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The Rhizomatic Project

Margaret Rossoff

Wow, I’m Back in Eugene


I was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1947 and my parents were liberal. They were both high school librarians and I grew up in the milieu of left critique of the world. I went to demonstrate against nuclear power and for U.S. “hands off Cuba” and stuff like that when I was fairly young. In high school I was in a peace group called the student action group—SAG—not such a good acronym. In college I was in an SDS chapter and got involved in the women's movement there.   I was married, unfortunately to a man, and we moved out to San Diego for him to go to grad school, and I joined the women’s movement there. I also went to therapy and decided to leave him, which was a good decision. So while I was in San Diego, I was involved with a women’s newspaper, called Good Bye All That and our group started a campus child care center. [Afterward], I drove up the west coast from San Diego, just trying to find a place to live, and ended up in Eugene.

Eugene had a women's underground paper, The Women’s Press, as well as an “underground” paper, The Augur.   I worked on both.   And the anti-war movement was going on and we had food co-ops and a recycling center and a free clinic. I was basically part of an alternative culture. That was a period when a lot of feminists were saying feminism was the theory and lesbianism was the practice. I was very politically active in Eugene.  When I moved briefly to LA, I supported a group of Latino men (at that point the terminology was Chicano) who had been brutalized by the police. When I moved to the Bay Area, I got involved with a Marxist Leninist organization, called Bay Area Socialist Organizing Committee, which identified as anti-sectarian, anti-dogmatist for what that was worth.

I was less active while raising my son, until Occupy Oakland, which was in 2011. Was like, “wow, I’m back in Eugene.” A little different because instead of living in collective housing with food stamps, I was in my own home and financially secure I was pretty involved with Occupy Oakland: facilitation committee, facilitating general assembly, nonviolent caucus, and committee to reimagine general assembly to try to change how things were working.

Margaret Rossoff Pic.JPG

Margaret Rossoff

“My attitude was the liberals can take care of this and it became increasingly clear that they didn’t.”

Liberals Cannot Take Care of This

“My attitude was the liberals can take care of this and it became increasingly clear that they didn’t.”

What’s been implicit in all this is that capitalism sucks. The environmental dimensions of that weren’t immediately apparent to me and in 1970 when Earth Day began, my attitude was the liberals can take care of this and it became increasingly clear that they didn’t. When Oakland Occupy came around, I became active in environmental work. Created an Environmental Justice working group within Occupy.

The environmental justice working group, I just got up in a meeting and asked if people were interested. Some people were. And then in January of 2012, people from different Occupies like Oakland, Berkeley, wherever else, and San Francisco were trying to see if we could come up with a strategy so that we were focusing on some of the same things, with some strategy, instead of all over the map,  which is what people accuse Occupy of. We met in Berkeley and people interested in environmental issues said the obvious thing to deal with is Chevron because it's right near here in Richmond and it's a major fossil fuel infrastructure-- but none of us live in Richmond.  Fortunately we were able to connect with folks in Richmond who took leadership of an Earth Day demonstration targeting Chevron.  This was a unique experience for me of a group of white people taking an organizing idea to people of the global majority and having them fully in charge of it.

Connectedness: Local and Global Issues and Networks

In the year after the 2012 Richmond fire, in summer 2013, people planned a big commemorative demonstration and marched to Chevron and people were arrested in coordinated civil disobedience and Bill McKibben came and the Richmond police were totally supportive and just took you a little bit away and took the handcuffs off. After that the group that organized [the demonstration] decided we should keep working together and we created the Sunflower Alliance, which was initially an alliance of representatives of different groups, but turned into just individuals, some of whom were in multiple groups. That was a center of my work for a while.

About 4 years ago, a bunch of us said we live in Oakland and we’re focused on the refineries in Richmond and four others in surrounding counties, [but] what about Oakland and what about crude-by-rail in Oakland? So we had a couple meetings where we found out this guy was planning to build a marine terminal and ship coal through Oakland and that was the beginning of No Coal in Oakland. It came out of the Sunflower Alliance. As soon as we started meeting, we brought in Jess Dervin-Ackerman, then the conservation coordinator for Sierra Club San Francisco Bay chapter, and she brought in Margaret Gordon, the co-founder of West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project (WOEIP), which works on issues of toxins and pollution in West Oakland, which is the worst place on pollution in the Bay Area. [WOEIP had previously] gotten limits on how long trucks could idle to limit pollution and how close they could park to schools. We’re also connected to people in Utah. Actually No Coal in Richmond just started up. That's a pretty white group too at our meetings, although with support from people of the global majority. No Coal in Vallejo is another potential development so the people there who are fighting the cement factory are saying that there’s a possibility that there will be coal shipment there.

I like Sunflower Alliance and No Coal because they really do have that [environmental justice] perspective and concern for the people who are most suffering locally and awareness of who’s most suffering globally. When I first got involved through Occupy Oakland, Margaret Gordon from WOEIP told me about the environmental justice principles and I got them posted on the Occupy website. That was my first time hearing about that but I think that awareness infuses the group.  

A Constellation that Works

Initially our strategy for No Coal in Oakland was pretty clear because we had to convince the city council to have a hearing and enact a ban on the use of the terminal to store and handle coal. So the tactics were of conventional lobbying. That was another reason to reach out to labor and faith [and business] constituencies. It’s not just to get more community involved. These were constituencies to which city council members are responsive. But we’ve gotten more creative since then. We succeeded in enacting the ban, but the developer sued in court and prevailed; this is now under appeal, and there is a second suit which has basically put the issue on hold for at least a year.

One of the campaigns that emerged [was pressuring local officials and candidates to] pledge they wouldn’t take money from Phil Tagami, the developer who wanted to ship coal and who sued the City. The other campaign was the Bank of Montreal campaign and that started when we realized that the bank was arranging financing for the terminal, initially from a Utah fund and then from  pension funds.  We saw a proposal from the bank in which pension funds were solicited to invest in infrastructure not labeled for coal although it was for the Oakland terminal.

We had activists within the labor movement, but outreach to faith was harder because we didn’t have anyone ensconced in the faith community in the Oakland area and it was hard because coal developers were buying off black pastors saying number one we're going to get jobs for your constituents and number two, we’ll give you 7 cents for every ton of coal shipped through Oakland. There's a woman named Francis Aubrey, who’s a Unitarian activist, and I knew her from Sunflower and she said you should get in touch with California Interfaith Power and Light; one of their staff began helping us find sympathetic clergy. This woman in our group Susan, who knows everyone and she was going to the beauty shop every week and through all that she made a connection with the wife of Missionary Baptist minister, Ken Chambers, who also worked very closely with us. So it was just really good fortune that we connected up with Ken and Will and started reaching out to other congregants.

Another constituency we’ve started working with recently has been youth. There’s this nonprofit called the Rose Foundation that has a project called New Voices Rising and they’re mentoring young people to become activists. That group, Youth v. the Apocalypse, is a project of 350 Bay Area and has spearheaded a bunch of things including a demonstration, the day before Halloween, at the developer Phil Tagami’s home. They’ve done actions supporting the Green New Deal too.

There was a constellation of nonprofit organizations working on the same issue and that was the Sierra Club, Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN), Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), San Francisco Baykeeper, and the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project. That configuration led us to obvious collaborations with groups like APEN and all these people of color. I think a lot of people had an environmental justice orientation as opposed to environmental orientation from the get-go. People in No Coal in Oakland were already involved with CBE and other stuff. There were people who were tenant rights activists and tenant rights organizations.  Our connections to these other campaigns helped us reach out to people of color in Oakland.

Diversity and Visibility: We Lost that in the Shuffle

“And this what happens in movements—the urgency overrides the planning and so after the court decision, it’s like what next?”

There are several different answers [for No Coal’s challenges in involving black people]. The kind of meetings that we had were the kind that white people have. The guy who facilitates the meetings is influenced by obsessive-compulsive disorder.  That’s maybe number five. I think number one is the urgency around police brutality and homelessness for the Black community just swamps the concerns I think with coal and how coal [impacts things] in the future. And then the initial meeting we had about the coal campaign, which was controlled more by the Sierra Club, some of the black people came to that did not feel acknowledged and taken seriously. We talked about trying to pay an organizer that was a person in of color in the community but we never got that together.   A lot of us who are white were retired and had time that other people don't have a lot of. Although we had the support of many of the black ministers, they didn’t bring their congregants to meetings or rallies or council hearings. In some cases, they didn’t have very many congregants. After the victory in the city council level we had a meeting to sum up our self-criticism and we were self-critical about our inability to maintain people of color. At the meetings where we were evaluating, a number of the black people who came were much less critical than we were of ourselves. So I think it was a combination of a lot of things.

We had some diversity about race, some about age, some about disability, class for sure, and some around sexual orientation. [Queerness] is not an issue but I think the question about making it an issue or more visible clashes with the idea of diversity because I don't know how many of these Missionary Baptist ministers that have been so supportive of us are cool about gay people. I don’t know. I don't think we've been quiet about our queerness because we don't want to alienate them but if we were more open about our queerness, might we alienate them? Would that be worth it? I don't know. I don't know the answer. Things didn’t get talked about like that. Particularly because it was West Oakland and it was striking that we couldn’t get black people to come.

The meetings I've gone to of Bay Resistance and other groups, they say what their preferred pronoun is. We’ve never done anything like that. I suppose if we did something like that it might help break it down. But if everyone says the obvious male and female pronouns that they look like, I don’t think we’d accomplish any queering.

And this what happens in movements—the urgency overrides the planning and so after the court decision, it’s like what next? The urgency of the immediate issue seems more important than building the movement.  We had this idea of having a deep dive coordinating committee meeting where we look at these deep issues, like how do we bring people of color into leadership and activism and not just technical support? But we never did have that. Quite often we’re removed from the moment. I think we need to have that meeting about strategy and figure out how to not just focus on the goal of keeping coal out of Oakland but also focus on the goal of building a truly diverse environmental justice movement. I think we lost that in the shuffle.

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