Richmond, a Work in Progress
Charles T. Smith’s letter to the editor [Aug. 4/11] about my article on Richmond, California, in the June 9/16 issue, accuses the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) and one of its lead organizers, Mike Parker, of pursuing a “misguided, middle-class liberal agenda” that favors the city’s “gentrifying element” and furthers “class and ethnic divisions” at the expense of its “working class.”
My report, “Will Big Oil Retake Richmond?” is one of many in recent years to note just the opposite. The municipal reform movement, led by Green Mayor Gayle McLaughlin and other RPA activists like Parker, has been very successful in uniting diverse elements of the community in struggles for a higher minimum wage, anti-foreclosure protection for working-class homeowners, increased taxation of Chevron and safer operation of its Richmond refinery.
The RPA is not a sectarian left party of the politically pure sort that the letter writer might prefer. What makes it viable and influential—and its candidates (at least some) electable—is a “big tent” approach to community organizing. That means welcoming, as members and electoral supporters, Richmond residents who are Democrats, Greens, socialists, independents, lower- and higher-income, whites and people of color, trade unionists and unorganized workers.
When you link diverse constituencies like these into an independent grassroots movement that makes corporate domination a central issue, you still have disagreements on other topics, not to mention differences over tactics and strategy. When only a minority of City Council members belong to the RPA, the left has to work with others to win even partial victories, whether on the issue of business taxation or any other.
To claim that the RPA has “made a mockery of the term ‘progressive’” says more about the letter writer’s marginalized perspective than the track record of an effective local political movement.
I greatly appreciate Adam Shatz’s “Writers or Missionaries?” [Aug. 4/11], about the deceptive attractions of the human-rights movement and self-proclaimed democracy initiatives. Most useful is Shatz’s point that the open wound created by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is only a skirmish among the many diverse dilemmas presented by the Arab world (and I speak here as an American Jewish Zionist with a deep commitment to ending the occupation and creating a healthy Palestinian state). But the article, while reminding us to understand the realities of current possibilities, should not deter us from remaining stalwart in our commitment to human decency; nor should it prompt us to judge too quickly the results of events like the Arab Spring that may take twenty or thirty years to work through.