“Refinery Town”: A Model for Local Political Action

by Ryan Haney

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Steve Early, Photo by Robert Gumbert

Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money and the Remaking of an American City will be available from Beacon Press on January 17th, 2017.

Steve Early’s Refinery Town is a compelling read on multiple levels. It paints an interesting portrait of Richmond, CA (pop. 110,000), a Bay Area city that is home to a massive Chevron refinery. It also works as a journalistic deep dive into contemporary municipal politics, with a cast of reformers and establishment actors clashing over approaches to problems in a city wracked by disinvestment, toxic waste, corruption, and crime.

In November 2016, the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) won a majority on the City Council, overcoming massive campaign funding for their opponents by Chevron.

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(Pictured, left to right: Gayle McLaughlin, Eduardo Martinez, and Jovanka Beckles, three members of the Richmond Progressive Alliance who now serve on City Council. Photo by Tom Goulding, Richmond Confidential.)

Written before this success,  Refinery Town excels as a case study for activists looking to build power at the local level through grassroots organizing and independent electoral work. Early, a longtime labor activist and journalist who moved to Richmond five years ago, counts himself among the reformers. His book is an invaluable documentation of their journey and a testimony of what might be possible in other cities. Continue reading

California Refinery Town Hits Chevron With One-Two Punch

Steve Early

Steve Early

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 traveled 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 2,500 other global warming opponents.

There, several hundred 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.

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