Richmond 2011: The year in review
on December 31, 2011
Before the city’s vaunted shot-detection systems lights up with the celebratory gunfire that always greets the New Year, it’s nice to look back. To learn. To reflect. To contextualize.
2011 was quite a year, to borrow a favorite phrase from longtime resident Sims Thompson, in “our fair city.”
I know that’s vague, but it’s tough to turn a pithy phrase that sums up a year in a vibrant, bustling and changing city.
We had tragedy and triumph, tumult and harmony. Alliances and rivalries. Echoes of the past and glimmers from the future.
With no re-aligning elections and bare-knuckle election battles, politics were carried out by other means. The progressive wing of the City Council – bolstered by Jovanka Beckles’ ascent to the dais – was active all year. With newfound power, the solid bloc of Mayor Gayle McLaughlin and Councilmembers Beckles and Jeff Ritterman, forged ahead to push hard-fought measures, including putting a tax on soda to the 2012 ballot and striking down a question about criminal history from city employment applications.
It was also a year of steady economic gain, writ larger within the context of the nation’s lingering economic malaise. At least seven new businesses opened doors in the city, according to Alicia Gallo of the Richmond Mainstreet Initiative, and the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts re-opened to great fanfare.
And Richmond welcomed its first-ever professional sports team, the Rockets, a basketball franchise that plays its games in the Richmond Memorial Auditorium and at the Richmond PAL Center.
Richmond also continued to assert itself on issues beyond its boundaries – to the delight of some and the dismay of others.
Councilman Ritterman, a retired cardiologist, frequently cites broader societal issues in his policy prescriptions for the city – a stark contrast to the outlook of local business favorites like Councilman Nat Bates and local labor proponent Councilman Corky Booze.
“While we in Richmond need to be a part of the global movement to reverse this inequality, we must simultaneously build a local sustainable economy which prioritizes caring for our most vulnerable,” Ritterman said.
But the city also has its continuing challenges. Infighting on the council, sharpest between Ritterman and Booze, marred late-year public meetings.
Homicides, the perennial bane of some of the city’s most challenged neighborhoods, ticked upward again. Twenty-six criminal homicides were recorded in the city, up from 21 in 2010. The total does not include three men killed by gunfire in what have been deemed non-criminal incidents. Five more, including two young men who had become familiar faces to me and my colleagues at RichmondConfidential.org, were shot and killed in unincorporated North Richmond.
Meanwhile, continuing unrest plagued the relationship between the city’s Police Department and its Office of Neighborhood Safety, a relationship leaders in both organizations vowed was on the mend as the year draws to a close.
But perhaps the brightest lights of hope shone from the city’s youth.
Young Richmonders received national awards, and were accepted to prestigious universities. High school sports teams basked in a limelight reminiscent of glory years gone by. New youth media collaborations sprouted, making valuable contributions, becoming authors of the stories and histories of their own community. Social media networks brimmed with impassioned ideas from all of the city’s rich neighborhoods.
So let’s take a month-by-month stroll, together, down the memory lane of the year gone by. Richmond went through a lot in 2011, but it undoubtedly continued to become a better place.
Unity was the theme at swearing-in ceremony for the victors of the 2010 election, a halcyon moment that unfolded before hundreds at the Richmond Memorial Auditorium.
“We don’t need anyone to save us,” Corky Booze said. “We will save ourselves.”
Of course, the fissures that would break open later in the year were already evident, if submerged.
Beckles, the other new member of the council, took a broader tack, pointing to state and national policies that reduce resources for the neediest while slashing taxes on the wealthy and corporations.
A week later Mayor McLaughlin, buoyed by her own re-election, the victory of her ally Beckles and the hope that Booze would be a reliable supporter of her agenda, delivered a soaring state-of-the-city speech. The climax was pure McLaughlin-ian grandiosity.
“We must continue to speak out against the greed that has defined 20th Century America,” McLaughlin said. “It is only by deepening our human connection to one another that we will truly transition into the kind of 21st century future that each of us deserves.”
In a Jan. 21 story, we looked back on the unlikely campaign that vaulted Booze to elected office, a post he had sought unsuccessfully for more than a decade.
In it, we asked, “who is this man?” The answer, of course, was that Booze was a gregarious, colorful, tireless and earthy political figure with no qualms about speaking in off-the-cuff and often incendiary bursts. Less conclusive were our conjectures about how he would govern.
Corky is difficult to predict.
In a theme that would reverberate throughout the year, the city rejoiced in the triumph of its citizens, both contemporaneously and historically.
Readers loved the story of Guadalupe Morales. The Richmond High School senior gained admission and a full-scholarship to attend Brown University on the strength not only of her impeccable academic credentials, but her personal story of overcoming obstacles.
Morales’ parents came from Mexico in the late 1980s, looking for work and a better life for their children. They bounced around during her childhood, trying to make ends meet. But they always stressed to their daughter the importance of education.
“This is like the American dream,” Morales said. “I feel amazed. Even though I’ve come out of Richmond, all of us at Richmond can come through difficult circumstances and be successful.”
Later in the month, the city celebrated another pioneering resident, this one from a different time.
On Nov. 1, 1946, Douglas Ellison, 21, was hired and sworn in as a Richmond police officer, becoming only the second African-American to hold that post in the city.
Ellison, a lifelong Richmond resident who served on the police force for 27 years, died in 2006 at the age of 81. His wife, two sons and several grandchildren still reside in Richmond. And his wife and one of his sons and a granddaughter were presented a posthumous honor by Police Chief Chris Magnus and Captain Mark Gagan.
In other events in February, police and African American church leaders met to discuss ways they can better work together to reduce violence, an award-winning film on the history of the Nation of Islam drew hundreds of viewers, and a rogue tagger gave police fits while leaving his moniker, “Nacho,” scrawled across public and private property.
In an omen to the continuing violence that would plague residents in North Richmond, a Feb. 9 shooting that hit an AC Transit bus prompted County Sheriffs to begin escorts of buses passing through the neighborhood.
The month began in the placid, cooperative spirit that had marked the year to that point. Crime was tepid, with just one homicide in the city and none in unincorporated North Richmond over the year’s first two months.
The political waters seemed calm at City Hall as well. On March 8, the City Council voted 5-0 – with Nat Bates absent and Tom Butt recusing himself – to hold a special election to decide whether to raise the city’s sales tax by a half-percent.
In one of the year’s most endearing stories, six students and a teacher from Richmond’s sister city, Shimada, Japan, came to Richmond and bunked with local host families.
They toured the city and gave public presentations at the council meeting that month. The nine-day visit was part of the Richmond-Shimada Friendship Commission’s Ambassador Program.
But in the street, the tempest was brewing. In an episode that would be replayed later in the year, Magnus joined city and county leaders to call for major banks to ease off in evicting local mortgage holders who had fallen behind, in this case in support of Pastor Sidney Keys and his Bible Way Apostolic Church.
The protest would end a week later, as Keys, his wife and his 80-year old mother were led in handcuffs from the church and put into a sheriff’s car amid angry chants.
Deadly violence also returned in March, as five people, all males aged 26 and younger, were killed in Richmond and North Richmond over a 26-day stretch. Back-to-back North Richmond nights were ripped with drive-by shootings that left young men dead.
Ervin Coley III, 21, worked as a community gardener in North Richmond. His death shocked a community that is no stranger to violence.
I was near the spot of his death a few months later, chatting with neighbors and friends. “I cried puddles when Ervin died,” remembered his Lavonta Crummie, a friend since childhood.
Two historic events – one an end and the other a beginning – occurred in April, bookended by two very different community rallies.
The Silly Parade, which has no discernible theme other than non-sequiturs and, well, silliness, drew more than 100 people gathered to the corner of 23rd and Macdonald Avenues in downtown Richmond for the second consecutive year.
At the end of the month, a caravan traversed south, central and North Richmond, rolling through Crescent Park, the Pullman Apartments, Easter Hill, Richmond Village, Shields-Reid and various spots where young men have been killed in gang-violence.
It was called “Making Noise for Peace,” and was organized by Pastor Henry Washington of Operation Richmond. In between, the long saga of whether a casino would be built at Point Molate seemed to come to a close, and a new youth-led journalism project announced its presence.
Richmond’s City Council on April 5 voted 5-2 to nix plans for a casino at Point Molate, ending six years of often acrimonious debate.
But as the curtain closed on the casino, something special was in the midst of its debut.
In a multipurpose room in the bowels of City Hall, the youth gathered. It was no guerrilla news organization or insurgent media outlet, it was RichmondPulse.org, the newest news team in town. The Pulse’s launch was made possible in part by New America Media, a collaborative of ethnic media outlets across the country.
Throughout the year, editor Malcolm Marshall and his team of local teens and young adults broke stories about gang violence, animal abuse prevention and other local happenings, with an authentic voice all its own.
Amidst it all, Coley was laid to rest at Hilltop Church in a ceremony packed with more than 300 people. Dozens more lingered outside, many wearing T-shirts embossed with the dead man’s likeness.
“I am just getting hit with mixed emotions here,” Jelani Moses, told me as we chatted in the red-carpeted church lobby. Moses was Coley’s co-worker on the community gardening program. “I know we’re here to celebrate Ervin’s life and remember how beautiful he was, but this hurts real bad. Ervin was young and had it all ahead him and it all just got destroyed … totally senseless.”
A one-mile stretch of 23rd Street bustled with people. Many of them were part of the growing Latino population, now the largest ethnic group in Richmond. It was the 5th annual Cinco the Mayo street festival, organized by the 23rd Street Merchants Association, itself a symbol of the growing economic, social and political clout of Richmond’s Latino population.
It was a highlight of a Spring month studded with newness.
State, county and local officials donned hard hats May 20. The event was the ceremonial groundbreaking for the West Contra Costa County Health Center.
The state-of-the-art facility is scheduled to replace the aging Richmond Health Center, which was built in the 1960s, in mid-2012.
Later in the month, Chevron Corp. filed a new application to upgrade its refining equipment at its 2,900 acre Richmond facility, restarting a process that was halted by an appellate court in 2009.
Juneteenth is something special in Richmond.
The holiday marks the effective end to slavery in Texas, two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation. The parade drew thousands to central Richmond, and local Civil Rights icon Fred Jackson, a long-time community activist, served as grand marshal. Although it was well-known that the 73-year-old Jackson was battling cancer, few could have been sure this would be one of his last public appearances without the aid of a wheelchair.
In late June, the council approved a new, leaner civic budget. The combined general fund and capital improvement budget came to about $160 million, down $2 million from the year before.
“I can’t tell you there won’t be any impact to city services,” City Manager Bill Lindsay said at the time. “I think there will be.”
The month touched off with hot weather and political passions to match. The streets grew hot with violence as well.
Opinions flared in response to a state citizens’ commission proposal that new Congressional district boundaries earlier divide Richmond between Congressional and state districts. Some council stalwarts opposed new lines that would give much of Richmond to Congresswoman Barbara Lee’s district, which includes Oakland and Berkeley, and replace longtime representative George Miller. The progressives, led by Beckles, welcomed the proposal.
Ultimately, the new lines were scrapped, and Miller remained the city’s Congressional representative.
At the same time, the Council approved municipal ID cards, available to any Richmond resident who could prove they’d been a resident for 15 of the previous 30 days.
Richmond youth struck a blow for the arts. About 50 residents, Gompers High School students and leaders including McLaughlin and Ritterman gathered to mark the restoration of the Gompers Garden Mural, a massive swath of color and life that depicts a lush, vibrant jungle environment on a concrete wall.
But the heat in the streets soon commanded the city’s attention. Eight people were killed in gun violence in Richmond and North Richmond during a deadly July.
The deadly spate prompted Chief Magnus, elected leaders and officials from the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office to hold a press conference near the blood-stained site where Daryl Russell, 20, was shot in broad daylight. The leaders announced a new joint gang task force to quell the growing unrest between rival factions in central and North Richmond.
Amidst the tumult, Richmond Confidential sat down for a wide-open discussion with a city historian. George Livingston Jr., 58 is the son of George Livingston, a powerful Richmond leader since the 1960s and the city’s first elected African American mayor. The younger Livingston came of age in an era when Richmond was still frequented by famous musicians, athletes and other entertainers.
He described a Richmond in the 1950s and 1960s that was experiencing its turbulent postwar heyday, charged with a new, young and diverse population but marred by postwar de-mobilization and chronically high unemployment. But it was a place that drew the greats, and Livingston took notice from the beginning.
“In his heyday, Willie Mays would come to Richmond, oh yeah,” Livingston said. “I can remember the March of Dimes charitable events at Nichol Park, and Willie and guys like the Cincinnati Reds’ Tommy Harper and Chicago White Sox’ Jim Landis would come out and play in a little pick-up game with local guys who worked on the waterfront. I have a picture with him and my dad that I really cherish.”
Since early in its post World War II history, Richmond has been a hotbed of energetic neighborhood associations. Today is no different, and in many ways the North and East neighborhood is emblematic of robust community engagement.
For their neighborhood patrol, community safety means going outside their neighbor’s homes, hitting the pavement and talking to people.
On a bright Saturday in August, North and East neighborhood patrol volunteers came together to clean the front and back yard of a disabled homeowner.
“I loved being a part of the North & East Tree Team and helping green our city,” Felix Hunziker, a neighborhood leader, wrote on the Richmond Confidential Facebook page.
That commitment to community would be on display again a few weeks later, when a botched home burglary left a woman dead and a community on edge.
Within hours, Hunziker announced on his Facebook page a gathering in support of the victims.
“Neighbors and fellow Richmond residents,” the post read. “A candlelight vigil to express our sorrow and solidarity for the victims of this horrible incident will occur … Please bring a candle to hold and feel free to leave flowers and/or a card.”
The month was replete with community events, including a National Night Out celebration that took a police caravan through all the city’s neighborhoods to mix with residents. Congressman Miller made a well-publicized stop at the city’s ShotSpotter command center to get a first-hand look at the program he secured federal dollars to sustain, and two Oakland A’s baseball players visited the PAL Center to sign autographs and chat with local kids.
It was a momentous month, with the local wires crackling with news. Among the biggest included a proposed visit by former President Bill Clinton (which was later canceled), a change in the top leadership at Chevron’s refinery, a high-profile bust of an underground nightclub and the City Council’s decision to ban the use of plastic bags in grocery stores.
There was also a major anniversary, as the Richmond Art Center celebrated its 75th year.
But passions were stirred surprisingly high by a story about local trees.
Regional park officials and park users were upset when they found two acres of trees, in piles, on the ground on county land bordering Point Pinole Regional Park on Sept.14. The county, both park employees and visitors said, had not told them about the project.
As part of a solar panel installation project for the West County Detention Center, dozens of 85-year-old eucalyptus trees and a dozen oak trees were cut down.
The County Board of Supervisors approved the project in September 2010, along with 12 other solar panel installation projects across the region.
“It’s a good project, but not a blank check to put the solar panels anywhere,” Supervisor John Gioia said after he first saw the clear-cut, more than a week after the construction teams started working.
After learning the details, Gioia asked the contractor to halt construction until they have met with park officials to find a better place to install the solar panels.
After a series of appearances throughout the year – and looking a little more tired at each one – Fred Jackson succumbed to cancer on Sept. 8. He was 73.
“But for the grace of God I can be here today. The service that I have given has come from God, and whatever I am I owe to all of you,” Jackson said in late July, as he addressed about 200 people gathered in his beloved North Richmond for a music festival. His voice was thin and raspy from his continuing bout with cancer. It was his last public appearance. “Thank you for allowing me to be of service.”
When I learned the news that Fred had died, I immediately thought of the time I called him a few months before. He was recuperating at a family member’s home from chemotherapy treatments, but he insisted that he had time to talk. I was working on my thesis, a history project on North Richmond, and Fred said he wanted to help.
So I went out to the house a week later, and there he was. The shock of white hair, the robust beard. We sat in a sunny day room for more than two hours that day, and Fred led me on a journey down memory lane: His time in Germany as a member of the armed forces. The tense days in the 1970s between the sheriff and Black Panther activists in North Richmond. The community cleanups in the late 1990s. Through it all, he had his swollen feet perched up on a footrest. He was a lot thinner than he was just a few months before.
But what I remembered was the smile. He smiled as he told every new story. Fred had a full heart, and nothing could diminish that.
When I think of October, brightness comes to mind. Shining people. Bright traditions and institutions.
The East Bay Center of Performing Arts held a grand Community Launch Party. The center raised nearly $16 million under director Jordan Simmons to rebuild the worn Winters Building on the corner of 11th Street and Macdonald Avenue.
Famed photographer Dorothea Lange had a collection debuting at the Richmond Museum. The Lille Mae Jones Plaza, named for the beloved local activist, opened 26-units for low-income residents in mid-October.
Tania Pulido of Richmond accepted the Brower Youth Award for exceptional youth activism and leadership at the Herbst Center in San Francisco.
The Brower Youth Award is one of the most prestigious youth activism awards in the country. Presented by the Earth Island Institute the award recognizes six individuals under the age of 22 each year based on recommendations from their individual communities.
And in one of our most read stories in Richmond Confidential’s short history, we profiled the plight of Ized Stewart, a well-known homeless man who was arrested and briefly removed from the 100 yards of pavement he called home for two decades.
One of the enduring storylines in Richmond set off in October, when a fight inside City Hall roiled the city, commanded headlines all over the East Bay and opened gulf between the Police Department and the Office of Neighborhood Safety.
The Hotel Mac celebrated its 100th birthday, and the RYSE youth center turned three.
But Occupy was the big national story, and it came to Richmond too. More than 90 protesters gathered at the steps of Richmond’s Memorial Auditorium Nov. 11 in support of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Under cloudy skies, protesters spoke out against wealth inequality, big banks, corporate greed and what they called Richmond’s own “1%”: Chevron Corp.
Ritterman, McLaughlin and Beckles attended the rally. The move preceded a council resolution opposing Chevron’s appeal of its property tax assessment, and later protests at local Wells Fargo and Bank of America branches. Richmond Police later went to Oakland to help police their control the burgeoning protest crowds.
Days later, Richmond Confidential published a comprehensive data set of Richmond public employee compensation. The data showed that Richmond public employees earn a yearly average salary almost twice the median household income of the city’s residents, leading to a drain of wealth and resources as many of those employees choose to live outside of the city.
Full-time city workers collected a median salary of $90,000 in 2010, with 337 of the city’s full-time employees surpassing the six-figure mark, according to figures provided by the City Clerk’s office.
On Nov. 10, Richmond’s first professional sports team notched a victory in their inaugural home game.
The Richmond Rockets, the city’s American Basketball Association team, defeated reigning conference champs the Bay Area Matrix 78-71.
“I’m overwhelmed and overjoyed,” said owner Eric Marquis as the final seconds ticked off the clock.
When the final buzzer went off he yelled, “I do believe we just won,” before running off to high-five his staff.
The day after Thanksgiving, a drive-by shooter sprayed the Rancho Market and Deli in North Richmond. A group of young men was standing outside, and they all rushed through the front door of the store seeking cover.
One was hit, and he later died. His name was Marquis Hamilton.
I knew Marquis well, and had folders and notepads containing his quotes and his photos. Marquis was a gregarious, open young man. At Ervin Coley’s funeral in April, Marquis was willing to talk and pose for dozens of pictures in the parking lot of the church that day.
I never thought I would be attending his funeral six months later. But that’s life in certain neighborhoods in Richmond and North Richmond, where young men are targets, and they lose their lives at rates that are utterly unacceptable, yet we seem to accept year after year.
Days later, McLaughlin held her annual ceremony to remember and reflect on the lives lost to violence in the city. About 20 people attended, mostly city employees, and Beckles and Ritterman were on hand as well. No family members of the 25 homicide victims being memorialized were on hand. Marquis Hamilton, having been killed a few blocks north of the city boundaries, in unincorporated North Richmond, was not part of the ceremony.
“This should have been a full auditorium,” said ONS agent Diane Gatewood.
Meanwhile, the Rockets kept winning, sweeping a three-game set in typically high-flying fashion from Dec. 10 – 22, and the City Council devolved into a rhetorical donnybrook.
The debate was interminable, often acrimonious. Tempers had been whipped for days before, as community leaders and other residents, including Hunziker, jousted with Ritterman in an email thread that was forwarded to hundreds of people and the press. The topic was another new tax, this one on soda sales in the city.
The City Council voted 5-2, with Booze and Bates dissenting, to support placing a soda tax on the November 2012 ballot– a measure that proposes a 1-cent charge for every ounce of sugary beverages sold in Richmond.
To supporters, the tax was a sensible move backed by public health officials and hard science. It would reduce sugary soda consumption in the poorest neighborhoods, where obesity rates are frightful. Ritterman seemed set on the ideas that he and the mayor had been floating since January – Richmond as not just a community, but a leader in making fundamental change.
Ritterman said taxing soda is closer to the beginning than the end.
“Over the course of this debate I had people writing me and saying, ‘What’s next? Tax red meat?’” Ritterman said. “Yeah. Lets get serious. We can’t keep running industrial agriculture like we are now.”
But Booze, now diametrically opposed to the progressives who had hoped to have his support, blasted Ritterman and others for passing a regressive tax. He aggressively highlighted issues of race and class, accusing tax supporters of looking to marginalize people of color.
“This is an elitist tax on poor people,” Booze said.
Bates joined Booze in arguing that the tax would not reduce soda consumption, but take money out of the pockets of the poorest and push some people to shop in nearby cities.
Local business owner Tony Suggs, in a comment on the Richmond Confidential page, suggested that the progressives had overreached: “I used to think just San Francisco and Berkeley were nuts. I see now that Richmond is following suit in social engineering.”
On Dec. 15, McLaughlin and Beckles joined 50 protesters outside county government buildings in Martinez before filing into a hearing aimed at resolving a tax dispute between Chevron and the Contra Costa County Assessor’s office.
At issue were property valuations of Chevron’s 2,900-acre Richmond refinery, which were used to determine taxes owed by the refinery from 2007-2009.
At the same time, crews were laboring to contain oil and gas leakage from the Tug Tiger, a World War II-era tugboat that sunk Dec. 11 in the Point Richmond harbor.
Thousands of feet of boom have been deployed around the tug, across the opening of the dry dock and at Brooks Island.
What most of the public didn’t know at the time was that a letter had circulated around City Hall and police command staff.
The letter, written by ONS agent Sam Vaughn, was a response to the ugly back-and-forth that occurred after the fight at City Hall in October. Vaughn raised a series of concerns, and proposed reforms aimed at improving their working relationship with RPD staff and officials. The letter suggested that at least one of the recommendations – an investigation into police conduct – was a demand, without which ONS would not participate in Operation Ceasefire, a multi-pronged anti-violence campaign the city hopes to roll out this year.
By Dec. 21, Lindsay, to whom both Chief Magnus and ONS Director DeVone Boggan directly report, moved to squelch the unrest by ordering an investigation into who leaked information to the press and a councilmember about a non-criminal Sheriff’s stop involving an Office of Neighborhood Safety staff member. The investigation was something Magnus said one day before was a nonstarter.
“There is no way we are going to be able to find out (the source of the leak),” Magnus said.
And so 2011 drew to a close, albeit on a higher note over the last week. Christmas parties and toy giveaways popped up all over town, as they do in Richmond. The “shop with a cop” event stormed the Target store on Macdonald Avenue, taking dozens of kids on cart-careening shopping sprees.
So it was in Richmond in 2011. The year started on high, and went a long period of gutty turbulence, and ended on high, maybe a little more calloused by what we all went through. We loved, and we strived, and we hurt.
I like the way my friend Xavier Polk puts it. He’s 17, and he’s a young musician who spends most of his free-time making music at the RYSE Center.
“This past year in Richmond was a good year and it also brought some pain,” Polk said. “As a young adult out of Richmond, I’ve lost a few friends to violence this year but also I’ve also grown as a male figure. It showed me that that I’m doing something positive and learning how to be a leader to others in Richmond, and I am excited about the future.”
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