Coal ash & breaker boys

March 27, 2016 § 2 Comments

Anthracite FieldsEarlier this month, when the Los Angeles Master Chorale presented the West Coast premiere of Anthracite Fields, Julia Wolfe’s 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning oratorio about coal mining, it was the sort of performance that leaves you stunned, riveted to your seat—until you leap to your feet to applaud.

Perhaps Anthracite Fields resonated so deeply because I grew up in Central Pennsylvania when coal was still king.

Every fall, a driver for Arnold Fuel Co. backed one of its orange dump trucks perpendicular to the house, thrust a chute through a ground-level window, and released its load. Those small, oily black chips flooding into our coal bin fascinated me. In them was the mysterious power that kept us warm, a material substance transmuted by fire into heat, leaving rough pebbles of ash that my brother would shovel into tubs to be placed at the curb for disposal.

Anthracite was prized because it’s high carbon content and low level of impurities caused it to burn cleanly, which did not prevent a film of gritty black dust from accumulating on interior window sills that my sister and I had to dust every Saturday.

The word “oratorio” suggests Baroque stylings of Handel’s Messiah. Anthracite Fields, in contrast, is a contemporary piece, majestic in its own way, full of dissonance and surprising harmonies, spoken word, recitativo, and video projections. Singers were accompanied by a sextet of amplified instruments and implements that included bicycle wheels whose spokes provided the sound familiar to every kid who’s ever clipped a playing card to the fork of his bike.

Anthracite Fields takes us into the world of the men and boys who brought anthracite to the surface and of the women who labored to sustain households under the ever present threat of loss occasioned by cave-in or explosion. In fact, Wolfe begins her composition with a sung list of names she culled from an official compendium of all who died in coal mines between 1869 and 1916.

Consequences of coal mining were commonplace throughout the Pennsylvania of my youth: massive spoil piles of waste rock, rivulets of bright orange acidic fluids streaming from old mine sites, sudden ground subsidence, underground fires that could burn for decades.

Mining put so much debris into waterways that by the time the Susquehanna River rolled by Harrisburg, there was profit to be made sending a barge along the shore to dredge coal waste for resale. Swimming in the river from City Island’s concrete beach meant stepping into mushy piles of granular coal.

By Lewis W. Hine - This image is available from the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID nclc.05473.

By Lewis W. Hine – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID nclc.05473.

What I did not know until hearing Anthracite Fields was that until the 1920s, boys as young as 8 or 9 worked 10 hours a day, six days a week plucking debris from the torrent of coal pieces pouring down chutes in the breaker mill. The oratorio memorializes these “breaker boys” who earned, c. 1902, 65 cents a day, which might be reduced to as little as 25 cents when rent was deducted.

You would be forgiven for imaging that Anthracite Fields refers to a world that no longer exists. Yet in many parts of the U.S., residents can boot up their computers and recharge their cell phones, turn on a light or put clothes in the dryer, only because somewhere, coal is being burned. In Los Angeles, coal supplies 33 to 40 percent of the electricity provided by the L.A. Department of Water and Power, our city-owned public utility.


Navaho Generating Station. Photo: Myrabella / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.

True, here are no more breaker boys and pollution control devices have significantly reduced the amounts of sulfur and ash that once poured out of power plant smoke stacks. But every year, the two generating stations serving Los Angeles* spew into the air more than 700 pounds of mercury, a powerful neurotoxin, which makes its way into our waterways and up the food chain into us. Other by-products include massive amounts of carbon dioxide as well as nitrogen and sulfur oxides.

Anthracite Fields includes an excerpt of testimony given by John L. Lewis, president of the United Mine Workers, before Congress in the mid-1930s. It’s worth considering his words:

If we must grind up human flesh and bones in the industrial machine that we call modern America, then before God I assert that those who consume the coal and you and I who benefit from that service because we live in comfort, we owe protection to those men and we owe the security to their families if they die.

To which I would add that we must also protect those who live with the environmental consequences of mining and burning coal. And, of course, the Earth itself.


*Intermountain Power Plant, in southern Utah, and the Navaho Generating Station in northern Arizona.

You’ve got to free your mind!

March 3, 2016 § 1 Comment

BigErn  On occasion, you encounter someone whose life experience is so different from yours that it forces you to recalibrate your understanding of humankind.

That’s how I felt meeting the Lakota counselor at a summer camp where I worked. And that’s how it was with Big Ern.

His full name: Ernest Shepard III and his reputation preceded him. About three years ago, my partner Joe told me he had met this amazing guy. “He spent 45 years in prison and now he’s working with Youth Justice Coalition.”*

Meeting the formerly incarcerated wasn’t anything new—Joe himself was a Vietnam-era federal prisoner, in for draft resistance, and is deeply involved with criminal justice reform movements—but forty-five years! I couldn’t imagine it.

Plus, a hefty sentence like that might mean an unnervingly hefty crime, though it was hard to know. Sentences often don’t match the violation and it’s a breach of prison etiquette to ask, “What are you in for?”

Anyway, Joe said Ernie was okay and that was enough. We invited him to our Christmas open house and were delighted that he came.

It was immediately clear how Ernie got his nickname— he was tall, robust, muscled—and seen on the street, he could appear intimidating. In fact, he was gentle and kind.

That Christmas, Ernie mentioned that his father had been a musician, that a clip of him playing with the Duke Ellington orchestra was posted on YouTube. I pulled out a laptop and we all watched a performance of “Take the A Train,” with an extended solo by Ernest Shepherd pere playing the bass and scat singing. The man was good! And his son was so proud.

ErnSpeakingIn the months afterwards, I’d get reports about Big Ern from Joe when he’d run into him at demonstrations or county supervisors’ meetings where Ernie spoke up on behalf of the formerly incarcerated. One Saturday, I tuned into Geri Silva’s KPFK radio program, “Think Outside the Cage,”   and heard Ernie’s warm baritone. He sometimes spoke haltingly, not because he didn’t know what to say but because he was reaching deep inside himself to access wisdom that had come from decades of struggle.

fair-chance-project Through the grapevine, I learned Ernie was was working with the Fair Chance Project, “a movement led by liberated lifers (formerly incarcerated men and women), prisoners and loved ones of term-to-life prisoners organized around the demand for just sentencing laws and fair parole practices.”

That’s what Ernie was doing on Friday, February 19, waiting for an elevator that would take him to a Fair Chance meeting, when untreated cancer claimed him. He had celebrated his 71st birthday only the week before.

Since his death, I’ve learned more about Ernest Shepard’s life. He grew up in segregated Los Angeles, in the Black community surrounding Central Avenue. He was academically accomplished, but, as he told YJC students, “Like a lot of Black youth, I wanted to be a student, but I was forced to be a fighter.”

In one of those fights, another man died, and though manslaughter would have been an appropriate charge, the prosecutor called it second degree murder and demanded the death penalty.

Ernie spent three years on death row, but studied the law, filed a writ, and was granted a new trial. He then represented himself in court, getting his sentence reduced to 7-years-to life. Lamentably, “tough on crime” policies kept him in prison decades beyond seven years.

I last saw Ernie at a theater performance by former prisoners. During the panel discussion that followed, he said that to remain whole while locked up he’d had to do a lot of inner work. To be free, he told us in an impassioned voice,  “You’ve got to FREE YOUR MIND.”

Coming from anyone else, this would have sounded New Age-y and glib. But from Ernest Shepard III, with a lifetime of struggle behind him, it was Truth with a capital T.

The panel ended shortly after Ern’s pronouncement because what more was there to say?

A memorial for Ernie will be held on Saturday, March 5, 2016 in Hardy Hall, 6501 Crenshaw Blvd., Inglewood.


You can see Big Ern yourself in this five-minute video interview shot in 2012 by Robert Corsini.

* From their Facebook page: “The Youth Justice Coalition (YJC) is working to build a youth-led movement to challenge race, gender and class inequality in the Los Angeles County juvenile injustice system.” Their continuation high school is located at Chuco’s Justice Center, 1137 E Redondo Blvd., Inglewood, California.

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