I first saw the White House when I was 11 years old. Standing on the sidewalk of Pennsylvania Avenue, I remember grasping the iron bars of the fence and peering in with reverence.
I have stood on that sidewalk many times since — again as a tourist, then as a college student at nearby George Washington University, and finally, briefly as a D.C. resident strolling through Lafayette Park.
But on Monday, I returned to the White House to engage in non-violent civil disobedience and to be arrested in protest of mountaintop removal mining as part of "Appalachia Rising."
Appalachians have often been forced to dissent in this manner against the tyranny of the coal industry and the cooperation of our government. One cannot reflect on the union movement of the 1930s without thinking of Don West and Aunt Molly Jackson, or the fight against strip mining in the 1960s without recalling the image of the Widow Combs being carried off a mountainside by Kentucky State Police.
Still, it was an action I did not take lightly, but was one necessitated by the indifference of Kentucky's elected officials (including Gov. Steve Beshear) and the half-hearted regulatory efforts of the Obama administration.
Along with fellow Eastern Kentuckians, including Beverly May, Teri Blanton, Mickey McCoy and Rick Handshoe, I crossed a police line in front of the White House. I did so as an Appalachian, as an American, as a Christian. More than 100 others joined us in a symbolic attempt to gain the attention of President Barack Obama and the Environmental Protection Agency.
We ignored repeated warnings from the U.S. Park Police to move, instead chanting "We are Appalachia" and "Yes, we can."
The arrests began, and rightly so — we were willfully disobeying an order from law enforcement officials. We were in the wrong according to the law, but in the right according to our consciences. For mountaintop removal does not just scrape away a mountain. It lays waste to an entire culture, the livelihoods and health of mountain people and, perhaps most importantly, our very freedom.
In 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt famously named "four essential human freedoms" that should be enjoyed by people throughout the world, freedoms that are sadly missing today in Appalachia.
Freedom of speech. Many Appalachians are afraid to speak out against the coal industry, fearful of retribution from their employers and neighbors. "My daughter bought me a stun gun for Christmas because I've been threatened a couple of times," recalls Judy Bonds, one of the anti-mountaintop removal movement's most vocal leaders. "You can't look down when somebody looks at you. You've got to look them right in the eye and keep going."
Freedom of religion. While the region boasts an abundance of churches, it too often seems like coal is the true religion, a vengeful god requiring total devotion and subservience. The concept of environmental stewardship is rarely taught, as most churches rely on tithes from members affiliated with the coal industry. "It's just as simple as Psalm 24," says Patricia Hudson, writer and co-director of the Lindquist Environmental Appalachian Fellowship. "'The Earth is the Lord's.'"
Freedom from want. The poverty rate in the coal-producing counties of Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia often exceeds 30 percent. And according to statistics from the West Virginia Coal Association, the number of mining jobs in the state declined from 125,000 to 16,000 between 1950 and 2004, while coal production increased during the same period.
Freedom from fear. Noted Kentucky author Anne Shelby observes, "The coal companies do a real good job of making people be afraid of losing their job, that fear that people have of not being able to put food on the table for their families. They've always done that."
It has been said that "freedom is not free," and I agree. Sometimes, defending our freedom calls for the men and women of our military. But sometimes, it requires thousands of protesters to march through the streets of our nation's capital. Sometimes, it requires 115 patriots to cross a police line and refuse to move an inch. Sometimes, it requires $100 to pay the fine.
It was the best 100 bucks I have ever spent.