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Richmond, California, Teaches US a Lesson About Progressive Organizing

The revival of local politics is not unrelated to the dashed hopes and lowered expectations of the Obama era.

Activists march in the Our Power campaign in Richmond, California, on August 9, 2014. (Photo: Peg Hunter)

How did the working class “company town” of Richmond, California reclaim their community from the grip of Big Oil? Labor reporter Steve Early’s new book tells the story of the residents who, through years of community organizing and local politics, drastically improved Richmond, from raising the minimum wage to challenging evictions and foreclosures. Click here to order your copy of Refinery Town from Truthout.

Steve Early sees hope in coalition building and linking arms to build progressive communities. He knows because, as this excerpt from his introduction to Refinery Town evidences, he’s experienced its effectiveness first hand.

On the evening of November 4, 2014, there wasn’t much for liberals and progressives to celebrate anywhere in the United States. Federal election turnout reached its lowest level in seventy years. When the results of midterm congressional races were tallied, Democrats lost the US Senate. Republicans added to their already substantial majority in the House of Representatives. At the state level, Democratic and Republican governors hostile to workers’ rights and strong unions were reelected for another four years. Whether the issue was income inequality, Wall Street greed, workers’ rights, mistreatment of immigrants, misbehavior by police officers, campaign finance reform, or the future of the planet, the outlook was bleak — at the federal level and in many states.

I had made a well-timed move to Richmond, California, three years before this election debacle. When the polls closed there in 2014, labor and community activists, environmental justice campaigners, police reformers, gay rights advocates, anti-foreclosure fighters, and defenders of the foreign-born were all partying like they lived in another country. In reality they were just fortunate to reside in a city where more than a decade of local organizing made it possible to defeat candidates funded by one of the richest corporations in the world.

Refinery Town is a work of narrative journalism about the emergence and success of Richmond’s municipal reform movement. It examines one city’s efforts to confront local manifestations of serious national and global problems. Within these pages is the story of how a largely nonwhite, working-class community of 110,000 spawned a vibrant culture of resistance to corporate power and its many toxic externalities, after more than a century of political dominance by Big Oil and other business interests. As Richmond has transformed itself into a much-applauded progressive city, it has even upstaged such longtime venues for Left Coast activism as Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco.

Unlike its better-known Bay Area neighbors, Richmond was once a prototypical company town. The city was run by public officials installed by global energy giant Chevron, local developers, or their building trades and public safety union allies. Richmond’s landscape was marked and its air fouled by one of the largest refineries in California. On its way to political metamorphosis, the city experienced the full range of late-twentieth-century urban woes. Deindustrialization, joblessness and poverty, substandard schools and housing, drug trafficking, street crime, and gang violence all contributed to one of the highest homicide rates per capita in the country. Cronyism and corruption in city hall led to financial mismanagement and near bankruptcy; big cuts in jobs and services resulted. Relations between police and the community deteriorated due to officer-involved shootings, beatings, and checkpoints set up to detain immigrant drivers without documentation, in a city now 40 percent Latino.

Fortunately Richmond’s changing demographics produced a new generation of progressive elected officials who were committed to democratizing and revitalizing the city. Over the course of a decade they changed municipal politics and steadily improved city hall administration. Today Richmond activists populate an array of city commissions, departments, and programs dealing with public safety, city planning, job creation, shoreline preservation, urban agriculture, parks and recreation, and the arts. Richmond has undertaken a series of creative municipal initiatives, many of which are now being embraced elsewhere.

In November 2014, the city council got a bigger left-liberal majority, despite $3.5 million in corporate spending against candidates seeking further progress in Richmond. As recounted in this book, a group known as the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) helped engineer that victory and played a catalytic role throughout Mayor Gayle McLaughlin’s eight years in city hall. The RPA is 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. Unusual in the fractious and marginalized US left, the group unites liberal Democrats, socialists, independents, and third-party voters affiliated with the California Greens or Peace and Freedom Party.

RPA candidates have distinguished themselves locally by their refusal to accept business donations, while welcoming the support of progressive unions. The Alliance relies on membership dues, door-to-door canvassing to expand its grassroots base, and, in election years, small individual donors and modest public matching funds for its city council and mayoral candidates. RPA work with labor and community allies has created strong synergy between activist city hall leadership and grassroots organizing. In a fashion worthy of emulation elsewhere, the group has become an effective local counterweight to the previously untrammeled exercise of corporate power.

Under McLaughlin’s leadership, Richmond was the largest city in the country with a Green mayor, and the scene of high-profile battles with Big Oil, Big Banks, and Big Soda. The city council tackled environmental hazards arising from oil refining and crude-oil rail shipment through the city. Richmond extracted higher taxes from Chevron and sued the giant oil company over damage caused by a major refinery fi re in 2012. A community mobilization led by environmental justice groups and the RPA helped the city win $90 million in financial concessions from Chevron in return for approving a refinery modernization project that both critics and proponents hoped would improve safety and reduce pollution.

Richmond residents joined coalitions fighting global warming, and cross-border alliances formed in response to Big Oil’s worldwide misbehavior. As mayor, McLaughlin traveled to Ecuador, as guest of President Rafael Correa, to forge relationships of solidarity with peasant farmers suing Chevron for environmental damage. Tom Butt, her more moderate successor, met with mayors from around the world during the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference in Paris. While national leaders negotiated carbon emissions curbs, municipal officials compared notes on renewable energy projects, stricter pollution standards, and sustainable public transit. When Butt returned from Paris, he sought ways to further reduce Richmond’s reliance on Pacific Gas and Electric by promoting cleaner energy alternatives.

Truthout Progressive Pick

Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money, and the Remaking of an American City

How did the working class “company town” of Richmond, California reclaim their community from the grip of Big Oil?

Click here now to get the book!

Richmond also made national headlines by threatening to use the power of eminent domain to block home foreclosures. This creative but soon-thwarted effort to secure debt relief for underwater mortgage holders was an emergency response to Richmond’s high foreclosure rate. These lender decisions led to abandoned homes and neighborhood blight. Now, just several years later, as the local housing market rebounds and gentrification creeps in, low-income tenants face higher rents and possible displacement. So RPA members and the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) are fighting to make Richmond the first California municipality in thirty years to regulate rents and evictions.

Richmond voters and city council members have also raised the minimum wage and defeated a major development scheme based on casino gambling. They have opposed raids by federal immigration officials and created a municipal ID card to aid undocumented residents. They enacted a “ban the box” ordinance to ease the reentry of former prisoners into the community by curbing discrimination against job applicants with a criminal record. At a time when many cities have been wracked by violent crime and out-of-control police officers, progressive leaders in Richmond hired a visionary gay police chief, who increased public safety through real community policing.

All of this activity is part of a larger municipal trend, which emerged during a period of political deadlock at the state and federal level. The revival of local politics is not unrelated to the dashed hopes and lowered expectations of the Obama era.

Copyright (2017) by Steve Early. Not to be reprinted without the permission of the publisher, Beacon Press.

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