by Daniel Borgström
J. Russell Pitto is not our favorite person, but on June 9, 2005 we went to visit him anyway, at his posh residence in Belvedere Tiburon. He lives at the tip of a small peninsula which juts out into a lagoon. That scenic location on the water must've cost him millions, but I'm sure he can afford it. J. Russell Pitto is the CEO of Simeon Properties, the real estate development firm which is planning to build homes on a toxic waste site in Richmond.
Bringing Wal-Mart to Oakland is another of J. Russell Pitto's projects, and for this he has received a $10 million loan from public funds. One of the many problems with Wal-Mart is that, by underpaying its workers, it forces competitors to do the same--or go out of business. It's hard for anyone to compete with a huge penny-pinching outsourcer whose U.S. laborers often resort to welfare to supplement their income. Wal-Mart increases the burden on local taxpayers while driving established local employers out of business. So although promising to bring new jobs into Oakland, Wal-Mart will, in the long run, replace living wage jobs with low-paying ones in our community.
In hopes of mitigating the negative impact, a coalition of Oakland activist groups scheduled a meeting with J. Russell Pitto. The purpose was to discuss a proposal that he share profits with the community in order to support job training, youth scholarships, and funding for community clinics. A date was agreed to by both parties. However, when eight members of the Oakland coalition showed up, they were greeted by police. "It was obvious to all of us that Pitto and the people at Simeon had no intention of really meeting in good faith with us," said Thressa of Just Cause Oakland.
(Just Cause Oakland is one of the groups in the coalition; some of the others are the Sierra Club, the Green Party, the Wilson Riles-Oakland Community Action Network, ACORN, the Central Committee of Conscientious Objectors and the Urban Strategies Council.)
It was then that the activists looked around and learned of J. Russell's intention to build a 1330-unit housing project at Campus Bay, a toxic site in Richmond. For a hundred years, from 1897 to 1997, the location was occupied by a chemical company which left a witch's brew of hazardous compounds. An inadequate cleanup of the area aggravated the situation by raising clouds of toxic dust which covered everything in the vicinity. Now J. Russell Pitto wants to put residences on the polluted site.
"Simeon [J. Russell Pitto's company] has shown very little concern about the significant health risks posed by the highly poisonous toxins," said Thressa of Just Cause Oakland. "We see now that Simeon is not just a developer with one bad mark against its record, but that it is an irresponsible and callous developer in both Richmond and Oakland."
People of the Richmond Progressive Alliance were contacted, and together with the Oaklanders they decided to visit Mr. Pitto at his home across the bay in Marin County. "He's invading our community, so we'll invade his," the coalition decided. "We'll take it to his doorstep, and hold a demonstration right in front of his neighbors. We'll let his neighbors know what sort of a person Pitto is and how he makes his money."
I happened to hear of the upcoming demonstration in time to attend. It was to be a surprise visit, I was told. After all, Pitto had brought police and security guards to a scheduled meeting at his office; he'd almost certainly do all he could to keep us away from his neighborhood--if he knew of our coming. So, we couldn't openly publicize the event. That would limit our numbers, but the organizers felt that a small demonstration of a couple dozen people should be enough.
So on the afternoon of Thursday, June 9th, we gathered at the Just Cause office in Oakland, then set out. It was only about a forty minute drive, north through Richmond, across the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, then south to Tiburon.
As we rode, my companions discussed which chants to use, and thought about how to adapt them for this particular event. The plan was to hold a demonstration and press conference; for that reason it had been necessary to notify the media. Hopefully, reporters would keep our secret till the proper moment, then share it with their listeners on the evening news.
We entered Belvedere and drove along the marina, which offered a sparkling view of San Francisco across the bay. Pitto's residence is at the very end of a long narrow peninsula, on a dead-end road with houses on both sides, ensuring a sizeable audience for our presentation. The circular turnaround in front of Pitto's house provided an ideal stage. Neighbors were already stepping out on the sidewalks in front of their homes, peering down the street to see what was going on.
Our rally began as scheduled, at 4:30 p.m. A young woman took up a bullhorn, addressing us as well as the residents of the neighborhood: "As citizens of Oakland and Richmond, we're out here in Belvedere today because we're concerned about the negative impacts that Mr. Pitto's company, Simeon, is having on our communities. … Our demonstration isn't against the people living in this neighborhood. It's against just one person--Pitto, and his company, Simeon Commercial Properties!"
I counted about thirty five of us. Most were in their late teens and early twenties; many wore "Just Cause" T-shirts, and the majority were Blacks and Latinos. Our ceremony was being filmed by TV crews from channels 4 and 7. Before long, a single police car drove up. The officer spoke with our legal person who assured him that this was a non-violent protest and that normal neighborhood activity would not be infringed upon. The officer appeared satisfied. Perhaps this was the first demonstration he'd seen in the wealthy enclave.
The rally continued; the young woman had passed the bullhorn to another speaker. "At the Campus Bay project in Richmond," he said, "Pitto is building 1,330 units of condominiums on top of land contaminated by cancer-causing waste. But I guarantee you," the speaker assured us, pointing at the mansion of J. Russell Pitto, "there is NO toxic waste under Pitto's house! It's homes for other people that he builds on toxic dumps. Not his own. Pollution is good enough for others, not for Pitto."
"Toxic Pitto-Pete!" someone called out. Drums beat, rattles rattled, hands clapped.
Our speakers took turns talking over the bullhorn. "In Oakland, Mr. Pitto and his company have insisted on bringing a Wal-Mart store into our community over the protest of residents. He's done this using a combined strategy of usurping taxpayer-funded subsidies, exploiting low-wage, non-union labor, working around environmental regulations, and generally evading any type of meaningful community accountability. Mr. Pitto is getting rich at the expense of our communities' health and well-being."
A leaflet with this same message had been placed, neatly folded, on J. Russell Pitto's doorstep, just below his house number.
We then formed a circular picket line, marching and chanting. A woman with a bullhorn led off: "We're Oakland people!" And the rest of us responded: "Fighting back!" We marched in a circle around the perimeter of the turnaround; it was just right for our group of thirty five.
"We're Richmond people!" -- "Fighting back!"
"We're Oakland people!" -- "Fighting back!"
A couple of us beat on drums. Someone passed out rattles--plastic bottles partially filled with dry, hard macaroni. These were loud and effective. Our demonstration was peaceful, but not quiet.
A woman with a little girl drove up. They were Pitto's next door neighbors, and, on getting out of the car, the child immediately attempted to join our demonstration. "MOMMY!" the child made her wishes known in a voice loud and clear, "I WANNA BE ON TV!"
The mother hurriedly marched her little daughter into the house and out of sight.
Meanwhile, J. Russell Pitto seemed to be absent, but Mrs. Pitto (Valerie Berhendt), the lady of Pitto's manor, eventually arrived, with a police escort. She left again soon after, but apparently forgot her purse. Rather than return for it, she sent the policeman back to retrieve it. We smiled at the sight of the policeman having to carry her purse.
We were again standing in a semicircle, this time listening to one of the speakers speculating on J. Russell Pitto's relationship with his community. "People don't know much about their neighbors. Some folks around here might be shocked to learn what sort of man lives at the end of their street. How he makes his money. He may not want them to know. Now they're going to know. We can bet that to his own neighbors this toxic developer presents himself as an upstanding, respectable pillar of the community."
Our rally lasted an hour. Afterwards, some of us went door to door, talking to neighbors and giving them leaflets. We asked that if they disapproved of what their neighbor was doing in Oakland and Richmond, they please let him know. While some of us were doing this, others of our group went to the Belvedere town center and passed out leaflets.
That done, we headed back to the East Bay. Our operation had been well coordinated and the participants well disciplined. We shared a feeling of satisfaction at having stirred up some molecules, if only of sound, in response to the enormous "disruption" of Simeon Properties.
That evening, Channel 4 ran a 45-second sound bite, showing our picket line. The announcer said: "People upset over a new Wal-Mart in east Oakland decided to let the man behind that Wal-Mart know how they felt. So the neighborhood activist group crossed the bay to protest outside of the posh Belvedere home of Russell Pitto. Pitto is the man who's helping develop that project. The protesters say that he is making millions of dollars on the deal but giving none back to the community."
A few days later there was a front page article in The Ark, a Tiburon community newspaper: "A group of people from out of town came in and raised a ruckus on a quiet street in Belvedere last Thursday afternoon and, like most people, Belvedereans generally don't like ruckuses in their neighborhoods. The noisy group of about 40 protesters from Oakland and Richmond … demonstrated in front of the home of Russ Pitto, shouting and chanting their opposition to two projects in the East Bay. Pitto is the founder and CEO of Simeon Commercial Properties…"
So the town is perhaps unpleasantly aware of our visit to J. Russell Pitto, who is assaulting our East Bay communities with his destructive projects. And, people who read accounts of our demonstration might be encouraged to know that acts such as those of Pitto and his company are, at least sometimes, neither unpublicized nor unnoticed.
FOR MORE INFO
on Wal-Mart and on the toxic site in Richmond:
High-rises planned on Richmond toxic site. Developer says fans will disperse fumes. (Chronicle, 8/31/2004)
Colossus retailer Wal-Mart drains government resources because its low-paid, under-insured or non-insured workers have to rely on public subsidies, such as school lunch programs and Section 8 housing, according to a congressional report Rep. George Miller released here Monday. (Contra Costa Times 2/17/2005)
How Can Wal-Mart Sell a Denim Shirt for $11.67?
Wal-Mart garments are sewn in Bangladesh by young women forced to work 14 hours a day for wages of just 13 to 17 cents an hour. (National Labor Committee 6/20/2005)