A nationally known activist returned to his West Virginia hometown earlier this year to join the fight against the construction of a major industrial facility that posed significant health risks to the community. The activist, Kai Newkirk, gained the trust and admiration of residents opposed to the insulation factory proposed by Danish company Rockwool. By the time he left five months later, though, the community was riven in two, mistrust was rampant and the group’s ability to work effectively was significantly compromised.
But there was something that no one in this rural West Virginia county knew about Newkirk: He has a long history of toxic behavior, creating chaos and sowing discord.
After conducting two dozen interviews that include progressive organizers associated with Black Lives Matter, Democracy Spring, and the Mobilization for Health Campaign we think our findings will shed light on whether Kai Newkirk, a prominent progressive activist, should be allowed to continue in leadership positions. Furthermore, we hope our investigation will provide better context for understanding an upsetting—if not disturbing—series of events in a community facing an existential threat. Revealing the internal politics and workings of a community that has invested its trust in us is typically something we work very hard to avoid, but it is our belief that Resist Rockwool’s crisis was exceptional and requires exceptional reporting from us.
Rockwool, the proposed industrial polluter, came to Jefferson County, W.Va. in stealth. It wasn’t until after the official groundbreaking for the mineral wool insulation factory that the vast majority of residents heard the name Rockwool for the first time. Disguised initially as “Project Shuttle,” the local economic development authority kept the Rockwool project on the down-low. It was upon discovery in the summer of 2018 that Jefferson County residents scrambled to find out what this new industrial neighbor foisted on them was all about and whether they had a say in it now.
Sustained by agriculture, tourism, education and the equine industry, and on the outskirts of the metropolitan Washington, DC area, Jefferson County is the most prosperous county in a very poor state. But now, Rockwool’s factory, currently under construction at the north end of the Shenandoah Valley (the very part of West Virginia celebrated by John Denver’s song “Country Roads”) threatens to transform the county’s economy and rural character.
To produce its “green” and “sustainable” insulation products, Rockwool will burn 1.6 million cubic feet of gas and 90 tons of coal per day in its furnace to heat basalt rock and slag to 2,700 degrees until it melts into lava, blows the substance into fibers and spins it with binders to produce insulation products. Two 21-story smokestacks and a third 11-story stack will rise high above the fields, marring the skyline and the viewshed of the Appalachian trail. The factory could produce up to 156,000 tons of polluting emissions a year–including fine particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, volatile organic compounds, nitrogen oxides and formaldehyde—in an area where typical weather conditions would cause pollution to remain trapped in the valley, rather than to disperse.
Rockwool is sited right across the street from an elementary school and within two miles of three other schools, putting 30% of the county’s schoolchildren at risk. State regulations prohibit the building of schools in the area of industrial activity, but perversely, there was nothing stopping a heavy industrial facility from building next to North Jefferson Elementary.
Deception and underhanded dealing were part and parcel of the plan to bring the Danish company to Jefferson County and create all of 150 jobs with so-so pay plus benefits. The West Virginia Development Office supplied an obscene amount of cash and subsidies—about $37 million—for the county development authority, or JCDA, to offer Rockwool, while zoning laws were changed and a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreement was sold to the County Commission, no questions asked. The JCDA’s president continued to conceal Rockwool’s existence even beyond the groundbreaking and official press release. When a group of concerned citizens demanded to know where the gas for a proposed pipeline was going, he swore there was no customer lined up for it.
Worst of all, Rockwool was simply a Trojan horse, the first of several industrial neighbors to be invited to occupy a planned 1,000-acre industrial park, supplied by all the infrastructure—sewer, water, gas—initially put in place to service Rockwool’s needs.
Anger was palpable as Jefferson County mobilized to oppose Rockwool and rid itself of this threat to its air, water and health. Feelings of betrayal and disillusionment were the natural outcome of discovering that your home was part of a scheme to provide the dying coal industry a last hurrah and that the very people who are supposed to be looking out for you—your elected officials and their appointees on both the state and local levels—were either negligent or actively working to destroy your quality of life.
A community member described the raw emotions that the situation evoked. (She preferred to remain anonymous so she could speak frankly and not jeopardize valued relationships. We’ll call her Sarah.):
“That’s what you have around here, people who have trust that the neighbors around them will take care of them. The people who helped negotiate Rockwool coming in, it’s a blow to the heart and the gut when I see the names that I see attached to this stuff. I didn’t like you anyway, but it sucks to have it confirmed that you are as awful or worse than I thought you were. It’s like, we all grew up here, how can you look at everything that we have here and fight to protect and throw it all away?”
Along with betrayal, there has been gaslighting. Because Rockwool got a permit from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, it must be safe, never mind that data submitted in the application was inaccurate and the WVDEP is headed up by a coal executive. In an opinion piece published in a local paper, County Commissioner Patsy Noland claimed that because she grew up next to a source of pollution and has remained healthy, then nobody is going to get sick from Rockwool’s emissions, never mind that peer-reviewed science indicates that there are increased health risks for populations living in proximity to facilities like Rockwool. Because Rockwool’s brand is all about “sustainability” and saving the planet from the ravages of climate change, never mind that your home is going to become a sacrifice zone.
Despite the fact they were late to the game, Jefferson County residents threw themselves into defending their home. “No Toxic Rockwool” signs sprung up everywhere. Lawsuits were filed. Every county commission and city council meeting was packed to the gills, week after week. State agency hearings lasted for hours while members of the public demanded to have their say. Local elections swept out many of the Rockwool supporters, and immediately afterwards, most of the JCDA members responsible for bringing Rockwool to the county resigned.
Still, several months into the fight, conventional means of recourse–while not exhausted–were having limited returns. It was time to escalate. Into this milieu of exhaustion, heightened emotions and anxiety about the future entered a man, a native son of the county but long absent and a stranger to most. But soon, many would call him “brother” and make him the most visible leader of the Rockwool opposition.
In fall 2018, Kai Newkirk called up Shepherdstown resident David Levine, an acquaintance he had worked with during the 2004 John Kerry presidential campaign, and asked if he could stay with him and join the Rockwool fight. Newkirk is best known for his role in organizing Democracy Spring in 2016, a protest at the U.S. Capitol to get big money out of politics.
He arrived in January and together with Levine, he co-founded the group Resist Rockwool, which went on to use more assertive protest tactics to up the game against the Danish company. Many community members seemed to appreciate his experience, framing of situations as moral questions and devotion to nonviolent civil disobedience. They took on his habit of calling each other “brother” and “sister.”
But by the time Brother Kai left five months later, Resist Rockwool had been rocked by a power struggle and internal crisis, David Levine had been attacked, publicly shamed and ostracized, and a schism had divided the group, leaving almost everyone emotionally shattered. Precious weeks waging the campaign against Rockwool were lost due to infighting when construction was proceeding apace.
Many pointed the finger at Levine as the cause of all this turmoil and credited Newkirk, on the other hand, with good leadership and wise guidance. But who was Brother Kai anyway? When several individuals in our network raised red flags about Newkirk, DC Media Group decided to find out, not knowing exactly where an inquiry would lead.
Newkirk declined to be interviewed by phone, saying he was busy and preferred to speak in person when he was in West Virginia at a later date. DCMG has offered to add a statement if he provides one.
Newkirk pumped his fist and squinted into the May sun as he addressed the 300 people assembled before him on the grassy hill near the entrance to the Rockwool construction site, building the audience’s energy with a rhythmic call-and-response. “Are we here with love for our neighbors today? We’re here in love with our home, is that right?” With each rhetorical question, the crowd clapped and yelled “Yes!” with upraised fists.
A skilled speaker, Newkirk copied the style of Black religious and civil rights leaders, borrowing some of the language of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—with a little word salad thrown in. Like a stump speech, it was scripted, memorized and meticulously rehearsed. Newkirk then led marchers belting out civil rights anthems like “Marching into Freedom Land” over a bridge toward the site entrance. Twenty-four people sat down in the middle of the road, where one by one they were arrested by police for obstruction.
Civil disobedience actions leading to arrests like these are Newkirk’s calling card. He is best known for being a lead organizer of Democracy Spring, in which 1,300 people were arrested on the U.S. Capitol steps in 2016 to pressure Congress to curtail the influence of big money in politics.
He was employing mass arrests as a tactic as far back as 2009, when he was hired by the Mobilization for Health campaign to slow momentum for the Affordable Care Act to advance single payer as the best option for Obama’s healthcare initiative. Kai helped developed the campaign for protests at insurance companies across the country, said Kevin Zeese, who headed the campaign along with Dr. Margaret Flowers. “Scores of people were arrested,” Zeese said.
As the focus shifted to Congress, Kai suddenly had a change of heart and supported the ACA. It was at a “key moment,” Zeese said. They had achieved some success, but they could have done more if Newkirk had not “divided and confused things,” he said.
“He sees himself as the rebirth of Gandhi,” Zeese said.
Democracy Spring arose out of 99Rise, which Newkirk co-founded with Paul Engler. The mass arrests spanning one week at the Capitol during April 2016 didn’t achieve their goal of prompting Congress to clamp down on corruption, but it did gain publicity and laid claim to bragging rights for being the greatest number of people arrested at the Capitol in a single day. Newkirk remains Founding Mission Director of Democracy Spring.
Many young activists were attracted to Democracy Spring, which had intentions of building on the momentum of the April week of action to become a decentralized nationwide movement demanding fundamental democracy reform. One of those activists was Taralei Griffin. Newkirk invited her to come back in May and help organize the next stage of Democracy Spring.
But Democracy Spring, under the leadership and administration of Newkirk, created hardship for many of its young staff members because it failed to compensate them or cover expenses related to their work. With few exceptions, staff working full-time did not receive wages or a stipend and were only provided group housing in “movement houses” in suburban Washington and Philadelphia. For Griffin, this resulted in lasting consequences.
Living in Nashville at the time, Griffin flew back to Washington, DC at her own expense to rejoin Democracy Spring. She did not sign an employment contract or agreement and was essentially regarded as a volunteer, even though she fulfilled the role of the “DOC,” or director of communications. She estimates that she worked about 60 hours per week. Democracy Spring promised to reimburse her for food, travel and other expenses, she said, but not in writing.
When Democracy Spring kept putting reimbursement off, Griffin opened two new credit cards to cover even more expenses. She estimates that she racked up $4,200 in debt from May to August 2016, attributable to expenses of the type she says the organization promised to pay for. She was eventually reimbursed about $1,000. She is still paying off the debt three years later.
In July, Democracy Spring organizers headed to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia to agitate for democratic reforms and urge nominee Hillary Clinton to sign its declaration.
Newkirk seemed insensitive, if not oblivious, to the dynamics of a group of twenty-something, mostly white activists setting up shop in an AirBNB in the middle of a poor majority black neighborhood in Philadelphia, more than one source said.
“There goes the neighborhood,” said one resident as he walked by the house, as related by Angela Vogel, a local organizer who was called in to conduct anti-oppression training.
Local organizers were also ignored. This, apparently, wasn’t terribly unusual for many of the protest groups flocking to Philly for the DNC, except that Newkirk wasn’t receptive to amending his plans in consideration of others. He once “triple-booked over the black community and immigrant community” and diluted the effect of all of their protests, according to Desiree Kane, who was hired to do press and public relations during the DNC. “There was no work to find out when their actions were,” she said.
Newkirk also showed lack of concern for Democracy Spring activists’ safety. On one occasion, Newkirk ignored Griffin’s advice, she said, and this resulted in Democracy Spring members—who professed nonviolence–showing up for an “escalated” march, where they ended up getting pepper-sprayed by police. Newkirk then blamed her for not reaching them in time to notify them to leave before it started, she said.
Newkirk devised a scheme to infiltrate the convention center by taking ladders and climbing over a high gate with electric fencing. Young activists were on board with this, but Kane knew that police would immediately go after them. “Was he trying to get people shot?” she asked. She put a stop to the plan, then quit over the matter, she said.
“There were a number of things that they attempted to do that could have been really stupid,” Vogel said. “The actions were incredibly poorly planned, last-minute decisions. What they were doing had no strategic value whatsoever.”
Griffin believes Newkirk discounted her and other women organizers’ opinions and suggestions and preferred the counsel of white male organizers. She began to stand up to him on certain matters, and then found some of her housemates becoming hostile to her and gaslighting her.
She experienced a “creepy and uncomfortable” episode in which Newkirk put his arm around her at a bar. She had gone there in the first place because he had avoided her efforts to talk to him about a work matter, and found it difficult to get away when she might not have another opportunity to talk, she said.
Later, others reported to Griffin that Newkirk “groomed” young activists in a similar manner. Newkirk had a consensual sexual relationship with an organizer in the Philly movement house, a young woman of color about 21 years old at the time, according to several sources. Newkirk was 35.
Griffin experienced significant health problems during that summer, ultimately leading to a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. Kai would be sympathetic, she said, then almost immediately expect her to shoulder full duties.
Newkirk didn’t deal with disagreement with his views very well and tended to act unilaterally. During the DNC, while the organization was publicly pressuring Clinton to sign its declaration, behind the scenes–unbeknownst to his own staff–Newkirk was negotiating a compromise with a Clinton aide, according to Griffin.
She found Democracy Spring’s attendance at the DNC problematic in the first place when the organization claimed to be nonpartisan but did not protest or participate in the Republican National Convention as well. Her objections were ignored.
But non-partisanship became a flashpoint after the convention when Democracy Spring changed its stance and advocated for “strategic voting,” essentially endorsing Hillary Clinton. This did not sit well with Bernie Sanders supporters, who were still bruised by the DNC’s collusion with Clinton and their ill treatment at the convention. Clinton, moreover, was “the face of everything we are fighting against,” as Griffin described it in an article she penned in early September, not long after she had left Democracy Spring in exhaustion.
Her post gained some traction and Democracy Spring felt compelled to implement damage control. In communications with her, Newkirk laid the guilt trips on thick. One of his texts reads:
“After all we’ve done for you… brought you into our FAMILY… I’m the one who reached out and asked you to come to the movement house, and we’ve supported you… why would you do this? I just don’t understand. You’ve hurt me, and you’ve hurt the movement.”
Soon after Griffin started a Facebook group for people to share their disappointments in Democracy Spring’s new direction, Newkirk sent another message that he was “aware” of the group. “To see you counter-organizing is painful, Taralei,” he texted.
Saying that he wished she had brought up more of her concerns earlier (when she was ignored), he continues:
“I have to get back to work building this movement. I hope you will not hinder our efforts … while acting with appreciation for our intentions of service and all that we have sacrificed to build to this time.”
Griffin said that she sought Newkirk’s approval for her work, and she “never knew whether he would even look at me.”
“It sucked when he acted like I was just a problem among all his other burdens of being a progressive savior,” she said.
Griffin said Newkirk could be exclusive, not inclusive, when it came to his movement. He “alienated” women, people of color and older activists, she said, and she linked that practice to his occasional remark that “not all people” are needed to make a movement work.
“In various ways, he reveals a certain elitism” and preoccupation with appearances, DC organizer and activist Andrew Batcher told DC Media Group. He decided that he would no longer work with Newkirk after he signaled that he didn’t want well-known activist Barry Knight to participate in an action at the Supreme Court “because Barry was a long-haired hippie and didn’t look right.” Knight says he participated in the protest and was never discouraged from attending.
Kane said Newkirk cares very much about the “social capital” wealthy white social networks can bring him. On the other hand, in spite of using lofty rhetoric, “he doesn’t really care about actual poor people because they can’t bring him social capital.”
Kane, a Native American, was disturbed to hear that Newkirk intended to go to Standing Rock in October 2016 and bring Democracy Spring activists with him, who intended to wear items with Democracy Spring logos. She blocked him from coming, she said. She says that he practices “extractive activism,” showing up and getting what he wants with charisma and “sex magic,” then leaves.
Both Kane and Kira Young, an indigenous water protector and Appalachian environmental organizer, expressed serious reservations about Newkirk’s use of mass arrests as a tactic. Newkirk “was feeding that system” of oppression by sending activists to jail and funneling scarce resources to police, Young said.
Zeese estimated that Democracy Spring arrests at the Capitol required $65,000 for bail, all of which all went to the U.S. Capitol police. Griffin agreed with that estimate.
“In plenty of other realms [civil disobedience arrests have] made an impact with the media, but now we need our best and brightest to be out here,” Young said. “We need it to serve a strategic end goal.”
Banned from DC Organizing Circles
Many people who participated in Democracy Spring felt misled and cheated, according to several accounts. Under Newkirk’s leadership, local groups were not supported, and the promised nationwide movement infused with Democracy Spring’s “DNA” was not materializing. Many of those most intensely involved say they are still feeling the psychological after-effects today.
After Democracy Spring, Newkirk showed up in other movements in Washington, DC, where his bad reputation and toxic behavior eventually compelled local organizers to run him out of town in 2017. They have scathing words to describe him, and in addition, many have alleged that Newkirk had sexual relationships with young women when he held positions of authority over them.
“Kai Newkirk is an egotistical piece of trash who uses positions of power to seduce new activists. Do not work with Kai Newkirk,” said Jason Charter, a longtime DC organizer and activist. “I can only say from personal experience that he is an egotistical, narcissistic, self-centered bastard who doesn’t deserve anyone’s time.”
“When he was running Democracy Spring, he was running it as his own personal cult of personality. He would be luring in young women and then toss them aside when he was done with them,” said DC activist and community organizer Legba Carrefour. Democracy Spring did nothing about it, he said, and “it was people from outside the group that forced him to leave the city.”
Prominent Black Lives Matter organizer April Goggans said she and others refuse to work with Newkirk, and she advises everyone else do the same.
“Folks all but put out an entire website on him. He will fuck the effort up directly or indirectly. I personally would not let him anywhere near any community fighting for any kind of justice,” she said.
Goggans was instrumental in effectively banning Newkirk from operating in DC. She called out Newkirk on Facebook and a slew of people piled on. (The post is no longer accessible.) Word spread among the activist community in DC, and he was no longer welcome.
“He doesn’t give a fuck about the people. He’s a narcissist and opportunist of the worst kind. Cult leader-ish to be honest. He’s dangerous,” she said.
Newkirk has admitted to having a sex addiction and reportedly has sought help for it. A sex addict can substitute sexual gratification with emotional exploitation, according to to psychotherapist Lynn Turner, Ph.D., LCSW.
The Undermining of Resist Rockwool
In Jefferson County, Newkirk’s charisma made him the natural front man for Resist Rockwool. “If he hadn’t come to town, I don’t think we would have gotten organized,” David Levine said.
Newkirk made people feel good and purposeful by using the language of love and morality. “He was more interested in making impressions, inspiring and motivating others under a banner crafted from dreams” than attending to practical matters, community member Ana Prillaman said. When conversation turned toward goals or intentions, he would “nod his head and behave as if he was burdened by feelings,” then redirect energy toward “vague and spiritual ambitions,” she said.
Newkirk continued to pursue his favorite protest tactic–nonviolent civil disobedience resulting in mass arrests. The first action Resist Rockwool attempted was a sit-in at Senator Joe Manchin’s office in Washington. They demanded to speak to him and get him off the fence regarding Rockwool. It was an inconvenient day for Manchin to accommodate them, even if he had wanted to. Congress was voting on a spending bill to end the government shutdown. The group could have given Manchin more time to respond, but Newkirk decided preemptively to escalate the action by moving the small group willing to risk arrest into a position in the hallway where they blocked the office doors.
Resist Rockwool then decided to “take the fight to Denmark” and make a “moral appeal”–in Newkirk’s language—to the Danish ambassador. Rockwool, after all, could not build a coal- and gas-fired factory next to an elementary school in Denmark because of the country’s stricter regulations. After a rally at the Washington embassy, 21 members of the group blocked the entrance gate and were arrested.
Newkirk was beginning to apply pressure to community members to get arrested in these civil disobedience actions. This didn’t sit well with Stewart Acuff, a union organizer who retired to Martinsburg. His experience goes back decades to ACORN in the 1970s, and he did union organizing in Georgia with Reverend James Orange and other civil rights figures. Later, he became the National Organizing Director for the AFL-CIO.
“We should not make people feel like they’re not doing their duty if they don’t get arrested,” he said. He began to think that Newkirk was manipulating people by framing everything as a moral question, then making himself the moral arbiter.
He was speaking to Newkirk about leadership one day, and he remarked how a young woman in the movement was growing and distinguishing herself. “Not until she takes an arrest,” Newkirk said, according to Acuff.
“Arrests [for him] are a vehicle to his stature,” Acuff said. “Dr. King didn’t teach that.”
Newkirk arranged for an interview with Cenk Uygur on The Young Turks, a news and commentary program, and he wisely included this young woman, Morgan Sell. Feisty, sensitive and pretty, and the mother of two young children—one of whom has asthma—Sell was an ideal choice to represent the anti-Rockwool struggle. (DC Media Group requested an interview with Sell, but she declined.)
The problem was, she had little or no experience with this kind of interview, and Newkirk didn’t prepare her, or even remind her to turn off her cellphone. He started off by talking to Uygur for two minutes straight. When Sell did get the opportunity to speak, Newkirk looked pained. She didn’t appear to be prepped by Newkirk to be ready to tell her story.
Acuff was distressed by the interview. “A real organizer never puts developing leaders into situations that are over their head,” he said.
Conflict between them began to escalate during planning for Rockwool’s next event, the rally and civil disobedience at Rockwool’s gate.
“That night when I realized he was a con artist, he spent 15 or 20 minutes begging people to get arrested. In fact, it got down to this really sick and sad and pathetic thing where everybody in the room was begging poor old [name redacted] who’s broken in about a thousand places in his old body to get arrested. It was just bizarre,” Acuff said.
Kira Young was also disturbed. “I noticed more and more vulnerable people were agreeing to get arrested, and I didn’t see the strategic value of having such a vulnerable part of our community getting arrested,” she said. “I noticed older people on medication going, ‘I don’t know if can get spend a night in jail, because I need my medication.’”
Acuff confronted Newkirk and got angry, which in turn made people angry at Acuff. Levine tried to intervene and got caught in the crossfire.
By April, tensions had developed between Newkirk and Levine, and he was no longer a guest at Levine’s house. Some of his self-centered behavior had been unsettling. For example, he went to the Sundance Film Festival and came back furious for an odd reason. He had gone to the premiere of a documentary about his romantic partner—a well-known immigrant rights activist—and her mother, and found that all the footage that included him in it ended up on the cutting room floor. By his own account, he skipped the after-party because he was upset, and he sulked and complained about it for quite a while, Levine said.
Complaints about Levine began to arise in Resist Rockwool’s steering committee, and these complaints soon became accusations of serious offenses. (DCMG requested interviews from some steering committee members, but the interviews were put off several times.) Levine acted unilaterally, they said. He refused to listen to other people and treated them disrespectfully. He repeatedly disrespected and sometimes verbally abused two female steering committee members, who later resigned. (Levine denies this.) He refused to remove the treasurer, who mistrusted him, as a signatory of the bank account. (Levine states that he offered to replace himself as signatory with the organization’s vice president.)
Newkirk wanted to make sure he wasn’t replaced by Acuff as the leader of the rally. “He wanted to be the unchallenged leader and the star of the demonstration and civil disobedience,” Acuff said.
As the mid-May rally approached, Levine was uncomfortable with the level of conflict between Newkirk and Acuff, who stated that he would not follow Newkirk’s lead anymore. Acuff and Levine felt compelled to resign, which Levine characterized as “stepping aside” until after the event to avoid any confusion over the leadership for the event.
Levine provoked more complaints by allegedly trying to fire the attorney who had been hired to provide legal representation to those arrested at the civil disobedience action, including himself. (He denies this, stating he was simply requesting information about the attorney’s engagement agreement.) The steering committee, in the meantime, had “managed” the resignations of Levine and Acuff by saying they had moved to another project and wished them well.
Nevertheless, things were building toward a crisis. Levine was still technically president of Resist Rockwool, and he was concerned about the legal responsibility for the event, and therefore rescinded his resignation, provoking an outcry. But even if all the accusations against him were justified, the animus toward Levine was growing out of proportion in intensity.
At first, the narrative about the conflict was “David, Stewart and Kai got into it, and they need to work it out,” Young said. “But I saw their narrative change. I saw people move from reasonable to ‘Lord of the Flies’ in two weeks.”
“All these bad things were happening. [Two steering committee members] were attacking me constantly. And everybody in the group, it was this constant thing that I was the problem, but I didn’t know that that was all coming from Kai,” Levine said.
Newkirk seized the moment to consolidate power and remove Levine and Acuff rather than risk a confrontation after things settled down and the May protest was behind them.
“Kai wanted to make sure he was the unchallenged leader and the star of the demonstration and civil disobedience,” Acuff said.
Newkirk had picked up the threads of earlier slurs made against Levine by a pro-Rockwool group led by former economic development authority members who had worked to bring the factory to Jefferson County. These slurs and hit pieces by the local pro-Rockwool newspaper planted the seeds that Levine, a tech entrepreneur, was a dishonest businessman who had bilked his investors and couldn’t be trusted.
This was just one piece of the narrative. “Kai would cite this as part of my pattern of behavior of just going and doing things,” Levine said. “For him, everything that was done was group consensus, though it was ‘modified consensus,’ meaning that if I disagreed I could be overruled. So it wasn’t just making the individuals feel empowered, it was making this steering committee feel incredibly important and powerful. And Kai always controlled the agenda in terms of what was considered and how decisions were made.”
Newkirk also undermined Acuff by discounting his decades of organizing experience and calling his methods old school and obsolete. Newkirk focused on his few outbursts of anger to discredit him, rather than support Acuff as an important asset to the movement.
At a training to prepare for civil disobedience, Levine says he “talked up” Acuff in an introduction, and as he did so, one woman cried out, “Let’s not forget Brother Kai!” Later, in informal conversations, Levine’s supposed disregard for Newkirk, who was not speaking or doing training that evening, was cited as one of his greatest crimes.
Called on the carpet several times for the same offenses, Levine could not convince the steering committee that he was responsive to their concerns. He asked Newkirk more than once for a mediation between them as individuals, but Newkirk demurred.
“I would say, we really need to work this out, and he would say, that seems really heavy, this is too heavy. All about how he felt about it, not about getting through the heaviness,” Levine said. Newkirk also insisted on working things out “in the group,” where he would have unconditional support and not have to face Levine one-on-one.
Finally, a mediation was scheduled, where they presented one option to Levine: resign as President right away. He listened to them again, he said, but he refused. His reason was put an orderly transition in place first, he said.
“By the time we got to this idiotic mediation, Kai just painted this whole story about how I’d hit bottom. When I resigned and nobody wanted me back, I started acting out, I started trying to destroy the rally, I started undermining things. This is basically the narrative he presented,” he said.
Levine also said that he was told several times that they were being “really easy” on him because they hadn’t called him out publicly, and they “held him hostage” by the threat of it. He was told that if he didn’t resign immediately, he would be publicly exposed and ridiculed.
“They had gotten to this point that Kai had made them feel everything in the world that was wrong was because of me,” Levine said. “I can see him, his body language, in the meetings, like he was in pain, caused by anything I said. He was building a moral argument against me, in exactly the same way you build a moral argument against Rockwool for presentation to the Danish ambassador. Somehow he got it to the point that I was Rockwool. He was conducting rallies, sit-ins and protests against me.”
At the end of the so-called mediation, Levine said someone told him as he left, “I’m sorry you are the victim.” Eventually, he took this to mean that through his own fault, he made himself the victim and compelled them to do something cruel.
Prior to the crisis event–what Young describes as the meeting “when they went full-on Lord of the Flies”–a delirium took hold of some people. They were in such distress, it was like they had to cut a cancer out which was causing them unbearable pain. And the cancer was Levine.
“Kai created fear of David to deflect from his own inadequacies, that’s what smear campaigns are,” Young said. “They’re to create chaos so that you don’t have time to look at how shitty of an organizer he is. He creates all this drama and everything looking at David, meanwhile he’s just throwing all of the resources of the organization at the police.”
Two things were announced for the Resist Rockwool public meeting agenda on May 29: a review of the rally and civil disobedience and a discussion of strategy. The unannounced agenda item was a public shaming.
Sarah (not her real name) was attending a Resist Rockwool meeting for the first time. When she walked in a little late, she noticed that there was a good cross-section of the community there, and also, that David Levine was standing in the middle of the circle and people were yelling at him.
“This is not how these people [normally] behave,” she thought.
For a while, he wasn’t allowed to respond, Sarah said. “He seemed to be respectfully receiving the grievances. He was genuinely sorry that this has gotten to this point, and is willing to take responsibility for whatever it is that has gone wrong.”
She was confused and thought that others would be as well. “This was supposed to be strategy meeting, and I was very upset because I thought, some adult in this room should be standing up and saying, ‘We see there are a number of people here who are not here for this part of the meeting. We should have this conversation elsewhere at another time,’” she said.
Emotions were running high. “Morgan had been crying, Stewart’s voice broke as he described his feelings about trying to heal a broken community. … David got upset when he tried to explain that he did these things for the good of the organization,” she said.
Levine didn’t point fingers, she said. He explained what his rationale had been for some of the decisions he made.
“David Levine is extraordinarily intelligent, aware of how things work. His brain moves faster than most other people,” Sarah said. “David is able to see a bigger picture and is able to bring people together, and I think he works a lot from the heart, so he is genuine and passionate about whatever is going on.”
Newkirk stayed quiet. “At no time did I hear Kai say anything. The fact that Kai’s name came up multiple times but that he didn’t speak, didn’t take the time to say, I want to say my piece,” Sarah said.
“It seemed like it had gotten to the point [that it might end]. It seemed to calm down, David seemed to take responsibility for certain things. Then this woman stood up and said, ‘This is all your fault.’” Sarah then left.
It went downhill from there.
“There were two facts that they kept coming back to, that he called a lawyer and he already resigned. But then it was just gratuitous cruelty. They slung everything at him,” Acuff said.
He also said he had experienced hostility during union campaigns in Georgia, “but they did nothing like what they did to David, nothing like the vitriol, the illogical cruel gratuitous vitriol, it was … really, I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said.
“When I saw the Lord of the Flies incident, I was like, this is a full-on cult scene,” Young said. “Afterward, people kept saying the same things: ‘We got to a better place.’”
“Public shaming is only justified in pretty extreme situations when there isn’t any other possible alternative to reconcile the situation,” said Kelly Canavan, an experienced facilitator for activist groups. “For example, a violent offense, racism, spreading hateful ideology, those might be reasons you would publicly shame a person.”
“But using it as a tool of attack is a terrible idea. You don’t want to publicly shame as a tool of attack. It’s more a tool of last resort and a tool of protection,” she said.
“One of the things that was just so stupid about the public cruelty they showed towards David is, you just don’t do that,” Acuff said. “You just don’t take somebody out who’s responsible for bringing everyone together and creating this collective vision. He was the host. He was the one who brought all of us in.”
After everyone had gotten their punches in, they took a vote on whether to remove Levine as president immediately or in three weeks. They voted to remove him immediately.
The next day, Newkirk made an announcement:
“It’s an unfortunate fact that we’ve also had an incredibly difficult leadership conflict going on for weeks. That happens in movements and organizations sometimes. All of us share some responsibility for it. Huge amounts of time and energy were spent trying to resolve it internally. Regretfully, we failed to do so, so it was brought to the members last night. Without a resolution, multiple people who have put countless hours of work into our fight over months would have resigned to form something else or find another way to be involved.
“At last night’s meeting, a collective decision was made by the assembled membership. By the secret ballot vote of all assembled members, 25-9 with 8 abstentions, it was decided after a full and open airing of views and experiences, that David shall resign immediately as President of RR…. David, you have not been banished, brother. You remain a dearly valued member of RR, a dearly-loved friend to me, and you will always be a co-founder of Resist Rockwool.”
If the steering committee believed that it would vanquish Levine by shaming him, it backfired. At first he intended to resign, he says, but he changed his mind when he found that there were other Rockwool resistors who would join him and Acuff to “get things done.” Levine also considered the public process of confronting a member and calling for a vote to remove them to be outside the norms of acceptable organizational behavior, he said.
He had offered a plan for appointing a Board and governing council during a transition period that the steering committee had rejected. Levine, who had served on corporate boards and in companies where investors and management fought for control, implemented the plan anyway. He convened the Resist Rockwool board, which dissolved the steering committee, dismissed all the officers, and appointed a new president and secretary, the only administrative roles required by the State of West Virginia.
The steering committee viewed Levine’s actions as illegitimate, and resigned en masse. They called it a “hostile takeover” by Levine and issued a letter to membership denouncing him. They announced they were starting a new organization.
The day after Levine’s public shaming, Newkirk announced his intention to transition to a support role and leave West Virginia to reunite with his partner.
A Toxic Agenda
Newkirk helped the opposition to Rockwool in Jefferson County escalate and adopt protest tactics, arguably a necessary step, and maybe it would not have done so otherwise.
And, not even all of his critics doubt his organizing abilities. “I think deep down Kai is elitist and allied with the state. But I also think he’s a committed activist. I mean, with 99Rise he didn’t come in to disrupt but built it from the ground up. I saw it,” Andrew Batcher said, with the caveat that “problematic people don’t have to directly work for our enemies to support our enemies.”
But there are some things which suggest that Newkirk may have returned to West Virginia with an agenda other than helping to protect the county’s schoolchildren from an industrial polluter.
Newkirk promotes himself on his website where he solicits donations. (He never used his prominence or social media reach to fundraise for Resist Rockwool.) The feature photo of him on the website could easily be transposed with an actor or TV host from central casting. He’s rolling up his sleeves, but for what?
Newkirk had floated a potential run against Joe Manchin for Senate in the 2018 Democratic primary on Facebook, and contacted Levine to ask him to weigh in on the idea. Levine counseled against it at the time, citing Paula Jean Swearengin as a strong progressive challenger.
David Levine allowed Newkirk to lease a room in an office building he owns in Martinsburg, and he was able to get a West Virginia driver’s license using the address. He also listed the Martinsburg address as the location of a nonprofit called For All that he registered with the West Virginia Secretary of State’s office on the day after the Manchin action. It was even the address denoted on the arrest report following the civil disobedience action in May, when Newkirk and Levine were on bad terms. The rent was $350 a month, which Newkirk never paid. Levine evicted him this month.
Newkirk wanted to establish residency in West Virginia, which would make it possible for him to run for political office, according to Levine. The office building address, nonprofit 501(c)(4) political organization and driver’s license would have been a first step.
He’s now also got a devoted following in the Eastern Panhandle willing to support and campaign for him. The region was pivotal in re-electing Senator Joe Manchin in 2018.
“Kai has always seen Resist Rockwool as a way to reassert himself on the national scene,” Acuff said. Before the May protest, Newkirk circulated a sign-on letter to national progressive leaders and celebrities that was never published.
“He would like for his brand to be the embodiment of nonviolent civil disobedience. He is today’s Dr. King, and with the brand he is trying to create, he is the embodiment of the King tradition,” said Acuff.
“If you watch, he’s usually posing, often imitating the iconic image of Che Guevara with chin lifted, eyes gazing,” he added.
“There’s nothing there. It’s like a cheese puff. It looks like it’s going to satisfy your hunger for something, but then you crunch into it, and it’s gone. What does he stand for?” Young mused.
Mostly, Newkirk seems to have perfected the art of being vague, while pretending to be profound. In pursuing his ambition wrapped in pious wisdom, he spreads chaos and discord. Newkirk’s sudden departure after he vanquished his enemies fits Kane’s definition of “extractive activism.”
“You don’t come in, extract off their suffering, build your platform and leave,” Kane says.
To give Newkirk the benefit of the doubt, he may have made sincere efforts to address the abusive and toxic behaviors of his past. But Kane thinks self-improvement is irrelevant, especially when patterns of toxicity continue into the present.
“We don’t have time for that anymore. We don’t have time to wait for goddamn Kai Newkirk to better himself and stop being predatory. We don’t have that luxury,” she said. “He is stifling out positions where true leadership of and for the people can emerge. He’s blocking the road.”
Sarah understands the psychological blocks her fellow West Virginians are facing when it comes to corporate polluters. “West Virginia is a funny place. This is a state with so much trauma—it’s a generational trauma,” Sarah said. “People in West Virginia don’t believe they deserve anything more than what they have, so they won’t fight for it. They’re almost crippled by trying to justify it. Do we deserve clean drinking water, do we deserve not to have a slurry up above a school?” she asks.
A community facing an existential threat like Rockwool, especially a threat to their children, inhabits in a precarious state of mind. Even perceptive, intelligent, kindhearted people in such a community might be susceptible to someone like Kai Newkirk playing on their anxieties, fears and hopes.
“The emotional and intellectual health of this movement has become, in my opinion, irrevocably damaged by [Newkirk’s] influence,” said Ana Prillaman.
Resist Rockwool has a new president, Tracy Danzey. She grew up in Parkersburg, W.Va., and became a victim of toxic pollution from DuPont’s Teflon plant. For 50 years, DuPont covered up the fact that its plant released the chemical C8 into the water in Parkersburg–the very water where Danzey swam frequently.
“I literally spent my childhood swimming in Teflon,” she says.
Due to the toxic exposure, she developed a rare form of osteosarcoma which required the amputation of her leg at the hip socket.
While she previously lived in Shepherdstown, recently she has been living in Florida with her husband and two children. But she decided to move back to Jefferson County and join the fight against Rockwool.
Of the two out-of-town arrivals, Newkirk and Danzey, there could be no greater contrast: the attention-seeking extractive activist versus the victim of the very kind of corporate polluter she’s come to battle.
“We simply cannot continue to sacrifice vibrant communities for the benefit of corporations and their shareholders. We cannot afford to continue poisoning our air and water, and decimating our health, in the name of economic development and corporate profits,” she writes in a call to boycott Rockwool products.
Rockwool–which may someday spew carcinogens and neurotoxins dangerously close to schoolchildren–is a legitimate source of anxiety for Jefferson County residents. Scott Sarich is documenting the voices of residents who are potentially affected by Rockwool. His appeal for unity poetically illustrates the threat Jefferson County faces:
We’re at a crossroad here in Jefferson County, the likes of which we have never seen before. Our way of life is being threatened in such a way that in due time, we may not remember what it once was, all we will have is broken memories of a time past when clean air and water were taken for granted in the most innocent way. We are faced with a great invader who knows his [Rockwool’s] path, as he has conquered before. He knows our weaknesses … His greed proceeds him like day does to night, and with no conscience, no love for others, no care for anyone other than himself to slow him down, as he is driven only by profits and promises to those who support his lies and deceit. … He has done this before and he will do it again, unless we stand directly in his way.