A Refinery Exploded, Bernie Came to Town & Here’s What That Means to Me

By Mary Grace Richardson, Co-editor

My dad had offered to make me a drink, the first one we would have together. It was summer in Richmond, California, and I had just turned 21 that spring. But as we sat on the porch overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge and enjoyed the new experience, I noticed a plume of smoke across the bay.

“That’s the Chevron refinery over there,” he explained. “Probably nothing unusual.”

As the inky smoke mushroomed though, it became something unusual. Then neighborhood sirens started ringing.

Photo courtesy of Richmond Progress Alliance
Photo courtesy of Richmond Progressive Alliance

What we saw (and in 10 minutes fled from) was the site of an explosion that resulted in 15,000 residents being sent to the hospital with respiratory problems. Denying reparations to the local community for the accident, Chevron dug itself deeper by later funneling $3 million into the 2014 local election in support of lackluster—but Chevron-friendly—candidates. As my dad wrote on his blog, the energy Goliath besieged Richmond Progressive Alliance candidates, who wanted more safety standards applied, and generously flooded my dad and his neighbors with television ads, fliers, billboards, and Chevron’s own news site, the Richmond Standard.

Several news outlets, including The Nation, The Rachel Maddow Show, the Los Angeles Times, AlterNet, and Salon, picked up on these strategic efforts.

It also caught the attention of a senator I wasn’t familiar with yet: Bernie Sanders. That October Senator Sanders flew to Richmond to speak at the Town Hall meeting about big money in politics, the corruption it attracts, and the danger it poses to democracy.

On October 16, 2014, the long-time advocate of the middle-class said to the 500 attendees, “You’re seeing right here, in this small city, unlimited sums of money from one of the largest corporations in America, who says, ‘How dare you ordinary people – working class people, people of color, young people – how dare you think you have the right to run your city government? Who do you think you are? We’re gonna teach you a lesson. We’re gonna tell you who owns this community, who controls this community,’ and that’s what this fight is about here in Richmond.” (A transcript of the whole speech can be found here.)

More than a year later, when the presidential candidates were fighting their way through the primaries, my dad curiously looked up what each were doing that same day Bernie came to Richmond.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was readying for what would be a record-breaking fundraiser with Jeffrey Katzenberg and Steven Spielberg, and current President Donald Trump was cyber-bullying Katy Perry. A brief snapshot of course can’t encompass the full activities of each former candidate, but I remember it indicating something important to me: Bernie shows up. Politics aside, it stood out as a “show, don’t tell” moment.

And since he showed up for my family, I showed up for him when he came to speak in Mesa last week. From having been a lightly buzzed 21-year-old on my father’s porch, to then working on several political campaigns after college, and recently weathering the 2016 election, a lot had changed in how I see the political landscape.

Sanders at the rally in Mesa on April 21. Photo courtesy of Common Dreams
Sanders at the rally in Mesa on April 21. Photo courtesy of Common Dreams

As part of the “Come Together and Fight Back Tour,” Bernie and Democratic National Committee chairperson Tom Perez decided to come to Arizona. From Perez’s perspective, the state had experience “taking down bullies, bullies like Joe Arpaio,” who recently lost the Maricopa County Sheriff position after a 24-year reign.

The two spoke to 3,800 people at the Mesa Amphitheatre in favor of a minimum wage increase, women’s equality, climate change, immigration reform, criminal justice reform, debt-free education, and the growing gap between economic classes.

True to his most consistent message, Bernie spoke to his supporters about it being the people’s job to create an economy that works for all, not just one that works for billionaires.

He continued by loosely quoting Frederick Douglass: “‘There is no progress without struggle.’ People are not going to give you your rights, they are not going to give you your freedom. You’ve got to stand up, you’ve got to fight for it, you’ve got to take it.”

I was moved to see in person a politician who spoke not just for his personal gain, but for ideas he dreams about and works to actualize. Years after the Richmond explosion, Bernie is still showing up for people to whom he has no political obligation. Arizonans are unlikely to affect his future career—but he came anyway.

He didn’t come for our votes—he came for the causes he’s dedicated himself to and for the people he champions. He did it in Richmond, he did it in Mesa, and he’ll continue doing it across the country. And I admire it.

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