I first got to know Richmond, California, in the 1980s, when I was working as a private investigator. Richmond at the time was a corrupt, crime-ridden town dominated by Chevron and its handpicked politicians. The police force was mostly white and brutal, self-identified “cowboys.” About half the population was African American, mostly poor and with little access to Reagan-era consumer goods other than guns and crack cocaine. My clients included a teenage shooter who killed someone over a five-dollar pool bet and an abused woman who shot her boyfriend while he sat on the toilet.
Even ten years ago, when I moved back to Richmond after living far away, its only national media recognition was the result of a church shooting and a gang rape at a local high school. Six months after I moved to the Richmond Marina, a Chinese-owned container ship spilled more than 50,000 gallons of bunker fuel into San Francisco Bay and I saw my neighborhood wetland and shorebirds covered in oil.
In 2012, retired union organizer, lawyer, and labor reporter Steve Early moved from Boston to Point Richmond only months before the century-old Chevron Refinery just over the hill blew up for the third time in thirteen years. Locals would have been ordered to “shelter in place”—had the emergency response network worked properly that day. Instead, many were exposed as a raging fire from one of the refinery’s crude distillation units generated a thick column of oily black smoke that rose above the city of 110,000. Thousands of people flocked to area emergency rooms complaining of burning eyes, nausea, and difficulty breathing. (In the end, the company pled no contest to six criminal misdemeanor charges and paid a $2 million fine.)
This is where Early opens his new book, Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money, and the Remaking of an American City. Surprisingly, it turns out to be a pretty hopeful narrative about how bottom-up citizen action can restore a city’s pride and make a real difference in people’s lives around such issues as affordable housing, community policing, sustainable job growth, open space, clean energy, and immigrant rights.
“If urban political insurgencies are going to succeed in more places,” Early argues, “they will need models for civic engagement like Richmond provides.”
This advice may be even more urgent now, as people push back against the petro-oligarchy being imposed by Donald Trump.
Following a friendly but somewhat generic foreword by Senator Bernie Sanders, Early plunges the reader into the story of how Richmond—once one of America’s World War II arsenals of democracy with its Kaiser shipyards—saw a rapid postwar deindustrialization and exclusion of many of its African American workers from good union jobs and housing. Today that story is well told at Richmond’s Rosie the Riveter Historical Park.
Among the national historical park’s best raconteurs is Betty Reid Soskin, who at age ninety-five is the oldest ranger in the National Park Service and is still making connections between her experiences as a young black woman working in a segregated shipyard union hall and today’s struggles. “We had serious social issues but still defeated global fascism,” I heard her tell one group of high school students. “So even with all the political problems we have today, you can still stop climate change.”
By the beginning of the new century, the demographics and attitudes of Richmond had changed. The city was 40 percent Latino, 30 percent African American, 20 percent Caucasian, and 10 percent Asian and other folks. It had a new generation of working class activists and residents—people who protested environmental and police abuses (including those of undocumented day laborers), a proposed new oil-fired power plant by the Chevron refinery, and a mega-casino to be built on the city-owned 413-acre Point Molate headlands, one of the last bay-facing undeveloped coastal watersheds and woodlands.
With Richmond facing an ongoing financial crisis and mired in scandal, the activists came together to challenge the corporate dominance of their town in the 2004 election.
Early describes what coalesced with the Richmond Progressive Alliance being “simultaneously an electoral formation, a membership organization, a coalition of community groups, and a key coordinator of grassroots education and citizen mobilization around multiple issues.”
In 2004, the Alliance ran two city council candidates and won one seat for Gayle McLaughlin, a retired postal worker, caregiver, and member of the Green Party. Two years later, McLaughlin would be elected mayor and serve two terms. (In 2014, after being term-limited out of the mayor’s office, she was re-elected as a council member.)
Under Richmond’s city charter system, most of the power was with the city manager. However, in his book, Early reports that “McLaughlin turned what had been a part-time job with a $45,000 salary—less than a city janitor’s pay—into a bully pulpit for reform causes. In a series of battles that pitted fossil fuel defenders against local critics, the new mayor confronted industrial hazards arising from both oil refining and local railroad operations.”
In chapter 2, “The Greening of City Hall,” he goes on to explain how by the end of McLaughlin’s second term in 2014, Richmond had become nationally recognized for its progressive initiatives. Among them: raising taxes on and increasing environmental monitoring of Chevron; providing city IDs to undocumented workers; reforming the police force and expanding youth outreach; creating new greenways and attracting new green businesses in solar and other industries; trying to use eminent domain to keep mortgage holders in their homes; and trying to pass a soda tax to fight obesity and diabetes.
These initiatives led to major battles with Chevron, big banks, what became known as Big Soda, and realtors. And while Richmond didn’t win every fight, the city got a reputation for not backing down. Pretty soon its larger neighbors, including Berkeley and Oakland, had developed a mild case of RES—Radical Envy Syndrome.
Early cites National Research Center Surveys conducted between 2007 and 2015 that explain why Richmond Progressive Alliance candidates were able to go on to win a supermajority of five out of the seven seats on the city council while also passing a rent-control initiative in 2016.
Richmond residents believe their city—under left leadership—has vastly improved its overall quality of life and its image, governance, and sense of community. This belief has taken root despite the best efforts of Chevron and other corporate opponents, the Democratic Party of surrounding Contra Costa County (which never supported the progressives), and Richmond’s dyspeptic liberal mayor, Tom Butt, who ran with the progressives in 2014 but has since turned against what he calls the Alliance’s “self-righteous hysteria.”
Early’s book provides a comprehensive profile of the fuller cast of characters who have come to define Richmond’s last decade of municipal conflict. It also explores the “glocal” (global/local) links between Richmond and other locales in Canada, Cuba, and Ecuador, whose president in 2013 invited Mayor McLaughlin and a city delegation to visit his country’s indigenous victims of rainforest oil pollution that resulted in a multibillion dollar lawsuit against Chevron. (An $8.6 billion judgment against the company was subsequently blocked by an appeals court.)
Among the more fortuitous stories told in Refinery Town is that of the 2006 hiring of Fargo, North Dakota’s police chief Chris Magnus, whom Early calls Richmond’s “community policeman.” During his decade in the city before moving on to Tucson, Magnus overcame internal opposition by reconnecting officers to the community, reducing both officer-involved shootings and injury to officers, and dramatically lowering the crime rate by engaging citizens. Under his watch, the police department worked with Operation Ceasefire to reach out to young men before they got involved in gang violence.
One of the few openly gay police chiefs in America, Magnus may also be the only one photographed holding a sign that someone handed him reading “#BlackLivesMatter.” When criticized for participating in a political demonstration in uniform, he responded, “When did it become a political act to acknowledge that ‘black lives matter’ and show respect for the very real concerns of our minority communities?”
Another key chapter in the book recounts the 2014 election (which I reported on for The Progressive), in which Chevron spent more than $3 million, or about $150 on me and every other voter in the city, to try and restore what had once been known as the “Chevron Five,” a pro-refinery majority on the city council. In the end, all of their 2014 candidates lost and progressives gained new seats on the council.
After this loss, Chevron apologized and promised to stop polluting both Richmond’s air and its politics. Only kidding. It just adopted a different, more aggressive approach at city council meetings: constant disruptions, including race-baiting and homophobia, carried out by the two council members, Nat Bates and Corky Booze, deepest in Chevron’s pocket. Both African Americans, they called the multi-ethnic Richmond Progressive Alliance the “Richmond Plantation Society,” and attacked councilwoman Jovanka Beckles for being a lesbian, also claiming she wasn’t really “African American” because she was born in Panama. Since then, both Bates and Booze have been kicked off the council by Richmond voters.
“What the Richmond experience demonstrates are the continuing advantages of making change locally as part of a longer-term and eventually more sweeping progressive strategy,” Early writes in the book’s epilogue.
“What activists have going for them at the city level—an advantage almost nonexistent in the big-money-dominated realms of state or national politics—is greater personal connections to voters. Forging what Gayle McLaughlin calls authentic relationships isn’t a spontaneous process, however. It takes time, organization, and systematic outreach around issues that affect people’s daily lives.”
To recap a few high points from the book: Local activists helped elect a Green Party mayor in 2006, defeat a casino plan that threatened parkland in 2010, and beat back a city council slate massively funded by Chevron in 2014. Two candidates affiliated with the Richmond Progressive Alliance—both recent Bernie Sanders volunteers, Melvin Willis and Ben Choi—were the top vote getters in 2016, creating a supermajority of the left in the same election that saw Donald Trump win the electoral vote with support from Russia and the FBI.
It’s like I told Ralph Nader, while bragging about my town: When it’s Republicans versus jellyfish, you lose; when it’s progressives versus corporations, you can win elections and make things better.
Refinery Town provides an inside look at how one American city has made radical and progressive change seem not only possible but sensible.