BOOKS/Seth Sandronsky

Citizen Governance Rising

Is the sleeping giant waking? In Richmond, Calif., the 99% fought for and gained political power, Steve Early’s special focus in Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money, and the Remaking of an American City (Beacon Press, January 2017).

His narrative is compelling on many levels. Working-class folks wrest power from Chevron Corp., the 800-pound gorilla in Richmond, once dubbed the “armpit of the Bay Area.”

Early provides crucial context to Chevron’s rule over local politics in Richmond, born as an industrial city a century ago. The global energy titan marinated elected officials with money, and washed the minds of the citizenry with corporate ideology.

That political economy changed with the arrival of the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA), whose arc Early conveys as a participant and reporter. A recent arrival from Massachusetts, he delivers a primer on the 99% in the majority-minority (40% Latino) municipality of 110,000 politically forming into a class force.

His granular detail of the personal and political dynamics, what happens at and away from electoral politics, e.g., grassroots advocacy, captures the heartbeat of the municipal polity. Chapter titles such as “Tuesday Night Cage Fights” vividly depict city council meetings, where the proverbial rubber contacts the road.

Jovanka Beckles, an Afro-Latina lesbian, resists homophobia and RPA foes such as Chevron, illustrative of this useful history of developing a culture of resistance to corporate power. “This timely book offers ideas and inspiration for making change where it counts most—among friends, neighbors, and community members,” writes Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in a Foreword.

Many are the groups intersecting in Richmond’s shift from company town to a national model of municipal reform. I have a minor quibble that Early’s book lacks a list of acronyms to help readers keep track of these groups.

In any case, Early’s Refinery Town features forensic detail about Richmond’s renaissance. Labor unions for and against Chevron’s rule are but two of the contending forces that drive his narrative.

The 2006 election of Green Party mayor Gayle McLaughlin is a watershed moment in Richmond’s politics of left-liberal governance. After serving two terms, she is a city council member now, a sign of the fledgling party’s strength and its deep community roots that Early documents.

Shortly after arriving in Richmond, he basks in the glow of the views of gorgeous scenery from his home. Soon he experiences the downside.

Early and other Richmond residents feel the brunt of Chevron’s malicious presence in 2012. A refinery explosion belches noxious smoke and threatens the health and safety of 15,000 people.

Environmental racism has an ugly face. This was not the first such company disaster in the community, which has a history of class and race politics.

In the 1960s, for instance, the Black Panther Party’s presence was strong in Richmond. The Chevron company town had attracted African Americans seeking refinery jobs upon departing the South decades before that tumultuous time.

The 2012 accident buoys the RPA to fight against such future eco-disasters by mobilizing movement politics to force Chevron to make safety concessions, and more. Against this backdrop, the federal government was and is facilitating a widening US income and wealth gap, bailing out big banks and protecting the interests of monopoly global corporations generally.

Richmond’s RPA tackles precarious jobs, home foreclosures, sky high rents, inadequate wages and police violence. It is a compelling story of what happens and why when working people mobilize and organize progressively as two terms of Obama’s presidency demobilized the antiwar movement and entrenched Wall Street interests on Capitol Hill.

The national implications of Richmond’s transformation loom large in 2017 as a Trump White House prepares to reverse progress. His quips and slurs against migrants and minorities rhetorically set the table for such a counterrevolution, splitting the working class along what black scholar W.E.B. DuBois called the color line.

The few benefit. So it goes in our new Gilded Age, unless grassroots resistance such as that unfolding in Richmond over the past decade expands.

In Early’s book, the long story short is that left-labor-alliances can and do help to improve the quality of life for working families. I recommend you to have a look at that process in Refinery Town.

Seth Sandronsky is a journalist and member of the Pacific Media Workers Guild. Email

From The Progressive Populist, February 1, 2017

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