Tip O’Neill overstated it when he said, “All politics is local.” But as Steve Early ’71 found when he moved to California from Massachusetts in his early 60s, local activism can be a compelling source of renewal in a time of dysfunction at the national level.
Early, a labor writer and organizer, tells how progressives remade his new hometown of Richmond, Calif. With a reputation as “the armpit of the East Bay,” Richmond was plagued by drugs, crime, foreclosures, and civic indifference. These woes went largely unaddressed by a city government captive to Chevron, a massive polluter and the city’s largest employer. Early’s narrative journalism documents the rise to power of the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA), a membership group collecting donations door-to-door. RPA challenged Chevron’s dominance and prevailed, even against the company’s $3.5 million expenditure in a single local election.
Despite an atmosphere so acrimonious that city council meetings were described as “cage fights,” RPA created a rainbow coalition across lines of class, race, and issues. Years of organizing by black, white, and Latino activists culminated in the election of a Green Party mayor and city council no longer beholden to Chevron.
Early nicely sets his account amid the larger issues of corporate corruption, climate change, labor rights, and gentrification. Progressives will find more to cheer here than conservatives will. But whatever one’s politics, Refinery Town provides a stirring reminder about the enduring power of grassroots democracy.