In June 2019, coal miners at the Cloverlick mine in Harlan County, KY, didn’t receive their paychecks. The owner of the mine, Blackjewel, is notorious for declaring bankruptcy to skip paying vendors, but this time it stiffed its workers, too. Five miners saw that there would be a train shipment of coal going out that they had not been paid for. They decided to stand on the track and stop the train from moving. Their plan was just to slow it down, not even stop it, but it ended up working far better than they ever anticipated. After a few days the train company removed the engine. The coal’s not moving until these miners get paid.
The miners’ families and others from the community joined them in an encampment on the tracks, and soon after, a group of trans anarchists from the region showed up too, quickly adopting a central role in the camp’s maintenance. Pinko spoke to two of them, Nico and Winter, over the phone in August to learn about how the encampment is run, the nature of this workers’ insurrection in Appalachia, and how queer working-class people take part in the struggle. Nico and Winter are white trans anarchists and anarcho-communists from different corners of Appalachia, but the coal-mining region is home to them. We touched on the question of political conflict within the encampment They told us about a Nazi trucker who showed up wanting to use his support for his own ends. They addressed that with miners who understood the threat, promising to expel him if he came back.
A week after our interview, we saw a heartbroken update on the blockade’s Instagram indicating that the Nazi had in fact returned. The miners refused to act, leaving comrades with no choice but to withdraw from the encampment. “The first time the Nazi was let into camp, we left for the night and told them we wouldn’t be back until he was gone. We are a group of trans, queer, black, Jewish and autistic people and drew a hard line at sharing space with a fascist,” Winter wrote to us later over text. “He was gone the next day, and we said that if he was let back in the camp we would leave permanently. We really thought it was over until one day he returned, and the miners let him in, were being friendly with him, dismissed our concerns. So we followed through on exactly what we said we’d do.”
Despite the outcome, Winter was adamant that this not be understood to cast judgment on the entire town or region. The incident “should be seen as the actions of just a few people,” she wrote. While this is obviously true in one sense, we find our conversation instructive in this new political light. The damage that white supremacy and patriarchy inflict on proletarian solidarity and the limitations of political education to undo it are problems without simple answers. And as moments like these are guaranteed to become more common, we wanted to offer this conversation as a record of how attempts to engage with the problem were made, regardless of their success or ultimate failure.
Pinko You just did a night shift, or is that someone else?
Nico Yeah, we take care of night shifts nine times out of ten here. It’s like a group of us that are here constantly, 24/7, and then there’s always at least one miner or two miners that stay the night. And then during the day, people trickle back, and it peaks around dinnertime.
Pinko How many people would you say are staying at the camp?
Nico It varies. Anywhere between six and ten at any given time.
Pinko And how did you get involved?
Nico Our friend Lill is from this area. They messaged me about it, and we were trying to figure out how to get down here the day it happened. We got here around dinnertime on the second day and just started talking to people, setting up tents and letting people know our intentions. And then probably a week, week and a half later Winter and some other people started coming through. There’s four of us that have been here consistently, and then there’s a lot of other people that cycled through. We got to work pretty quickly, setting up infrastructure, a kitchen, a kids’ tent, a little medical area, back-to-school supplies, just different sorts of things like that.
Pinko How did you get the political experience that told you that’s what needed to happen at this mining encampment?
Nico A few of us have been involved in different actions similar to this before. But the main thing is just talking to the miners, their wives and children; seeing what was needed and building the infrastructure. I’ve never been at a blockade that had a kids’ tent, you know what I mean? Or back-to-school supplies.
Pinko Did you have any relation to the mining industry before?
Winter No, none of us had any connection to the mining industry, but several of us are from Appalachia. This place, in Harlan County, is where my family’s from. I know it well and have connections to the community. So none of us are coal miners, but we are connected to this place and these people.
Pinko Have you been having political conversations with miners?
Nico Every day. In the first week, one night in particular, a few of us and a handful of miners were up until it started getting light out, around 5, 6 a.m., talking about everything from trans issues, to reparations. There’s definitely some differences of course, but I would say the miners are not that far off from a lot of the ideals that we have except they’re not going to say it like we do. And if you come here using jargon and leftist rhetoric, it just is not going to fly, it doesn’t work, it automatically shuts down. We can get everybody on board with paying reparations, but we haven’t necessarily called it that yet.
Pinko So it’s a question of terminology rather than the position.
Winter Yeah, I think a lot of times, leftists get too wrapped up in the right way to say things and the right theory and get disconnected from real communities who have not had that kind of education.
Nico And that’s not to say that there haven’t been very challenging moments, you know what I mean? And moments where we had to have some real come-to-Jesus talks. Especially one on racism and gender, and there’s definitely been a lot of movement in those areas. I see it in the actions that they’re taking, and in the conversations that they’re having. They’re really chewing on and taking it to heart, and shifting where they stand on certain things. And we’ve only been here three weeks, so that’s incredible to see. During the meeting that we had the other day, there was talk about what if all the men find jobs or get called back to work? Given that the wives have said that they would continue the blockade with us. So even if the miners find work, this blockade is still going until they get that back pay.
Pinko So you all would continue the action, basically.
Winter I’d say as long as anyone local here wants us to continue, we will be here supporting them.
Pinko And they’d be getting jobs at other coal mines?
Winter I know that a few of them have gotten jobs out-of-state at other coal mines and left. And there’s maybe other opportunities around here that some of them are pursuing. Also, though the initial guys who blockaded the train, they knew from the beginning that they’re probably not getting coal mining jobs after this because of that.
Nico Everybody is looking for other work. There’s just only so much of it here. So a few people have relocated out of state. Many are waiting to hear back on applications doing side hustles in the meantime.
Pinko What’s the status of the Blackjewel mine? Is it being shut down or just in bankruptcy proceedings right now, and is someone else going to take it over?
Nico It’s been sold to Kopper Glo, which is known for opening mines for a few months and then closing them down. Kopper Glo recently started accepting applications, but so far, nobody’s been called back.
Winter They also paid some of the money that was owed, and the miners got $800 apiece when they’re owed $9,000. And they made an offer that, if they let this train go by, they’ll get another $800.
Nico And the first $800 hasn’t shown up yet.
Winter Yeah, when they’re each owed $9,000, and we think they deserve a lot more than that at this point.
Pinko And what’s the situation in the region? There isn’t another employer around besides this one mine? Or people are having to move out because there isn’t much else?
Winter Mining jobs are very limited. Coal is really in deep decline and not coming back.
Nico When people get these mining jobs, they hold onto them, so there’s not a lot of openings. I think the least amount of time that I’ve met somebody working in a mine here is five years. They’re one of the very few jobs that pay a living wage out here. I had a 15-year-old whose dad’s a coal miner, who has a chronic illness, tell me, “I’m not going to be able to go into the mines. I also don’t want to work in a grocery store.” And those are the only jobs here, really. It’s kind of like there’s low-wage service industry jobs or the mine.
Pinko What should people who are maybe not so close to Appalachia right now understand about the miners’ struggle?
Winter I keep hearing the most classist comments from people who know nothing about Appalachia, like that they think these are just a bunch of ignorant Trump supporters who want him to come in and save them. I keep hearing that from people, questioning whether or not we should be supporting this workers’ insurrection. And I think people need to examine their classism and actually learn about Appalachia. They need to realize that people—human beings—are not stupid, that people make decisions for a reason. That maybe many here voted for Trump, but if you talk to them today, they don’t like him. They think he’s a con artist that deceived them. I think people really need to understand that. It’s not so black and white as people in the cities tend to paint it out here in Appalachia. We’re a really complicated and nuanced place.
Nico Yup. And along with that, when people say things like that, it erases the nonwhite and queer people that are out here at camp.
Winter And trans and gay people who live out here. People also come at me with, “Oh, how do they feel about gay people?” Like they don’t understand that we are everywhere, we don’t just live in the city.
Nico Yeah, we've met trans and gay people that are not a part of our group, but also ended up here supporting people because they’re friends with miners.
Pinko Yeah. I’ve found this to be true in a lot of different working-class struggles, and especially encampments, but why do you think it is that gays often end up so central to these insurrections? Or do you feel that’s the case?
Nico I think a big part of it is, is like Winter said, is we are everywhere. We’re everywhere, and also we just know what the deal is already. We already know what it is. And for me personally, I just don’t know how I could not.
Winter We didn’t get a choice to just assimilate into society. We have always had to fight, so of course we’re going to be out here and understand the need to support other oppressed people.
Nico And at the end of the day, we’re also workers. And we’re going to support workers’ struggle. And often, within the workplace, we know that struggle really well. It’s hard to find employment, and the employment that you do find is usually pretty low wage. I think that definitely plays into it as well.
Pinko One of the terms that we might use to talk about that kind of stuff that you’re doing with the kids’ camp, back-to-school stuff and the kitchen is social reproduction. That generally encompasses all of this stuff that it takes to keep everybody going, to get back to work. Do you see that orientation as being especially important to these struggles, or do you think it just so happens it’s how you ended up offering your help?
Winter How are people supposed to fight these class struggles if they don’t have some means to survive? I think it’s absolutely essential to provide aid to communities in need while we’re fighting. What these people immediately needed was food and clothes and school supplies. So we were able to get that for them. Otherwise they could’ve given up out of having no other option.
Pinko What would you like to see happen next in this miners’ struggle?
Nico Number one, I would like to see these people get paid. And quite frankly, at this point, they deserve way more than their back pay. There’s pain and suffering because you got people’s bank accounts. It’s not only that they didn’t get paid; their checks bounced. So a lot of their bank accounts are in negative, and then all of their bills and whatnot stacked on top of that. And you got people with health issues, small children, all sorts of different things. But beyond that, I’d really like to see, if these situations ever happen again, that they know what to do. And that they have skills and support networks to tap into it. And I would like to see them inspire other workers if that’s what needs to happen. And quite frankly, I would love to see this alliance between us and the miners and other queer people expand into a network of support and solidarity.
Nico It’s in the works.
Winter Next time fascists try to have a rally in Appalachia, I’d like to be able to call up these coal miners, and for them to come down and throw down with them. I’ve been doing organizing work while I’ve been out here as an autistic self-advocate. I’ve connected with a lot of autistic people and people with autistic kids, and trying to lay the foundations for a self-advocacy group out here. And I’d like to keep following up on that, and doing that work when we’re done here with this. I have no intention of abandoning this place.
Winter Organizing doesn’t last for a day or a month. It should be connections that are maintained for years and years.
Pinko I’ve heard that some Trumpist bikers showed up at the camp a week or so ago. Did you have any interaction with that?
Nico Yeah, so the truckers came, without too much notice. Maybe two or three days, and they just were like, “Hey, we’re coming down to do this action.” And a couple of miners were like, “Well, okay.” And they came down here, and it was okay at first. But then there was a man who was wearing a “Build the Wall, Make America Great” shirt. It was something with graphics on it. And we saw that, and then he had made some comments, and we said something to the miners and asked them to address that. And a couple of them skirted around the issue for a few hours, and we pressed it some more. They confronted the guy on the shirt and told him that he can’t wear it at the action, that it’s not what we’re about. Then we spoke to the man personally and told him the same thing. And there was a little bit of pushback, but ultimately, he backed down and did not wear the shirt. But he continued to say some pretty messed up things, to the point where some of us left the camp for a day or two, until the truckers left.
When we came back, when the truckers were gone, we had a meeting about it, and we expressed to the miners that it had made us feel unsafe, and that was just a hard line that we were not going to be associated with. We couldn’t be here if they were going to enable that sort of racism. I think there’s definitely some frustration at first, and mostly, some of the miners were upset that we didn’t feel comfortable enough to tell them when it escalated, and basically expressed that if they would’ve known after it had escalated, after the first incident, they would’ve stepped in and done more. But just given all of our histories and that sort of thing, it’s not something we felt safe doing at the time. But after having that meeting and getting to the bottom of it, I think it feels better at camp than it ever did before, and I think that while all of the miners are against racism, they’re also actively learning how to confront it and about more nuanced racism, and yeah, just how to deal with it better, and ways to confront it other than, “Don’t say that. That’s your opinion.” We’re moving beyond that. And it’s going to take time, but we’re laying down the work for that.
Winter The Right loves to sanitize coal miners and make them into a symbol, and most of them have never met one, nor been to these hills and hollers. And you’ve got to remember that everything is a contested space. And every space should be fought for.
Pinko Right. I’ve been hearing some things about "just transition" a lot. Is that something that people are talking about at the camp?
Nico No, not so much. Maybe they are elsewhere, but the most I’ve heard about that has come from outside the community, on a county or state level, they’re having those conversations.
Winter For a lot of the people here, it’s a desperate struggle for survival out here that there isn’t a lot of space for thinking about the future. They know that coal is not coming back and things are never going to be the way they were. But out of necessity, they’re too wrapped up in surviving to think about that.
Pinko I think that’s what a lot of people’s situation is, definitely. But what’s interesting about your camp is that that’s exactly what you’re providing. It’s like you’re doing this thing that’s at least helping the camp survive, and then helping them have the space to act politically.
Winter I think there are lessons being learned about mutual aid and collective decision-making that won’t be lost after this. And I hope that is the long-term impact of what we’re doing. ⊱