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Multinational oil giant Chevron considered Richmond its “company town” until progressives organized and took it back. Steve Early’s powerful new book, Refinery Town, tells the story.Early retired to Richmond 5 years ago, after working as a staffer of the Communications Workers of America. His book’s full title is Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money and the Remaking of an American City. Get more information here.
He chronicles the changes in Richmond, where Chevron and its huge bayside oil refinery dominated the scenery–and the political scene–for decades. In this majority-minority community, Chevron enjoyed the backing of long-serving officials like Nat Bates, an African American who frequently said that what’s best for Chevron is best for Richmond.
With a low-income population and pathologies common to industrial towns, Richmond once had one of the highest per-capita murder rates in the nation, and a white majority police force disconnected from residents.
Enter Gayle McLaughlin, who moved to Richmond in 2001 and was elected to the city council after she organized a slate of candidates under the banner of the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA). Starting in 2007, she served 2 terms as mayor, and continues today as a council member.
Richmond saw one of the first citizen-led efforts to pass a tax on sugary sodas; while it failed, it was a focus for organizing that was in place in 2012 when a major incident at the Chevron refinery sent thousands of residents to the hospital, and revealed serious maintenance deficiencies. Outraged citizens demanded changes, but for Chevron it was business as usual. Enabled by Citizens United, Chevron pumped over $3 million into the campaigns of its favored candidates, including propaganda news organs like the online newspaper The Richmond Standard.
Early brings the wide array of colorful Richmond characters into the story of this epic struggle against corporate power. In our interview, we talk about the impressive success of RPA, the gay police chief imported from Fargo who purged the old guard and reduce crime and murder, and the role of corporate Democrats who supported Chevron over the progressives.
Refinery Town offers inspiration and practical tactics that can be valuable to progressives everywhere, but especially in the industrial cities Chris Hedges calls “sacrifice zones”.