August 2, 2012 | by Michael K. Lavers
Queer W.Va. anti-mining activist alleges police brutality after arrest
Gay News, Washington Blade, Queer West Virginia

Dustin Steele’s July 28 mugshot (Photo courtesy of Arre.st/West Virginia State Police)

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.

Michael K. Lavers has been a staff writer for the Washington Blade since May 2012. The passage of Maryland's same-sex marriage law, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the burgeoning LGBT rights movement in Latin America and the consecration of gay New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson are among the many stories he has covered since his career began in 2002. Follow Michael

4 Comments
  • This guy lives about 4 houses from me..Along with alot of other treehuggers as we call them..He is so weird, he doesnt ever wear any shoes and walks around a parking lot all day in circles..They came in hear and protested and then rented an old church and turned it into a museum wich is also where they live without a shower or anything..If you ask me if you want a peaceful protest as they say then dont chain yourself to the equipment..Further more I dont think the police beat him but if they did he probally deserved it for not coperating and walking his ass into the jail. When he left the mine site his point was made. Dont continue to act stupid once you leave..If all of this was back in the old days it would have been over by now!! Them guys would of shot a couple of their asses and put them off the hill and been done with it. THese people will do whatever we let them do and to drop the price on their bond ant going to help.It just tells them o.k. a little fine and some probation who cares. Need to leave them in there.

  • I remember this guy from school. He did a lot of different drugs and was really fucked up in the head. He really just wants to look for a fight and will go for one if he can get it, so i think that he probably antagonized the officers into it if anything. He always fought everybody in school, and got his ass kicked many times.

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