Sunday Jun 25

EXCERPT FROM Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money, and the Remaking of an American City: The Chemistry of Community The Richmond, California Case Study

When he visited Richmond in October 2014, Bernie Sanders—now well known for thinking big about national problems—stressed the importance of smaller-scale change too. “I love municipal government,” he told his Richmond crowd. “I’ll tell you why. Because at the end of the day, establishing community, bringing people together, creating a sense of place where people feel good about each other, that’s the best that we can do. And that’s what you can do at the local level.”

Under a visionary mayor, city hall can definitely bring people together for all kinds of virtuous civic purposes, particularly in a human-scale polity of one hundred thousand or less. Mayors and their city council allies can promote much-needed public policy experiments, even if some stall or fail. They can throw roadblocks in the path of powerful private interests long used to getting their own way, the public be damned. They can try to address, with the limited resources at their disposal, some of the pressing social and economic needs left unmet by the failures of government at higher levels. Municipal reformers can also foster a stronger sense of community and place, making people feel better (at least some of the time) about where they live and who they live with.

Cronyism, corruption, corporate domination, and economic decline once made Richmond a poster child for doing city business the wrong way. “Divide and conquer” sometimes feels like it was invented here, despite much historical evidence to the contrary. Richmond’s old political culture help to reinforce America’s best-known mantra of citizen frustration and resignation: “You can’t fight city hall!” Even among local activists experienced in fighting for peace, justice, labor rights racial equality, or revolution elsewhere , Richmond city hall was not initially viewed as something you could also fight for—and win.

Fifteen years of political organizing by Richmond Progressive Alliance activists and other Richmond reformers before them has altered that calculus. Richmond’s exemplary mix of electoral campaigning around issues and candidates, principled and persistent follow-up by elected officials, and some skilled professional city managing have made it a model for municipal action on behalf of people poorly served by local government in the past. Those responsible for Richmond’s renaissance are not always on the same page politically. Personal spats and pet causes can be a source of distraction and, at times, embarrassment. But no process of change anywhere— much less in a place like Richmond—can occur without there being some community disagreements and divisions, personality conflicts, and racial and ethnic tensions.

Collectively Richmond reformers have listened to city residents rather than downplaying or ignoring their concerns. They have not lined their own pockets or shilled for Big Oil, like some Richmond so-called public servants in the past. They have reduced popular estrangement from municipal government and fostered a high level of citizen engagement. Results of semiannual polling by the National Research Center, during the eight-year period between 2007 and 2015, show broad agreement about Richmond’s before and after. Residents surveyed believe that the city has improved, often dramatically, by each metric used: overall quality of life and image, community characteristics (whether it is a good place to work, live, or raise children), governance (including services like public safety and street repair), and, last but not least, sense of community.

What the Richmond experience demonstrates are the continuing advantages of making change locally as part of a longer-term and eventually more sweeping progressive strategy. What activists have going for them at the city level—an advantage almost nonexistent in the big-money-dominated realms of state or national politics— is greater personal connection to voters. Forging what Gayle McLaughlin calls authentic relationships isn’t a spontaneous process, however. It takes time, organization, and systematic outreach around issues that affect peoples’ daily lives. It also demands a great deal of emotional energy, plus—for those in elected positions—a very thick skin. It is understandable why many who want to make Richmond a better place do so through various forms of community service rather than partisan political combat.

In all its local forms, civic engagement helps create personal connections and community solidarity. In successive electoral campaigns, these have become the great equalizer in Richmond. Dedicated political volunteering has facilitated face-to-face contact and one-on-one conversations with thousands of people. The conversations are not always pleasant; everyone does not always agree. But what former city hall reporter Robert Rogers calls “this noisy democracy we have now” is a big improvement on what existed in Richmond before. And, in most election years, the grassroots mobilization capacity of the local left has been able to neutralize the usual advantages enjoyed by corporate adversaries with overall campaign budgets fifteen or thirty times larger.

There is no single road map for social change in the United States, no one-size-fits-all organizing strategy for countering and containing corporate influence. Certainly Richmond’s challenge to the power and prerogatives of a global energy giant points the way forward for other communities, frontline or not, where similar struggles for environmental justice and election law reform are underway. Counter-intuitive as it may be, going local may be the most effective individual and collective response to economic challenges and environmental threats that are dauntingly national and global in scope.

If urban political insurgencies are going to succeed in more places, they will need models for civic engagement like Richmond provides. Our city’s emergency response lesson is this: when we shelter in place together, we can change our communities for the better. If we remain frozen in a state of individual fear, apathy, alienation, or powerlessness, the world around us remains the same—until the next warning siren sounds, and all the ones after that, until there are too many fires to put out and no time left to contain them.

Steve Early is a regular contributor to Social Policy and has been an active labor journalist and organizer for over forty years. Importantly, he also now lives in Richmond.

Refinery Town is available from Beacon Press at and this excerpt was available through their courtesy.

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