JULIA ROBERTS GOAD
MADISON - Dustin Steele was released from jail on his 21st birthday, but his arrest was not the result of the usual coming-of-age mischief. Steele was arrested during a protest of mountaintop removal mining in his native West Virginia.
Steele was part of a march organized by RAMPS (Radical Action for Mountain Peoples Survival) that marched on the Hobet Mine 45. Roughly 50 protesters walked onto the mine Saturday to show their opposition to mountaintop removal mining and what they see as the environmental destruction caused by the practice.
The protesters say they were mistreated by the West Virginia State Police, but the police say there was no such mistreatment, that they protected environmentalists during their protest.
A native of the Mate Creek community of Meador, Steele said he was raised by his grandfather, a 27-year union coal miner, and a graduate of Gilbert High School.
Steele said when the group of environmentalists arrived at the mine, he locked himself to a piece of mining equipment in order to stop production. He said the police arrived shortly, and asked the protesters to leave. About 30 of them left voluntarily, he said.
A press release from RAMPS said those who left the mine site voluntarily were “were forced to march down the road for four hours under constant harassment and threats by coal supporters before being allowed to drive home.” The Daily News did not speak to any of those protesters.
Dustin Steele told the Daily News some of the protesters who stayed eventually voluntarily unlocked themselves from equipment, while West Virginia State Troopers used bolt cutters to remove others from the equipment. But, he says, none of the protesters defied the orders by police in an aggressive manner.
“We did not comply,” Steele said. “But we did not resist. We chose to go limp and be carried. We were completely non-violent and peaceful, and were arrested without incident.”
Those who were arrested were put into vehicles and transported to the city of Madison, where they were fingerprinted and processed. Steele said that was where West Virginia State Police committed police brutality.
“I was drug across asphalt,” Steele said. “I was struck.”
He said he was not in a position to give details of the alleged violence against him and other protesters due to a legal investigation the group hopes will take place as a result of their claims. He also declined to say whether there were pictures of any injuries he had received.
“I guarantee you there is not a mark on that boy,” WVSP Sgt. A.S. Perdue with the Madison Detachment said. Perdue said he understood the protesters were trying to make a statement, but their behavior did not further their cause. He said the protesters had to carried into their offices in Madison.
“I understand what they were trying to achieve at the mine,” he said. “But when you get here [to Madison], and you won’t walk, you just lay lifeless like a dead body, that is not achieving anything.”
He said the WVSP had done their job that day, both at the mine and at a gathering of protesters and pro-coal activists at Kanawha State Forest before the march at Hobet.
“We were the ones who were probably abused, we had to go up there and unchain them” he said. “We kept them from being attacked by angry coal miners.”
He said his commanding officer, Capt. Dave Nelson was at the scene the whole time, and that the situation never became abusive.
“We have cameras here that feed directly to Charleston,” Perdue said.
RAMPS is calling for US District Attorney Booth Goodwin’s office to launch a full investigation of the alleged brutality.
“Protesters were expecting to be arrested in an act of nonviolent civil disobedience, but few expected harassment, intimidation, assault,” their statement said.
“The Energy Action Coalition is joining the call for [an investigation] in solidarity with those fighting to protect their homes, their families, and their futures in West Virginia,” said Whit Jones, Campaign Director for the Energy Action Coalition, a national coalition of youth organizations fighting for environmental justice and a clean energy economy. “Young people want to see an end to mountaintop removal mining, but we also want our rights to peacefully protest without fear of assault by police protected.”
The Daily News contacted the District Attorney’s office to ask how such an investigation would be conducted, and received this statement:
“The FBI investigates complaints of civil rights violations by public officials. We are not aware of whether the FBI has received a complaint in connection with the allegations mentioned in your phone call.”
Whether there will be an official investigation into police brutality charges, Dustin Steele, who now lives in Logan County, said he is not deterred from working toward “healthy and sustainable communities.”
“While the state police, in conjunction with the coal companies, tried to break our spirit and our resistance by using violence to quell the fire of our movement, this attempt has failed,” he said.