Political Fire in the Refinery Town

Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money, and the Remaking of anAmerican City. By Steve Early. Foreword by Bernie Sanders. Boston: Beacon Press, 2016


The word had not yet been coined, but the early 1970s to early 1980s saw a remarkable wave of “municipalism,” that is the invasion of city government by radicals and their allies sharing an opposition to war, ecological destruction, racism and its urban partner, gentrification. Bernie Sanders may be its most important creation, thanks to his victories in Burlington, Vermont. Sneered at as “McGovernite” and white middle class, thanks to victories in other college towns like Madison, Wisconsin and Portland, Oregon, it reached Gary, Chicago and even Detroit, although victories by Black mayors had a way of being hemmed in through elite manipulation of poverty-stricken communities. At that, the Harold Washington administration was heads and shoulders above the Daley Machine and its awful successor, Rahm Emmanuel. Real victories had been scored, public transportation to sprawl-limitation, not to mention successful mobilization against US foreign policies.

Refinery Town mostly records the adaptation and continuation of these moments. Why did Richmond, California, become the urban successor to the 1960s activism?  It’s a good question that veteran labor activist/journalist Steve Early answers, in a personal way, in the opening paragraphs of the book. He has a great view of San Francisco and Mount Tamalpais… and pretty soon after he and his wife settle into the house they bought, a toxic cloud looms overhead. Richmond is not exactly a one-industry town—it has been a home to industry since the late nineteenth century—but the Chevron refinery pretty much dominates the whole  economic scene, and for most of modern times, has successfully exerted political control as well. But there were unions, and from the later 1960s, political activists arriving from nearby Berkeley and Oakland.

It stretches credulity to imagine that the late 1960s Revolutionary Communist Party “project” to create a proletarian revolutionary base in Richmond left any lasting impact. (The Stalin posters were never popular.) But activists of a generic Left sort flowed into a wide current that anyone political-minded in the extended zone of the Bay Area, at least as far as Petaluma to the North.  Santa Cruz and Watsonville to the South, would readily notice. Communists and assorted of other reds of the older varieties have been here forever (i.e., the 1920s), firmly set on outreach to the multicultural working class, often leaving grandchildren as well as memories behind.

Which is not to say that the movements have relied on anything like “Outsiders.” The Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers union, sometimes successful in Richmond, was always pretty radical. The African American community, sharply divided between accommodating Chevron and fighting back, has fostered firebrands. A history of militant community women, recalling the women mobilized in the famed cinema Salt of the Earth, perhaps led most of all to the election and mayorality of Gayle McLaughlin in 2006. McLaughin’s activity takes up many pages here, and rightfully so. This Irish-American activist is tough as nails, and she has had to be, and her political successors must be as well.

Not only because of Chevron’s continuing effort to control everything political. Is there newly opened land near the Bay? Casino-bagmen move in, determined to win the land away from potential hikers and bird-watchers who are supported by the Audubon Society and Sierra Club, and determined to preserve some valuable public green space. The said casino was defeated, and in 2010 elections, McLaughlin held off a former parole officer with close ties to the Democratic establishment. The progressives also broke through the historic barrier against nonwhites in the city council. Then came the American Beverage Association against a proposed tax on high-sugar drinks. And then came the banks, collaborating realtors at the ready, as soon as McLaughlin offered a life-line to property owners under water from the financial crisis.

And so it goes, then to now, struggle after struggle.  Readers of Refinery Town may struggle to follow all the names of political activists here, on the side of the angels and assorted devils and semi-devils. The latter are notable because the University of California may be moving in, big time, and has no intention of changing its contracting-out operation to hold low wages in line—just as Governor Jerry Brown had no intention of requiring that subcontracted workers in the state be given pay equal to the unionized (he vetoed a measure in the legislature). Liberals are doing too we well within the system, even when they claim to be uplifting the lowly. Developers Republican or Democratic, snapping at the astronomical housing prices in the Bay Area, constantly look for new ways to move the Richmond working class somewhere else, and free up some potentially pricey real estate. The struggle goes on, amid Bay Area gentrification. Steve Early is there to tell us about it, and Bernie Sanders is in these pages to remind us of the importance of the struggle far beyond the borders of California.##

Paul Buhle, aged radical historian, is mostly publishing radical nonfiction comics these days.

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