Coastal Liberals Look Out: The Working Class Is the New Face of Activism
Nic Smith isn't the kind of Democratic Socialist who spouts off at Brooklyn parties about the "means of production."
Shortly after Donald Trump's election, a video of Nic Smith, a 21-year-old activist from coal country, went viral. People like Smith and places like his hometown of Trammel in Dickenson County, Virginia, were suddenly thrust into the media spotlight. In the video—titled "Think This Coal Country Southerner Voted for Trump?"—Smith wears a camo hat, sports thick sideburns, and uses a bullhorn to address a crowd. About a minute and a half in, an off-camera reporter asks Smith if he was persuaded by Donald Trump's promise to bring back coal jobs. Smith looks right into the camera and says, "Oh, hell no."
Smith isn't the kind of Democratic Socialist who spouts off at Brooklyn parties about the "means of production." He's the kind of Socialist who has actually worked in a factory. He comes from a long line of union coal workers, once seen as the foundation of the Democratic Party, but he doesn't fit the image of the typical millennial activist. He pulls ten-hour shifts at a Waffle House while studying for a college degree and fighting for a $15 minimum wage in his free time. Coastal liberals often paint rural voters in broad strokes, but the truth is there are large groups of socially aware and intelligent young people living in forgotten rural areas all over the country. But with each passing generation, many young, educated people leave those rural areas for more hospitable places. "A brain drain," Smith called it over the phone. He's blunt with his ideas but extremely polite and likable in conversation. When we spoke, he even said, "Yes, sir," and stopped midstory to say things like, "My mom is one of the best goddamn nurses I've ever seen."
When I asked him about the history of Trammel, Smith told me to look up a video on YouTube called "Trammel, a Town for Sale." The grainy footage shows a 1986 news feature from a local station about Trammel's decline and its eventual auction. Trammel began as a coal camp and became a company town: The coal company owned everything from the houses to the stores. At the end of the day, employees ended up giving most of their paychecks back to their employers in rent. When coal jobs left, the town went under. Everything went up for auction in 1986 under a huge revival tent beside a church. Residents desperately bid on homes that had been in their families for generations. In the video, one mother smiles for the camera. She'd won her home by lobbying out-of-towners not to buy it. "I don't really like Trammel all that much," she says. "But it's home to me." The reporter ends the video on a hopeful note, positing that natural gas might provide a way to get Trammel out of poverty.
Smith was born a decade after the town went up for sale, and the area's been in sharp decline ever since. "I don't want to bad-mouth Trammel," Smith said. "I love it, but it's almost a populated meth lab at this point. There are no more jobs there." During childhood, he said that his family was either in poverty or his parents were struggling to find work. When I asked if his father worked in the mines, he launched into a history of his family and coal. "All my papaws and great-papaws worked in the mines," he told me. "Baby boomers worked the mines, too, but the jobs declined before my father was old enough to work in them. But coal mining is more about the culture and less and less about the jobs." He said Appalachia has a case of Stockholm syndrome with the coal industry.
Coal mining was once a ladder to the middle class. You could get into coal mining with a GED and a 40-hour course in mine safety and make $60,000 a year, which, in that part of the country, could send a kid to college or buy a small piece of property. Those $60,000-a-year jobs fed the local economy. Now there's nothing. "Welfare dependency, drug dealing, and stealing copper have replaced coal jobs," Smith told me. And natural gas, once thought of as the great savior, couldn't offer enough full-time employment to keep communities afloat and still caused environmental degradation like its predecessor. In the mid 2000s, Smith's mom got her nurse's license when he was in middle school, and they were able to move out of Trammel to Roanoke, a city of 100,000 people. "It was like the Wizard of Oz," Smith said of the move. "You're not in Appalachia anymore."
He was always interested in social politics, but in high school, he saw firsthand real inequality in the Roanoke schools. The quality of the schools broke down on racial lines. "Segregation in the 21st century," he called it. He began to see that Trammel, despite being almost entirely white, had more in common economically with the black neighborhoods than with the white neighborhoods in Roanoke. Because he was working full time, he had never had much time for activism, but then he read about Bernie Sanders. Fight for $15, which Sanders backed, actually changed the minimum wages in some places, and Smith saw the fight as a tangible way to make things better. In August of last year, he was invited by a local Fight for $15 chapter to join a march on the former Confederate capital in Richmond. Smith realized how important it was to stand with working people of color in solidarity. He attended and heard Reverend Dr. William Barber II of the North Carolina NAACP speak as they marched on the Robert E. Lee statue. He's gone to Fight for $15 marches ever since.
In 2012, Smith graduated high school a year early, at 17, and planned on heading into the military but was turned down for a medical reason. So he worked at a Kroger grocery store instead while applying for Pell grants, which he then used to pursue a social-science degree at community college. But soon he dropped out to get a full-time job as a nurse's aide at a mental hospital making $8 an hour. "Then I got lucky and found a job at a glass factory," he recalled. "It was a rough job. Hard physical labor, but I was happy to make ten bucks an hour." When Smith mentioned a job, he always said how much it paid.
It can be hard for people with salaries to understand what a $15 minimum wage means for working-class people. Smith told me while working at the factory he began to realize that $10 didn't go as far as he thought. He was lucky he was in good health because one accident could leave him broke. He didn't have any felonies or children, but those things could change everything in an instant. Ten dollars an hour just wasn't enough. He re-enrolled in college in Roanoke and started working as a barista on campus. "I thought I wouldn't like it," he said. "But I was steaming milk and brewing espresso, making the same as a nurse's aide wiping asses and taking blood pressure: eight bucks an hour." Then he found a job at Waffle House as a waiter making $2.35 an hour plus tips, but is now being trained as a cook at $10, which is actually high for the fast-food industry. "As far as fast food goes, Waffle House is one of the better ones," Smith said. But on the whole, the fast-food business model is paying poverty wages. "Tipped wages shouldn't exist anywhere," he told me. That's part of why he fights for $15.
Smith wants his counterparts in Brooklyn or Portland or LA to know that there are young activists just like them in Appalachia, which many might see as solid Trump country. "There are people down here that think just like you do," he said. "And I'm not the only one. We're trying to organize our communities, too." He added that if there is a silver lining to Trump's election, it's a renewed sense of radical activism. After the video of Smith went viral, sometimes reporters would say things like, "Despite where you grew up, you've become such an advocate for socialism." Smith thinks the opposite is true. He fights for social change not despite of where he's from but because of it. Appalachia is highly vulnerable to negative effects of climate change and has been suffering for decades from income inequality. He believes that wealthy white conservatives have spent a lot of time and money to make sure poor working-class whites don't identify with other poor communities of color. But if the coastal liberals can help break that barrier, he welcomes it. "We need other young activists to help create a good alternative for young people in working-class communities."
As we wrapped up our conversation, Smith told me he hopes the media will humanize the people in coal country and that politicians will begin to talk about real ideas for post-oil and gas economies. "We need roads and infrastructure to grow an economy," he said.
One major problem is people who live there don't own most of the land, so Smith would love to see the land be given back to those who could use it. Or see legalized industrial hemp start a plant in Dickenson County. Or see an economy built on solar and wind. He's got plenty of ideas, and he's starting locally.
He hopes Democrats will return to their roots and fight to end rural poverty as a way to defeat Trump. "That's what JFK did, and LBJ," Smith said. "They went to coal towns and said, 'We're here. And we give a shit.'"