Steve Early’s book “Refinery Town”, reviewed

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For many non-residents, Richmond, CA was long an East Bay city that you drove through, fast, without stopping. It was close but far away, a place where bad things happened, seemingly, on a daily basis.

Most people knew Richmond for its steaming, menacing refinery or its gang killings. It was a muscular, hard-scrabble working class city, quite the counterpoint to more bohemian Berkeley or San Francisco. It was a corrupt place, a company town with all its mean trappings.

Sometimes, as a visitor from Berkeley, I would find my way to the old Baltic bar/restaurant in Pt. Richmond, to listen to blues. Yet the short drive over was, at night, almost mysterious. Richmond was an “exotic” place of “others’ and otherness compared to its immediate neighbors.

Steve Early’s new book on Richmond, called Refinery Town, is an important corrective for popular misconceptions about his new hometown, and mine. I moved there five years ago, after being a University of Michigan professor working to prevent youth violence in Flint, MI, often ranked as the most violent city in the US, now infamous for city water that poisoned the poor, a place, unlike Richmond today, of little promise or hope.

In Richmond, I have been continually impressed by the level of political and community engagement that you feel through your skin, like weather – a bracing alternative vision to the, by now, all too familiar sacrifice zones peppering the rust belt(s) of the US. Early’s book is a rich political biography of this much-changed city that takes into account class, race, local organizing and a delicious “David and Goliath” story pitting “Big Oil” against a small multi-cultural, working class city.

Steve Early writes about seeing the fire at the Chevron refinery in August, 2012 – I too was here when the Chevron Refinery exploded, driving towards the dark and insistent plume, I realized that, whether I wanted to be or not, I was “involved.” Since that pivotal event, I have become active in the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA), helping with getting rent control on the ballot, debating for the proposal, as well as helping run swim programs at Richmond’s wonderful public indoor pool, the Natatorium. I’ve even gone so far as to become a poet laureate for Richmond, 2017-2019. As one can see, similar to Gayle McLaughlin, current city council member and former mayor, I could not help but want to be involved in Richmond’s affairs.

Refinery Town uses the refinery explosion to anchor the book and tells of an immediacy here that many do not often experience, let alone see. “Sheltering in place” becomes a pregnant term where shelter and place can be seen as home and community, (not just an emergency procedure) and where grass-roots community action can effectively counter large corporate interests. Early, as a labor organizer and journalist is perfectly situated to capture the history and politics of a very complex setting. Indeed, Richmond is a place where the sinew and bones of US society are readily seen – heavy industry cheek by jowl with compact middle class bungalows, superfund sites, and one of the largest oil refineries in the US. Mix in a heady brew of “company town” good ole boy politics, a plucky, multi-cultural, multi-class progressive movement – the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA), and the table is set.

Refinery Town episodically examines the arc of the political battle waged between the RPA and entrenched, decades old interests. We are introduced to the slow, and fraught development of what eventually became the RPA through personal stories of strife and overcoming that allows the reader to understand how the personal can transition to the (effective) political. Thus we have Gayle McLaughlin, a relative newcomer rolling up her sleeves and diving into the maelstrom of Richmond politics, eventually and cheerfully becoming mayor as part of the RPA (none of whom accept corporate donations), or Chris Magnus, the controversial police chief who championed true community based policing and community engagement, reformed the management structure and staff of the department and helped to significantly lower violent crime in the face of entrenched department backlash (ultimately spurious and expensive civil lawsuits). The office of community safety, led by Devone Boggan, also was quite involved with this violence reduction effort. Refinery Town also describes the intricacies of the rent control fight and places this discussion within a broader CA tax and housing context. Indeed, Early, similar to his strategy of making the personal political, often gives extensive context far beyond Richmond, discussing CA, other cities and national trends, the micro informing the macro and vice-versa.

To be clear, as Early discusses, Richmond was your standard issue, post-industrial, capitalist free-fire zone where “joblessness and poverty, substandard schools and housing, drug trafficking, street crime, and gang violence all contributed to one of the highest homicide rates in the country.” This was abetted by city hall corruption with the concomitant near bankruptcy, cuts in city staff and services and terrible police-community relations and police violence. Much of this, so viscerally apparent in the early “aughts” has changed for the better. And Early details how this change was due to dedicated community involvement requiring huge amounts of “sweat equity,” as it should in a perfect world. In this regard, perhaps the most satisfying aspect of the book for me has to do with recounting the 2014 election where an RPA coalition won against a massive ($3,000,000) attempt by Chevron to stack the city counsel with “the old guard” in order to go back to “business as usual.” As someone who, on a daily basis endured a mailbox stuffed by Chevron-backed candidate fliers, I was immensely proud to support and work for the RPA candidates, (long story very short, they all won!). Most importantly, Steve Early provides us with an inside look at a useful counter-example, a small city that self-organized based on community engagement, persistence/sheer cussedness and a strong self-reflexive understanding of class and race, to change itself for the better, in the face of titanic countervailing forces.

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About the author

Rob Lipton

Robert Lipton has been a long time east bay resident and a Richmond resident for 6 years. He is a poet laureate of Richmond, (2017-2019), he helps run the swim program at the Richmond Plunge and is an energetic member of the Richmond Progressive Alliance, working on rent control and related issues. (he formally debated this issue in several venues during the campaign.) He has a day job as a spatial epidemiologist studying violence and social disorganization, having been on faculty at the Harvard Medical School and a professor at the University of Michigan. He was the LA director of fairness and accuracy in reporting (FAIR) during the first gulf war and has been a long time member of a Jewish Voice for Peace.

View all posts by Rob Lipton →

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