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Schools, Prisons, and the War on Drugs in “Third-World USA” (VOICE PAPER #2)

jo's picture

My trip to see mountaintop removal coal mining in southern West Virginia gave me a new perspective of the connection between schools and prisons that parallels discussions we've had in class about the war on drugs and over-surveillance, and the ways in which public schools set certain students up for failure and oppression by the system. I hadn't expected to see such a connection, as I, like many, have a tendency to forget that all issues of oppression are inherently connected and stem from upper-class white male control as it dominates society; to see that the schools are about as confining and the war on drugs about as harsh in these poor, white, rural Appalachian communities as they are in the poverty-ridden, predominately black inner cities. In looking at the various images we all posted last week, HSBurke’s pictures particularly hit me, one of a man standing against the bars of his prison cell, the other of a little boy standing similarly against the bars of the school yard fence. Both people were white, which really made me think of how the over-surveillance in “third world USA” (WV) is less an issue of race than class.

The little boy also really reminded me of a clip from the movie “On Coal River,” which we watched while in West Virginia. It showed a science fair in a public elementary school that was sponsored by the organization Friends of Coal, and most exhibits featured coal, always in a positive light. One small boy, not much older than the boy in the picture, was asked what he wanted to be when he grew up. He appeared very distraught and undecided as he said, “well…I guess either a coal miner or a soldier…” This clearly conveys the choices children feel they have in these public schools whose little funding comes largely from coal companies, thus privatizing the education received. The only alternatives to the young boy’s top decisions would be low paying retail and food service jobs (there aren’t many of these available either) or drug dealing.

Arrests for dealing, particularly of prescription drugs, is incredibly common around these poor communities in southern West Virginia, as I learned from one of our guides who pointed out a drug bust of flashing police cars that we drove by one night. He said police were more vigilant and surveillance more extreme here than anywhere else in the US with the exception of inner cities. Similar to Meiners’ description of the criminalization of poor youth of color in urban schools, the youth of Appalachia living in poverty are turned into public enemies. It’s hard to say whether this over policing is the result of a bad reputation for drug dealing in these areas or this reputation exists here because, as Meiners argues for inner city schools, children begin to see themselves as criminals through discipline practices of public schools, because this is something I don’t know much about.

I do know, however, that all of this stems from the poverty in this area, and that the poverty is a direct result of the environmental degradation that has plagued West Virginia since coal mining began, and most recently in the form of mountaintop removal. This form of strip mining differs from traditional coal mining in that the entire tops of mountains are leveled off using dynamite and huge machinery, removing all the trees and topsoil that originally covered them. The coal is extracted and all that’s left is a barren, rocky wasteland, which they sometimes cover with chemically artificial “hydroseed”. The removal of topsoil leads to immensely dangerous floods in the communities below, which also suffer from having their well water contaminated by chemicals and the continual blanket of coal dust that covers everything and makes the air toxic. The machines that do the work have eliminated many of the jobs that traditional coal mining requires, and the few jobs there are, some of the best paying options in the area, are still not bringing much money into the area; all of the wealth of the coal leaves and goes right to the pockets of the coal corporations, perpetuating the cycles of poverty and underfunded and privatized education.

This all sounds really depressing, and it certainly was hard to see all this destruction and despair. So I want to return, as the lovely people we met there always do, to the beauty. I want to focus, as Eve Tuck urges, on the desire, not only the damage (though, to be honest, it is hard to ignore). Some of the most beautiful sites I’ve ever seen were those I saw in West Virginia, the sun as it caught the thick canopy of brightly colored leaves in the woods, the view overlooking an extensive mountain range, carpeted in thick, multicolored forests that touched the bright blue sky at the horizon. I found myself growing emotionally connected to these mountains, and if that happened to me after only a few days, I can barely imagine how the people who were born here, grew up here, feel. These mountains represent their ancestry, their heritage, their spirits. They are tied to this land in a way many Americans have forgotten (perhaps never had), and this tie is being viciously hacked at by our country’s relentless demand for fossil fuels.

AND, they are resisting it. These people, for the past several years, have been building a movement to fight this oppression, similar to those fought on other fronts throughout history and today. This trip was particularly helpful for me in connecting these many struggles in my mind, in realizing that whether you or I choose to fight against prisons, racism, classism, homophobia, climate change, or any of the myriad other injustices in the world, we will all be fighting the same fight, united in our work to make things better. And the only way we’ll succeed in any capacity is if the many groups and movements support each other.



Works Cited:

Meiners, Erica R. Right to Be Hostile: Schools, Prisons, and the Making of Public Enemies. New York: Routledge, 2007. Print.

Tuck, Eve. "Suspending Damage: A Letter to Communities." Harvard Educational Review 79.3 (2009): 409-27. Print.