By Alison Knezevich Staff writer
before the premiere of the documentary “Coal Country” last weekend, some people booed. Others cheered.It was nothing new for 94-year-old Hechler. For decades, the former U.S. congressman and West Virginia Secretary of State has fought controversial battles against strip mining and mountaintop removal.
“I’ve been in the middle of this for many, many years,” he said this week in an interview with the Saturday Gazette-Mail.
Now, he’s fighting charges from his arrest last month at a Raleigh County protest against mountaintop removal. On June 23, West Virginia State Police troopers arrested him and about 30 other demonstrators — including actress Daryl Hannah and NASA climate scientist James Hansen — outside Massey Energy’s Goals Coal preparation plant near Marsh Fork Elementary School.
On July 1, Hechler pleaded not guilty to impeding traffic and obstructing an officer.
“If I violated the law, I ought to be arrested,” he said, “but I don’t think I violated the law.”
Hechler is representing himself in the case, and he believes video footage of the event will prove his innocence.
“[It] indicates pretty clearly that I did neither of these things,” he said.
The protest began at the Marsh Fork Elementary football field. Organizers picked the location because it sits beneath a Massey slurry impoundment, Hechler said.
Demonstrators then marched about a quarter-mile to the Massey site, where coal miners and their family members had blocked the plant entrance. Someone offered to drive Hechler, he said.
“I’m 94 years old,” he said, “so I walk very slowly.”
Video footage shows that police had arrested the other protestors, including Hannah and Hansen, before Hechler arrived at the site on W.Va. 3. Troopers took them into custody after they sat down in the middle of the road.
Hechler never sat down in the road. Instead, he stood in the middle of it, along with others.
He said someone shouted, “Here’s Ken Hechler, he wants to get arrested!” although that doesn’t show up on the video.
Then he was arrested. The troopers treated him well, he said: “It was all done very amicably and politely.”
They took him to the Whitesville detachment in Boone County.
“I was shocked when I arrived there to see all these people in handcuffs. Including Daryl Hannah — a real terrorist,” he laughed.
Hechler hasn’t yet been notified about when he must appear in court again.
He finds it ironic that police arrested him at last month’s protest, but not at another one in May.
On Memorial Day weekend, state police arrested 17 people at three different mining sites in Southern West Virginia. Hechler was among demonstrators who trespassed on Massey property, but police didn’t cite him.
In May, “I really was trespassing,” he said. “There’s no question.”
Hechler hopes mountaintop removal will continue to get national attention.
“I think we’ve got to bring this to the attention of higher-ups beyond the state,” he said. “Hopefully, we can get the word up to the president at some point, because I just think he’s not realizing how damaging this is to people as individuals. This isn’t an environmental issue. This is an issue of human protection.”
Hechler said he strongly supported President Obama during last year’s primary and general elections, but since then, he’s been disappointed. He thinks the president is too interested in compromise and building consensus when it comes to mountaintop removal, Hechler said. In Congress, Hechler came to believe that “compromise” was a word “used by people who want to drive loopholes into otherwise high-principled legislation.”
“When Harry Truman confronted the issue of civil rights, he didn’t try to build a consensus with the racists. He issued an executive order integrating the armed forces,” said Hechler, who served as Truman’s special assistant at the White House. “That’s what President Obama ought to do. He shouldn’t try to get everybody on board. That isn’t going to happen.”
@tag:Reach Alison Knezevich at alis…@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1240.