restaurant didn’t have wireless. But again we lucked out when they told us they weren’t sure (wink,wink), but the signal from next door might just bleed over into their space. We were able (wink,wink) to eat, go online and finish our Birmingham blog entry before hitting the road.


About an hour and a half out of Asheville, we stopped for coffee at a Flying J Travel Plaza and just about got lost in the corridors of trucks resting in the parking field. Once inside we engaged some drivers who quickly clarified that the term Reefer referred not to a particular truck run out of Mexico, but to hauling a refrigerated trailer. We told them a little about our travels, and how we had learned in Birmingham that half the homeless there were veterans.  One fella told us, “That’s something we truck drivers can relate to. A lot of us are vets, too.”

Sipping our coffee at the counter in the wee hours, we listened to their conversation as they all agreed that California, with its environmental laws and high-mountain, brake-burning weigh stations, is the worst state to make a living in as a trucker. Being a dirt-worshipping treehugger, Coleman carefully probed around the edge of the environmental issues and discovered that most of the drivers appreciated the need for regulation; they were just tired of an already tough life on the road,  a difficult economy, and being hammered for extra taxes or levies when crossing state lines. They jointly predicted a showdown somewhere in the not-to-distant future when the trgeorgia-008ucks will stop running just to prove the point of how much they (truckers) are needed. “How‘ya gonna  get food, if we don’t bring it to’ya, huh?” 


Our conversations in Fredonia reverberated with a similar theme: How many empty plots do you have in your neighborhood? Do you know how to set up an intensive, deep-bed garden for your family? Your neighborhood? How many ears of corn are a fair trade for how much kale? How do you judge the amount of protein you can get out of a garden? Do you know how to find clean water?


 We arrived back in Asheville at 2:30 a.m., March 31. Though road weary and bleary-eyed, we were pleased with this first loop of our journey connecting with regional activists and just plain folk.  After nearly each encounter we found ourselves rethinking our proposed training event with a better understanding of what is likely needed to support successful organizing in the Southeast. More on that later; but for now we continue into war tax resistance and thermonuclear weaponry.   


 orepa-205On April 1, Clare joined with other War Tax Resisters for the annual “Fools of Conscience” gathering in Celo, a land trust community near Burnsville, NC, and home of Rural Southern Voice for Peace.  The group gets together each year to share stories and offer support from decades of experience refusing to pay for war, and to make plans for the April 15 Tax Day Actions in Asheville. Clare was an editor of the RSVP newsletter during the early years of the Listening Project, developed by RSVP founder Herb Walters. This trip throughout the Southeast deepened Clare’s appreciation for the power of listening and the pioneering work of RSVP in honing listening techniques for community organizers and activists on the ground in diverse communities.


 While we travelled, Coleman fielded many phone calls as he coordinated the Asheville leg of the North Carolina Pilgrimage for Justice and Peace. Final details for the April 6 event needed to be in place before we ventured to Oak Ridge on the 4th for the annual demonstration at the Y-12 bomb factory. Once there, it was like a mini-reunion with people from all over the Southeast, including some we had recently visited on our Dixie loop. We spread good WRL orepa-235vibes all over at this year’s Stop the Bombs! protest. We met Veterans for Peace from as far as Minnesota, and a vanload of activists from Detroit making their yearly pilgrimage to the gates of hell. One thing that IS still funded is the next generation of thermonuclear weaponry to be designed & assembled in Oak Ridge.


 We made many good connections. Maham, a 92 year old radical from Cincinnatti, recounted his first act of resistance 74 years ago, protesting U.S. naval shipments to Europe in the build up to WWII. Maham and Coleman discussed how each generation must find ways to communicate with activists half their age. The age difference between Maham and us is roughly the same as that between us and the next generation who are now becoming leaders across the movement.


Coleman had the chance to portray Martin Luther King, one of a trio of puppets including Sojourner Truth and M.K. Gandhi, who all became a soul-force presence at the federal barricades on the front line at the Y-12 bomb factory. Being King for an afternoon seemed to be a fitting tribute and remembrance of having just come from Martin and Corretta’s gravesite, and after spending three days in Birmingham with Arun Gandhi. Watch this video clip from the Knoxville paper to see the spirit of the gathering.


We carpooled home with Laura Sorensen, an Asheville resident. Her opposition to nuclear weapons overlaps with her concern with the dangers of nuclear power plants and transport of nuclear waste. She has been active with the Asheville group Commonsense at the Nuclear Crossroads, and she recently led her son and other homeschooled teenagers in a banner drop off a highway bridge in Asheville to protest radioactive waste transported through our town.


Back in Asheville we met up with the Pilgrimage at Taqueria Fast, a family-owned Mexican restaurant just down the road from the Mills Manufacturing Company. This is the local defense contractor for military parachute systems and components where ICE raids last August resulted in the arrest and deportation of many workers, mostly women, and the break up of many Hispanic families. 

The Pilgrimage route, along a busy highway into Asheville, passed through Beaver Lake, a neighborhood-owned park where we encountered  “Barney Fife,” the park’s warden. Sitting astride his trusty red ATV steed, he ordered us to move our peaceful pilgrimage off of the private path and on to the narrow margin between the busy highway and the park boundary.  “It’s the first time in 23 years of walking that I have been forced off a plannedroute,” Pilgrimage organizer Gail Phares said. 


Gladys of Taqueria Fast! Greets Pilgrimage organizers

Gladys of Taqueria Fast! Greets Pilgrimage organizers

 The day was blustery and cold and we were behind schedule for our first vigil at the Buncombe County Sheriff’s office. At a rest stop, we piled into the back of Coleman’s truck to speed up the last mile and catch up with the press. After photos and press interviews at the Sheriff’s office, we walked to the Federal building for a second vigil where we were joined by Ada Volkmer, coordinator of the Coalición de Organizaciones Latino-Americanas COLA and representatives from  Defensa Communataria , a Latino organized group fighting deportation and ICE raids while supporting  families harmed by immigration policy. There was a good exchange among 20 people (mostly faith-based individuals) at a pot luck dinner at the First Congregational Church.  Coleman made arrangements to follow up at monthly Latino community meetings, and established connection with Witness For Peace/Mexico  staffperson, Betty Marin, who is interested in puppetista and theater arts as tool for social change. We discussed briefly how to create an exchange program to flesh out a collaborative storyline for theater about the NAFTA displacement leading up to the current situation.

In an earlier meeting with the local Chapter 99 of Veterans for Peace, we shared a report of our Southeast organizing trip and brought greetings from the numerous veterans we connected with on the road.  WRL Asheville is a co-sponsor of a visit by National Direct Action Trainer Elliott Adams of VFP on April 16. We have been working with Sarah Buchner of UNC-Asheville chapter of the new Students for a Democratic Society on the event.


On April 20 we’re off to Charlotte to participate in the Cliffside Climate Action to raise our voice against the Cliffside Power Plant and the mountaintop removal coal extraction process.  Stay tuned, and let us hear from you with comments and contributions.


Birmingham to Fredonia: Civil Strife to Simple LIfe

While nonviolence empowers the weakest of individuals to stand up for justice and rights…nonviolent action requires the same discipline, the same planning and the same training as military action.

–Arun Gandhi, In M.K. Gandhi’s Own Words: Nonviolent Action Manual, 2001, M.K. Gandhi
Institute for Nonviolence

Birmingham is one of the cities where the history of nonviolence in the U.S. South is particularly poignant. It was the courage of Black children marching out from the 16th Street Baptist Church, eventually to be bombed by racist extremists, to face fire hoses and police dogs in 1963 that awakened a nation’s conscience and led to solidarity demonstrations across the country and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. “Mighty Times: The Children’s March”, a video available from the Southern Poverty Law Center, tells the story.

Such disciplined courage must be practiced and developed and applied strategically on the ground, sometimes with stubborn persistence. JimDouglass knows that, both in theory and practice. He led the retreat group out into the streets of Birmingham where he has joined others for a decade or more in a public witness for justice and peace. It was a beautiful afternoon, and passersby either ignored us or waved in support. No dogs or fire hoses challenged our stand. What will it take this time to reawaken America to the oppression and injustice that still haunts our society?
In a nearby pub, Clare and Coleman listened over a cold brew to some of the hopes, concerns and frustrations of many of the younger activists who had joined in the vigil.  From troubles in relating to parents, to how to get to a job opportunity in Alaska; whether or not to continue in school or work for a while; what to do with themselves and how best to serve a higher purpose – -these young “20 somethings” all wanted to know what we older folks thought might be good paths to follow in these troubled times. Even though we recognized many of these same questions from when we were their ages, the best answers at this time seemed to be to explore and experiment as much as they could, and suggesting that it’s never as desperate as it seems. Many of our new young friends wanted to come to Asheville so we agreed to stay in touch and provide space if needed. With some advance notice, we’ll try to hook them up with a service project or maybe, simply give them good directions into the wilderness for camping, rest, and relaxation — time to chill out!

We shared dinner later that evening with Veterans for Peace member and friend David Waters, a long-time war tax resister and Birmingham carpenter. Over a good meal at the Garage Cafe, a Birmingham landmark, we discussed how nonviolence can be effectively applied in a violent world. David has been reading Ward Churchill‘s Pacfism as Pathology, and Peter GelderoosHow Non-Violence Protects the State.
“I’m not a pacifist,” David told us. “I would come to a workshop where there was a discussion of nonviolence if I felt that my opinion wasn’t considered antagonistic, but relevant and realistic.” Having been in numerous situations through military and police work where violence has been directed at him many times, we could understand Dave’s feelings.
Arun Gandhi himself had earlier presented the question of defending oneself in the face of life threatening violence. “Until we live in a perfect world”, he said, ”we will have to be prepared to accept some smaller amounts of violence to avoid greater harm to ourselves or to the world at large. If a mad gunman comes to the door of this hall while we’re meeting here, to shoot us, it’s too late to simply say please, we’re nonviolent, don’t kill us.” Everywhere we turn, our retreat time with Arun Gandhi continues to resonate and have impact.
As we continued along our Dixie loop, listening and observing, we tried to apply our understanding of Gandhi’s lessons as we stopped and met locals – working hard not to let our built-in bias shade our opinions of new people we met. In the Waffle House in Anniston, a serious military town, a young woman busy at the grille broke through my own assumptions about the mindset of local folk. “What can I get for ‘ya’ll, baby?” she asked as we poured over the menu. Later she pointed to the large “Jail Bush For Lies and Deception Leading Us to War” button Clare wore on her lapel. “I like that button, baby,” she said as she rang up the order. “That’s a button I’d wear.” Her co-worker agreed. So we left the Anniston, Alabama, Waffle House with our server pinning the “Jail Bush” button on her uniform blouse as she turned to the next customer – add one more silent vote for the cause.
In Anniston, we were reminded of the disciplined courage of those Freedom Riders who brought nonviolent action into the face of vicious violence in that city with the integration of interstate public transit. When the Greyhound bus they rode arrived, it was set afire with them still aboard. Being burned and beaten for asserting their right to ride together through the deep South is a scar seared white hot on the nation’s conscience and on the lives of those who fought for that freedom. At a gas station off the Interstate, a curious piece of graffiti on the wall of the men’s bathroom, which was built into the side of the carwash, reminded us again how deeply racial prejudice is embedded and how it cuts across community norms. An offer advertising a service read: “N E 1 NEED BJ? Got comfortable place? U can have this sweet 18yr’ol ass. WHITES ONLY”
We filled up and continued our adventure.
We enjoyed the slow, redbud brightened, back roads of rural Alabama, already punctuated with dogwoods and lush green in an early burst of spring. Passing a church sign warning us that, “Stop, Drop and Roll doesn’t work in Hell!” and then a local Volunteer Firefighter’s halloween “haunted chicken house,” we finally made it to the country cross road of Fredonia, one of those southern communities where generations of farmers have lived with the land and one another in an ever changing relationship of power and cooperation. Friends Jim Allen and Judy Collins, along with Jack Cumbee and his partner Kathy gave us a warm welcome as we arrived on Sunday afternoon. Both couples are working hard to reclaim the revoked town charter and to resist industrial development which threatens their way of life.
Clare and Judy caught up on life since their last visit, while Judy’s daughter Carrie tended to Christa, her beautiful daughter. Clare recounted our travels and the proposed training event we’re planning, Coleman pitched in to cut and stack firewood with Jim, preparing for a cold snap forecast for that night.
Judy and Jim live in a large house built by Jack’s father from stones found on the old Plantation, which once was over a thousand acres of land worked by slaves. Jack, a retired professor and Kathy, a former Hospice worker, are both long-time human rights advocates. With 100 prized chickens and much of their land planted with food and herbs, they are focused now on the farm and preparing for hard times as “peak oil” is fully realized. They also point to the dynamics of the coming intersect of energy, economy, and the environment – precipitating the global collapse that modern-day Cassandras already predict. They’ll be better prepared than most because of their ties to the land and the fact that they have one of the only hand-pumped wells in the county. “How’s the water going to get to you when the electrical grid collapses?” they asked.
“I’ve worked thirty years for peace and justice, civil rights and native rights, Jack said. “I haven’t slowed them down one bit.”

Jim is on the board of the Alabama Sustainable Agriculture Network and speaks often on climate change and food security. Judy, whose activism and
relationship building in the South is legendary, was preparing for a Wild Edible Lunch on the land presented by her friend, Janice Key-Walding, known as “The Wild Southern Herbalist.”

Esther Brown, director of Project Hope to Abolish the Death Penalty, also lives on the old Plantation. She came by to talk with us and encourage our work. Her persistent dedication for decades in the harsh political climate of rural Alabama is a testimony of southern activism at its best. We were reminded of OREPA directer Ralph Hutchinson’s comment that “In the South, where the work is most needed, it is the hardest to do.”

Catch up with our Atlanta report next posting.