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Whose Appalachia Is It, Anyway?

Recent upheavals in the region reflect an electorate that is more eclectic than it is given credit for—and that is up for grabs.

Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty

Red Terry lived in a tree for 35 days. The 61-year-old woman and her daughter, Minor, took to the treetops of their Bent Mountain property in Virginia on April 1 to protest the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP), which would cut a swath from West Virginia down through southwest and southside Virginia, boring underneath the region’s famous Appalachian Trail at several points. Until Saturday afternoon, the Terrys occupied the trees to oppose a development project that would, they fear, poison local water supplies and irrevocably damage the area’s natural beauty. Their sits quickly became a focal point for local opposition to the MVP.

Tom Bondurant, a Roanoke attorney who represents the Terry family, told me on Friday that Red subsisted on three bologna sandwiches a day. “They took a bunch of their own food up there, they were well-stocked,” he said. “I think the police tried to starve them for four or five days. Now it’s been bologna sandwiches for two weeks.” On Friday afternoon, a local judge ruled that the Terrys were in contempt of a court ruling granting MVP access to the land. As soon as the Terrys descended from the treetops on Saturday, MVP crews reportedly appeared with chainsaws.

Red and Minor were responsible for one of four tree-sits protesting the Mountain Valley Pipeline. The other three dot southwest Virginia and West Virginia, all located in rural areas, most of them in Appalachia. For locals, the tree-sits are the culmination of a four-year fight against the MVP and another project, the Atlantic Coast pipeline. The Terrys’ tree-sit isn’t Appalachia’s first sally against an extractive industry. But for a region best known for its support for Donald Trump and its struggles with opioid addiction, the protest, which would not be out of place in the Greenpeace playbook, is a reminder that Appalachian politics are more eclectic than what the national headlines would suggest.

Hours away from the Terrys’ tree-sit, white supremacists have begun leaving fliers on the campus of West Virginia University, in addition to a number of towns in West Virginia and western Maryland. They call themselves Patriots of Appalachia, and as Dave Mistich recently reported for West Virginia Public Radio, they’re attempting a specific appeal to Appalachian identity. “The fliers attempted to brand the organization as a ‘fraternity dedicated to survival and fitness,’” Mistich wrote. “In taking a look at the group’s YouTube and Twitter accounts, their true motivation is clear.”

The Patriots offer one version of Appalachian political identity. Activists like the Terrys present another. This double-edged populism isn’t unique to Appalachia or to any other region. But it does reveal clear challenges for Appalachia’s political future.

The actions of Red and Minor invoke a specific activist tradition in the region. Appalachian women frequently take leading roles in protest against extraction, whether it is natural gas in MVP’s case or coal. Before Paula Jean Swearengin challenged Joe Manchin in West Virginia’s Democratic Senate primary, she got her start as an environmental activist protesting the ecological and public health risks created by the coal industry. In 2012, Marilyn Mullens, Vivian Stockman, and other women took to the steps of the West Virginia state capitol to shave their heads in protest of mountaintop removal coal-mining. “Our hair can grow back, the mountains can’t,” Stockman told journalist Layne Amerikaner at the time.

In southwest Virginia, a bit closer to the beloved land of Red and Minor Terry, the Daughters of Mother Jones joined miners on the frontlines of the 1989 Pittston strike, when members of United Mineworkers of America merged civil disobedience with traditional picketing to protest unfair labor practices at Pittston Coal. The Daughters became an integral force, as historian Richard Brisbin noted in A Strike Like No Other Strike. They marched, they rallied, and, for 36 hours, they occupied the headquarters of the Pittston Coal Group.

Minor Terry’s tree-sit in Bent Mountain, Virginia.
Rupert Cutler

MVP won’t just affect Appalachia, and the Virginia counties affected by MVP aren’t coal counties; the state’s coalfields are limited mostly to its furthest southwestern tip. So it is not totally accurate to say that the pipelines represent a continuation of the region’s extractive history. Rather, it’s an expansion of that history, spreading out and demanding new resistance from the individuals and communities it will affect. Natural gas is becoming a fraught opportunity for a region badly in need of jobs; it will provide some work, though much of it will be temporary construction work, and may increase local tax revenues. But its very nature pits it directly against the local tourism industry, which is predicated on the area’s natural beauty. And while the natural gas industry may not map directly onto the coalfields, it’s as if some predator looked at what’s left of the region and decided to attack what’s left.

Diana Christopolous, a local environmental activist who serves as president of the Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club, described the MVP as a “cash boondoggle” in a conversation with me on Friday. She worries that the natural gas the pipeline produces won’t actually benefit the area. “Direct action is of course on our minds,” she said. “We tried to honor the process, and do things through legal means. Now we’re doing peaceful resistance.”

“When we think about resistance, what people are really resisting is the power of these huge energy companies over policy makers and regulatory authorities in Washington, D.C., in the case of [the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission], and in the executive branch in Virginia,” echoed Tom Cormons, the executive director of Appalachian Voices, an environmental advocacy group.

Under the Trump administration, FERC has mostly rubber-stamped large energy projects. (Its most substantive act of resistance thus far was to reject, in January, the Trump administration’s bid to bail out coal and nuclear plants.) FERC’s compliance is due largely to the fact that the Trump administration has stacked the commission with political appointees, as it’s done with other regulatory agencies like the National Labor Relations Board. But while FERC usually represents the will of the Trump administration, its decisions aren’t necessarily popular with the base that helped put Trump in office. As was the case during the fight against New Hampshire’s Northern Pass project, resistance to both Virginia pipelines creates strange bedfellows out of liberal environmentalists and Trump voters, who are acting together against FERC and mammoth corporations.

Ask the average mountaineer what it means to be Appalachian, and the answer will almost certainly call back to the land itself. The land is both a source of woe and an identity marker. If there is such a thing as Appalachian-ness, it looks a lot like toughness. The land demands of its inhabitants a specific adaptability to mountainous areas. Even where the mountains wind down and arable land is more readily available, the region can still feel like an isolated place. The Terrys live a mere 30 minutes outside the city of Roanoke, but a person doesn’t need to venture far outside the limits of Roanoke—or Asheville, North Carolina, or Johnson City, Tennessee—to find themselves deep in rural country.

That said, the region does not lack a suburban middle class. There are rich people, even, in Appalachia, and they didn’t all make their money from coal.

These basic facts can slide into cliche: Appalachia is a land of contrasts, the finger-waggers intone. Geographic areas, after all, aren’t monolithic. Frictions are present even within cohesive cultural identities, and Appalachia is anything but uniform. Giles County, Virginia, may share problems with McDowell County, West Virginia, but their situations aren’t identical. This means that it is difficult to speak of some broad Appalachian cultural malaise, as commentators like J.D. Vance have done. It’s also difficult to identify some coherent regional activist tradition. If one exists, it is visible mostly in how people relate to the land—both in what it means to them, and in what outsiders want from its bounty.

One alternative vision of Appalachia, as a culturally uniform place inhabited by the hardy Scots-Irish, favors the far right. As the historian Elizabeth Catte argued in What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, “The lives of poor white people, especially those with the additional burdens of addiction or legal issues, become empirical proof for conservatives that we have based our attention on fractured logic”—meaning that the plight of the poor white is proof that racism is not the scourge that those on the left make it out to be. In its mildest form, this rationale animates the worldview of conservatives like Vance. Taken to its logical extreme, it propels organized white supremacy.

The Twitter account of the Patriots of Appalachia, a group posting fliers on the campus of West Virginia University and in a variety of West Virginia and Maryland towns, mixes social concern with racist agitprop, which is an old white supremacist trick. Matthew Heimbach tried the same maneuver in Pikeville, Kentucky, in 2017, only to encounter stiff resistance from locals. Heimbach nevertheless claimed that his now-defunct group, the Traditionalist Worker’s Party, possessed some local support, and while Heimbach is prone to exaggeration it is also unlikely that his story is a total lie. He did manage to find a supportive local host for some of TWP’s planned Kentucky activities. Patriots of Appalachia simply picked up the torch that Heimbach set down.

This is the other side of Appalachia. As tempting as it is to identify it solely as the land of the Battle of Blair Mountain and the Pittston strike, to conflate all its inhabitants with Marilyn Mullens and Paula Jean Swearengen and the Terrys, Appalachia can be a deeply racist place. There were lynchings in Appalachia. There are white supremacists, still, in Appalachia. Don Blankenship, a coal baron running in West Virginia’s Republican Senate primary, is responsible for the deaths of 29 coal miners, yet his popularity seems to increase with every racist ad he produces.

Hurley High School in Buchanan County, Virginia, has a Confederate flag painted onto its front doors and its mascot is still the Rebel, in the year of our Lord 2018. After the Charleston massacre, some Appalachian whites reacted to backlash against the Confederate flag by participating in regional traffic parades of Confederate flags. That flag is everywhere, even in areas of east Tennessee that used to be Union country, because the sentiment it represents is so deeply rooted it may as well be a mountain of its own.

Still, Appalachia has never been lily-white. It was home first to indigenous people, who were violently displaced by white settlers. It subsequently drew waves of immigration, from Europe, yes, but from elsewhere too. It is home to the descendants of people who did not immigrate, but who were brought here by force. Generations of people of color labored in the mines, and people of color are still present, still working, still speaking.

So who gets to be Appalachian? Do we rely on cultural stereotype, or do we set that aside for something new? That last option is best. It isn’t enough to celebrate the pipeline protests or the West Virginia teachers’ strike. Populism will be a menace unless the left co-opts it for its own ends, for living wages, accessible health care, a healthy environment. The hills belong to everyone.