Making martyr of activist hurts our reputation

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Special editorial

By The Staff

EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is opinion. We have posted it where we usually post news because we are disturbed by an escalating series of events recently involving the TVA ash spill and an activist working in the Swan Pond area.

At a time when a reasoned touch has been called for, both TVA and local authorities have chosen a more ham-fisted approach.

Our community's reputation could pay the price.

Here's what's been happening. We'll get to why we think it is a problem a bit later.

On Thursday night, an anti-coal organization volunteer was arrested as he was driving an visually impaired Swan Pond woman home in the dark. The volunteer, Matt Landon of United Mountain Defense, did not stop at a TVA checkpoint on Swan Pond Road placed well away from the ash spill.

He was pulled over by a TVA officer, charged and placed in jail. On Friday, the Roane County Sheriff's Office had him transferred to Bradley County.

Roane County Sheriff Jack Stockton said he told Landon the jail was overcrowded and he would have to move him if he didn't make bond, but Landon told him he didn't have the $300.

Earlier in the week, Landon was confronted by a cigar-chomping Roane County deputy while he was strapping an air monitor to a power pole on private property. On a video posted on YouTube, the deputy makes repeated requests for Landon's driver's license, even though the activist offered his passport and was not driving. The resulting video also shows the deputy covering the lens with his palm and taking the camera away.

With the TVA officer Thursday night, Landon did offer his license, noting aloud that he did so because he had been driving.

Let's be clear — Landon, a full-time volunteer with the anti-coal UMD — has pushed the envelope with authorities. At times he has been a nuisance, and he probably has a few minor infractions under his belt.

Landon, who posts updates on the UMD Web site and blog, has crashed a few TVA news conferences, The group has taken its own samples of water, ash and air. They have reached out to many in Swan Pond, some who appreciate what they are doing, and some who do not. Whether their conclusions are accurate is up for debate.

But of one thing, there is no doubt — this group has have a right to take part in the debate over the ash spill.

In many of Landon's videos, posted on YouTube and at the United Mountain Defense Web site, Landon looks like an insect behind an intense-looking "gas mask." It is calculated drama.

There's little doubt that he did not stop at the checkpoint when he took a 65-year-old woman home from Thursday's meeting of state and federal regulators discussing the ash spill. It's likely he wanted to get arrested — he was wearing his gas mask, after all.

It made for, as they say, "good TV."

Engaging with authorities is a common tactic with activists, and it can be effective if authorities bite. The danger is making the activist look like a martyr, and the folks who are restricting him look overbearing and even sinister.

We fear that may now have happened here.

Already rumors are swirling that Landon was transferred to Bradley County because local authorities were fearful of a protest at the local jail because of his arrest.

The move also puts him farther from his fellow UMD members, which conspiracy theorists will naturally decide is an intentional move.

We believe the better course of action in all this would have been to give Landon and his colleagues the access they want -- as much as residents who live in the area.

If they slip into a news conference and are not disruptive, then let them stay.

The charges against Landon may hold up in court, but right now many eyes are upon TVA and Roane County.

There is still the court of opinion to consider.