Point Richmond on September 9th 2003
Not surprisingly, this polluter is also a war profiteer, participating in the corporate invasion of Iraq, and it is for this reason that it had come to the attention of antiwar activists. When it was learned that a tanker full of stolen Iraqi oil had arrived, the refinery became an appropriate place to hold one of the demonstrations being planned for the September 9 to 13 Week for Peace & Global Justice.
The upcoming demonstration was to focus attention on the causes and effects of the war, the occupation, and corporate globalization. Related issues, such as First Amendment rights and environmental protection, were also included.
A few days before the event, I went to Point Richmond with Catherine, an artist who wanted to take photos of the refinery which she intended to use to paint political posters. Neither of us had been there before; the small business district was at the foot of a steep hill that separated it from the bay.
The hill was covered with residences and would probably have been an ideal place to live, had it not been for the ever-present danger of fumes. But on this day the air was clean and the sky was blue, the sun was warm. From the west side of the crest of the hill we could look out over San Francisco Bay and see no less than three of the bay-spanning bridges. Below us was an oil pier, where a tanker was docked. Was this the one containing the stolen Iraqi oil? We wondered.
To the northwest was another hill, one covered with a tank farm. The tanks were painted a very muted shade of brown which blended in with the scenery; they really looked quite benign. There were a lot of trees, so we couldn’t see everything from one place; we kept moving and made our way to the northeast side where we got views of the refinery itself which was on the flat ground below. From each vantage point it was framed by pines and other trees which gave it an almost bucolic setting. The photos which Catherine was taking could’ve been used for travel posters — almost belying the fact that this refinery had contributed so much pollution to the surrounding neighborhoods.
At around 6 p.m. on the day of the demonstration, Tuesday, September 9th, I arrived at the park at the center of Point Richmond where the rally was already in session. There were banners calling for care of the environment, for defense of civil liberties, for an end to the occupation of Iraq, and for peace. The event was organized by Direct Action to Stop the War.
Along one side of the park stood the Mourning Mothers, a group of half a dozen women wearing huge facemasks and dressed in black. They’d been at most demonstrations this year. There was also the Brass Liberation Orchestra, the band which I’d seen at numerous other protest events including the two at the Port of Oakland this spring.
I soon found Catherine. She had a large poster of a refinery with words across the top reading: What price oil economy profits? At the bottom was a row of skulls. I took one end of it; the two of us could carry it like a banner.
Two to three hundred people had come for this evening’s event, and speakers were addressing the gathering, as final preparations were being made for the march to the refinery. A permit had been obtained for this event, and the police would presumably not molest us, but we couldn’t be certain. Although the object was not to do civil disobedience, some volunteers were needed who’d be willing to risk arrest. The volunteers gathered at one end, to be briefed on what they were to do.
The rest of us moved out onto the street behind the large banners and set out with our band playing. It always helped to have a band at these marches; bands and marches are made for each other.
We marched up the street for some distance, then turned onto a broad highway which went under the freeway. As we did so, the sound of our band and our cheering echoed back from the concrete over and around us. The acoustics were impressive, and inspired people to shout and cheer louder.
Normally this must’ve been a very busy road, but the police had blocked it off at both ends as is normally done during demonstrations. We went a distance of about half a mile till we came to the main gate of the Chevron Texaco refinery. Not being in the front, I couldn’t see at first what was going on up ahead, but finally I made out several rows of police in riot gear, wearing helmets that looked like copies of those worn in Nazi Germany. Some were armed with clubs, and others with shoulder weapons that looked like the pellet guns I’d seen at the docks on April 7th. One officer was a little man with a large pellet gun which he held against his shoulder, his hand on the trigger, and pointing at the ground in front of him but ready to raise and fire at us on a second’s notice.
Between us and the riot police were our volunteers. They stood, arms linked tightly together with their backs to the police and facing us, forming a buffer zone. Among them I recognized Barbara, a gentle person who studied the beneficial effects of butterflies in gardens. It wasn’t certain if they were going to be arrested or maybe attacked. The rest of us gathered in front of them; meanwhile, a speaker began talking on our PA system, which consisted of a huge loudspeaker mounted on a small cart.
Speakers took turns, one after another. There was no single "big-name" leader. These demonstrations are designed to be cooperative. The idea is to practice the democracy we call for. At the same time, this event, like others I’d attended, was very carefully organized, well choreographed.
Despite the tenseness of the situation in front of me, nobody was shouting insults at the police. This was a critical situation where if just one person had lost his head, the police might’ve started shooting.
But the tenseness was mixed with an air of festivity. Some of the people on the PA system sang songs. Sometimes the band played. After some minutes the situation seemed to be stabilized — I say "seemed to be" because the police were still there, still holding their pellet guns against their shoulders, ready to open fire, and more police kept arriving. We could never be totally certain of what they might do.
Although we are extremely fortunate to live in a country where we have First Amendment rights, we are unfortunate in that we incur the risk getting arrested or even shot while exercising these rights.
I recalled that once after a stressful situation at a demonstration earlier this year, someone had asked me if my Marine Corps training had helped me get through it. And my answer had been, "No, not really." It is of course true that the Marine Corps does attempt to simulate threatening situations; for example they had us crawl under live machinegun fire. But we always knew that they wouldn’t really shoot us; nobody ever got hurt in the Marine Corps. But in these demonstrations the danger is more than just simulated — it’s absolutely real.
Among the people here at this demonstration, I recognized several whom I’d seen at the Port of Oakland. Everyone here tonight had most certainly heard of what had happened there and knew it could happen again. The USMC simply doesn’t put anyone though anything like that — outside of actual combat, that is.
Then, a speaker over the PA system asked if anybody was hungry. "The people from Food not Bombs are here!"
Food not Bombs is a group that serves food during demonstrations. They’d been at the Oakland docks, and at many other antiwar events. Tonight they’d brought a vegetarian stew with rice. Catherine and I took turns holding our poster while getting food.
At this time there was also a demonstration going on in Cancún, Mexico where the WTO (World Trade Organization) was meeting. One of the purposes of our event was to act in solidarity with the protesters in Cancún. Someone was able to contact the people in Cancún with a cellular phone and then hooked that up to the PA system so we could all hear the conversation. It came through loud and clear, but only for a short while.
"I’m losing the signal," said the speaker in Cancún. "Can you hear me?"
But then her voice was gone. Nevertheless, for those few brief moments, our demonstration had been in contact with the one in Mexico.
Many people continued to take turns speaking. At one point a speaker carried the mike down the line of volunteers who were forming the buffer zone; now sitting there, still with arms linked. Each of them said something, mostly very briefly. Then the speaker congratulated them for bravely taking the risk and holding the line for us. We then applauded them.
Another speaker addressed "The Law Enforcement Community whom we have here this evening." He thanked them for "being respectful of us," for the fact was that they hadn’t attacked or arrested us, then the speaker went on to say, "You’re people, just like us. You have jobs to go to. You have families. But please think about why you’re here. You didn’t become police officers to do this."
I thought that was a good thing to say. The speaker was respectful of them, and yet he let them know that they were protecting the wrong people. Of course they didn’t respond. We didn’t expect them to.
Darkness had fallen by now. Bright lights inside the refinery silhouetted the police in front of us, who continued to move about rather ominously; there looked to be about a hundred of them now. Behind us the full moon had risen and was shining brightly. Off to one side of it was the red planet Mars, closer to earth than it had been for sixty thousand years.
From time to time we looked at it admiringly.
Finally, around 8:40 p.m. we called an end to this part of our demonstration. We’d been there for two hours blocking this gate and the highway as well. With our band playing, we marched back to the park. There, the band played for a few minutes longer while people danced.
Then we went home.