During the Thanksgiving holiday, I had a conversation with a family member about my aspirations for a legal career. I told her that I planned to become a human rights and civil liberties lawyer to serve poor and marginalized communities. She gave me a skeptical look — “that’s all well and good,” she said, “but who is going to protect my rights?”
My relative raised a valid point. Blasting by a coal company at a nearby strip mine had damaged homes in her rural community. The damage was minor — mostly cracked floor tile or dry wall — but the company refused to honor claims and issue reimbursements from the fund it had set up for precisely that purpose. The damage, while meaningful to the homeowners, was often not severe enough to warrant the cost of hiring a lawyer and litigating the matter in court. So folks lived with it, while the mining company continued the long King Coal tradition of exploiting the Appalachian community in which it operated.
My relative described a failure of law. Her question “who is going to protect my rights?” reflected dual intuitions that people were not being treated fairly and that no one in power cared. She had good reason to feel this way. Although the minor damage described by my relative seems slight and easily dismissible, it is the latest in a long series of indignities endured by her community. Coal companies have abused coal country for generations: fraudulently acquiring mineral rights, mistreating workers, and destroying the landscape. The same mining operation whose blasting damaged homes has also left the tap water unsafe to drink, an enduring legacy that continues years after the mine has ceased to operate.
Read more at International Human Rights Clinic Blog