Race-Baiting in Richmond 

How Big Business used race to drive a wedge through Richmond's progressive community — and why you should be concerned about it.

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Although BMWL & Partners never explicitly called Measure N racist, the campaign against the soda tax clearly exploited racial tensions in Richmond. The campaign pushed the notion that the soda tax was regressive, in the same way that Big Tobacco declared that taxes on cigarettes unfairly harm low-income consumers. In both cases, the argument is dubious: Brownell noted that an item needs to be a necessary commodity for the tax on it to be regressive, and soda and tobacco are definitely not necessary. But the argument that Measure N was a regressive tax worked, nonetheless.

From the start, the beverage industry and BMWL & Partners understood the ramifications of race in this argument and didn't waste time seeking out community members who might be receptive to their message. "We were at Cinco de Mayo," noted Finnie of BMWL & Partners. "We were at Juneteenth." Finnie and the anti-Measure N campaign began to form alliances at these events, typically with leaders of minority communities.

Perhaps the most crucial alliance that Finnie formed was with Councilman Corky Booze, an ally of Nat Bates who had already labeled the soda tax as racist. Booze, who is also African-American, proved to be an ideal ally because he was a political enemy of Councilman Jeff Ritterman, a white liberal who had authored Measure N. A few months prior, Booze and Ritterman were embroiled in a public dispute that included threats of physical violence. "I will punch you in the nose," Booze had said to Ritterman. The first night Ritterman introduced the soda tax, Booze announced: "This is an elitist tax on the poor."

In an interview, Booze (pronounced Boo-ZAY) said that when talk of a soda tax first started, he felt as if whites liberals on the city council were teaming up against him, so he sought out consultation from BMWL & Partners, since the firm had represented him during his campaign for office. "They actually got me elected to the Richmond City Council," he said.

Not long after Booze met with the BMWL & Partners, he said he introduced Finnie to Joe Fisher, forming yet another ideal alliance for the beverage industry. Fisher, a leader of the Black American Political Action Committee (BAPAC) in Richmond, also contended early on that the soda tax was racist. Over the years, BAPAC also has taken money from Chevron and Fisher has used it to fight progressive and environmental causes, as the Express has previously reported (see "A Friend of Chevron Gives It a Costly Gift," 10/29/2009). And during the anti-soda-tax campaign, Fisher worked for the beverage industry as a consultant; he and BAPAC received more than $30,000. He said his job entailed "sharing my opinion with African Americans, sharing with them what I perceive as being the truth."

For Fisher, the truth meant playing the race card throughout the campaign. And BMWL & Partners hammered home the message by employing numerous black and Latino youth to work on the effort. Racial divisions over the soda tax soon became prominent. "You go to the predominantly white community, you see 'Yes' signs on this issue," Fisher said during the campaign. "Go into the black community, you see 'No' signs."

Jeff Ritterman, who has a long, gray ponytail and often wears Hawaiian shirts, worked on the soda-tax concept for years. Before he retired from office last month, he was known in town for championing idealistic, liberal ideas, including the creation of a citywide greywater system and the construction of cleaner forms of public transit. Most often he sided with Green Party Mayor Gayle McLaughlin and was a leader of the Richmond Progressive Alliance in its battle with Chevron.

Before he won election to the council, Ritterman was the chief cardiologist at Kaiser Richmond. During his time there, he treated numerous patients who suffered from heart disease and diabetes. Tears welled up in his eyes when he described the fear and pain he saw in patients when they were in the grips of a heart attack. He also said he was influenced greatly by the 2010 Fitnessgram study that showed that one-third of African-American and Latino children in Richmond are obese. As a physician, Ritterman knew all too well that obesity in youth often translates to early death via stroke, diabetes, or heart problems. "[The study] actually even tells you that there will be so many more heart attacks, so many more strokes," Ritterman said, "and [it] just felt unconscionable to do nothing."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about half of the black population nationwide is overweight or obese, and among Latinos, it's 40 percent. At the same time, the overconsumption of soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages is increasingly being linked to health problems. Sugar-laden beverages are much easier to consume in mass quantities than solid foods, like say, a cupcake. In addition, soda companies have increasingly targeted low-income communities with advertising, directing ads especially at youth.

According to Dr. Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist at UC San Francisco, it's a dangerous trend. The mass consumption of sugar via soda affects the human body much like drugs and tobacco. "In ten words or less, sugar is both toxic and abused," he said. "Every substance that is both toxic and abused at the same time requires both personal intervention, which, for lack of a better word, we can call 'rehab,' or societal intervention [which], for lack of a better word, we call 'a tax.' Same thing we do with alcohol and tobacco." Lustig also argued that education alone is not enough to fight sugar addiction.

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