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The Protesting Kentucky Coal Miners Who Stood Up and Stopped a Train

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John Curtis Cress worked at Cloverlick 3 for BlackJewel LLC. "We're here today to try and make a stand and let the world and media know that we were done wrong,” He said. "We just want answers. And we want the money that we earned and we worked for." Photo: Curren Sheldon

Laid off coal miners in Harlan County, Kentucky, took to the train tracks this week to protest over money they’re owed from the bankrupt coal company Blackjewel, LLC. Despite the layoffs, miners were still owed wages from weeks of work earlier this summer, only to find their final paychecks bounce.

When a group of six miners learned that coal they believed they mined was being loaded on a train and hauled out of the county, they decided to take a stand. The small group blocked the train from leaving the mine by camping out on the train tracks at an intersection nearby, announcing they would leave when they were paid the back wages they had already earned.

“We saw they were going to pull the coal out and I guess that struck a nerve with us,” said John Curtis Cress, a former Blackjewel coal miner. “Someone is going to make money from that and we’ve still not been paid for mining that coal. So, we stopped it.”

The act of standing in front of a train in-protest is a visceral image and one that, as a documentarian, I couldn’t ignore. So, I drove three hours from Charleston, West Virginia, down to Harlan County to capture images of the miners who are blocking a train with just their bodies and the principle of standing up for what’s right.

Holding his young baby in one hand and standing in the middle of the train tracks, laid off miner Cameron Cornett put the protest in simple terms: “I just want the money that I’ve already worked for and they took back from me and my family.”

Austin Watts, one of the original six miners who first stood in front of the departing train, said that the company owes him close to $7,000 in wages, but believes other miners are owed more than $10,000, money that each miner was counting on to provide for their families, make house and car payments and plan for a now uncertain future.

While the small protest started with just six miners on Monday morning, by Wednesday when I arrived, it had become a community affair. Dozens of other miners and families joined the protest, while community members showed their support with food, water, drinks and tents for protection against the blistering late summer heat. A cornhole game was set up on the tracks, musicians provided entertainment with songs and fires were started at night for marshmallow roasting.  

“It’s the greatest feeling in the world to have so many come out and show us their love and respect,” miner Jerod Blevins said. “We’re just out here supporting our family, supporting our kids. This brotherhood we have– this is what we’re out here for and why we’re holding up the coal.”


The motto of the coal miner protest “No Pay We Stay” demonstrates that the protestors don’t plan on abandoning the train tracks until they are paid the wages they’ve already earned. Photo: Curren Sheldon
As the sun sets, the protestors chat with their community members, play a game of catch or cornhole, and start a fire for people to gather around. Many of the miners stay through the night to make sure their blockade remains intact. Photo: Curren Sheldon
On Wednesday evening, more than 100 people came to the protest-site to help pass out food, bring water and ice, and relieve those who had stayed on the tracks during the day. Photo: Curren Sheldon
A daughter of a miner plays a game of cornhole while the original blockade remains on the tracks in the background. Many miners’ children hang out at the tracks with their parents, playing games or coloring with chalk on the intersecting road. Photo: Curren Sheldon
After being briefed on the forthcoming BlackJewel LLC’s bankruptcy auction, the protestors gather for a prayer of guidance and strength. Photo: Curren Sheldon
Miner Bobby Cole and his wife Melissa Cole listen intently as a miner advocate briefs the crowd of protestors on where things stand with BlackJewel LLC’s bankruptcy proceedings. Bobby Cole estimates the company owes him close to $8,000 in wages and benefits. Photo: Curren Sheldon
Three protestors stand in front of the railroad crossing sign that signifies the road intersection where the protestors decided to set up their human barricade. Photo: Curren Sheldon
Laid off miner Jeffrey Willig knows that taking part in the protest might hurt his future employment opportunities, but wants to be an strong example for his six children and fight for other miners who can’t protest themselves. “I was just like enough’s enough,” he said. “I’m not going to stand by and watch those guys and their families be affected the same way I am. They’ve gone through this time and time again. That’s when I felt like I needed to step up.” Photo: Curren Sheldon
A miner who joined the protest holds his young son on the third day of the protest. More than 1100 miners were laid off, many still waiting their final wages from BlackJewel LLC. Photo: Curren Sheldon

Curren Sheldon is an Emmy-winning and Oscar-nominated filmmaker and photographer from Charleston, W.Va. He is the director of photography and producer of two Netflix Original Documentaries, “Heroin(e)” and “Recovery Boys.” His work has been commissioned by The New York Times, Orion Magazine, The Bitter Southerner, and Mashable among others. He isn’t on social media so you can find him at www.currensheldon.com.