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

Foreword by Senator Bernie Sanders (Boston: Beacon Press, 2017), 222 pp., $27.95

“More than a decade of local organizing,” Steve Early writes in his introduction to Refinery Town, “made it possible to defeat candidates funded by one of the richest corporations in the world.” That local organizing continues in Richmond, California, home to a major refinery for Chevron – which in recent years has dumped several million dollars into the city’s elections. The introduction to this bracing book is titled “From Company Town to Progressive City,” and that hopeful trajectory got a further boost just after the book went to press; a broad and deep coalition won two races in November 2016 to gain a 5-2 majority on the Richmond City Council.

What’s been happening in Richmond politics is extraordinary and vital, all the more so because it should be replicated in cities across the United States. A seasoned journalist and labor activist who moved to Richmond five years ago, Early wrote Refinery Town as a sharp-eyed observer as well as participant in grassroots change. The result is a book that is equal to the task of conveying remarkable successes of the committed activism for basic municipal reform that has coalesced around a group called the Richmond Progressive Alliance — “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.”

Refinery Town is what the author calls “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.” One of the most consistently striking aspects of the alliance chronicled by the book has greatly impressed me when hearing RPA’s speakers and reading its literature – a welcoming approach that is issue-focused, nonsectarian, and pragmatically radical. Most of the RPA leadership has been affiliated with the Green Party, most of the alliance’s members are Democrats, and no one seems concerned with party labels. It’s not just that the city’s elections are nonpartisan. RPA is all about principled coalition-building, not ideological hair-splitting.

In the process, as Early recounts, “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.” A partial list of RPA accomplishments includes extracting major payments from Chevron to the city because of toxic venting from the refinery, which included a $114 million tax settlement; enactment of rent-control and eviction protections with voter approval; opposition to federal immigration raids along with municipal ID cards for undocumented residents; stopping a push to build casinos; “ban the box” rules to help former prisoners gain employment; and enlightened law-enforcement practices with a police chief whose leadership, as Early describes it, “increased public safety through real community policing.” Some unsuccessful efforts, like a ballot measure to tax Big Soda, encouraged successful ones elsewhere. And an attempt to halt predatory lending through use of eminent domain, while stymied by legal roadblocks, was a creative move to push the programmatic boundaries of progressive imagination.

Yet the story this book tells is far from rosy. Richmond is beset by the ravages of poverty, racism, environmental degradation (including toxic dumps), widespread drug addiction, a myriad of health woes and medical-care deficits, and some conservative institutions including unions that represent police and fire fighters. The obstacles to change have gone well beyond the lavish spending by Chevron, wealthy landlords, and other business interests. And in the midst of electoral jockeying and personalities, Richmond City Council meetings and online messaging from various factions in the city have often been bitter and divisive, with scrambled fault lines across class, race, gender, and sexual orientation.

The RPA’s course, guided by steadfast progressive ideals, has navigated many challenging dilemmas and contradictions in the real world of struggles for municipal power. One of the many great achievements of Refinery Town is a detailed narrative of events that keeps providing a wide range of contexts. Early’s clear aspirations for the book include this well-grounded one: “I hope that this portrait of ‘Progressive Richmond,’ warts and all, will provide inspiration and ideas for those attempting to remake their own hometowns, new and old.”

Despite Chevron’s electoral defeats, its oily shadow hangs heavy over the city. The harm from the company’s highly profitable Richmond refinery is multifaceted and ongoing. One catastrophic accident at the refinery, on August 6, 2012, sent some 15,000 people to emergency rooms. And, Early reports, “The fire caused a $1.86 billion drop in the city’s assessed property values, reducing tax revenues from Chevron itself, other businesses, and homeowners.” But, as so often for corporate capitalism, the suffering for many has been lucrative for a few; the author notes that “Chevron’s estimated Richmond profits were, at the time, about $2 billion a year.”

In 2014, the corporation dumped $3.1 million into Richmond city elections, to little avail; in fact, the outsize spending backfired with voters. In 2016, Chevron tried a more low-profile strategy while ginning up its various propaganda machineries, but lost decisively, with its nemesis RPA ascending to the current 5-2 majority on the city council. For Chevron, the power of the people in Richmond has proven to be a huge stumbling block.

The Richmond Progressive Alliance has been striving to cultivate younger and more diverse leadership. The most visible elected official from the alliance, Gayle McLaughlin, who is white, served two terms as mayor and is now on the city council. One of the candidates elected to the city council last November, Melvin Willis, is a 26-year-old African-American organizer with extensive experience in community outreach for such causes as rent control. The fact that Willis won a city council seat on the same Election Day that Richmond voters approved a rent-control ballot measure shows how the RPA has put grassroots power behind activist candidates and transformative reforms at the same time.

It’s fitting that the foreword to Refinery Town is by Bernie Sanders, who spoke to a gathering of 500 people inside Richmond’s municipal auditorium at the RPA’s invitation in the autumn of 2014. “If Chevron can roll over you, they and their buddies will roll over every community in America,” he said. “If you stand up and beat them with all their money, you’re going to give hope to people all over America that we can control our destinies.”

The continuing struggles in Richmond have no guarantees, of course, but activists in that city are showing that it’s possible to beat the likes of Chevron, again and again, despite all its money – and that should indeed give us hope that we can control our destinies. As inspiring as Sanders’ achievements were when he was mayor of Burlington three decades ago, the ongoing accomplishments in Richmond are more significant. What’s happening there is about an imperative to realize and implement the strength of collective organizing for the long haul.

Reviewed by Norman Solomon
co-founder, RootsAction.org; executive director, Institute for Public Accuracy
solomonprogressive@gmail.com

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