Marie Harrison, mother of the movement for environmental justice

Marie Harrison leads yet another protest against the filthy PG&E plant, this one in 2004. Marie made protests and all her work fun, and it was fun to work with her. She always had a smile of encouragement for you, but polluters weren’t amused when she called them out and cut into their profits. – Photo: Mike Kepka, SF Chronicle

Editorial by Dr. Willie Ratcliff and Mary Ratcliff

Tributes to Marie Harrison, legendary warrior who laid down her life for her community, are pouring in, from the San Francisco Chronicle, Examiner, SF Weekly, Mission Local and the SF Bay View, here and here. Most dwell on her heroic work fighting economic racism in Hunters Point, mainly over the old PG&E plant and the Shipyard.

Marie took the risks of calling out the perpetrators: the Navy, Lennar, Tetra Tech, and interested politicians, including Nancy Pelosi, Gavin Newsom and Dianne Feinstein. And how did she call them out? From the column she wrote in the Bay View through the 1990s.

Marie, a non-smoker who was tethered to an oxygen tank in recent years due to a rare and inoperable lung disease probably caused by toxins she fought valiantly to clean out of the neighborhood she loved, died May 4 at 71. She had come to San Francisco as a teenager with her mother and eight siblings in 1966, and went to work while still in her teens at the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard. Years later, when the Navy claimed it had no records of the Superfund level of toxic and radioactive contamination at the Shipyard, Marie recalled how she and the other secretaries were required to pound their typewriters hard enough to make five carbon copies of every document. The Navy kept records of everything, she insisted.

Marie used to tell us she wasn’t always an activist, that she was mostly a stay-at-home “milk and cookies mom” to her three children, nearly always home to greet them when they came home after school. Her husband, Thomas Harrison, later known as Naim, supported the family well as a Muni driver then. When the children got older and she went to work, she was a retail manager and concierge at Nordstrom’s, the person Dianne Feinstein trusted to select a flattering wardrobe for her.

The Harrisons moved into Geneva Towers when it was new and open only to relatively affluent tenants who enjoyed its spacious apartments and panoramic views. Marie and her family were still at Geneva Towers when the 20-story twin towers became a HUD-subsidized complex brutally policed by off-duty SFPD officers, and it was there she became an activist. As tough as it had become to live there, the prospect of homelessness for those hundreds of families when plans to demolish the towers were announced was even more terrifying. Despite having had no journalism training, she learned to write by pouring out her soul in the Bay View.

Remember the many years Marie Harrison owned the back page of the Bay View? She defined what “speaking truth to power” means. With headlines like “We’ve always survived your whip and your noose” and observations like “Voter education isn’t just somebody educating the voters; it’s the voters educating the people they elect,” as we carry on without her, we must infuse every fight with her courage.

Readers were hungry for Marie’s inspiring words and would turn to the Bay View’s back page first whenever they picked up a Bay View. “You are worthy,” she would holler over and over in a variety of words. “Don’t accept less than you deserve!” Housing and voting were the issues she took on initially, exposing John Stewart’s corrupt and oppressive style of property management – with HUD’s compliance – at Geneva Towers and eloquently advocating universal voter registration, showing up like an army on Election Day and holding those elected strictly accountable.

She knew what was happening in every nook and cranny at City Hall after the Bay Guardian and the Bay View fought for and won seats in the Press Room, previously run as a major media fiefdom, and she sat proudly watchdogging the Board of Supervisors from the press box. In 2000 and again in 2006, she made strong runs for District 10 Supervisor, the Bay View newspaper serving as her campaign literature. Back then, a big crew of youngsters delivered every issue of the Bay View door to door throughout Bayview Hunters Point and to low income areas in the rest of District 10.

How Marie Harrison educated Bayview Hunters Point on environmental racism

In the 1990s, an environmentalist was typically concerned with protecting wilderness, not human health, even as the environment in areas where poor people and especially Black people lived were poisoned by toxin-spewing facilities like the PG&E power plant and the Shipyard Superfund site in Bayview Hunters Point. The experts who could have researched the dangers and warned the victims and the perpetrators were silent.

Many mornings when Marie would come to work at the Bay View after she’d left the condemned Geneva Towers and was staying with her daughter and grandchildren at West Point, a public housing development officially known as Hunters View, she’d tell us how she’d sat up most of the night with her grandson when his nosebleeds wouldn’t stop. She had a hunch the culprit was the nasty plume pouring out of the gigantic smokestack atop the PG&E plant at the foot of the hill, admittedly the oldest and dirtiest power plant in California, and she began to write about it, coached by one of a new wave of environmentalists who recognized environmental threats to human health.

Even the bravest activists considered the Bay View crazy for taking on PG&E, arguably California’s most powerful political force. But this fight was personal for Marie and for all the sick folks PG&E was poisoning every day, and she carried it through to victory in 2006, when the shutdown was announced, and until the monstrous plant was demolished and the site cleaned for recreational use.

Marie became the mother of the movement for environmental justice out of personal necessity, spurred by her grandson’s blood-soaked pillow, and community necessity; most of their neighbors also suffered the typical symptoms of environmental poisoning. Knowing no one could fight it alone, she saw her role as an educator on environmental science and an organizer, coaxing people to dare to hit the streets and raise their voices and protest signs. It worked; the perpetrators of pollution in Bayview Hunters Point – a huge sewage treatment plant, two freeways and a truck route, the most dangerous Superfund site in the country and hundreds of other pollution sources – met their match in confrontations with the people of Bayview Hunters Point, who can refute the perpetrators’ lies no matter their formal schooling.

It was during those years that Marie transitioned from columnist for the Bay View to full-time advocate with Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice, where she remained – initially as staff and, when her health no longer allowed her to work, as a member of the board – until her death. Meanwhile, the Bay View grappled with financial challenges when advertisers stopped advertising as punishment for our “radical” politics and we were evicted from our beautiful home and office at Third and Kirkwood – Marie staying up with us all night to pack up our household and businesses before the sheriff arrived at 8 a.m. and then welcoming us to keep the Bay View newspaper alive in an alcove of her home for five months until we found another place.

The crowning blow was the loss of our construction company, Liberty Builders, when in August 1998 a noose was hung on our job at SFO signaling the lockout of Blacks from the construction industry, which holds to this day. That loss was a personal blow to Marie, too, because Dr. Ratcliff had taken her son under his wing to teach him construction, and his job was lost along with the company.

The noose was front page, prime time news for months. In her column in the Bay View, Marie wrote on Nov. 4, 1998, that the vice president of the prime contractor, Hensel Phelps Construction Co., said: “(Y)es, it was one of their supervisors who tied the noose and yes, he did say to one of Liberty Builders’ people the noose was not to take pictures of but to put your neck in and yes, they would give their employees some kind of sensitivity training and yes, he had said the noose was just a joke – (and) even after he admitted all that, (the director of the Human Rights Commission) still said that Hensel Phelps is in compliance with the law.”

It was Liberty Builders that supported the Bay View newspaper and, without it, keeping the Bay View in print for these past 21 years has been a daily struggle. We’re grateful that Marie found in Greenaction a megaphone for her wisdom that Bay View readers had come to rely on.

We wrote in a history of the Bay View newspaper, Bay View turns 40: “With a new push by the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency to take control of Bayview Hunters Point, Marie Harrison, by then a fixture on the back page, wrote on June 7, 1996, ‘Remember the Fillmore. Remember South Park. Bayview Hunters Point is our final frontier in San Francisco. Here is where we make our stand. So hold the line. Refuse to be removed, replaced and dealt a slow death. Say No to the power plant and Yes to toxic cleanup. Save yourself and your neighborhood.’”

Savor Marie’s empowering words of wisdom

On all the issues that oppress Black hoods, Marie taught us how to survive and inspired us to thrive, to fear nothing and no one, to speak truth to power. If we listen, we’ll learn how she even made the powerful listen, take heed and act in our interest for a change. Major media obituaries describe the scoldings she delivered in hearings at City Hall as like a mother to a child; she spoke fiercely but always lovingly.

Environmental justice advocacy doesn’t offer many dress-up occasions, but Marie knew how to dress! As a young woman working at Nordstrom’s, Marie was the concierge chosen by Dianne Feinstein to select her wardrobe. – Photo: SF Public Press, flickr

To give you just a taste of her wisdom, we’ve gleaned some quotes from her columns in just a few randomly selected Bay Views over the years. Biographers of Marie and her fans are welcome to visit the Bay View to read every column. Much of what she wrote calibrated the Bay View’s moral compass.

Several speakers at Marie’s funeral – or celebration of life – on May 18 exhorted everyone in the large crowd to carry on her work, warning that anything less betrays her memory. Early in our epic struggle against environmental racism, one mainstream reporter famously described Bayview Hunters Point as “swimming in toxic soup.” Speakers reminded us that our community is still breathing that poison and that if we don’t keep up and intensify our resistance, the few of us not run out by gentrification risk having our lives cut short by a poisonous environment just as Marie’s was.

First to show how best to memorialize Marie, Dr. Ahimsa Porter Sumchai writes that she’s considering naming her game-changing biomonitoring project – the health study of our folks who’ve been exposed to some of the nation’s worst pollution all their lives that we’ve long demanded from government and will now, with expert help, do for ourselves – the Marie Harrison Community Air Monitoring Network.

As each of us finds our role in the struggle for justice, we can read these words of wisdom to guide and brighten our path until victory is won – in memory of Marie. Each cluster of quotations is preceded by the date and headline of the column where it can be found.

March 4, 1994: ‘We Can Make Our Government Work for Us’

“How can we teach one another to keep our power and use it together for the betterment of all?”

“The only way out without war is to improve our knowledge of government and to use our voting power to get what we want.”

April 15, 1994: ‘Respect Yourself and Your Community’

“From me to you, let’s remember the way it was, and let’s take back our pride and self-respect. Let’s be the people our fathers and mothers and their fathers and mothers can still be proud of.”

“Let’s tell the world that we are back and we’re in control. While we won’t leave anyone behind, we won’t follow anyone ever again who doesn’t have respect for us or themselves. We were once a force to be reckoned with, and we still are.”

“Take back your power that you gave away so easily. Stand up for something and others will stand up with you.”

“We don’t have to be rich with money to get to the top. We only have to live with dignity and with respect for ourselves and our community.”

Feb. 16, 1996: ‘We Are Valuable, We Are Not Disposable’

“You must know that this is a war and that we cannot win it overnight and that each one of us must do our part, no matter how small.”

“Do you want to stay in San Francisco? Then let’s fight for what we want.”

“We are as valuable as the rainforest, as valuable as the gold that man has taken from Mother Earth, as valuable as the love that God has for all of us he put on this earth.”

April 5, 1996: ‘1996: 30 Years Since the ‘66 Uprising’

“You must now keep hold of the reins and study all the issues. Don’t let them come crying that ‘we shall overcome,’ when in fact the only overcoming they want is to be put in office. This is the time to open the blinds and let the light in.”

“The thing I want to know is how much more of this are we going to take? How can we take a step forward, when we have judges that will sit in the court arena and see our laws being misused and say nothing?”

“Voter education isn’t just somebody educating the voters. It’s the voters educating the people they elect. Offer to let the president run a mile in your shoes.”

July 18, 1997: ‘Will the Promises Be Kept? What’s the Difference This Time?’

“There is nothing more dangerous than to build a society in which a large segment of the people feel that they have no stake, that they have nothing to lose.”

Sept. 2, 1998: ‘Register Everyone You Run Into to Vote’

“What we want is justice, what we need is self-identification and a little respect.”

Nov. 4, 1998: ‘We’ve Always Survived Your Whip and Your Noose’

“We survived your whip and your nooses then and we will survive them now.”

“How much louder, I ask you, my brothers, must I say ‘This is my country. For over 300 years, many have died so that I could claim my birthright. It was my folks who worked your plantation, it was my folks who bore your children, and still some people don’t think I have the right to say, ‘This is my country.’”

“We came together to make a hammer that would deliver a mighty blow to those who would come between us and what is right and good.”

“Last night we sent a message across the country that we have overcome and we are on the move and that it will no longer be business as usual, but it is about business and we won’t be left out any more.”

“Remember, this is our country and by all means San Francisco is our City, and we won’t be left out.”

Nov. 17, 1999: ‘We Need A Mayor Who Believes We Are All Worthy’

“What do we need? We need to be inspired. We need to be moved a little bit higher – that is, before we are all gone and have no hold on a place of our own.”

“Wake up, folks, and don’t get caught up in the glitter and the nice sounding words. Remember, that’s how we got so messed up in the first place. We bought in to a dream that in itself was not so bad, but the dream merchant turned out to be a dream taker. We asked for very little of the dream merchant and got even less than that.”

“Jail has become nothing but a warehouse for men and women that does little more than hold a person in. No longer is any education offered to prisoners. If they get educated while in jail, it is because there is no money for an appeal and they must do their legal work for themselves.”

“If you don’t offer something to replace the revolving door in and out of jail, then what you have is a never-ending tragedy.”

“Let’s not sleepwalk this one. We have already let too much pass us by. This time let’s do it right.”

Dec. 22, 1999: ‘Who’ll See to It We’re Not Left Out Another Four Years?’

“Let’s not get caught up on training if there is no job guarantee at the end of the training.”

“For those of us who are working for less than a livable wage, we are just hanging on, not living. We need a livable wage and there is no real reason why we should not have one.”

“Too many strange things have been going on for too long – and guess what, we don’t need it. Draw the line and hold to it. It’s time for San Francisco to do things right.”

July 4, 2001: ‘On Thursday, the Community Took Control of the RAB’

“Now that everyone in the community is singing with the same voice, isn’t it time for more of you to come join the choir?”

Bay View publisher Dr. Willie Ratcliff and editor Mary Ratcliff can be reached at editor@sfbayview.com or 415-671-0789.

On Monday, May 14, 2018, Marie Harrison testified on the steps of San Francisco City Hall that the Navy has lied to the community for 30 years about the cleanup and is still lying to downplay the recent fraudulent data produced by employees of its chief contractor, Tetra Tech, to cover up the radiological pollution at the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard. – Video: Carol Harvey