Episode 6: They Won, They Won Big

It started with a puzzle: why were people in West Oakland dying 12–15
years earlier than their counterparts in the wealthier hills? The
people in the flatlands were dying of the same things as the people in
the hills, just much younger. Meet the doctor who helped make the case
that air pollution from cargo handling was one big part of the answer,
and the smart-dressing, wise-cracking environmental activist who
helped to clean up the air. This is an inside look at the problems
that come with being a major node in the network of global trade — and
the solutions that people have devoted their lives to implementing.

(As usual, the caveats around these scripts apply! We change a lot of little things at the very end, so what you hear when you listen to the podcast (as you should!) may not be precisely reflected in this document. But 99% of the time, it will be, so here you go.)


Containers is an audio documentary about capitalism, work, and the ways global trade shapes the world. I’m your host, Alexis Madrigal.

Over the first five episodes of the show, we’ve covered the massive changes that containerization wrought and the way ports work, how products come into the country and the rules that govern the American fleet.

What we haven’t talked about is what it’s like for the people living close to the Port. What does it do to a place to be a major node in the global network of goods. And in particular, what are the local environmental repercussions of all these ships and trucks and trains?

The Port of Oakland sprouts to the southwest of downtown. Surrounding it is the historically African-American community of West Oakland.

From the beginning West Oakland has been a legendary place shaped and reshaped by transportation. Once upon a time, it was the last stop on the transcontinental railroad. Some African American Pullman porters, who worked the trains, decided to put down roots in town.

Dellums: “My father was a Pullman porter, what they used to say, ‘He ran on the road, that was the slang that they used.”

That’s Ron Dellums, who was mayor of Oakland from 2006 to 2010 in a KQED documentary called Crossroads.

Dellums: “Black people who worked for the Brotherhood of Sleeping Porters were really the astronauts of the black community. Because they were the ones who left the black community and ventured out into the broader world My father was a part of that tradition.”

Miss Ching’s class of West Oakland kindergarteners, 1894.

The Porters and their families became the backbone of the community. During and after World War II, when Oakland’s black population exploded and jobs were plentiful on the waterfront, many black migrants from the south, especially those from Louisiana and Texas, ended up in West Oakland. The neighborhood became a key hub for black life in the Bay.

Jazz legends played the clubs of 7th Street. Poets were inspired there. A black middle class coalesced.

But there were problems. The large influx of people and rampant redlining led to crowded conditions and crime. The city responded with the promise of “redevelopment,” which often meant destroying whole pieces of black neighborhoods. A big Post Office wiped out hundreds of black people’s homes. Three different freeways were rammed through it (check out the map above). The BART system was built right over the top of 7th Street.

Through the first three quarters of the 20th century, black people were not represented in local government. There were no black people on the city council until 1977. That made it difficult for the West Oakland community to fight the placement of polluting industries. The result, even decades down the line, is that an Alameda County Public Health report found that the density of chemical and air pollution release sites was still 4 times higher in the poor areas of Oakland than the wealthy ones.

I give you this history because we can’t think about the Port and West Oakland without acknowledging the deep racialized history that has shaped this place. This is the table stakes for understanding why the rest of the story is so remarkable.

As we learned in episode 1, as container shipping grew, so did the Port of Oakland. For the last 20 years, it’s been the 3rd largest port on the west coast, and since the year 2000, it’s been pushing through at least one-million twenty-foot containers worth of stuff each year.

And what that has meant for West Oakland is more trucks driving through the neighborhood, more ships burning bunker fuel at the docks, and more cargo handling equipment running on diesel.

That was the context in 2003 when Dr. Anthony Iton took over as Alameda County’s Public Health Officer. He was the person charged with tracking life and death in Alameda County, which includes West Oakland.

Iton: I used to say to people, in Alameda County, you’re not dead until I say you’re dead. Because literally I had to sign the death certificate.

Iton is a Berkeley educated lawyer as well as an MD and he wanted to do serious research in Alameda County. One of the first things that he did was to look at the 10,000 death certificates to which he put his signature each year, closely. He realized that death certificates say a lot about the health of an area.

Iton: You could get really good data from death certificates. You can tell what somebody died of, where they lived, what age they died, and their race/ethnicity.

So, they stuck all that data on a series of maps. What they saw was a shocking level of health inequality.

Iton: The most striking patterns that we mapped first was showing basically 12 to 15 year life expectancy difference between people growing up and who lived in the West Oakland flatlands versus people who lived in the Oakland hills.

That is to say, if you were a black person living in West Oakland, you’d die more than a decade before a black person in the Oakland hills. Those born and bred in the zip code 94607 were having more than a decade cut from their lives. The question was why.

Iton: We looked at things like homicide. We looked at things like HIV/AIDS and it didn’t explain the difference. Those causes of death, infant mortality, none of those things explain that difference.

In fact, Iton says that people in the hills died of pretty much the same things as people in West Oakland.

Iton: Heart disease, cancer, lower respiratory disease, stroke. The bread and butter chronic disease.

Iton says that West Oaklanders were just getting sick 10 to 15 years earlier with these diseases. The public health researchers knew the discrepancy could not result from just one variable.

Iton: We knew that what was happening was a sort of cumulative and kind of synergistic effect. It wasn’t any one thing. There is no silver bullet.

One working theory Iton’s team had was that people living in West Oakland were experiencing high and sustained levels of stress from their environments, everything from the crime to the noise to poverty to evictions, having to work too much or not being able to find a job. All the things that stress anybody are exacerbated within this community. And they came up with an evocative term for what this doing to the bodies of the people: weathering.

At the same time, residents were being exposed to very high levels of various pollutants, especially diesel particulate emissions. Diesel particulate emissions are the sooty leftovers from fuel being burned. They’ve been linked to cancer, asthma, emphysema, and general respiratory problems. And because kids’ lungs are still developing, all these nasty little particles are especially bad for them.

Back in the mid-2000s, Iton’s office produced a report that showed people in West Oakland being exposed to 9 to 10 times the diesel particulate emissions of other people in the county.

Iton: because of the freeways, because of the trucks, because of the port equipment, because of the bunker fuel that’s burned by the ships while they’re waiting in dock because of the lack of electrification of the port equipment.

Iton: So you’ve got a sensitive population that’s experiencing high levels of stress, has a lot of risk in their life, very few resources.

The Alameda County Public Health reports found data that linked pollution to people dying younger in West Oakland, to more kids going to the hospital with asthma attacks in West Oakland, and to chronic disease hitting people harder in West Oakland. Port of Oakland officials, not to mention the shipping interests and retailers who benefit from all those trucks dragging around containers, were not happy.

Iton: I’ll say initially they didn’t like me and they didn’t like the health department at all. They complained to the board of supervisors about me. And I certainly heard about that. They challenged and denied… There was a series of executive directors at the port during this time and the initial directors just resisted.

But people in the community were pushing on Iton to do something and quick. They were watching their neighbors die and saying, “THIS IS AN URGENT PROBLEM!” They were led by a woman named Margaret Gordon through an organization she co-founded called the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project.

Iton: Margaret Gordon is an organizer extraordinaire. And she wasn’t coming asking for help. She was coming demanding help. And demanding that the health department take this issue up. And we responded.

And something astounding has happened since the dark days of the mid-2000s. The community started to organize. Things started to change.

Iton: This is story about heroes in West Oakland like Margaret Gordon. This is a story about people who stood up and said, “No, not on my watch.” This is not a story about the health department. And this is not a story even about the port. This is a story about people coming together to fight for justice. And they won. And they won big. And they won in a way that had influence on what’s happening in ports all over this country. And in fact ports all around the world. I think those are the true heroes, the Margaret Gordons… They drove this change and they deserve the credit.

When we come back from the break, we’re gonna go meet Margaret Gordon and find out how she did it.

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The first thing you learn about Margaret Gordon is that anyone with any sense must call her Miss Margaret. That’s how she signs emails. That’s the honorific she has earned. And she is not afraid to let anybody know that she is a force to be reckoned with, even if she was barely five feet tall.

Back in the mid-2000s, the executive director of the Port was a guy named Jerry Bridges, who was maybe 6’5”. And one day he was sitting in a meeting with a state agency that Miss Margaret was also monitoring. She spotted him getting ready to leave and chased him down..

Margaret: I went up to him and I bump-bump-bumped my chest into him. And he looked down… HAHAHAHAHA. “My name is Miss Margaret Gordon.”… The man said, “I have never had no little woman, no woman run up in my chest like that outside my mama.” When I told him who I was and what I was doing, and all he could say was “Yes Ma’am.” … He couldn’t believe it. He said he had never had that kind of encounter with anybody. He just kept looking down and shaking his head.

That’s Miss Margaret Gordon. She’s 70 years old with a wicked sense of style. When we sat down to talk about her career, she arrived in green pants, matching green shoes, matching green Kangol hat, and a peach sweater.

She’s been an activist in one way or another for 50 years, gaining her first experience organizing communities with the women of Hunters Point, a historically black neighborhood in San Francisco where her parents lived for a time.

Margaret: I’d go to all these meetings with the older ladies. I’m 20something and they in their 40s and 50s and 60s. Them ladies was tough. Them ladies had been fighting to upgrade Hunters Point when I got there for 20, 30, 40 years. The whole thing was, you a youngster and you wanna come with us. Your thing is to take notes. And after the meeting, we can all go get our bottles and you can tell us. Then you can ask the questions. The whole thing was about giving me a foundation.

Eloise Westbrook, at a Hunters Point community meeting.

Her family, too, taught her to stand up and make her voice heard.

Margaret: My great aunts, who also raised my mother, who were very gregarious ladies. They was not, they was no joke. They never bit their tongue about nothing they didn’t like. My grandma, my father’s mother. These were all strong women. They ran stuff. They ran the church, the neighborhood, the school, the husbands, the housewives, the neighborhood. Everybody came to them.

Miss Margaret was born in Richmond, north of Oakland, then moved to several predominantly black neighborhoods in San Francisco, before eventually settling in West Oakland in the early 1990s. To make ends meet, she was doing a bunch of different jobs, mostly cleaning houses, but she was also serving as a student advocate in schools, where she noticed something disturbing.

Margaret: I used to go to local school, Prescott School, and I’d see these shoe boxes in the nurse’s office with all these inhalers. And I couldn’t understand why these kids all had asthma.

Around that time, the Pacific Institute, a local non-profit, got a grant to study using “environmental indicators” to do community work. Miss Margaret worked with the community on that process. They looked at everything that could be measured about West Oakland.

Margaret: We started with 250 things, housing to how many kids had parents, how many people were in jail, how many people didn’t have good education, where was the jobs, where was the school systems at, who vote and who didn’t vote, what was happening in the ground, the soils, how many toxic sites that were here, where were trucks coming to and from, who was the big polluters, what was the health implications of living close to all these freeways, by a freeway and a port.

And then working with the community, they narrowed down the big list to 17 things to focus on, which have guided Miss Margaret’s work for the last 20 years. Not surprisingly, near the top of the list were the incredibly high asthma rates that Miss Margaret had seen the evidence of. As part of their first major study in 2002, they found that the 94607 zip code, which encompasses almost all West Oakland, had an kids’ asthma rate 7 times the state average. 7 times!

They started to connect the dots between what was happening at the Port, what was happening with the trucks, and what was happening with the kids and their asthma. So they started generating data that they could use to show the magnitude of the problem.

Margaret: It’s always been the trucks. Old, dirty trucks parked everywhere. They were parking everywhere and just massive truck traffic through the city, through the neighborhood. Trucks just idling their engines… We had to know how many trucks were here. So we had a traffic engineer to come here and train some of us to go out and count the trucks.

In a part of Oakland with a population of something like 25,000 people, they found an astounding number of truck trips were happening in a given day.

Margaret: We could have anywhere from 22,000 to 44,000 truck trips. One truck could come through here 8 times.

At the same time, Miss Margaret realized that the truckers were not some evil group. They were largely working class or poor people who were just trying to survive in a brutal, race-to-the-bottom industry. Miss Margaret’s organization, co-founded with Brian Beveridge and by this time known as the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project, decided they’d do everything they could to minimize truck trips through the neighborhood. So they supported the Port creating a parking lot on former Army land they’d received from the Federal government. They put out messages in multiple languages to ensure the truckers understood anti-idling regulations. They got a whole bunch of agencies together to map out a truck route, so the worst pollution would route around sensitive areas like schools and parks.

And then the state passed an important regulation requiring that truckers upgrade their rigs. You see, the drivers who do what’s called drayage moving containers in and out of the port would buy old trucks that had been used for long-haul routes in the past. So not only were there thousands of truck trips, but they were being made by the oldest, dirtiest trucks.

Margaret: Oh, god, that was crazy. That was really crazy. The truck drivers were pissed off. That they were gonna spend this money. They didn’t know how they was gonna make a living. We had to convince the state and the Feds to give them some money. They sued and complained and whined for the longest time. And they just had to get over it.

As she was doing all this work on the grassroots level, a mayoral candidate named Ron Dellums, who you heard earlier, called up Miss Margaret and pressed her into service on the port commission.

Margaret: So, all this stuff I had been doing, being outspoken, calling it like I see it. My name came up in the conversation. I got a call. Can you come to this meeting, he want to talk to you about this, him being mayor and where we’d like to see you being placed. This was an intentional development that they wanted to see throughout the city of Oakland on all boards and commissions.

The city council voted her appointment down twice, but eventually in 2005, she became a port commissioner. At first, she felt like she had a lot of catching up to do. Just a few years earlier, she’d been cleaning houses, and now she was sitting around a boardroom with the region’s bigwigs.

Margaret: How can I be on the same par with these other people who worked in banks, were executives in banks, they were lawyers, they owned businesses, they were accountants. How do I be on par with them and be able to speak the same language? And at the same time, how did I navigate myself in such a place where I could talk about the injustice and about some solutions?

So she developed strategies for maximizing her impact with these group of people who might never have interacted with a community advocate like Miss Margaret. She always tried to have 3 key takeaways from her statements and she always wrote herself notes to stay precise. Sometimes, though, the way her community in West Oakland was talked about drove her to, literally, scream.

Margaret: And if I got too pissed off about the conversation going on, I would get up, take my purse, go inside the bathroom, scream inside the purse, AHHHHHHHH, my nose would be sweating, back of my head would be wet, I was going through menopause, then I would come back, drink me some ice water, some tea, and then go back into the room.

For Miss Margaret, this was not some abstract exercise in balancing business and the environment. This was truly life and death for the people she knew.

Margaret: Who gon live? That’s what it comes down to: Who gon’ live? Not how you gonna survive. Who gon’ live? Through these different phenomenon, changes that’s happening on Earth…

I live in a place where I’m gonna see somebody. You’re not gonna see the same people I see. I’m gonna see somebody’s mama, grandmother, uncle, cousin, sister, brother. That know me. And ask me why I voted this way. No, uh uh.

In her work on the board, while she might have been a novice at parsing shipping company business operations, she retained her political instincts.

Margaret: You couldn’t get around me politically. Because I was going to challenge you politically about what people, about what the little people need… You couldn’t tell me that it was OK for some kid to have asthma and some mother stayed up all night long trying to get her kid to sleep and she gotta go to work the next day. And there’s nobody to watch this baby while she leave. You can’t tell me that. So what is that remedy that needs to be had for this mother?

And she didn’t always feel the need to play by the bureaucratic rules. When the Port was dragging its feet in complying with new state air quality regulations, she went to the state capital with kids in tow.

Margaret: I went there with the Bay Area quality staff with two of my grandchildren and two of my godchildren. We can’t wait around to get lung transplants. I had them with their asthma machines and their inhalers. Hahahahaha.

Oh they was pissed at me. Why is your commissioner doing this to us? Why is she embarrass us? Why did you all let her do this? You can’t stop me from doing what I want. I embarrassed the shit out of them.

What did all these strategies and tactics and organizing lead to?

Well, there were 4 main things that have made the air of West Oakland cleaner for residents. One, trucks were upgraded. Two, truckers were routed away from residential areas and overall truck trips were reduced. Three, Arnold Schwarzenegger got legislation passed requiring container ships to switch to cleaner fuels when they got near California. And four, ships were required to plug in to electrical power on shore, rather than running their engines while in port.

Miss Margaret was instrumental in pushing all of these initiatives, not just to happen — which most everyone agreed was necessary eventually — but to happen as quickly as possible.

Just get a load of these numbers, which the Port released late last year. Diesel particulate emissions from trucks are down 98% since 2005. Emissions from cargo ships are down 75%. The Port has undergone a radical transformation. And West Oakland now has remarkably cleaner air than it did just a decade ago.

Miss Margaret been recognized by everyone from President Obama’s Office of Science and Technology Policy to Oprah Winfrey’s O Magazine for her work in the community. Most important for her, it seems, is that she’s retained her credibility with the people that she’s organized. I got to see this for myself when Miss Margaret invited me to her 70th birthday party. It was a gumbo party, she said.

She held it at her organization’s humble offices, which are located right near the Port, and literally next door to the West Oakland BART stop. The office is a single trailer set in a big parking lot. Out front, there are wood stumps to sit on and raised garden beds filled with food crops.

Miss Margaret is the one in the gold jacket, of course.

Inside, the party fills up slowly. As it does, Miss Margaret’s community comes into focus.

There is Gloria, a woman Miss Margaret grew up with in the mixed-race projects of Hunters Point during the 1950s. Now, she helps Miss Margaret out with community events. I catch her in between gumbo-making runs. She’s an older woman who is not comfortable with a microphone in her face.

Gloria: I’m not a very verbal person. I just work, do. Mostly I did the cooking and the cleaning when there were gatherings and stuff.

But she knew one thing for sure about Miss Margaret.

Gloria: Oh, she’s definitely a leader. She’s a feisty little woman. Very feisty.

People from the local EPA come to pay their respects. Donors to her organization, too.

There were also people she’d organized in West Oakland, a mélange of activists and just regular folks who understood Miss Margaret was a powerful force among them. They talk about everything from housing developments to the kooky edge of west coast activism, by which I mean chemtrails.

But Miss Margaret has no time for the far reaches of leftist conspiracy theory. She’s grounded in the practical. For her, there’s no need to go looking for hidden evils. The damage is all around her, she tells me.

Margaret: 75 percent of the properties that are vacant or abandoned have something on them. Something…

She lugs out a huge three-ring binder from a shelf as the party flows all around her.

Margaret: This is all the pieces of property.

She points to a map of West Oakland, which is blanketed by dots marking toxic sites. It’s shocking. And I am appropriately shocked.

Margaret: You should have took a picture of your face. You should have taken a picture of your own face. This is all the pieces in just West Oakland that are contaminated.

As Miss Margaret is about to continue her history lesson, her sister calls to her from across the room. They’ve gotten onto the computer in the office and pulled up family in Texas on video chat. Her father was one of 18 children, so she has a lot of people in Texas.

Margaret: We here. That’s my older sister. We ain’t moving.

Video: Can y’all see us?

Margaret: YEAH! …

Margaret: Can you see me now? CAN YOU SEE ME NOW? CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW?

A sleepy child — maybe a grandchild, but she treats all the kids in the room like her grandkids — arrives in a man’s arms and gets deposited in a makeshift bed in the backroom, right next to the humming machines they use to generate independent air-quality data for the area. She’s already training the next-next generation.

When I left 5 hours into the party, things were just starting to pop off. People were still showing up, cheap champagne was flowing, gumbo was dribbling off lips.

People toss around the idea of “changing the world” as if it’s something you can do by hitting a few buttons, but this work Miss Margaret has done over the past 20 years has changed the lives of tens of thousands of the most vulnerable people in the city and the country.

Margaret: To be a change agent, you got to have a plan. That’s one thing. You have to have a strategy. You have to be tactical. And you have to be patient. One of the first things I had to learn was to be patient. Oh Lord. Jesus.

She’s not resting either, even if she is 70.

Margaret: I don’t see myself retiring real soon. I see myself doing what I’m still doing. Educating and giving people, finding ways to make people tell the truth. You still have this cumulative impact from trucks, trucks ships and cargo-handling equipment that has not got down to zero emission of diesel yet. But we know the technology is out there. So that’s the new frontier for us. That’s the new fight going into 2020. 2017 and on into the 2020s, how we gonna get zero-emission technology to be used at these facilities.

And there’s also the particularly cruel unintended consequence of West Oakland’s much-cleaner air: over the last decade, more and more white, Latin, and Asian people are moving into the neighborhood. All that fight to cleanup the air and it’s not even the black people of the community who will get to breathe it.

Margaret: Some days, I think Mmm.. I can breathe better, but now I got to do another fight. Will my grandchildren be able to stay here and live here? Will my friends and their grandchildren be able to live here? That’s the heartburn.

That’s it for this week. Containers is edited and produced by the irreplaceable Jonathan Hirsch. Mandana Mofidi is the director of audio at the Fusion Media Group. Special thanks to Brent Bucknum of Hyphae Design for putting me in touch with Miss Margaret. Also, shout out to the California Endowment, which is where Dr. Anthony Iton now works on creating healthier communities.

Next week, we’ll enter the final movement of this documentary, where we tackle the past and future of automation on the waterfront. First up, we’ll meet a remarkable group of longshoremen who self-consciously realized that the work culture they’d known was being wiped out and set about to preserve it.

Frank Silva: It pretty much scared the shit out of you to tell you the truth. You could see that there were so many fewer jobs. Work that you would have been doing 5 or 6 years ago or last month was no longer available.. Before when you went on a pier, the dominant force was the people. There were hundreds of guys, doing this, doing that, you know, palletizing and sorting and loading trucks and loading the ship. It was all about people. Man, Men doing the work. And as time went on, it became more and more machined and as time went on it became more and more computerized… You became subservient, basically, to the power of the machine. And there is nothing that is gonna make you feel good about that, I can tell you that.