Chevron Can’t Buy Richmond

Come in to Richmond over 580 East, on the lower deck of the Richmond Bridge, Bay flickering past through the girders. If the fog hasn’t settled in to make a dimming blanket, you’ll catch a glimpse of San Francisco’s downtown, TransAmerica pyramid standing tall. You’ll see the Bay Bridge, Treasure Island, a glimpse of Alcatraz, Red Rock Island looming just off the bridge, the familiar sight of cranes at the Port of Oakland — if you haven’t taken the drive before, they might seem oddly, strangely memorable to you even though you’ve never been there before, until, ah, you have the sudden realisation that they remind you of the AT-ATs of Star Wars.

Travel over the bridge and watch the hills slowly loom, with giant, mysterious brick-red structures on them. Circular, massive. They step up the hills and as you swoop past the toll plaza, they snap out of view and you’re through the cut, looking at the houses climbing on the Bay side and the grim landscape of refineries on the others. More of those giant structures, which, you realize, hold oil and gas products. More esoteric buildings, strange shapes, familiar shapes, peculiar shapes. Your car thrums beneath you almost like it’s calling to them, and maybe it is — maybe the gas sparking in your cylinders right now came from that very refinery.

For you are in Chevron country. The oil and gas company has dominated the Richmond landscape for decades, and it’s attempted to dominate the city, too. It’s sunk millions and likely billions at this point into political campaigns that favour its interests. The company has invested in schools and other public institutions with the goal of making itself look good — the old ‘public relations will get you everywhere’ bit, the attempt at cleaning up its persona in a world where many people think that Chevron does not look very good. Chevron funds textbooks and art supplies and other critical needs.

Chevron wants to buy Richmond. Oh, it desperately wants to. Not in the sense that it literally wants to own Richmond, the plot of land the city occupies, the homes sprawled across the hills and its ministorage facilities and its factories. Chevron wants to control the city with an iron fist, turning it into a solid company town, the kind of place where the city lives or dies at the company’s command and everyone, everything, every single tiny aspect of life in the city is dependent on Chevron, the company that may at turns be bountiful and loving or terrible and formidable — the father that slaps his children when they speak out of turn and buys sweets for them when they show him their homework.

Richmond is the poorest city in Contra Costa County. It is filled with the remnants of a time gone past — unoccupied homes foreclosed, beautiful old Queen Annes and Edwardians (most homes mistakenly labeled as ‘Victorian’ in the Bay Area are not, in fact, Victorian) reduced to crumbling wreckage. It is a city where lavish gardens and beautiful trees once grew, until it became a convenient place for building material, planes, and other wartime needs in the war, a place for manufacturing and industry, a natural place for Standard Oil to establish a home base. And then it became a manufacturing and oil town — nothing wrong with that, but as it did, the city began to slip into a financial depression. Underpaid workers struggled to get by and development favoured the wealthy and Richmond shifted.

The city has been, by and large, a working class city for a very long time — and many of the people who live there today are working class still, even as skyrocketing Bay Area rents are driving people up to the once forbidden and feared territory of Richmond. Thus, Chevron thinks it can own them. The oil company thinks it is possible to strangle Richmond, to maintain its power over a city it has dominated (in some form or another) for decades.

Yet, Richmond has served up a surprise. It is a city that does not want to be owned. Moreover, it is a city that can, and will, fight back. Richmond has become a city where it is no longer possible to use oil money to buy elections and control political figures. Richmond’s mayor is unique in US politics, a member of the Green Party overseeing a little over 100,000 residents. She has no truck with corporations like Chevron: She is interested in her constituency, not money. She is the mayor who has fought back against the oil company, the mayor who has opposed foreclosures, the mayor who has rallied for her working class residents and the people who matter in the town she looks over, the town she sleeps in at night just like everyone else.

Gayle McLaughlin isn’t the only one who doesn’t think that Chevron should own the city. Richmond’s citizens themselves are in revolt — even as many are forced to endure the company’s patronising public relations attempts, they’re well aware of the strings attached and they snip through them with the sharpest scissors they can find. Teachers can accept art supplies, but they don’t have to accept oil-funded, oil-friendly textbooks. They can use school funding but still teach global warming and the dangers of the oil industry in their classrooms. They can reject the notion that companies like Chevron should be allowed to buy elections and control towns, and they can teach their students the power in resistance, the power in what the people of Richmond have done.

This is a city that is not up for sale, a city that refuses to be bought, though Chevron has tried, and tried again, and will no doubt continue to try. Richmond’s resistance is an object lesson: To resist is a sweet victory.

Image: Chevon Refinery Fire, Michael Moore, Flickr