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Freedom to Speak and Power Struggles in the Coalfields

Lots of email today about the inspiring rally to save Coal River Mountain held yesterday in West Virginia. If you were able to see or hear any of it, you may also be aware of a counter-rally aimed at disrupting those speaking against mountaintop removal by repeated blasting from coal truck horns.

Janet Keating of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC) sent the following message and photo:

"Those of us who attended the Save Coal River Mountain rally on Dec. 7 were "treated' to the blaring coal truck horns throughout the time we were there.  When one coal truck decided to come down the alley adjacent to our speakers' podium, OVEC's Vivian Stockman saw what was about to happen, and stopped him.  I didn't know this had happened until after event and thought you might want to see this non-violent act of courage.  The police finally intervened and made the truck leave."


Vivian Stockman Just Saying "No" to a Coal Truck (Photo by Linda Frame, West Virginia Citizen Action Group)

I heard some of this honking as I listened to an audio stream of the rally via Head on Radio Network. Perhaps even more awesome than the noise was that fact that one or two of the speakers used the opportunity to interrupt their own speech to say "Honk if you love mountains!" into the mike. It kind of reminded me of various martial arts that teach students to use an opponent's own aggression to disable the attacker.

Thinking about these noise attacks at the rally, I was reminded that many of my coalfield allies -- including many there yesterday -- had suffered similar attempts to prevent them from speaking at public hearings on the proposed suspension of the Nationwide Permit 21 by the US Army Corps of Engineers in October. And beyond the coalfields, of course, we had a whole summer of attacks against freedom of speech in shout-a-thons at town hall meetings across the country.

Reflecting on all of this, I was struck with a fair amount of fascination and curiosity that so many people are choosing to cut off another person's ability to speak and be heard as a primary tactic of opposition these days.

In this moment of questioning, a door seemed to open briefly upon the depths of humanity's collective soul, and I understood that what we're seeing here has very deep roots, and speaks to an ancient fundamental fracture in ways of relating to each other and to the Earth. I know it will take much more time for me to explore this idea, but I have a couple of thoughts to get myself started -- inspired by speakers I heard yesterday and by Vivian's act to defend a space to speak for other citizens gathered at the rally.

In my spiritual tradition, our capacity to speak (as well as our capacity to move) is said to be connected with the throat chakra, our energetic or spiritual center of power. It's no coincidence that when people find their voice and can speak out to others about their life experience, they say they feel empowered. When some people try to shut other people up -- with truck horns, threats of violence or whatever -- what's being enacted is a power struggle of some kind.

This is not some big mystical secret: if you have ever had the experience of being silenced by another, you know in mind, body and soul that it feels like all your power was sucked right out of you. Fortunately, nobody can ever really destroy our spiritual power, and we learn how to protect ourselves or reconnect or recenter ourselves in it.

Power, of course, can be horded and misused. Humankind has a long sad history of this. Part of our collective healing process, I think, will be rooted in development of our capacity not only to speak the truth but to hear all other voices.

Power struggles are interesting. Things are often not what they seem. Ultimately we may discover that it's the folks yelling, screaming and blasting their horns to shut us up that were the most disempowered of all.