I explain why I plan to participate in a climate-related mass, nonviolent, civil disobedience action that will take place on April 9th. I give some background on the action, and then try to address the questions: Why nonviolent civil disobedience? Isn’t it extreme? Doesn’t it just piss people off? Regardless of you feel about nonviolent direct action, I hope I can help you understand what we’re trying to achieve and why we choose the methods we do.



Quicklinks to Article Content:
Some Background on the Coal Baron Blockade
Within the Status Quo, There Are No Solutions
The Purpose of Nonviolent Civil Disobedience
Tension and Trepidation when Facing Nonviolent Civil Disobedience


This Saturday, April 9th, 2022, I plan to participate in a climate action in West Virginia. It’s called the Coal Baron Blockade, and here’s the description of it from the action website:

“On April 9th we will engage in a mass, nonviolent direct action at the power plant that burns all of Senator Joe Manchin’s fossil fuel – where he earns $500,000 per year while killing climate legislation. Through a large-scale act of civil disobedience that “breaks through” the noise and the social media clutter, we can move not just one specific player, but shake the ground on which the game is played.  We can help elevate climate change to the center of the domestic agenda – and make this crisis impossible for the White House and Congress to ignore.”

In this episode I want explain why I would consider participating in an action like this, and why nonviolent civil disobedience is not only an acceptable strategy when facing the climate and ecological emergency, it may be the only thing that saves us. I am well aware most Americans disapprove of nonviolent civil disobedience and disruption, or are at the very least ambivalent about it. If you’re skeptical of this strategy, I doubt my explanation is going to convince you to join us in the streets, but I hope it will help you understand what we’re trying to achieve and why we choose the methods we do. Nonviolent civil resistance campaigns are successful only when a majority of the public sympathizes with their goals, whether or not those sympathizers agree with the tactics of civil disobedience and disruption.

Some Background on the Coal Baron Blockade

Let me give you some background on Saturday’s action before I speak more generally about the strategy of nonviolent civil disobedience.

The people organizing the Coal Baron Blockade went public with their basic plan, including the date, at the end of March. The details will only be communicated to those of us participating once we arrive; civil disobedience, by definition, involves breaking civil laws (usually quite minor ones), so if you plan an act of civil disobedience, you can’t give so many details ahead of time that the authorities can simply prevent you from doing it.

The action is organized by a team calling themselves “West Virginia Rising,” and they’re calling the action a “blockade,” so I can only imagine it will mean blocking a road or gate adjacent to the Grant Town power plant (I could be wrong, I’m not one of the organizers). The way these things are usually done, there will be a relatively small crew putting their bodies on the line as part of a blockade in a way that risks arrest. Others will be in supporting roles nearby, generally at a lower risk of arrest, and still others will be in what’s called the “safe zone” – giving moral support, and before-and-after support, but at the time of the action avoiding any proximity to illegal activity.

As the action website states, the goal of the action is to call attention to the fact that Senator Joe Manchin – the very same senator who has more or less single-handedly been able to stop the passage of much-needed national climate legislation – personally profits from the continued burning of fossil fuels. Given the corruption we’ve gotten used to in politics, most Americans will probably just shrug when hearing this. Most of our high-level politicians are very rich, and we figure they all had to do a few dicey things to get to where they are. Still, Manchin’s story is especially disgusting because his actions over the decades to protect his fossil fuel profits are often dressed up in concern for West Virginians, but his actions have often had negative, not positive, impacts on his constituents.

The New York Times recently published an article titled “How Joe Manchin Aided Coal, and Earned Millions.” This well-researched article illustrates how, “At every step of his political career, Joe Manchin helped a West Virginia power plant that is the sole customer of his private coal business. Along the way, he blocked ambitious climate action.” (A link to the article is on this episode’s page at climateandyou.com, or you can search for “New York Times Manchin” to find it.) In summary, since the late 80’s, Manchin’s political activities to minimize environmental regulations and benefit the fossil fuel industry have been closely tied to increasing his own fortune.

In anticipation of the opening of the Grant Town power plant in 1989 (he helped the power plant happen), he bought up large amounts of what’s called “gob” (yes, gob!). Gob is low-grade coal mixed with rock and clay that’s usually discarded by coal mining companies, but it can be burned for electricity. Then Manchin arranged a contract with the Grant Town power plant to burn his gob – and that contract goes through 2036, more than a decade past the point at which the IPCC warns our fossil fuel use needs to start decreasing precipitously. Not only does Manchin sell gob to the power plant, he arranged to receive a percentage of the power plant’s profits. Manchin claims his support of the power plant is to keep West Virginians working, but according to the New York Times:

“…the bulk of Mr. Manchin’s reported income since entering the Senate has come from one company: Enersystems, Inc., which he founded with his brother Roch Manchin in 1988, the year before the Grant Town plant got a permit from the state of West Virginia.

“Enersystems Inc. is now run by Mr. Manchin’s son, Joseph Manchin IV. In 2020, it paid Mr. Manchin $491,949, according to his filings, almost three times his salary as a United States senator. From 2010 through 2020, Mr. Manchin reported a total of $5.6 million from the company.”[i]

As for the benefit to West Virginians? The people of West Virginia are definitely in need of benefit. The decline of coal mining in the area has left communities struggling with a lack of jobs, services, and opportunities. Note, however, that Manchin’s business doesn’t support coal mining directly – his gob is collected from coal mines that have already been shut down.[ii] The Grant Town power plant provides full time jobs for about 55 people – a big deal for those 55 people and their families, but not a significant source of support for the area. On the other hand, Manchin’s activities have actually had negative impacts on local people:

Burning waste coal is less efficient and more expensive then burning coal; the Grant Town power plant has been operating at an annual loss of millions of dollars for many years. It’s the only power plant left in West Virginia burning gob. In 2006, when Manchin was governor of West Virginia, the power plant was saved only by substantially raising utility rates for customers. At the same time, Manchin negotiated an extension of his contract with the plant to continuing burning his gob from 2028 to 2036.

Burning waste coal is also considerably more polluting that burning coal. Manchin has actively opposed strengthening limits on the emissions of mercury and other hazardous materials from power plants – and burning gob generates more mercury per kilowatt of electricity than traditional coal. Gob also generates more coal ash when burned than traditional coal, and Manchin has worked against more stringent regulation of that pollutant as well.

The craziest thing of all is that the company that owns the Grant Town plant and sells electricity to local utility actually wanted to get out of its contract to buy and burn gob. It wanted to get energy sources of elsewhere, which would be more cost effective and would put the power plant in a better position in the face of future regulations limiting emissions. After Manchin’s involvement, the power plant company was denied a contract buy-out – and now it has no choice but to burn Manchin’s gob through 2036.

Within the Status Quo, There Are No Solutions

Okay, enough background. I imagine you agree that Manchin has a serious conflict of interest when it comes to deciding the course of our country’s efforts to address the climate and ecological emergency. Even if he means well, earning nearly half a million dollars a year from the burning of the dirtiest possible fossil fuel on the planet is going to make him incredibly biased.

So what? What can we do about this? Usually, we conclude there’s really nothing we can do. The voters of West Virginia will either keep Manchin in office, or they won’t. And as long as he helps provide even a handful of jobs, and works in favor of prolonging the dying coal industry as long as possible, he is unlikely to be voted out. We shake our heads, perhaps with a sense of righteous anger, resigned to business as usual. In the meantime, if Manchin delays significant climate legislation even a few years it could have a devastating impact on all of us.

As unjust as it is, when we think of potential solutions, none of them seem possible. Grant Town power plant has a contract with Manchin and has to keep burning gob at least through 2036. Manchin has not broken any laws even if his actions could be described as unethical. Even if the Grant Town power plant only provides 55 jobs and increases utility costs and pollution exposure for locals, they are in a desperate place and need whatever economic activity the plant brings to their community. Manchin has every right to make his own choices about how to vote on federal legislation.

Besides, what’s the big deal about this particular power plant? It’s one of the smallest in West Virginia, and the only one burning waste coal.[iii] Even if Manchin were to release the plant from his company’s contract and they were able to source energy from elsewhere, what difference would this make on a global scale? Even if Manchin were no longer making half a million a year from burning fossil fuels, would he suddenly endorse climate legislation when he comes from a state so identified with coal? Seems unlikely.

The Purpose of Nonviolent Civil Disobedience

This is where nonviolent civil disobedience comes in. In order to stop something that is clearly wrong, or make something happen that is clearly right, we can’t take “no” for an answer. In many cases, the status quo is a complex system that has evolved to perpetuate its own causes and conditions. By its very nature, it’s invested in things remaining the way they are and in excluding the possibility of radical change. The human beings within the systems that perpetuate the status quo are, for the most part, well-meaning people who either prefer the way things are or see themselves as powerless to change them.

Radical change of the kind required to prevent the breakdown of earth’s natural life-support systems will require thinking outside the box. It will require us to demand what is right even though the bureaucrats, politicians, CEO’s and lawyers can give us a thousand reasons why it can’t be done. Human beings created the rules, human beings can change them. We need to shift from considering what is possible within our current systems to doing what is necessary to save life on this planet.

Nonviolent civil disobedience (NVCD) is one of the most effective ways to change a conversation, or even, frankly, to start a conversation that needs to be had. It actually doesn’t matter whether you like or approve of a particular NVCD action; the more disruptive and attention-grabbing the action is, the more likely it is people will be talking about the issue at hand. All the better if the action captures the imagination, dramatizes the cruelty, oppression, corruption, or hypocrisy at play, and is sacrificial and strictly nonviolent on the part of the activists, thus demonstrating their conviction and resolve.

No one has explained the rationale behind nonviolent civil disobedience better than Martin Luther King, Jr. Many of us look back at his actions during the civil rights movement with admiration, but at the time his activities were extremely controversial and he was widely reviled – and not just by racists, but also by people technically on his side but who disagreed with his tactics. It is to these fellow civil rights leaders King addressed his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” when he was imprisoned for leading disruptive demonstrations:

You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.


The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation…


We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”[iv]

I recommend reading the entirety of King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

Tension and Trepidation when Facing Nonviolent Civil Disobedience

As I contemplate going to sit on the frontlines of a blockade outside of the power plant that buys 80% of its waste coal from Joe Manchin because he won’t allow them to transition to a cleaner energy source, I am filled with trepidation. The “tension” King speaks about is why so many people dislike nonviolent civil disobedience. Every act of NVCD ends up pissing someone off. It may be the business owner where black people stage a sit-in and introduce conflict and mess and indirectly interfere with other customers. It may be the people stuck in traffic behind a road blockade who are trying to get to work. It may be the residents of a small West Virginia town who resent the hell out of a bunch of strangers gathering to obstruct the function of one of the last remaining businesses in their area. It may be the cops who have to deal with what they see as completely unnecessary commotion and conflict when they have enough to do dealing with real crime.

Creating this kind of tension doesn’t feel good – at least to me, and to the vast majority of the activists I’ve met. I’d rather play in an accordion jam with residents of Fairmont West Virginia, the nearest town to the power plant. I’d rather chat with the cops about dogs and weather. I’d rather build bridges of friendliness and understanding. But would this lack of tension lead us to confront the terribly difficult situation we’re in, where people hoping to preserve some semblance of a decent life in their town have to depend on the burning of the dirtiest of fossil fuels? Where the politicians preserve the status quo and line their own pockets, neglecting the changes and investment in rural America that will benefit people in the long run?

I personally find myself unwilling to create and endure the tension created by nonviolent civil disobedience unless I can imagine myself participating with a crystal-clear sense of purpose. If I end up putting my body in the way of the delivery of yet another load of gob, I will feel like a small wrench in the works of the destructive machine of the status quo. My sympathy with the human beings I am inconveniencing or angering will be expressed in politeness, respect, and strict nonviolence. The sacrifice will seem worth it if we increase the national attention to the insanity of this particular example of business as usual. If we get people talking about how we need to demand our elected officials act on our behalf, not in the interests of their own profits. It would almost be too good to be true if Manchin stopped selling gob, or felt pressured to support climate legislation, but we’re not counting on it. This one action won’t change the world, but it might change something. Gradually a society’s paradigm shifts, but not without efforts to shift it.


I hope to post episodes in the coming days about my trip and experience of the Coal Baron Blockade. I hope you’ll tune in, however you feel about nonviolent civil disobedience. Thanks for listening!


[i] How Joe Manchin Aided Coal, and Earned Millions. New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/27/climate/manchin-coal-climate-conflicts.html

[ii] A coal plant fights to stay open. It could enrich Manchin. ClimateWire: https://www.eenews.net/articles/a-coal-plant-fights-to-stay-open-it-could-enrich-manchin/

[iii] Ibid

[iv] Letter from Birmingham Jail by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. https://letterfromjail.com/

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