Just yesterday, the "Making One Year Count" movement made its social media debut. This letter-writing campaign addresses the blatant miscarriage of justice in the Don Blankenship mine explosion trial. The initiative's goal is to deliver three hundred and sixty-five letters to Blankenship during his year in prison, showing him that though the courts may have been lenient, citizens have neither forgotten the lives lost in the tragedy nor the injuries caused daily by the coal industry.
Today, I made my contribution to this endeavor:
Dear Mr. Blankenship,
Whatever words I can write on this page feel pitifully insufficient, to say the least, but in honor of those your negligence killed, those still alive but suffering daily from the hurting you caused, and those living in a country pained by pollution and the injurious practices of your industry as a whole, I have to try. It's the most I can do to send you a letter like this one, and hope that you get three hundred and sixty-four more reminders of what justice truly is and should have been in your case. I am going to start by reminding you of something else: that if things had been different, and you had been one of the unlucky ones, compelled by the basic necessity to provide for oneself to descend into your Tartarean "workplaces," you probably would have received four hundred and thirty-five times what you did get (fifteen years, the penalty for manslaughter, multiplied by twenty-nine counts).
But even that isn't a victory, except in the hollowest sense. And maybe that's enough for you, but somehow I doubt it. Because even after you do return to the outside world, you will sometimes unavoidably think back on everything that happened. The last time somebody tried to caution you, and you brushed them off and went back to business as usual. The explosion you could have prevented at marginal cost to your company. The twenty-nine people whose dreams of a better life were powerful enough to send them into your mines, whose dreams will now never be realized. The families and friends of the killed, everyone who had grown accustomed to having them around. Somehow, I just don't believe you'll always be able to smirk at all that.
When I was reading about your trial, it called to mind another case that took place in Idaho over a hundred years ago. You may know about it. It was the trial of William "Big Bill" Haywood, a labor leader of the Western Federation of Miners. He was unfairly framed by the mining interests with the murder of Frank Steunenberg, and represented against those charges by Clarence Darrow. Anyway, the passage of Darrow's summation that reminded me of you goes like this:"But, gentlemen, he and his mother, his wife and his children are not my chief concern in this case. If you should decree that he must die, ten thousand men will work down in the mines to send a portion of the proceeds of their labor to take care of that widow and those orphan children, and a million people throughout the length and the breadth of the civilized world will send their messages of kindness and good cheer to comfort them in their bereavement. It is not for them I plead.
Other men have died, other men have died in the same cause in which Bill Haywood has risked his life, men strong with devotion, men who love liberty, men who love their fellow men have raised their voices in defense of the poor, in defense of justice, have made their good fight and have met death on the scaffold, on the rack, in the flame and they will meet it again until the world grows old and gray. Bill Haywood is no better than the rest. He can die if die he needs, he can die if this jury decrees it; but, oh, gentlemen, don't think for a moment that if you hang him you will crucify the labor movement of the world.
Don't think that you will kill the hopes and the aspirations and the desires of the weak and the poor, you men, unless you people who are anxious for this blood--are you so blind as to believe that liberty will die when he is dead? Do you think there are no brave hearts and no other strong arms, no other devoted souls who will risk their life in that great cause which has demanded martyrs in every age of this world? There are others, and these others will come to take his place, will come to carry the banner where he could not carry it."
This year will soon be through, and this tragic story will be consigned to the casebooks alongside Haywood's. But long after both of us are forgotten, that century-old devotion will still be there, because you can't kill solidarity. You should know that better than I do, actually. I've never tried.
Before you can finally put me down and go back to what you were doing, I want to say one thing more. I believe in justice, but I am not the vengeful sort. I never have wanted to see a man killed, whether by a misguided criminal or by the state. That's the chief irony: for all the technical defenses you concocted and resources you invested in the attempt to thwart a single prosecution, you cannot say that for yourself. Those miners' only crime was in being poor, having to make a living for themselves from the earth with their own hands, and yet in your Upper Big Branch that was a capital offense.
Think about that.
Katrianna BrisackOur earlier coverage of the case, both a historical perspective on the issues and an announcement of the verdict, can be found here.