Chevron Refinery Protest Draws Thousands to Richmond, CA
208 people arrested; climate movement is growing stronger, says Bill McKibben
The thing that never ceases to amaze and move me about protests and civil disobedience actions in the United States is the cheerful, festive spirit that usually defines these events.
Photos by Ian Umeda
Protests in India, where I grew up, are usually grim, tense affairs where the seriousness of the matter being protested seems to weigh the demonstrators down. Here in the US, people participating in protests seem energized and joyful about fighting for what they believe is right and just; and they share that positive energy through song and dance and a general sense of goodwill. It’s hard not to get caught up in the spirit of these events and believe, even if for a short while, that yes, another, brighter, better world is not only possible, it’s right around the corner.
This held true in Richmond, CA on Saturday, where a jaunty brass band, groups of drummers, and cheery sloganeers led about 2,800 sign-carrying, sunflower-wielding people on a three-mile march from the city’s Bay Area Rapid Transit station to the Chevron refinery. The protestors’ demands were dead serious. They want the big oil company to stop processing tar sands oil at the refinery and address local residents’ concerns about pollution and plant safety. (Chevron and four other Bay Area refineries are already refining tar sands oil from Canada that’s being shipped here by rail.)
The demonstration — organized by a coalition of labor, public interest, Indigenous, and climate justice groups — was part of 350.org’s national Summer Heat campaign calling for active local resistance to the fossil fuel industry. It was organized to mark the one-year anniversary of the August 6, 2012 explosion and fire at the Chevron refinery that sent about 15,000 people to the hospital with respiratory problems
“An incident like that puts the whole community [not only] in Richmond but also the wider Bay Area at risk,” Katy Romer, a nurse from Oakland, told me as she marched toward the refinery along with a group of her colleagues from the National Nurses Union. “The community in Richmond is on a daily basis suffering from increased risk of different kinds of cancers as well as very high rates of asthma… It's really hard as a nurse to see a patient struggling to breathe because a company with the resources that Chevron has chooses willfully not to put forth the resources to make that plant safe,” Romer said.
As the procession crawled through the city’s streets, many Richmond residents stepped out to cheer the demonstrators on. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong about this protest,” said Benjamin Alnagar as watched the protestors pass by Joe’s Market Grocery and Produce on McDonald Avenue. “They want regulation and all that, I say go for it!” said Alnagar who works at a Chevron gas station in Bakersfield.
At the refinery gate the marchers were met by a group of children and adults who painted a giant 20-foot sunflower using biodegradable paint and erected an altar to the plant, animal and human life impacted by oil spills. (Sunflowers, as one of the rally speakers explained, were chosen as the event’s icon because they can help detoxify the soil and because they are a symbol of clean energy.)
Later in the afternoon, in a planned act of civil disobedience — similar to the ones 350.org has been organizing against the Keystone XL pipeline since 2011 — more than 200 demonstrators wearing white armbands sat down in front of the refinery gates and waited until the cops came forward and, rather politely, arrested them. The 208 arrested, included three wheelchairs-bound persons and 90-year-old Ellen Small, a former journalist and nurse from Oakland. They were all cited for trespassing and released.
“People made their point and conducted themselves in a thoughtful way,” Richmond Police Chief Chris Magnus said later. “They are part of our constituency… We don’t work for Chevron. We work for the community.”
It was pretty clear that “the community” and Chevron don’t quite see eye to eye.
The company’s 2,900-acre facility in Richmond is the third largest oil refinery in California, processing 240,000 barrels of crude oil a day. For years, groups like Communities for a Better Environment and the West County Toxics Coalition have complained that Chevron, which is the Richmond’s largest employer, has not done enough to respond to concerns about area pollution.
“The Chevron Richmond refinery is the single largest producer of greenhouse gases in California,” said Andrés Soto of Communities for Better Environment, one of the organizers of the protest. “These gases travel over the Carquinez Strait and into the Central Valley, which is intensely polluted. And they contribute in a very major way to accelerating climate change all over the planet.”
For many, Chevron’s apparent disregard of the people of Richmond, who happen to be largely economically depressed people of color, amounts to environmental racism.
“Chevron has not been good to the community here,” retired Richmond resident Lipo Chathanasak, told me via a translator right before the march kicked off. Chathanasak, a Laotian of Khmu ethnicity and a member of the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, lives a quarter mile from the refinery. “My number one complaint is the pollution, and then the greed,” he said. “They only care about money… But today we are here to tell them that their profit is killing us and they have to stop. I’m so happy so many people from outside have come here to tell Chevron to stop polluting our community and also stop polluting the earth.”
The oil giant’s troubled relations with the city came to a head a day before the Saturday demonstration when the City of Richmond filed a lawsuit against Chevron seeking damages for the city and its residents. The suit claimed that the pipeline leak that led to the explosion was "a continuation of years of neglect, lax oversight and corporate indifference to necessary safety inspection and repairs." Chevron’s response, calling the lawsuit "a waste of the city's resources and yet another example of its failed leadership," is a measure of just how sour relations between the company and city have become.
“What Chevron says they are doing and what they are actually doing are not the same thing,” Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, who participated in the protest, told the demonstrators gathered in front of the refinery gates. “They’ve told us they are building a safer refinery. They’ve told us they aren’t polluting us, and yet these incidents happen time and time again. Over the last 20 years more than a dozen incidents like the prior happened in this city, in this refinery. That’s unacceptable.”
McLaughlin noted that Richmond’s fight against Chevron was, in essence, part of a larger global struggle to prompt the world’s biggest polluters, the fossil fuel industry, to reduce its carbon emissions.
If the sheer diversity of the crowd at Richmond on Saturday was anything to go by, the struggle is definitely picking up momentum. (About time it did too, given the latest research by Stanford University showing that Earth is warming 10 times faster than has since age of the dinosaurs.)
For me, personally, it was heartening to see more than two-dozen members of Brown and Green: South Asians for Climate Justice marching for climate justice. The environment isn’t exactly a cause célèbre among South Asians, though it should be. As South Asian labor organizer Sanjay Garla, who was among those arrested put it: “The effects of climate change are not felt equally everywhere, but in our own countries, in places like India and Bangladesh, people are living with climate impacts every day.”
It was equally inspiring to watch Earth Island’s Borneo Project director Brihannala Morgan court arrest. “My work is supporting Indigenous communities in Borneo who are fighting for their land rights and fighting against palm oil plantations. It’s the same core fight that the communities in Richmond are fighting against the Chevron refinery,” she told me.
And what could be more poignant than those full-page ads run in Bay Area newspapers by the Ecuadorian government on Saturday morning, copies of which some marchers carried with them. “In the fight against Chevron, the people of Ecuador and the people of Richmond can deploy the most devastating weapon ever invented. The truth,” the ad read. A message of solidarity from a suffering nation to a suffering city. (Click here to read about Chevron’s toxic legacy in the Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest.)
“This battle is starting to turn the other way,” author-activist and 350.org founder Bill McKibben told the crowd before the arrests began. “These guys have all the money on earth but they got nothing else. That’s it. That’s it! And we’re beginning to assemble a new kind of currency, the currency of movements. We’ve got passion and spirit and creativity and sometimes we’re willing to spend our bodies too if we need to make change happen.”
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