Full Interview: The Holler on Status Coup News
Jordan Chariton interviews John about fracking, the Ohio Valley, and brawling for the working class.
Jordan saw this TikTok video I did about it and wanted to gab about it.
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Here’s a very hastily edited version of the full conversation above.
Until next time,
Edited Transcript of Full Video
Jodan Chariton (JC)
We don't really see folks like you in the media, doing reports from the de-industrialized Midwest talking about these issues. Talk to me about where are you from in Ohio, and kind of what have you seen as time has gone on? You know, basically, what it used to be, and kind of the evolution to what it is now?
John Russell (JR)
I’m currently in Bridgeport, Ohio. It’s right on the Ohio River, next to Wheeling, West Virginia, next to western Pennsylvania. It's one of those parts of the country where people are like, whoa, I didn't even know those states were close together.
But I moved back here, I grew up here in Wellsville, Ohio, a small town, the same area. And, you know, this, this region of the country forever, has gotten all of the things that richer communities have kicked out of their own backyards. We led the country in coal production, we turned out all the steel, we made all the pottery that went all over the world. Fiestaware comes from here. But one of the things that's really undercovered is our region's similarity to places like Louisiana, the Gulf cancer alley stretch, we have a lot of those same problems that don't really make it into the media.
You can take a 30-mile drive around here. And on that drive, you'll pass Ohio's second-largest coal-fired power plant that is still operating because of the money it got from a $61 million bribery scandal that took place in Ohio's legislature. It's the only reason while it's still operating. You'll pass one of the largest coal sludge waste lakes in the nation that is held back by an earthen dam, the kind that collapses all the time. And it's 1,000 feet from the Ohio River drinking water source for everybody. You'll pass WTI, which is the nation's largest hazardous waste incinerator, it's right next to a partial nuclear plant. That's from the 50s. And the latest addition to this. And something we can really talk about here is in Monaca, Pennsylvania, the Shell corporation has built this really massive ethane cracker plant. And what that does is take that mass of gas production coming from this region, and it's going to make it into more than a million metric tons of plastic pellets every year.
I don't want to interrupt but the Ohio River Valley, infamously DuPont poisoned people with C8 chemicals, killed a lot of people, and had I mean, nobody went to jail, but you know, had record fines. Based on Dupont, there was a film about it, Dark Water, I think.
Yeah, that's the story of the region.
And really, it comes down to a lack of power here. You know, companies that are run by billionaires that are, you know, sanctioned to operate by politicians that are bought off by billionaires take advantage of the low wages and the low worker power around here because we really don't have any compelling alternatives.
So that leads us to be this kind of place that gets all of the industry that other people are rich enough to kick out. The latest of those is natural gas.
Like I said in that video, they're taking $75 billion worth of gas yearly, out from under our feet. This has been going on for 10 years.
And like like every industry that comes in, you know what look at the coal fields of Eastern Kentucky look at the pump jacks that are in Midland, Texas extractive industry preys on workers that don't have power but are sitting on top of natural resources everywhere. It's a story that's as old as the hills.
But just real quick, and I'll wrap up here, the congressional district where I live is Ohio’s 6th, and no other congressional district in the country has had a quicker or more intense shift from families who used to vote union working-class Democrat to you know, complete, MAGA country and right-wing vote voting.
So this extractive industry has kind of overlapped with a massive shift among working-class families to reactionary politics.
Basically, what you're describing is you guys are basically used as collateral damage, but you're not even reaping the benefits. America is not reaping the benefits of fracking.
Yeah, I mean, this is the same pick any place in America anywhere that's really dominated by extractive industry. And it's the same thing. Workers crawl into a hole in the ground, they bring up the wealth, and it goes straight into the pockets of people that don't live here.
In fact, it's worse than that. You know, everybody's feeling pain at the pump right now, of course. But there are studies from epi that show. Most of this is most of this inflation is driven by corporate profiteering. It's not even that the price of feedstocks up supply chains of crude oil is going up. It is the profit that's laid on top, going straight into the bottom line of these companies. They exploit workers here they take the wealth they line their own pockets with it, but that's really been going on forever.
But on the other hand, it is a massive opportunity, right? Because we have this bank of blue-collar skills, coal, steel, mining, gas manufacturing, it's all right here.
There's a community that I'm going to do another video on really similar to Appalachia. It's called Centralia, Washington, it's a couple thousand people coal mining town. And they kind of showed another path to make a comeback for rural towns that were built on extractive industry. They didn't pin their hopes on a dying boom and bust industry that's going to go the way of the dodo bird as everybody realizes the scale of climate change.
Instead, when their coal plants shut down, they reached an agreement that ended up generating $55 million worth of grant money to invest, and what they did with it is put that into industries with high labor overhead, right? So rebuilding buildings, windows, weatherization, energy efficiency, things public education, and infrastructure, they took this money and rebuilt the entire town.
They put people to work doing it with the blue-collar skills that they already have, there wasn't any other industry that they had to, you know, lower end by giving away tax breaks or anything like that. And the result of it was that their job growth rate was twice that of the rest of the country. They added thousands of new jobs in a very small town, simply by investing in those things that we need to do anyway to prepare for climate change, energy efficiency, rebuilding everything, and revamping public education. That is really the way forward. That could be a model for towns like the one that I live in.
Can you kind of talk about the health problems separate from COVID? In these areas due to these industries?
You know, when things go wrong on a fracking well, they go really wrong. And there's a time when a single well was emitting as much methane, as entire countries did over a year, in 20 days because of an accident.
An unfortunate fact there, too, is that because of, you know, the death of local journalism, the consolidation by conservative media companies, Sinclair, the Ogden papers that are headquartered in Wheeling, West Virginia, there's not a lot of punchy, really hard journalism, when a frack pad explodes and emits as much methane as a country. There's not a lot of people to cover that here. And so the residents in this area are subjected to industry abuse that they might not even know about. And that's on top of what we do know about the elevated cancer rates, clusters, soil, air, and water pollution.
You know, there are so many angles of this thing that are really doing residents here unnecessarily dirty, especially when we have an alternative, which is employing the blue-collar people here to rebuild their own towns.
You're seeing that a lot of what they call the white working-class union folk, who decades ago, was the Democratic Party stronghold, are fleeing to the Republican Party. We saw that in 2016. 10% of Obama voters switched to Trump. But you're seeing now still, that a lot of these union folks are gravitating towards Trump and the Republican Party. Can you kind of talk more about that?
There used to be a slogan that, you know, to win as a Democrat, you need to make seven, which is you need to win the counties along the top of Ohio by the lake, and then you went need to win the ones that run down the river in the shape of the seven that was the path to statewide victory, which ran right through this area that I'm talking about. And that was as as recent as 15 years ago. It was almost a guarantee that if you're a Democrat running for office in the Ohio Valley, you were gonna get in because you were on the side of the working class.
But there needs to be some introspection here too. Because, you know, not only are Democrats not brawling all out for the working class like they could be when we have problems that are so intense like this. I mean, your minimum wage is still at $7. The median income has been stuck for decades, and this is against the backdrop of our billionaires, handfuls of them, adding, you know, multiplying their fortunes hundreds of billions of dollars. What are we really doing to fight that at a structural level?
You know, the people are not dumb around here they can tell who's really swinging the bat for him and who's on their side. And unfortunately, the strategy in the statewide party has been to retreat from areas like this. And unsurprisingly, you've seen the right-wing step in. The local TV station is owned by Sinclair. There are many Facebook groups here, of the variety that even generated, you know, Capitol rioters on January 6. I'm thinking about a man I grew up with that I knew local wrestling coach who ended up on the front page in the New York Times were storming the Capitol.
Those are the kinds of people in the place of local journalism that used to, you know, survive here. Facebook groups really radicalized the folks around here with a lot of misinformation at the same time that the Democratic Party has retreated from the area. And that the national party with a trifecta right now is arguably not brawling for the working class, to the scale of the problems that are squeezing the working class. If we want to turn that around, then we have to get bold about our politics.
It's very easy to get sucked into this kind of faux populism from somebody like JD Vance.
Yeah, and really running against JD Vance should be a layup. You know, people don't wear suits around here and they can smell the stench coming off people that do wear suits.
But what's so clear to me is, as he's gotten closer to power, he's really just sold any of that soul that came across in our email exchange (2015) for a chance to be in the United States Senate and to do the bidding of somebody like Peter Thiel.
Now, around here, we were on the front lines of when NAFTA passed when free trade wiped out all of our manufacturing base here. People feel it in their bones, that Wall Street is not their friend.
This is a person (JD Vance) whose campaign was irrelevant. They had almost no staff. And they were dragged out of obscurity by a $15 million infusion from a tech billionaire. So this guy is a self-admitted venture capitalist. He lives in a $1.4 million mansion in the suburbs of Cincinnati, has a DC summer home where he goes to rub elbows with powerful people and is saying basically, “I am on the side of the very people that that made you unbolt your mills and ship them to places that are not here.” That's the kind of people he's associating with right now.
And if Tim Ryan keeps us focused on that, I hope he can live up to that. Then this should be an easy layup because people like JD Vance belong nowhere close to power.
So overall, do you think that a lot of people in Ohio, on policy actually are interested and open to more progressive economic, populist, whatever you want to call it policies, if you if they are explained to them in a way that you know, is susceptible to the socialist label and these kinds of things?
Without a doubt. In one hour, I’ll pick up my shift at the dive bar that I live above in Bridgeport, Ohio. And that's where pipeliners and everybody else here that has been here forever, sometimes never left, go to drink their beer, and I talk to them. And I don't hide my politics at all.
What I have found, talking left-wing politics in a dive bar in a very right-wing area is an intense layer, a crust of opinion that has been installed by a right-wing megaphone that's been operating for 40 years, 50 years, and taken billions of dollars to build. And those are all the intense culture war issues. As soon as you punch through those, the politics are scrambled. They're suggestible. And people are pissed at how they've been done dirty by this economy. And they know that it is insane to think about a single person having $1 billion, let alone hundreds of billions of dollars. And, you know, hundreds or even 1,000 people having that much money.
When you really get to them and you connect on that level, you can see people's wheels start turning. How does one person end up with a billion dollars? Could it be that in the industries where they make that kind of money, that they're relying on workers exactly like you to go in and get the coal, to go in and dig up the gas, And then line their own pockets with it? Could it be that we have a system of mass exploitation that's reliant on essential workers who just spent an entire pandemic being forced into work? And dealing with the health ramifications of that? Could it be that those people are making the money for a handful of folks at the top?
That is present in my dive bar, I talk about it every day. And I think when we have leaders who laser focus on that, and place the blame where it belongs on Wall Street, a new kind of politics is possible here, especially if we take a page from the right-wing and build our own media networks and talk about this constantly and really agitate that the working class of this country, no matter how you voted, no matter your race or gender, the working class, if you have to get up and go to work in the morning, are getting a bum deal. I think if we rebuild the party on that, then there's something to be happening.
I think Bernie, the squad should have been out holding rallies in West Virginia, holding rallies in Arizona should have been, you know, demanding Biden, cancel student loan debt, rallying their troops not just to be outside the White House for a day. Park your ass out there. People were being evicted. During the pandemic. I think the progressives that a lot of people fought to get elected, have been doing a little too much tweeting and magazine covers and not enough activism and organizing that angry base.
You know, I'm right next to West Virginia and make a point to go out and cover union strikes when they're happening in Huntington, West Virginia, a company called Special metals, which is the largest manufacturer of alloy parts for airplanes, the defense industry, they're a very, very important company. They're owned by Warren Buffett. And the United Steelworkers represent the workers there. They went out on strike because they were facing exponential increases in health care and the company was really trying to squeeze the workers. They're on strike all through this winter, you know, through Christmas, through New Year's.
I went down to the picket line, to cover what was happening. And guess who I saw there? It wasn't Joe Manchin. It was the local Republican state senator on the picket line in West Virginia handing out hot dogs to steelworkers. Okay? If you are Joe Manchin, and workers in your state are on strike at a billionaire-owned company, and you can't even so much as issue a statement, at the same time that Republicans are out there handing out hotdogs, it really shows you where the priorities lie. And of course, we're going to get the politics that we have, when that's the situation, if we want to change it, we have to be showing up where workers are going on strike and really brawling for the working class, these issues are not going away on their own, as we've seen from the Supreme Court, they're only going to get more intense. And that requires a scaling up of our politics to meet the scale of the issues.
Can you kind of talk about essentially, what's going on in Ohio and other places like it where there's a rightward drift because we don't have an alternative economically on the left? Obviously, fascism usually breeds from economic rot, economic hopelessness, and economic anger. How do you see what you're seeing in places like that? Where you're from… basically enabling the rise of this kind of authoritarian figures, whether it be Trump, Ron DeSantis, is a quiet quieter autocrat, and other Republicans?
I think that that should probably be at the top of our list of concerns. It is very real.
I mean, one of the reasons why I moved back here was I spent nearly a decade close to here, but away from here. But you know, I grew up here. And I've always cared about what's going on here. My parents are still back here. It's where I'm from. And over the last decade, I watched, it comes back down to those Facebook groups, I watched, you know, moms that babysat me, that literally cut the crust off of my peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, being radicalized in these Facebook groups. A person that I knew, as I mentioned, ended up on the front page of New York Times for going down and storming the Capitol.
This (rising fascism) is one of the largest problems that we face right now. And we will go down that path. We are headed down that path. And we won't get off of that path until there are real material solutions to the problems of working-class people right here. Because you know what, whether we like it or not the right-wing has a massive megaphone, that they is 24/7 and on every device and they can name villains whether they are correct or not, for all the problems that people face when they walk out of here.
I graduated in a class of 55 kids in Wellsville public high school. And more than 10 of the people that I went to high school with in my class and out of my class have passed away from opioid addiction, which we didn't even mention on the show yet.
But it's another thing that's just to underscore, the intensity of the social problems here are so great that the size of the right-wing megaphone puts us at real risk of people lurching in a reactionary direction and giving rise to fascism. But that is only going to go on as long as we permit it. The way out of that, that I really believe is a true united working-class movement and a laser focus on the cause of the problem, which is reins off capitalism, which is, you know, Wall Street and all of its schemes to pack up factories here, which is white-shoe law firms defending Purdue pharma as they pushed opioids into this area. And by the way, mocked people in a recent trial in West Virginia. All of these things have to be countered by somebody who can unite the working class and exercise their power over the industries that are controlling their lives right now. So we really need our leaders currently to step up for that and we need a lot more rank and file straight-up working-class organizing to save ourselves, which is what should really happen.
Absolutely. Thank you so much, man, for taking the time.
Amazing. Thanks for having me on Jordan. I love your work too. And we will talk very soon.