Small city, Big Oil, upset victories

The pundit-defying results in Virginia’s recent elections happened because of “local, grassroots organizing,” according to Democratic leaders. An intensively researched saga, Steve Early’s Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money, and the Remaking of an American City is an impressive look at how activists in Richmond, California, figured out how to use the same kind of local clout—and also succeeded.

Early, a longtime journalist and labor organizer, moved from the Boston area to Point Richmond in 2012. In the book’s first chapter, he jokes that his realtor referred to his new home with its sweeping views of the Bay as the “Richmond Riviera.” But six months after the move, his wife was working outside when a panicked neighbor yelled, “Don’t you know there’s a ‘shelter in place’?” The Aug. 6, 2012 Chevron refinery fire was spewing toxic smoke and fumes across the skyline the couple had fallen in love with.

Early was already fascinated with Richmond’s “100-year history of refinery labor struggles and civil rights activity in the black community,” as he says, so the concept for “Refinery Town” easily emerged. But there were challenges. “Without bogging readers down in too much backstory, I had to distill two complex and overlapping threads that shed light on more recent Richmond controversies,” he says.

The result is a very dense, intense read. It draws readers back in time to tell the story of (then) Standard Oil’s establishment in Richmond, drawn by its natural deep-water harbor and the arrival of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe railroad, then moves forward through decades of environmental injustice, attempts at labor organizing, and overt racial discrimination to arrive at “The Greening of City Hall.”

As recently as 2003, Early reports, Richmond’s city government was rife with corruption and cronyism, and dominated by what is now Chevron and other industrial special interests. The author expertly delineates the multiple personalities, conflicts and events that led to the emergence of what became the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA), which, through the leadership of people like Juan Reardon, Andres Soto, and Gayle McLaughlin, began the uphill slog to transform Richmond and its politics.

Multifaceted battles over the proposed casino at Point Molate, the hiring of openly gay police chief Chris Magnus, and what Early calls “Tuesday Night Cage Fights” (City Council meetings) are all explored in narrative journalism style, allowing the reader access to passionate viewpoints on both sides.

Yet the most compelling section of “Refinery Town” is naturally its re-telling of Chevron’s now-infamous, unsuccessful attempt to buy Richmond’s 2014 elections in the chapter “An Election Not for Sale.” Before few had ever heard the term “fake news,” Chevron spent $3.1 million in negative advertising, direct mail, and “polling” calls, attempting to smear RPA candidates as anarchists and radicals. What happens when a pre-presidential-campaign Bernie Sanders comes to town really deserves a movie of its own. Early himself becomes a cast member, as he describes his encounters with larger-than-life characters such as former city council members Nat Bates and Corky Booze. (“Refinery Town” was submitted for publication prior to the 2016 city council elections, in which the RPA gained a majority for the first time.)

Early moves Richmond’s story further on, noting that the RPA itself has experienced internal controversies, resulting in reorganization, and in an ongoing split between it and former ally, current Mayor Tom Butt. He then turns to that inescapable Bay Area reality: “Gentrification and Its Discontents.” To those who still haven’t caught up with Oakland’s transformation, it may seem implausible that a place long known as crime-ridden and literally toxic could become “the Bay Area’s next hipster haven.” And the collapse of UCB’s plan to build an extension of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, closely documented by Early, has tamped down those rumors—for now.

Ultimately, Early is most interested in what Richmond’s struggles can teach other American “industry towns,” even those that don’t have large progressive elements.“I think organizers in any blue-collar, working-class community, whether predominantly white or majority minority, can learn a lot from the Richmond experience about making progressive politics a viable alternative to corporate domination,” he says.

And as for the refinery in “Refinery Town”?

“Chevron and Richmond could live happier ever after if the city’s damage suit against the company over the 2012 refinery fire was resolved more quickly,” Early says. “High-stakes litigation against the company just keeps piling up, with neighbors like San Francisco and Oakland, and several nearby counties filing lawsuits over Big Oil’s contribution to global warming, a case far more complex than determining liability for a single refinery fire.”

Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money, and the Remaking of an American City. Steve Early, author, forward by Sen. Bernie Sanders. Beacon Press, 2017, 194 pages, $27.95.

Sunday’s Howard Zinn Book Fair envisions “The World We Want”

LIT The world is flaming on Twitter, your friends are frothing on Facebook, and, well, let’s just say online political discourse in this precarious global moment is a bit… fraught. It’s time to take a breath and gather together — in person, in real life — with several hundred fellow dreamers-into-activists and reach, not for the keyboard, but for a better, more humane society.

“This year has brought many hundreds of thousands of people to the streets to defend immigrants, fight for healthcare for all, defeat a Muslim ban, and provide a powerful voice against the racism, mysoginy and homophobia that brought Trump to office,” the organizers say. “This is the spirit that the Fourth Annual Howard Zinn Book Fair (Sun/19, 10am-6pm. $5 suggested donation. City College, Mission Campus, SF) celebrates as we envision what ‘The World We Want,’ might look like.”

HBZF is inspired by the great peoples’ historian, who described himself as “something of an anarchist, something of a socialist. Maybe a democratic socialist,” and who passed away in 2010. The Book Fair has grown to more than 60 exhibitors including everyone from Rainbow Cooperative and Social Justice Journal to Jacobin Magazine and the Revolutionary Poets’ Brigade.

There’s also an enormous lineup of speakers and presenters, workshops and other activities whose topics include “Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment” (presented by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz), “Development Drowned and Reborn: The Blues and Bourbon Restoration in Post-Katrina New Orleans,” “Narrating the Anthropocene: Storytelling to Rouse Communities Grappling With Planetary Crises,” “Futures of Black Radicalism” and tons more. 

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, author of the Zinn-inspired ‘An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States’ will speak at the Howard Zinn Book Fair. Photo by Barrie Karp.

I spoke with organizers Joan Bender and James Tracy about the fair’s origins, its importance as a venue of intellectual and social exchange, and this year’s expansive theme “The World We Want.”

48 HILLS The Howard Zinn Book Fair is on its fourth year, and has an astonishing range of speakers and exhibitors. How did it all originally come together? 

JAMES TRACY In 2014, the original organizing committee wanted a place where people from various points on the left could get away from online debates and just share ideas with each other in a little more depth. We started from the assumption that books, theory, and history were all still important and could make our actions more impactful. We also recognized that no one political tradition had all of the answers. Our first Book Fair was held at Mission High attracted about 1300 people, and we had expected about 500!

JOAN BENDER It was an opportunity to reach out to activists, writers, poets, professors, students, community groups, and to bring them together in once place, united by their vision of grassroots struggle from below and fighting for a better world. There wasn’t really another event like this in San Francisco and we are proud that we are making it an annual event.

JAMES TRACY The Fair is organized literally on the floor or the Green Arcade Bookstore. Our current organizing committee includes people from AK Press, Haymarket Books, and the Labor and Community Studies Department of CCSF. We kinda spun out of several different projects — the Voices of the People’s History events, and the Avanti Popolo reading series at City Lights. A lot of the initial conversation and ideas came out of drinking coffee with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz.

48 Did you personally know Howard? 

JB Most of us organizing the Howard Zinn Book Fair did not know Howard Zinn himself, but knew him through his writings, especially “A People’s History of the United States,” which many people read in high school or college. Also, some of us have participated in or watched Voices of a People’s History which gives public expression to the freedom fighters from our past and present, and seeks to educate and inspire a new generation working for liberation and justice. 

JT I met him once at the National Association of Street Newspaper Conference in Boston. The door to the auditorium he was going to speak at was locked, and he just held court hanging out with a bunch of homeless and formerly homeless activists, not only answering questions but asking a bunch of questions about their activism.

I’ll always remember when one woman shared that she had organized a successful campaign that resulted in free bus passes from families moving from welfare to work. One gentleman in the crowd yelled out that this campaign was just ‘reformist’ and that she needed to fight for socialism. Howard shut that down quickly and said “Son, big revolutions come out of small ones.” With a really stern look. When we finally got into the room he helped set up the chairs and tables. When he finally took the stage, he opened with “I feel really at home here,” and started talking about the history of organizing for housing. 

Poster by Cece Carpio

48H What is particularly new or strikes you as especially interesting this year at the fair?

JB This year’s lineup has sessions covering a wide variety of timely and important topics including the rise of fascism, the fight for healthcare, the economy, the role of the Democratic Party, the relationship between electoral politics, and building the Left. Something that is especially exciting this year are the sessions devoted to celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the Russian Revolution. It’s not every year that we get to commemorate such an incredible exercise in mass democracy! Another notable speaker is Sekou Odinga, a former Black Panther and recently released political prisoner.

JT We’re also really happy that the Center For Political Education is providing the Black Reconstruction in Our Times track — updating the ideas of WEB Dubois for today.

48H This year’s theme is “The World We Want” — why do you feel this is particularly poignant, and how is it reflected in the Fair?  

JT We keep seeing dynamic and powerful moments such as the mobilizations to defeat the Muslim ban, the Women’s March, and the confront the fascist movement. We’re trying to create a space where people can ask what it might look like if the same forces weren’t just playing great defense. That’s going to take gathering those who want to work within and outside of the system to create strategy together. History is a powerful tool. If we use it correctly, we don’t have to start over again every few years. That’s the main lesson of the History From Below tradition. 

JB As Trump passes the one-year mark of his presidency, millions of people are looking for a way to fight back against his all-out assault on the rights of women, people of color, the LGBTQ community, immigrants, and the working class as a whole. Now is the time for collaboration and coalition building among those who are committed to turning the tide on Trump’s reactionary political agenda, and the HZBF is the place for us to come together and figure out how to build a better world: the world we want. At the HZBF this year, we’ve  dedicated sessions to this theme like “The Economy We Want,” featuring local activist Alessandro Tinonga and George Lakey, author of Viking Economics. The HZBF is a really important event for the Bay Area left — this year more than ever. And our theme reflects this.

A better world is possible, and talking to each other about what that world might look like is the first step to achieving it.

Sun/19, 10am-6pm, $5 suggested donation (NOTAFLOF)
City College, Mission Campus, SF.
More info here. 

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