'Refinery Town' tells the story of a city fighting for its own soul

A look at the impact of the petroleum industry on one American city yields a portrait of a community struggling to put its future in the hands of its residents.

Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money, and the Remaking of an American City By Steve Early Beacon Press 28 pp.

Corporations are people. This we know; the US Constitution tells us so. And cities are alive. This we know, with or without the US Constitution’s oracularity, because we can witness the shape-shifting of neighborhoods – of whole metropolitan areas – from buzzworthy to vilified to back again to back again, sometimes gradually, sometimes mercurially, sometimes inscrutably. Labor activist Steve Early’s Refinery Town chronicles just such a morphing in the life of Richmond, California. Early calls the work narrative journalism, but for us it is simply a story, both well told and true.

Richmond is one of those industrial burghs suitably distanced from its mother city so as not to be aromatically offensive, like Chicago’s Gary or Venice’s Mestre. Richmond’s mother is San Francisco. In the pre-World War II era, Richmond was a prototypical company town; in this case, under the thumb of the energy giant Standard Oil of California, where it operated one of the largest refineries in California. Richmond was working class – in addition to oil, there were rail yards, wineries, Pullman car works, chemical and automotive plants – and white: African Americans numbered less than 300 when Richmond reached its prewar population peak of 24,000, living “a tenuous existence on the outer edges of the city’s industrial vision, trapped at the bottom of the economic and social hierarchy.” Among Richmond’s ailments was a strong streak of bigotry: “Klan parades and minstrel shows reinforced the racial status quo” in the city, as in many white working-class towns.

World War II changed that. Standard Oil held fast to its union-busting, racist, wayward paternalism, but there was a new face in town: Henry Kaiser, of metal-making and dam-building fame. Kaiser had at his disposal massive federal funding to build ships to replace all those sitting at the bottom of Pearl Harbor. Kaiser was a one-man-making boomtown. With wartime labor shortages, he hired thousands of workers from all over the country to build cargo ships at four new shipyards, targeting “young African Americans eager to escape post-Depression hardship and Jim Crow constraints,” for jobs long restricted to white males. Suddenly, nearly 15 percent of Richmond’s population was African American, if segregated and consigned to temporary housing (plenty of which is still inhabited).

Then peace came, and fresh problems. The jobs spawned by the war disappeared. Other industries slumped or moved to more profitable climes. Standard Oil, soon to become Chevron, remained, unfazed by the demographic tides. But who got the benefit? “The Richmond refinery’s wartime workforce of three thousand initially included just nine African Americans. By 1944, after federal government prodding, its nonwhite head count rose to ... 114.” (Quick math: that’s 0.038 percent – even though the city’s population was nearly 15 percent African American, a figure that kept climbing. Deindustrialization led to even further joblessness, poverty, and substandard schools and housing, while drug trafficking, street crime, and gang violence led to an unenviable per capita homicide rate.

Shaped by the optimism of the civil rights movement and a surge in Democratic voter registration, Early relates, African Americans soon started making their presence felt. There was the Black Panther Party, of which Richmond was one of the first chapters, and there was a growing presence of African Americans in the political establishment. By 1980, African Americans were the majority of the population, and by century’s turn, Richmond had a black mayor and black city manager. Every department head was black, as was a majority of the City Council. The result, however, was not what a previous generation of activists had imagined. A little investigative journalism by Early found that the “corporate-backed African American political machine, aligned with conservative, self-serving, and predominantly white police and firefighters unions, dominated city government. Cronyism, corruption, and bureaucratic incompetence became deeply entrenched.” Where insurgent African-American politicians in other cities – such as Gary, Chicago, Cleveland – experimented with new forms of direct participation, public enterprise, property regulation, and service structure, Richmond took the low road.

Only for a short stint, however, which shows how three decades can disappear when you look back. The crux of Early’s tale, when his storytelling begins to glow with embers of promise, is with the creation of the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA). The RPA is one of those rare birds that, having found common footing in a fight against Chevron’s abysmal labor and environmental records, not only successfully grappled with Big Oil but stayed in alliance to take charge of the Richmond city government. They threatened to use eminent domain to thwart home foreclosures, regulated rents and evictions, raised the minimum wage, defeated a casino development scheme, created a municipal ID card, curbed discrimination against former prisoners in job applications, and hired a visionary gay police chief to institute community policing.

All of these issues were mooted at the RPA’s first People’s Convention. This raised RPA’s profile enough that one of their number, Gayle McLaughlin, won a seat on the City Council, despite Chevron’s lavish spending on her opposition. Early then carefully, neatly follows the gradual ascendancy of the RPA, including McLaughlin’s stunning mayoral victory in 2006. Although the mayor didn’t have the immediate clout of the city manager, the position did afford McLaughlin a bully pulpit to “develop and inform City residents of policies and programs which he or she believes are necessary for the welfare of the City.” McLaughlin played it to the hilt.

RPA and its kitchen cabinet of liberal Democrats, socialists, independents, California Greens, and Peace and Freedom Party members inherited a bankrupt city government, a citywide toxic hot spot (including a radioactive landfill), a laughable level of corruption in city agencies, a police force rampant with “cowboys.” On top of that were periodic raids by Immigration and Customs to detain and deport undocumented workers – terrifying the expanding Latino population, which was 40 percent of the Richmond citizenry according to the 2010 Census.

And yet, the alliance turned the city around – not into Oz but into one where “civil rights, the environment, education, open government and quality of life issues” were paramount and, crucially, at a time when the state and federal governments were gridlocked, showed that town and city governments could enact legislation at the grassroots level, that shoe leather could defeat all the propaganda that Big Oil spent millions on – $3.1 million, to be moderately exact – to manipulate a municipal election. Bernie Sanders came to Richmond during the 2014 elections. “Sanders proclaimed our city” – Early lives in Richmond, let that be noted; Early was there – “to be ground zero in the struggle against Citizens United.

McLaughlin was legally barred from running for a third term in 2014, and fissures started to open, as they will in alliances. There were complaints of a first-among-equals steering committee; key RPA activists are mostly registered Greens, while “the membership is overwhelmingly registered Democrats”; and there are the vexing, sometimes sundering “gray areas. One person’s tactical issue is another person’s principle.” The united front lost its molecular bonds.

As the quality of life began to improve, came the signs of gentrification. The government held together to pursue affordable housing, then split over the construction of market rate buildings. The University of California Berkeley made great plans for a Berkeley Global Campus to transform all of Richmond before finding itself cash-strapped: the pipe dream was summarily canceled. Rent-control negotiations, which were passed by the city council, were stalled by a phony petition campaign. Chevron, too, had its lawyers appeal all the fines levied against the company for one egregious energy-related fiasco after another.

The beauty of the Richmond experiment, that warm glow emitted as Early feeds his campfire storytelling, is that it testifies to the “continuing advantages of making changes locally as part of a longer-term and eventually more sweeping progressive strategy. What activists have going for them ... nonexistent in the big-money-dominated realm of state and national politics – is greater personal connection to voters.” Personal engagement, in the best of worlds, creates solidarity, and political insurgencies require civic engagement. “When we shelter in place together,” Early writes, his tongue in cheek – “shelter in place” is Chevron’s catastrophe alert; doors must be closed and windows taped shut – “we can change our communities for the better.” The option is apathy, alienation, and powerlessness, “until there are too many fires to put out and not enough time left to reverse the damage they’ve done.”

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