This Land Will Never Be For Sale
by Larry Gibson
[Editors’ note: This essay originally appeared in “Like Walking Onto Another Planet” by the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition]
My name is Larry Gibson. This land has been in my family for over 220 years and had never been surveyed by anybody in the family. I really didn’t start having violence until I surveyed my own land. I found that it had always been surveyed in behalf of the oil company, a utility company, a coal company, but never in behalf of the people, of my own family. I started forcing the companies back on the boundaries where they was supposed to be and that’s when the violence started.
And the first few years, I couldn’t even get the law to come up there because my land sits in three counties. Then when I got to be friends with [former WV Congressman] Ken Hechler, then and only then did I start getting support from the local officials. The police, not the state troopers. But up there, it’s in the wilderness, sits by itself. Most times when things happen, ain’t nobody can help anyhow. It’s done and over with before anybody can even be told about it, much less get ready for it.
There’s people that’s angry about what happens. But you got to be not only angry, you gotta be willing to do something, you know? I been fighting for my place for 18 years now. You can’t go into a situation where people are gathering for the first time and saying “We’ve had 118 acts of violence,” yet they’re just now beginning to get involved. You can’t do that. You gotta tell people something positive, but you can’t make it easy and tell them that nothing’s gonna happen to them because there’s always the potential.
That [coal company] fellow was on TV the other day –he’s the one I met with back in ’92. And he told me my land was worth a million dollars an acre to the coal company then. And he turns around and offers $140,000 for it. You know, it was like we didn’t know the difference! Even if we wanted to sell, he was talking to us like they were really gonna do us a favor. “We’re gonna help y’all out, make a generous offer to you.” And he’d just told me it was worth over a million dollars.
Then when he said that, I said, “The land’ll never be for sale. You can have my right arm, but you’ll never get the land.”
So he said, “Well, you know, you’re the island, and we are the ocean. You set in the middle of 187,000 acres of coal company land. You’re the only thing we don’t own between here and the Virginia border.” I had my family members – seven of us – there for that meeting and it just didn’t make no sense.
That man said, “We don’t give a damn about the people up the holler. We don’t care about anybody, anything. All we want is the coal and that’s it.”
And up to this point, they’ve proved their point. They don’t care about the people.
The most endangered species we have in West Virginia besides our own people that’s being displaced out of the mountains and the hollers is the deep miners. People say, “Why don’t they say something?” Well, who they gonna say it to? The United Mine Workers is no longer a viable union, all they do is take money from people. They don’t do anything for the people. Who you gonna go to? Up my holler when I was a boy, we had 25,000 miners. There was nothing that went out of that holler without the union’s control. And if you worked for a scab outfit, you didn’t tell anybody. Now there’s nothing that goes out my holler that’s not under company control, and if you work for a union you don’t tell anybody. I see a day when the violence is gonna come back like it did on the Blair Mountain battle.
I’ve been through the experience of being shot at a numerous amount of times because of my stand on what I believe in. People say, “Why don’t you just sell?” They’ve offered me seven times the amount of acreage as what I’ve got for my place. But then the land they offered me – my people never walked on it. It’s been turned over. You can’t put anything on it, can’t grow anything on it.
The other day I was thinking about something I could probably do that would give me the same amount in respect of breaking the law as what the coal company’s doing now. I’ve been called a terrorist. I’ve been called an extremist. I’ve been called a radical. And the very people around me, they’ve not been typed extremist or radical.
Recently I was told that we should start working with the union again. Well, it was a union site on Princess Beverly right beside of me. The violence didn’t start toward me heavily until [UMWA President] Cecil Roberts endorsed mountain top removal – that was in 1999 – and made reference to me as an extremist radical. Well, my dad was working in the mine when Roberts started as a boy. He knew me all my life, and yet he got on national TV, on the Capitol steps in front of 1,500 miners, in 1999 and made reference to me as an extremist radical from out-of-state!
And so that’s when the violence started. That’s when it really escalated. I was having trouble before, but I didn’t really know what I was going into. Now recently they tell me that my land is now – since George Bush got into office – worth $450 million dollars. And they told me six months ago that by time he gets out of office it will be escalated up to $650 million.
So I tell people that we have the very best President that we’ve ever had in the history of mankind right now. I’ll be in front of a big crowd at a university or a college, or a big church association or something and you could hear a pin hit the carpet because they’re gasping, trying to get their breath about what I just said. And what I meant, and when they let me finish what I’m saying before they wanna hang me, is the fact that this man has undone every environmental gain we’ve made over the last 150 years, just in the eight years of his office.
I had some people come to see me this past weekend, and you’ll be amazed where they come from and you’ll be amazed what they said. They come from Israel. And all the problems they’re having in Israel right now, with the bombings and everything, and they turned and looked at me and said they feel sorry for me.
We lost about 80, well, close to a hundred headstones in the family cemetery, because every time the coal company would blast, they’d blast debris over into the cemetery. It would bust some of the headstones, turn some of them over. Then they’d send a crew of men over to clean them up. And then the old sandstone headstones that had carving on them, we caught them actually throwing them away, destroying them as well. And the simple reason behind that was to try to prove that we didn’t have as many graves there on the ground as we had. And so if they could reclaim some of the gravesites, well, the mountain had 39 seams of coal. There’s a lot of wealth underneath there.
But the thing is, that cemetery has been undermined now by nine different companies we have names to, and six others that we don’t, over the last 125 years. I’m just doing this because it’s my right to fight for the resting place of my people, but more than likely the people are not even there. And you walk through my cemetery, you can actually see where the underground mine is because the graves are dropping. We now have mine cracks developing and a big hole developing. And on the other family cemetery across the ridge we have mine cracks right through the graves that’s three and four feet wide, that you can see down in and there’s no casket, no body – all that’s left is a headstone. And these people that come from Israel, they said, “You mean the coal company doesn’t have any respect for the cemetery?” I said, “The coal company don’t have respect for the living, much less the dead.”
When I was a kid, our place was like a wonderland. People used to make fun of me and say I was my father’s retarded son – they’d call me that, you know? One of the things they couldn’t understand was that I was always able to get close to the wild animals. I’d go out in the woods and come home with a bobcat or a squirrel or a coon. One time I was helping my dad fix a swing, hang a swing, and I had my bib overalls on. I was setting there and squirming and bouncing around. My dad asked in a kind of angry way what I was doing and a frog jumped out of my pocket.
We never had toys. But it was a wonderland, you know? You could walk through the forest. You could hear the animals. The woods like to talk to you. You could feel a part of Mother Nature. In other words, everywhere you looked there was life. Now you put me on the same ground where I walked, and the only thing you can feel is the vibration of dynamite or heavy machinery. No life, just dust.
How was it when I was a kid? I’ll put it to you this way – when they took me to Cleveland, that’s the first time that I ever knew I was poor. They told me I was poor. Me? I thought I was the richest person in the world. I didn’t want for anything. I’d get out in the woods, and on my way, if I was hungry I’d pick my apples. I had a pocket knife I always carried so I’d cut cucumbers up in somebody’s garden. Or I’d get chased out of somebody’s apple tree. I’d get berries along the way. Pawpaws. I loved pawpaws. And gooseberries.
All these things are no longer there. Now they’re forcing wild boar into my area, and deer into my area, and there wasn’t any kind of animal like that when I was a kid. Mostly all small game and an occasional bear. Every other year or so we’d see a bear. Now they’re forcing the bears in on me. A bear needs 50 acres to feed on and now there’s nothing for them.
In my childhood, I had a pigeon. I’d come out of my house and no matter where I went, he was either flying over my head or setting on my shoulder. One time I had a hawk. I named him Fred. For the longest time he was around, then all of a sudden one day he didn’t show up. I had a bobcat, and I had a three-legged fox that got caught in a trap. I kept it until it got healed and then it wouldn’t leave. I wouldn’t trade my childhood for all the fancy fire trucks in the world that the kids had. Nor toys.
It was a hard way, but it didn’t seem so hard because it’s the only way we knew. What would you walk four or five miles to school for? Because that’s the only thing you knew. Now you can’t get a kid to go to the front door to catch the bus. I didn’t see a TV till I was 13. Didn’t talk on a phone till I was 14. Now, when my kids was growing up, I’d threaten to take the TV off them. “How we gonna make it for a whole month without a TV, Dad?” they’d say. That’s the problem today, we ain’t one with the earth no more.
I don’t know what the answer is as far as what’s happening. Destroying all the environment, all the streams. When I was a kid, down at the bottom of the mountain, I could get crawdads, pick them up out of the water with my toes. Now nothing lives in the water. Nothing lives on the land. What they’ve done is irreversible. You can’t bring it back.
I was just asked this question last week when I was in Tennessee. A lady said, “We’ve been reading where you’ve been fighting for eighteen years. We’d like to know what keeps you going.” I just told her I was right. You know, if you’re right, you’re right. There’s no other answer. There’s one thing I was taught at a very young age, as a boy living in the coalfields. We didn’t know the United States President, but we knew the United Mine Workers’ President. In other words, we was organized as young people. And that’s the way I grew up. Organized. You learn to fight back and you fight back. You have to fight back.
That’s the way it was, and that’s the way it is for me today. And that’s the way I try to reach out to people, to show them. There is a saying I’ve lived by all my life, “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.” That’s not an original statement, somebody else came up with it. But the thing is, it’s true.
We’ve lost 25 percent of the population because of mountain top removal. Remember I said a while ago, we used to have 25,000 miners in my holler. Now we got 500, and they do the work of 25,000. We’ve lost 130,000 people in my holler.
People need to grab a hold of what they’ve got, or once the coal company gets through there’ll be nothing left. This ritual of taking our men to mine for coal – there’s not one life worth losing for coal. As of 1997, we’ve lost 200,000 men to black lung and cave-ins alike. We lose men every year. And this disaster we just had [at the Sago mine], now people are looking at it. Now people are passing laws. Every time something happens like the Buffalo Creek Disaster they pass laws. But then they twist the laws and they still break the laws. Every law that’s ever been written has been written in a coal miner’s blood.
What I want to say now at the end of this is to encourage people to stand up against oppression and speak for theirself. Because if they’re waiting for the people that’s doing it to them to speak for them, it’s never gonna happen. They’re gonna keep taking and taking and taking. Folks have to get in their head that the people that’s doing it to them don’t’ care about them. They have to care about theirself. They have to take control of their own destiny. Whether it’s a coal company or a chemical company or what, they’re not gonna do it for the people. The people have to do it for theirself.