Environmental activists on Thursday demanded that West Virginia officials investigate allegations that state troopers beat a queer anti-mountaintop coal mining activist over the weekend.
CREDO Action and Energy Action Coalition urged Attorney General Darrell McGraw and U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia Booth Goodwin to investigate Dustin Steele’s claims that officers dragged him across a sidewalk and asphalt at the Hobet mine in Lincoln County on July 28. Steele, 21, further alleges that an unspecified number of state troopers punched and kicked him while in custody.
Officers arrested Steele and 19 others with the group Radical Action for Mountain People’s Survival after they blocked access to the mine and charged them with trespassing and obstructing an officer. RAMPS further alleges that troopers dragged a second protester by her pigtails.
Steele, a West Virginia native who has protested mountaintop coal mines for nearly a decade, told the Blade that more than 50 protesters had gathered at the mine south of Charleston in the state’s southern coalfields. Steele said roughly 30 protesters left Hobet once the officers arrived, but RAMPS maintained they forced them to walk four hours until they reached their vans parked along a nearby state highway.
A video on the group’s website shows what appears to be mine supporters holding pro-coal signs, shouting obscenities and even threatening the protesters as they walked down the access road. RAMPS claims that miners used their vehicles to prevent them from driving away from the area.
“Twenty of us chose to stay on the property and protest this form of coal mining by being arrested on the mine site,” said Steele.
Steele, who has identified as queer for the last year and uses gender-neutral pronouns, was released Wednesday on $25,000 bail. Steele stressed that gender identity did not motivate the alleged attack.
“That to my knowledge is unrelated,” stressed Steele. “I do not believe they were aware of my gender identification.”
A Lincoln County magistrate earlier today released nine of the protesters after they pleaded guilty to trespassing — they received a year’s probation and must pay a $500 fine. The remaining 10 protesters who remain in custody on $25,000 bail are scheduled to go before a different judge on Tuesday.
“Setting $25,000 bail for acts of nonviolent civil disobedience is not serving justice — it is serving the coal industry,” said Josh Nelson of CREDO Action. “That’s why CREDO Action’s West Virginia activists are calling on U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin and Attorney General Darrell McGraw to launch a full investigation into what exactly occurred during and after Saturday’s protests.”
First Sgt. Michael Baylous of the West Virginia State Police told the Blade that Steele has yet to file a formal complaint. He further defended the department in a statement.
“The West Virginia State Police is a law enforcement entity which has no desire to enter the political debate on surface mining. Our job is to enforce the laws of the land, which we do in a professional manner,” said Baylous. “In this particular instance, the West Virginia State Police simply responded to a radical action group’s organized and calculated efforts to violate the laws of the State of West Virginia and deprive others of their Constitutional rights. Any attempts by this radical action group to use the West Virginia State Police in an effort to advance their political agenda will be unsuccessful. Therefore, we have no further comment to make on the allegations which have been reported in the media.”
The attorney general’s office told the Blade that it does not have investigative authority under West Virginia law. Whit Jones, campaign director for the Energy Action Coalition, stressed that authorities have an obligation to investigate Steele’s allegations.
“The Energy Action Coalition is joining the call for U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin and Attorney General Darrell McGraw to investigate in solidarity with those fighting to protect their homes, their families, and their futures in West Virginia,” he said in a press release. “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.”
Steele is expected to file a formal complaint with state police in the coming days.