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A Complicated Resistance

While Cities Protest, Some Rural Resistors are Going Back to the Land in West Virginia



In a rare winter outing during the first week of December, Dawn Baldwin got into her green Chevy Silverado pickup with a Hillary Clinton bumper sticker and drove the miles on dirt and paved roads from her organic farm into town — Marlinton, the seat of Pocahontas County, West Virginia. In addition to growing fruits and vegetables using organic and biodynamic methods on her land, Baldwin also makes packaged herbs and goat-milk soap, and was taking them to the annual local artisan holiday fair to sell.

People kept coming up to Baldwin’s booth all evening, but as it turned out, it wasn’t for her soaps. They wanted to talk to her. They wanted to lean in close and whisper to her how depressed they had been since Donald Trump’s election. She was surprised, but not totally shocked.

Throughout the election season Baldwin, 50, who is from Memphis but fell in love with the land and environmentally conscious ethos of Pocahontas County then stayed to start an organization that collects produce from local organic and pesticide-free farms and distributes it to the community, had been posting articles from The New York Times and The Atlantic about the danger Trump would pose for rural communities. Some of her neighbors, mostly women in their sixties and seventies whose families had been in the county for generations and whom she didn’t know more than to say hello to at the post office started following and liking her posts. These were the same women who had told her she was “brave” for putting the Clinton sticker on her truck.

Now they, plus many of their husbands, men like Baldwin’s business partner Steve Saffel, who are farmers and dyed-in-the-wool-democrats, were out from behind their computers saying the words aloud.

“These conversations,” Baldwin wrote in an email, “were held at very low volume, and felt more akin to sharing a secret grief.”

It struck Baldwin then that there might be a lot more anti-Trump sentiment in her community than meets the eye.

Pocahontas County sits along the state’s southeastern border with Virginia. It’s one of the most rural counties in the United States with the highest concentration of public lands east of the Mississippi, a place where students ride the school bus an hour and a half each way to the single high school. Eight major rivers have their headwaters in the county, and more than a million visitors come each year to camp and hike and fish and ski — making tourism, not coal, the biggest employer.

Members of the Lobelia neighborhood at a gardening workshop. (Photo: Emma Copley Eisenberg)


According to the dominant media narrative, Pocahontas County should be monolithically conservative and eager for Trump to deliver the promised economic boom times. But while Trump carried the county by a solid margin, more than 25 percent of residents here voted for Clinton and many more didn’t vote. Their reasons for resisting are various: environmental, humanitarian, feminist, and yes, economic. The minority, Pocahontas County reminds us, may be fewer in number than the majority, but they still exist — and they matter.

‘We need each other to be strong’

The tradition of responsible environmental stewardship that exists throughout much of Appalachia is strong here — many residents hunt for food, forage for edible plants, dig ramps, and can tomatoes in summer to eat in winter; though some residents band together to take turns driving truckloads of glass and aluminum hours away to the closet processing plant.

In the mid-1970s, a small hamlet along Lobelia Road in Pocahontas County became home to more than 200 “Back to the Landers,” people who left cities in fear of where the ethos of consumption, power and money was taking America, and who wanted to live a simpler, more self-reliant way of life. They baked bread and farmed and shared childcare; a commune sprung up. Local people would walk over the hill and socialize and share the region’s rich tradition of Bluegrass music excellence.

Many of the newcomers had left by the ’80s but many stayed, building houses and raising children here. Even though the newcomers and the original community didn’t always agree on issues related to religion or politics, they were always good neighbors to each other. The way the transplants were living was not far from the old ways of scrapping and making things from scratch that many locals, living far out in the hills, had been taught as children. This created a kind of mutual respect.

The result is a hybrid neighborhood, where children of Pocahontas County farmers for generations ride the school bus with children of people from Chicago and Philadelphia and closely held values defy easy political categories.

Erica Marks, a Lobelia resident for more than 10 years who works in the Pocahontas County school system as a gifted/talented teacher embodies this. She is the granddaughter of a West Virginia farmer on one side and a Virginia congressman on the other. She had been living in Roanoke, Virginia, harboring dreams about starting an experimental school with a focus on environmental education when she heard about Pocahontas County from a friend who’d grown up here.

“She just said, ‘you need to come and see what’s happening in these hills,’” Marks said.

Marks’ chance came last January when a big piece of property in the Lobelia neighborhood came up for sale. The community, fearing a new owner might log or destroy the pristine wilderness land, held a series of potlucks and meetings to raise the money to lease it. The result is The Yew Mountain Center, an environmental science educational center. The paid courses for tourists in skills like birding and foraging — taught by Pocahontas County residents — will help subsidize free classes and keynote addresses on conservation, environmental stewardship and the arts for the local community. The project, though begun before he took office, is, Marks says, now a way in which she and her neighbors can respond to and resist Donald Trump.

The day after Trump was elected, Marks went for a hike on the Yew Mountain property.

“Just the feel of my feet on this ground that I knew was protected was such a powerful experience,” she said. “We can’t control what will happen to the public land in our area anymore, but we can control what happens here. It’s not gonna get logged, it’s not gonna get fracked. It’s its own watershed. This little postage stamp of a place is going to be okay no matter what.”

She also sees the Yew Center as a form of resistance because it might build bonds across groups that Trump has attempted to divide and pit against one another; namely working-class, rural people and environmentalists. She sees the center as a two-way street that helps to cross-pollinate the rich well of ecological knowledge in Pocahontas County with new skills and ideas happening across Appalachia and the United States.

“I’m hoping that this place will be a relationship-builder,” she said. It’s not so much how you voted — it’s are you a good neighbor, are you kind to people? That’s probably true everywhere, but it’s really true here. We can’t be as encapsulated in our groups as you can in more populated areas. We have to be inter-reliant. We need each other to be strong.”

In a concrete example, Marks praised her daughter’s second grade teacher. “She’s just absolute magic,” Marks said.

Then Marks found out that her daughter’s teacher had voted for Trump.

“How can this be?” Marks said she remembered feeling. “Here’s somebody that I really respect, who is so kind, so good at her job.” But Marks said this helped her re-commit to not living or raising her children to live in the bubble of a single worldview.

Between a rock and a hard place

Pocahontas County seems to be a place where, perhaps out of sheer necessity or perhaps out of a certain magic, people with seemingly opposing views can come together for a common goal.

Many remember a highly successful initiative launched in recent years to combat the county’s raging opioid addiction problem in which Wendy Richter, a longtime resident and the pastor at the Lutheran church, joined forces with Susan Burt, a frank and exuberant transplant from California. They gathered together past and present opioid addicts, sharing a mindset that the best way to offer support was simply to listen to addicts talk about their needs and experiences.

Some people, like Blair Campbell, hold opposing views about Trump just within themselves. Campbell grew up on a sprawling farm in the county’s northern tip that has been in her family for generations. But several years ago, surveyors from the power company Dominion Resources showed up, offering Campbell’s family a fat check in exchange for the use of a section of their land.

As it turns out, their farm sits smack dab in the middle of the proposed route for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which after cutting across much of West Virginia, would carry on through Virginia and into North Carolina. The 42-inch pipeline would run underneath the Greenbrier River, which serves as the headwaters of nearly every waterway in the county.

Campbell is afraid that the ACP will become the next Dakota Access Pipeline and that Trump will only accelerate the project at the expense of local health.

“Let’s pretend, best-case scenario that it’s not going to ruin our water,” she said. “Who’s going to maintain it? Who’s going to check it and make sure it’s not leaching? And there’s no way it will benefit the state of West Virginia. Gas will be fracked from the northeastern and northwestern counties and funneled right through the state like an expressway.”

But the ways that Trump’s policies hit close to home for Campbell don’t end there. Her husband Charlan, born and raised in Jamaica, works Sunday through Thursday in Northern Virginia, repairing the bases of electrical towers for a subsidiary of Dominion.

“I feel stuck between a rock and a hard place,” Campbell said. “The world doesn’t need more pipelines. And yet, your husband works for one.”

Blair Campbell with her husband, Charlan, and their two children. (Photo: Jamie Wykle)

And if this weren’t enough, Campbell’s mother-in-law has been waiting on a visa that would allow her to leave Jamaica and join them in West Virginia for over three years. It was finally approved last month.

But Trump’s recent executive order on immigration has left her mother-in-law’s status in limbo.

“Technically, she’s approved,” Campbell said, “but we don’t know for sure. Nothing is for sure until she gets off that plane in Charleston and they let her walk through customs. We’re terrified.”

“There is more nuance and more diversity of opinion and perspective in the state and in this county than we’re given credit for,” said Nathaniel Sizemore, another native with a complicated story of divided allegiances.

A graveyard outside Hillsboro, West Virginia, population 300. (Photo: Emma Copley Eisenberg)

A vote for Trump was one against the status quo

Sizemore was born to middle-class parents who listened to Neil Young and taught him to value education, practice tolerance and fight against racism. He met his wife, Hanna, at Pocahontas County High School. After graduating in 1997, he attended Westminster College in Pennsylvania while she opted for prestigious Smith College in Massachusetts. Soon they found themselves in Colorado and then California, as Hanna got her Ph.D. in Astrophysics and Planetary Science and then a post-doctoral fellowship.

But when they got pregnant with twins, they moved back home to be closer to family. Sizemore said he’s been surprised by how many other educated, worldly people he knew from high school have opted to return home to the county after leaving to expand their horizons.

“There’s a little bit of natural animus and distrust of outsiders. There is some intolerance and, frankly, some racism. But you can’t paint with a broad brush if you want to see things clearly,” he cautions.

To illustrate Sizemore’s point one might recall an incident in the early days of 2015 when a local man scrawled a racist slur across the side of Campbell’s gourmet restaurant, The Pretty Penny. At first glance, the act was representative of Pocahontas County’s racist history. But if the man’s intention was to divide and intimidate, it backfired. The outpouring of support for Campbell and her family was staggering — citizens all over the county formed an anti-racism coalition called “We Are One” and the sentencing judge called the perpetrator “a terrorist” who violated Campbell’s civil rights and “obstructed the safety of our whole community.”

Sizemore continues, “The support for Trump here in Pocahontas County is less about supporting the person or even supporting the social policies than it was a vote against the status quo,” he said. “People here sense that the government and the structures in place are not working for them. They feel intuitively that the dice are loaded against them somehow, though they are not always able to articulate why. ”

Sizemore and his wife both lucked into jobs they can do remotely — he works doing IT support for the state and she works for an online company that supports science researchers. Though Pocahontas County, like much of West Virginia, has had to fight hard to get access to high-speed internet, a recent successful lawsuit against Frontier Communications has brought big improvements. Now, Sizemore’s son can be home sick from school watching cartoons on YouTube while Sizemore does his job. This time last year, Sizemore said, not even one of those tasks, let alone both at the same time, would have been possible.

A field in southern Pocahontas County, an area that mixes longtime locals with new transplants — many of whom have begun to resist Trump in various ways. (Photo: Emma Copley Eisenberg)

 The resistance is just getting started

Trump’s call to “Make America Great Again” suggests a kind of return, but families like the Sizemores don’t want to return anywhere. They do want change, but they want to move forward, not back, into a future in which all people are welcome, and no one has to leave West Virginia to get access to high-quality health care, education or jobs.

But Sizemore acknowledges that this view is a product of his education, life experiences and flexible schedule — things not all people in Pocahontas County have access to.

It is not uncommon, Sizemore said, for him to chat with a state office employee whose computer he is servicing during the day, then go to the grocery store and see the same person behind the cash register, working their second job. “If you’re doing that, or driving 4-5 hours to a job site in Virginia, then working twelve hours and then driving home, you don’t have the luxury to read The Atlantic and be informed.”

But it does sometimes frustrate Sizemore to watch people in his community voting for candidates and political promises he believes are against their own interests and against West Virginia’s long history of powerful labor activism.

“I drive around and see Friends of Coal stickers,” he said, voice rising. “These are the people that coal companies have been stealing from since before the state was founded. It galls me! Do you not remember Matewan? Do you not remember Mother Jones? She was not a friend of coal.”

Some Trump supporters in Pocahontas County may know this already. The day of the election, Sizemore was on the way home from work when he pulled into the local convenience store for some snacks. While waiting in line to pay, he overheard a conversation between the man in front of him and the cashier. The man was buying some beer to take home.

“I gotta have something to wash the taste out of my mouth,” the man told the cashier, according to Sizemore. “I just voted for Trump.”

After the new year, Dawn Baldwin started posting on Facebook about her plans to go to the Women’s March. As the date approached, women from the county again started showing up in her feed saying that they were going too. Baldwin estimates that about 25 women from Pocahontas County went to the March and four times as many were supportive online.

“They told us they would be with us in spirit. The emotion was palpable,” she said.

On January 24, Baldwin put out a call on her Facebook page for people who were interested in keeping the march’s momentum going. Two days later, there was so much interest from people who had marched and supporters that she started a Facebook group for the growing nonpartisan coalition.

“We are formed to resist the agenda of the new administration, which we view as racist, sexist, authoritarian, and corrupt…We are united in engaging with our state and local elected officials to insist on real-world representation of our needs as residents of Pocahontas County,” reads Baldwin’s description of the group, which has more than 200 members at last count.

At their first meeting on February 4, they packed local coffee shop The Dirt Bean to capacity and chose leaders to organize ongoing meetings and actions in four different regional subsections of the large county. On February 9, they sent a delegation to Senator Shelley Capito’s office hours in Elkins, West Virginia. This Friday they head to Charleston to protest and visit the offices of the West Virginia state delegation.

Baldwin says some in the group may even be making plans to run for office.

“We’ve got skills,” Baldwin wrote in the group’s description. “What’re we gonna do with them?”

Emma Copley Eisenberg (@EmmaEisenberg) is a writer living in Philadelphia. Her work has appeared in Salon, Slate, The New Republic, The Rumpus, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and others. 

Main photo: Jesse Wright / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story stated that no official recycling location exists in Pocahontas County. The Pocahontas County Solid Waste Authority accepts some materials to be recycled. This story has been updated to correct that error.

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"Our Revolution"

Deep In Gun Country, Students Speak Out On Gun Violence



Gun culture runs deep in much of the Ohio Valley, where hunting is a revered tradition and the majority of state lawmakers in Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia boast “A” ratings from the National Rifle Association.

But even here the growing national student activism on gun safety is taking hold in the wake of recent school shootings. With some three dozen events in the region coinciding with the national March For Our Lives protest, more students from the region are deciding to speak out.

Marshall County High School, scene of a shooting that left two dead. Nicole Erwin | Ohio Valley ReSource

The Ohio Valley ReSource sampled some student viewpoints from around the region.

For two of these students, the issue became highly personal in January when their school, Marshall County High in west Kentucky, was added to the long list of school shootings. A fellow student is charged in the shooting that took the lives of two teens and left more than a dozen others injured. Seth Adams, 15, and Lela Free, 14, see their activism as part of a healing process and a much-needed community conversation.

Patrick Duffy, 17, attends Wheeling Central Catholic High School in West Virginia. He says his belief in Second Amendment rights puts him at odds with students joining marches and walkouts.

Click here to view the interactive map >>

Morgan Smith, 17, from Sherman High School in Boone County, West Virginia, loves her guns and her hunting traditions, but says she should be able to attend school free from fear of shootings.

Here, in their own words, are their thoughts on activism, gun control, and making schools safer.

On Activism

Lela Free: I will be participating in the March For Our Lives event because I feel like it’s a very important thing for our community. This march is not to bring divisiveness into our community. It’s really to bring awareness to the culture change that we need in the United States and in our county as well. For me, it’s going to bring some peace.

I don’t want to take away anyone’s guns. That’s not what we want to do at the rally. That’s not we wanted, that’s not what we wanna do here. A lot of people have accused Parkland survivors of just trying to push an agenda, that what they’re doing is just backed by the Democratic Party. Yes, some might have the same views as the Democrats, but they just want to be safe at school. I just want to be safe at school. Everyone does. And we know we need that because if we don’t have that stability in our minds, how can we ever learn anything?

Lela Free, a student at Marshall County H.S., where a school shooting claimed two lives. Nicole Erwin | Ohio Valley ReSource

Seth Adams: To me, it’s just kind of a healing process. Just getting together with these people, putting together ideas, writing the speech, just coming together and being productive and doing this thing — no matter what it is — it feels like we’re returning to normalcy. And there’s a sense of unity.

At my own school in my community, my friends have discouraged me from protesting. They say it wouldn’t do anything. I think that sort of culture, that anti anti-protest sentiment is something that needs to be mended in this community, and in this part of the country. People hear about the protesters that disagree with your political views and they hide and try to shelter themselves in ways that I think are unhealthy.

Patrick Duffy: I will not be attending the March For Our Lives event. For me, the march is about gun control. It’s being pushed as a march to honor the lives of the victims of Parkland. But the real message is gun control.

Patrick Duffy, 17, attends Wheeling Central Catholic High School in West Virginia. Photo courtesy of Patrick Duffy

I feel like I wouldn’t be allowed to participate in it. A few days ago when all the schools had the walkouts, a couple conservatives came with signs saying “I support the Second Amendment” and they were actually asked to leave. So there’s definitely one message, one central message, being pushed, and it is gun control.

Lela Free: Do I feel safe at school? This one’s a little bit tricky, especially with what happened at my school. I do feel safe when I’m in class. When I’m around a large group of people, not particularly. In the mornings especially, I don’t feel safe because we stand in long lines to get our bags checked.

Seth Adams: We did use [school shooting lock-down drills] during the shooting. We came into the room and closed the door, the door was locked, turned off lights, filed into the corner and stayed quiet. I’ve been doing [lock-down drills] basically ever since I’ve been in school. It just feels like normal, every day. We do that sometimes. We sit in the corner in the dark and be quiet and I think that was one of the more surreal parts – the routine being actually applied to a real-life situation.

Marshall County H.S. student Seth Adams hopes the activism will help return a sense of normalcy to his school. Nicole Erwin | Ohio Valley ReSource

Morgan Smith: I shouldn’t be afraid to go to school. I shouldn’t have to think about this getting up and going to school in the morning. I shouldn’t have to be worried about my friends who aren’t from the state or in other schools. I shouldn’t have to worry about them getting killed.

Lela Free:  What would make me feel safe? I don’t really think anything ever can make me feel the way I did before.

Patrick Duffy: I definitely feel very safe in my school. I actually would feel perfectly comfortable with teachers having concealed carries, if they’re properly trained and certified then I feel confident in their abilities and safe in their company.

Gun Control

Seth Adams: I think that there should be gun storage laws. There should be punishments incurred if your firearm is easily accessible and something is to happen with it.

Patrick Duffy: What I feel is important is for law enforcement to actually enforce laws. Also, I feel fine with restrictions on guns that prevent them from being fully automatic, such as bump stocks like we saw in the Las Vegas massacre.

Lela Free: I want our politicians to stop taking money from the NRA. I want people to lock up their guns correctly and I don’t want to take away anyone’s guns. That’s not what we want. We just want safe gun protection and we also want safe storage and that’s what we’re mainly advocating for.

Gun enthusiasts at the 2016 NRA convention in Louisville. Photo courtesy of J. Tyler Franklin.

Morgan Smith: If you’re walking at Walmart with a gun on your side, I see nothing wrong with that. It’s for self defense if something does go wrong because how crazy of a world we live in. Don’t get me wrong, I’m pro-guns. I hunt on a regular basis and my family owns a lot of guns. But there are certain types of guns which I don’t think belong in anyone’s houses. And here you can pretty much legally get any type of weapon.

Lela Free: Everyone’s thoughts and prayers are so beautiful and I really appreciate them, but it’s not action. We need action. We need change. We need different things than what we’re doing right now.

These interviews were edited for length and comments organized by topic.

This story was originally published on Ohio Valley Resource.

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"Our Revolution"

Not Just Red vs Blue: What the Teacher Strike May Reveal About West Virginia’s Political Landscape



Teachers hold a rally outside the Senate Chambers in the West Virginia Capitol Monday, March. 5, 2018 in Charleston, W.V. Hundreds of teachers from 55 counties are on strike for pay raises and better health benefits. Photo by Tyler Evert, the Associated Press.


The nine-day teachers’ strike in West Virginia made headlines across the country, and some are wondering what the events mean for state’s political landscape. How did a widespread labor strike, a practice normally associated with Democrats, happen in a state that voted so heavily for Donald Trump?

We wanted to take a step back to explore how politics have been changing here over the past generation. West Virginia has been dubbed the heart of Trump Country, but politics here are anything but straightforward.

The strike wasn’t organized solely by Democrats or Republicans, or even union bosses. But some, like Angela Nottingham, a seventh-grade social studies teacher from Cabell County, said the action changed how they plan to vote this year. Nottingham said she switched from Independent to Democrat after watching some Senate Republicans fight against the pay increase teachers were demanding.

“I know there are a lot of people out there that are Republican and kind of vote with their party. I think a lot of people are gonna look back at who supported them. And I really do think they, and the people around them, and the people they influence, will vote for the people who helped us out,” Nottingham said.

In 2016, President Trump received nearly 70 percent of votes cast in West Virginia.

Woman attending protests at state capitol on March 6 to rally for teacher raises in W.Va.

West Virginia has a Republican governor, and Republicans control both houses of the state Legislature.

And yet, more voters in the state are registered as Democrats than Republicans. In Wyoming County, for example, President Trump won 83 percent of votes, even though more than twice as many voters in this county are registered as Democrats, compared with Republicans.

Could Democrats gain back some ground in the Mountain State?

With the midterm election around the corner, we wanted to get a sense of where we’re headed, so West Virginia Public Broadcasting polled more than 900 teachers and school personnel in an anonymous, online survey. This was not a scientific poll designed by statisticians, but it did give us some interesting insights.

About half of the teachers we surveyed said they identify as Democrats, while nearly 30 percent said they are Republicans. A majority said they voted for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders as their first choice for president in 2016.

A majority (36 percent) said they plan to re-elect U.S. Senator Joe Manchin. An overwhelming majority (97 percent) of those who live in the state’s Third Congressional District in southern West Virginia — the seat currently held by U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins, a Republican — said they plan to vote for Richard Ojeda.

Both Ojeda, who’s currently serving in the state Senate, and Manchin are Democrats. That is, West Virginia’s version of a Democrat.

A Different Kind of Democrat  

Democrats in West Virginia held the majority in the state Legislature for more than 80 years. More than half of our governors have been Democrats. But, as political science professor Rob Rupp explained, the Democrats in the Mountain State have traditionally been a populist party, pro-labor and socially conservative.

Rupp, a professor at West Virginia Wesleyan College in Buckhannon, posited that three are three political parties in America: Republican, Democrat and West Virginia Democrat.

“And by that I mean you have kind of a hybrid party, a big tent where conservatives, moderates and liberals all joined,” unique to West Virginia.

Rupp has spent most of his career studying what he called “West Virginia’s slow-motion realignment towards the red” in this state, and he said that shift has been happening for a long time. But, he argued, it rose to the surface about 15 years ago. President Bill Clinton was fairly popular here, but Democrats on the national stage since have failed to resonate with voters in this pro-coal state.

“And now [Democrats] are realizing that to many West Virginia voters, the national Democratic Party is out of touch with the state voters,” Rupp said.

This shift didn’t happen overnight. Rupp and other political scientists said one reason for the change is the declining power of unions. Labor has had a strong influence on politics here since the 1930s, and labor unions have typically sided with Democrats.

But in West Virginia, Democrats are far more conservative than the national party: They’re pro-coal, and they usually side with conservatives on social issues, like gay rights, abortion and immigration.

Rupp said now we’re seeing the breakup of that hybrid, West Virginia-style Democrat, a change that could have national implications. West Virginia may be a bellwether for rural America, and for the national Democratic party.

“And now with the loss of power was seeing a struggle between, should the Democratic Party turn left or should it turn right, now that it suddenly finds himself in minority.”

But with the recent teachers’ strike, some people are wondering if the Democrats, could stand a chance of regaining power in West Virginia. And what kind of Democrats could get elected? Ones that lean progressive? Or will they need to look more like the West Virginia Democrats of the past?

One example of the traditional-style West Virginia Democrat is state Senator Richard Ojeda. He’s running for Congress in southern West Virginia and he says he voted for Trump, but he’s been disappointed by the President’s performance. He strongly supports labor unions, and was one of the teachers’ loudest supporters during the recent strike.

But if Democrats like Ojeda want to take back power in West Virginia and across Appalachia, they’ll have to figure out one big question: how to bring back jobs to coal country.

Former coal miner Nick Mullins, who blogs at The Thoughtful Coal Miner, said liberals haven’t done enough during the past decade to appeal to working class voters in Appalachia.

“To be frank and honest [Democrats] need to come off of their moral high horses and come back down to the level of the working class,” said Mullins, a registered Independent from southwest Virginia, who said he didn’t vote in the November 2016 election.

“The working class needs help. We’re facing longer hours or stagnant wages. People aren’t enjoying life right now because they’re having to work so hard and long to just have a little bit of happiness in their lives.”

This story was originally published on West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

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A Complicated Resistance

Students Push As Lawmakers Ponder Gun Safety Bills



In a recently released court video, Capt. Matt Hilbrecht of the Marshall County, Kentucky, Sheriff’s office testifies about his interrogation of Gabriel Parker, the15-year-old accused of a mass shooting at Marshall County High School in January.

Marshall County Sheriff’s Detective Capt. Matt Hilbrecht in a court video. Photo courtesy of court video stills.

“We asked him initially when he had the thought of the school shooting,” Hilbrecht begins as he describes the events leading up to the shooting. The recording was released because Parker is being tried as an adult.

Hilbrecht explains how Parker got the 9mm pistol he would use to kill two teens and injure 17 others: Parker found it in his parents’ closet.

“As he went into the bedroom he retrieved a pistol that was still in the case from the closet and stuffed it in between the clothes to conceal it,” Hilbrecht relays in the video. “Then he actually left it in the laundry basket till that morning of the shooting.”

The testimony confirms earlier reports by the ReSource that the gun came from the home. It’s a sadly common occurrence.

Accused school shooter Gabriel Parker (left) with defense attorneys. photo courtesy of court video stills.

A 2004 study from the U.S. Department of Education and Secret Service, and a 2015 report from the nonprofit group Everytown for Gun Safety both found that the majority of school shootings by students involved guns obtained from the home or family members.

Six weeks after the school shooting that shocked this small community, state legislators in Kentucky and elsewhere around the Ohio Valley are again considering legislation that would require secure storage of firearms around minors. But some students newly energized to lobby for school safety are losing patience.


“We are talking about it. It is not dead,” Kentucky Republican State Sen. Whitney Westerfield said of Senate Bill 184. Westerfield chairs the Judiciary Committee where the bill was sent after introduction by Democratic Sen. Gerald Neal. Westerfield has the ability to move the bill out of committee and to the floor for a vote.

“I appreciate the effort of the bill,” Westerfield said. “While I am a staunch supporter of the Second Amendment, I think it is worth looking at whether or not handling them improperly or unsecurely, I think that is something we should look at, I think that’s something we should consider.”

The bill makes improper storage of firearms in homes with a minor a misdemeanor offense. Westerfield said Neal’s bill needs work to more clearly define safe storage before it can move forward. Two other child access prevention bills are stalled in a House committee.

Westerfield boasts an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association, as do most Kentucky state legislators. An analysis of the NRA’s recent lawmaker ratingsconducted by The Trace, a journalism nonprofit covering gun violence, shows Kentucky has the nation’s highest percentage of legislators who got at least an A-minus grade from the NRA, 88 percent.

Photo by Alexandra Kanik, Ohio Valley ReSource

In Ohio, 67 percent of lawmakers got As; In West Virginia, about 60 percent.

Similar child access prevention legislation in Ohio sponsored by Democratic State Rep. Bill Patmon is also stalled in a committee. Patmon has tried and failed to pass the bill for several years now.

Other Gun Bills

Other gun-related bills in the Ohio Valley region are moving forward, but those advancing tend to expand where guns can be carried.

“Unfortunately, we’ve also seen a dangerous policy response to the school shootings. And that’s a proposal to arm teachers and school staff,” said Hannah Shearer, a staff attorney at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which formed after Arizona U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords was shot in 2011. “Those bills are dangerous.”

Shearer said West Virginia has passed legislation that would expand where people could carry firearms, including some private school grounds and public school functions. Ohio is moving in a similar direction with a bill to allow more latitude for people who have permits to carry concealed weapons.

“It would decriminalize carrying a firearm in a school safety zone as well as in a bar or a courthouse by people with a concealed carry permit,” she said.

Student Response

In the wake of the January bloodshed in Marshall County and February’s carnage in Parkland, Florida, March has become a month of activism for many students. Student activists such as 17-year-old Madison Betts of Calloway County High School, located just a 30-minute drive from Marshall County High, are responding to the violence by organizing, lobbying and demonstrating for safer schools. But Betts said she feels that legislators are not listening.

Kentucky student Madison Betts of Calloway County High School is participating in a walkout for school safety. Photo by Nicole Erwin, Ohio Valley Resource.

“We can go to the capitol and we can advocate and we can speak and we can protest, but they’re not taking us seriously,” she said. “So now we’re doing walkouts.”

She’s participating in a brief student walkout: 17 minutes to reflect on the 17 lives lost during the Parkland, Florida, shooting. Betts said she’s willing to risk possible discipline for missing class.

“I thought, you know, ‘What if I do this and then I’m not allowed to walk at graduation?’” she said. “But then I think, you know, ‘What if I don’t do this, and then other kids don’t get to walk at their graduations because they don’t make it.”

This story was originally published by Ohio Valley Resource.

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