Yesterday, we released labor activist Steve Early’s Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money, and the Remaking of an American City. Refinery Town tells the story of Richmond, California, once a prototypical company town, dominated by the Chevron Corporation, with one of the highest homicide rates per capita in the country. Its jobless rate was twice the national average. Beset by deindustrialization, poverty, pollution, poorly funded public services, drug trafficking, corruption in City Hall and more, Richmond’s largely nonwhite, working-class citizens came together to rise against the status quo and corporate power.
Over the course of fifteen years, a diverse group of labor and community activists, environmental justice campaigners, police reformers, and gay rights advocates took back their city and remade it. The intimate stories of Refinery Town are a great reference point and resource for community activists who are looking for inspiration in our current time of political uncertainty and seeking out examples of successful grassroots organizing. Below you’ll meet some of Richmond’s citizens who raised the local minimum wage, defeated a casino development project, challenged home foreclosures and evictions, created a municipal ID card to aid undocumented residents, and sought fair taxation of Big Oil.
Chris Magnus: Hired away from Fargo, North Dakota, Magnus spent a decade transforming the Richmond Police Department by reconnecting officers to the community they serve. One of the few gay police chiefs in America and the only one to ever participate in a Black Lives Matter protest, Magnus helped reduce officer-involved shootings and Richmond’s horrendous civilian homicide rate. Under Magnus, the RPD worked with churches, youth groups, neighborhood councils, and activist organizations to woo gang members away from street violence and crime. On his watch, civilian oversight of the police was strengthened.
Gayle McLaughlin: Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) leader, former two-term mayor, and current city councilmember. Under her leadership, Richmond became the largest city in the country with a Green mayor—and the scene of major skirmishing with Big Oil, Big Banks, and Big Soda. When McLaughlin took over, Richmond was best known for its gangs, gun violence, drug dealing, and city hall corruption. By the time she left office, her century old company town was widely hailed for being a “progressive city” and pioneer in “community policing.”
Betty Reid Soskin: At ninety-five, she’s America’s oldest active duty national park ranger and the star attraction at Richmond’s Rosie The Riveter/Homefront History Museum. There, Soskin tells a very personal story of black worker migration from the Jim Crow south to Richmond, for jobs in its Kaiser shipyard and other war-time industries. A lifelong foe of discrimination in all forms, Soskin condemned the attacks on city council member Jovanka Beckles and aided her re-election campaign.
Jovanka Beckles: A black Latina lesbian, Beckles is an outspoken RPA-backed member of the city council. There she had to overcome a campaign of personal harassment and intimidation organized by homophobic forces in Richmond, seeking to discredit her and the RPA. In 2014, Chevron spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on negative advertising against her, but failed to defeat the leading African-American community voice for refinery safety and reduced air pollution.
Melvin Willis: Twenty-six-year old African-American organizer for the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) and leader of the fight for rent regulation to keep housing affordable for low-income tenants in gentrifying neighborhoods. In November, 2016, Richmond voters favored rent control and elected Willis to the council, along with RPA member Ben Choi.
Senator Bernie Sanders: Democratic socialist from Vermont invited to Richmond to help McLaughlin, Beckles, and their allies beat Chevron’s 2014 “air war” against them. At a rally of 500 residents, Sanders declared their city to be ground zero in the post-Citizens United fight against unrestricted political spending by Big Business. “Run, Bernie, Run!” his Richmond crowd responded—and, six months later, he did, attracting 13 million Democratic primary voters in his race against Hillary Clinton. In 2016, Sanders’ post-campaign organization, Our Revolution, backed RPA city council candidates again, helping two more get elected.
Andres Soto: Richmond-born co-founder of Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) and now an organizer with Communities for a Better Environment. As an activist in Richmond’s fast growing Latino neighborhoods, Soto challenged police brutality and mistreatment of immigrants. When Soto ran for city council, police and fire-fighter unions, along with Chevron, successfully smeared him as a “dangerous radical.”
Mike Smith: A Richmond oil worker and United Steel Workers (USW) member who incurred the wrath of Chevron because he joined “blue-green” alliances demanding cleaner air and stronger refinery safety rules. In 2015, Smith’s national union struck Big Oil over the shoddy maintenance practices that led to a huge fire at Chevron’s Richmond refinery, sending 15,000 area residents in search of medical care.
About Steve Early
Steve Early has been an organizer, lawyer, union representative, and labor activist for the past forty-five years. He is the author of three other books, including Save Our Unions: Dispatches from a Movement in Distress. He lives in Richmond, California, with his wife. Visit his website.