RICHMOND, CA.–Last Friday and Saturday were busy days for progressive mayor Gayle McLaughlin, She’s the earnest, hard-working, and often embattled political leader of this blue-collar city of 100,000, where the biggest industrial employer is Chevron. McLaughlin had lawyers to confer with, reporters to brief, and then hundreds of out-of-town visitors to greet. Some had never been to Richmond before and one travelled all the way from Vermont to speak truth to power and then get arrested here.
In a one-two punch against Richmond’s century-old refinery, McLaughlin first called a press conference on Friday to announce that Richmond was suing Chevron. Twenty-four hours later, she marched to the oil company’s main gate with 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben and several thousand other global warming opponents.
There, more than 200 protesters engaged in peaceful civil disobedience, with the best-selling author from Middlebury College leading the way. The biggest anti-Chevron demonstration in Richmond’s history was organized by 350.org, as part of its nationwide “Summer Heat” campaign. To its credit, the sponsoring organization worked closely with the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) and other groups to insure that local concerns were properly linked to national and international ones.
The legal action against Chevron on Friday, followed by direct action over the weekend, marked the first anniversary of the fire and explosion that created a towering plume of toxic smoke on August 6, 2012. Refinery workers who responded to this emergency narrowly escaped death in the now much-investigated accident. More than 15,000 people in the Richmond area sought emergency room care after being showered with fall-out from the blast.
The U.S. Chemical Safety Board uncovered evidence that, more than a decade ago, Chevron’s own engineers recommended repair work on the corroded pipe at fault. Cal/OSHA cited Chevron for eleven “willful” safety violations and imposed the largest fine in the agency’s history, a one million dollar penalty that the company is contesting. Chevron says it has paid $10 million to reimburse local hospitals and satisfy some of the 24,000 claims filed by individuals affected by the fire. It also just pleaded no contest to six charges filed by state and local prosecutors and agreed to pay $2 million in fines and restitution.
Richmond’s attempt to seek further compensation for its citizenry led to a settlement proposal reported to be $10 million or less. (To keep that amount in perspective, please note that Chevron just reported slightly depressed second quarter profits of $5.37 billion!) In July, the often-fractious city council voted unanimously to pursue environmental justice before a judge and jury in Contra Costa County Superior Court. Richmond’s damage suit alleges that last year’s mishap reflected “years of neglect, lax oversight, and corporate indifference to necessary safety inspection and repairs.”
The colorful 2-mile march on Saturday focused attention on Chevron’s past misbehavior in Richmond and its continuing role in global warming everywhere. Student and community activists, 350.org supporters from throughout northern California, and a lively contingent of trade unionists assembled near the city’s BART station. Their banners and signs highlighted the demands of earlier “Summer Heat” protests in Maine, Michigan, Massachusetts, Utah, and other states: “No more toxic hazards, no Keystone XL pipeline, no refining tar ands or fracked crude—Yes, to a just transition from fossil fuels to union jobs in clean energy!”
The line of march took the protestors from the city center, past Kaiser Permanente and our huge Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad yard, and on into the little village of Pt. Richmond. “The Point, “ as locals call it, has a half-mile pier jutting out into the San Francisco Bay, where 600-ton tankers dock every day to fuel the refinery, one of California’s leading producers of greenhouse gases.
At the end of the march, rally rhetoric flowed freely from the back of a pick-up truck, armed with big portable amps. It was parked in front of a Highway 580 overpass, with Chevron storage tanks clearly visible on the ridge behind the plant. The speakers reflected growing diversity in the local environmental movement. Native-Americans led off, followed by African American, Laotian, and Latino critics of “climate chaos.” Wearing a black, Russian-style fur hat, with a small red star on it, West County Toxics Coalition leader Henry Clark demanded that Chevron “compensate people for damages to them and their community.” Clark recalled a long history of corporate influence and pollution problems in Richmond, drawing cheers when he angrily declared: “This ain’t no damn company town. This is the people’s town!”
He was followed by Communities for a Better Environment organizer Andres Soto. After safely marshaling the crowd from downtown to the refinery, Soto denounced “Chevron’s stooges on the city council”—two conservative black Democrats who have benefited from the several million dollars the company has spent on recent municipal elections. Retired Richmond teacher and RPA activist Eduardo Martinez spoke about the price paid by those down-wind from Chevron. At the school where he once taught, students with breathing problems formed an after-school group known as “the asthma club” because they couldn’t participate in regular sports activity.
When Martinez got fed up and ran for a city council seat last year, Chevron spent nearly $200,000 to smear and defeat him. (“I never knew I was worth that much,” he told the rally.) For the health of the city and its children, “Chevron must stop polluting the democratic process,” he declared.
Doria Robinson, the young, dreadlock wearing director of Urban Tilth, described the impact of last year’s fire on the dozen community gardens her group tends around the city. Urban Tilth had to pull up and throwaway the fruits of six-months worth of vegetable growing because of possible contamination. Chevron, she said, “didn’t pay anything for what they did to our gardens.” Urban Tilth equipped the marchers on Saturday with long-stemmed sunflowers “that help take toxics out of the soil and reflect the power of the sun,” she explained. On command from the stage, the bright yellow flowers were held aloft, like glow sticks at a rock concert, creating an impromptu sunflower field in the middle of Richmond Parkway.
The rock stars at this venue were 61-year old McLaughlin, and the nationally known McKibben. Introduced as a “true warrior for Mother Earth,” the mayor reported on her recent meeting with Kory Judd, Chevron’s new general manager in Richmond. Judd has been out in the neighborhoods, affably reassuring everyone that his employer has no plans to run Canadian tar sand crude through its own reliable pipes. As McLaughlin insisted in her brief speech, Chevron still “needs a new culture of safety” and its East Bay neighbors need “overall emissions reduced so future generations have the right to live and breath on a planet that’s sustainable.”
The tall, lanky McKibben took the stage in sneakers, jeans, a plaid shirt and baseball cap. With his arm around his wife, he looked a bit like he had just won the tractor-pull at the Champlain Valley Fair back home. He noted that Richmond was the only stop on his current protest tour where 350.org had received such red carpet treatment from city hall. He praised the demonstration’s “huge labor contingent”—which included activists from the California Nurses Association, UNITE HERE, AFSCME, ILWU, IWW, CWA, and OUR Walmart (but not many Steelworkers from inside the refinery).
McKibben expressed optimism about the continuing fight to block the Keystone pipeline but warned about the global warming impact of Chevron being allowed to burn through its nine billion barrels worth of petroleum reserves. Looking up at the now bright skies over Point Richmond, our Green Mountain visitor wryly observed that we were experiencing a “solar spill” and bemoaned “all the sun that’s going to waste.” The day will come, he predicted, “when Chevron will become an energy company that works on the sun and the wind or they will go out of business.”
At that point in the proceedings, the time had come for an illegal sit-down, which pressed closer to the plant gate. The civil disobedient faced off against a well-equipped squad of Richmond’s finest. Some officers seemed a little over-dressed for the occasion. But they were ably overseen, per usual, by Richmond Police Chief Chris Magnus, recently hailed in the lefty East Bay Express as “a top cop who gets it.” Among the white armband wearers patiently waiting to be cuffed and charged was a 90-year old woman who came to the protest with her grandson. (After processing, all those arrested were released and the charges dropped.)
Along with their now wilting sunflowers, some protesters on the sidelines were still passing around an unusual full-page ad from the Saturday edition of The Contra Costa Times. It was paid for by the government of Ecuador, a new friend of our city located even further away than Vermont. No strangers to the rigors of suing Chevron (in their case, over the dumping of toxic waste in the Amazon region), the Ecuadorans expressed solidarity “with the people of Richmond on their day of protest about the disaster and its aftermath.” Said the ad: “In the fight against Chevron, the people of Ecuador and the people of Richmond can deploy the most devastating weapon ever invented…the truth.”
(Journalists Steve Early and Suzanne Gordon are new neighbors of Chevron and members of the Richmond Progressive Alliance. They are working on a book about the intersection of race, class, immigration, environmental, and economic development issues in Richmond. They can be reached at [email protected])