Blackjewel Protests Aren’t Over Yet

Miners block more than $1 million in coal on the tracks in Harlan County, demanding the now bankrupt Blackjewel and Revelation Energy Company pay them for their labor. (c) Sydney Boles

Appalshop has been covering miners’ protest in Harlan County since Day 1. More than a month later, we’re still on the story.

“One thing about it is you can never trust the coal company. … They call it Bloody Harlan for a reason. We don’t intend no harm. We’re just here trying to get what’s rightfully owed to us.” 

That’s what Shane Smith, a former Blackjewel and Revelation Energy miner, told Shaylan Clark and Oakley Fugate, two alumni of our Appalachian Media Institute, when they interviewed him on the train tracks in Harlan County.

Miners have been protesting there since July. They’re blocking an estimated $1 million in coal that they mined themselves before Blackjewel declared bankruptcy in early June. 

That’s when more than 1,000 miners’ paychecks bounced, and when they discovered their employer had not been making 401(k) contributions — or even child support payments — for months prior to the bankruptcy.

“On the 4th of July we had a daughter that was born, we had our sixth child. They actually withdrew my money on the 5th,” Smith said in his interview with AMI

It’s been more than four weeks, and miners are still protesting.

They haven’t been paid for work they already did.

Their children have gone back to school with donated backpacks, clothes, even school supplies.

Most are thousands of dollars in debt.

“My kids gotta eat,” Bobby Sexton told our own Sydney Boles, a reporter for our radio station WMMT 88.7 FM. A miner, Sexton says he won’t leave the tracks in Harlan until he gets paid.

Miners spoke to alumni of our Appalachian Media Institute about their ongoing protest in Harlan County. (c) Shaylan Clark and Oakley Fugate

Sydney has been there miners like Sexton since the very first day of the protest. She’s filed stories from the field, broadcast on our own WMMT 88.7 FM and through the Ohio Valley ReSource, giving them even wider impact through West Virginia and Ohio. As national media has begun to take notice, she’s even done interviews herself with NPR, WBUR and Vox Media.

Some of our youngest filmmakers have joined her. Shaylan Clark and Oakley Fugate, alumni of our Appalachian Media Institute, interviewed miners in the early days of the protest, their conversation punctuated by the furious car horns of passerby honking in support. 

The final short they produced is a heavyweight, cutting between several miners explaining the Blackjewel legal proceedings, their connection to coal, their love of the work, and their determination to get what they’re owed. 

Told in miners’ own voices, it’s even powerful when you consider that it was shot and edited by young people of color and with different abilities in a region that’s often erroneously whitewashed.

The protests themselves have defied many of the stereotypes about Appalachia —

Trans anarchists have been protesting on the tracks in solidarity. Bernie Sanders sent 18 boxes of pizza. At a rally on August 16th, miners waved signs that said “Coal miners and truckers against corporate America” and “Coal or workers: Which side are you on?”

The protests aren’t over yet, and we’re committed to covering them as long as they continue. 

Sydney herself said it best: “Whatever you think about politics in Appalachia, you have more to learn.”

Signs at a rally on the track tracks in Harlan County where miners are blocking coal they extracted for Blackjewel and Revelation Energy Company, demanding the now bankrupt company pay them for their labor. (c) Sydney Boles