Standing Up with the Aboriginal Blackmen United

The rabble-rousers of the ABU have helped to achieve local hiring goals.

When Richards visits the Lowe's construction site in the Bayview, he demands that the manager come out and negotiate the way Richards likes, leaning against the back of his pickup. Richards has said publicly that he thinks "bidding is for suckers," and he believes that no construction project in the Bayview should be able to hire an electrician without giving him part of the work, whether he bids for the project or not.

"I deserve everything I get, and more," he says. "I grew up in this community fighting, I've been subjected to every hardship. ... If I said, 'If I don't work, nobody's going to work,' then I deserve that, you know what I mean? I don't care if nobody in the whole world agrees with me on that, I know God do."

When Richards says this, he is sitting in a dim side room of the Double Rock Baptist Church. He's exhausted after a long morning speech to his followers, and he's just had an insulin shot for his diabetes. He is still recovering from a heart attack, his third. For the first time, his sunglasses are off, and there are dark pouches under his eyes.

ABU leader James Richards in the 
Double Rock Baptist Church.
Josh Edelson
ABU leader James Richards in the Double Rock Baptist Church.
Mid-protest, the ABU unloads its grill in front of a UCSF Mission Bay site.
Josh Edelson
Mid-protest, the ABU unloads its grill in front of a UCSF Mission Bay site.

Richards isn't one of those leaders who represent the community from inside their Cadillacs. The gloss of money is nowhere on him. He says he gets health insurance from his daughter, a hospital administrator, one of his 10 children. He's still out protesting twice a week, against the advice of his doctor, who thinks he's resting.

Al Norman, a longtime ABU supporter who runs a mechanical contracting business in the Bayview, says he's been in meetings with Richards when contractors offered to pay him off in order to stop the protests.

"Everybody knows about the offers and stuff, and they know that he's turned them down," Norman says.

"That's one of the big things. He ain't no rich person."

The bottom line, of course, is that Richards does get his followers jobs. Richards may be the Genghis Khan of local hiring — he considers jobs the spoils of battle, and they go to his followers first — but then, the men and women who show up at the Double Rock Baptist Church need a lot of help.

Michael, who doesn't want his last name printed, grew up in the Double Rock projects and spent years as a hospital worker. In the '90s, he got into drugs and has served 10 years in federal prison. Now, he's back home. But for 18 months after he got out of jail, Michael says, he couldn't find any work. He signed up for job training. He spent six months learning "life skills." Then he started showing up every morning to protest with the ABU.

After two months of protesting, he got a job at the Lowe's site. "I really, really, really appreciate Ashley and James, because they was the ones that went to bat for me," he says.

Construction is a crucial form of employment in the Bayview. It's one of the last fields that usually doesn't require a criminal background check.

"They pay good and they give you good benefits, and that's what I'm loving about it," Michael says. "Whatever you did in the past is in the past."

Richards and Rhodes still call him every two weeks to see how the job is going.

Of course, for the mainstream organizations that work with the ABU, the lack of accountability and transparency in how it assigns jobs is troubling. "I don't think they have any type of legal entity," says Christina Garcia, contract compliance supervisor for the Redevelopment Agency.

The ABU "expects CityBuild to contact them first," Garcia says, and the ABU constantly argues that it should have special privileges — namely, the first shot at available positions — even though Fred Blackwell has repeatedly told them that other community placement groups have an equal right to respond to job openings.

CityBuild Director Guillermo Rodriguez says only that the ABU has given his program quality referrals, and that, as far as he knows, the group isn't getting any money from the city.

"The advocacy of ABU," Rodriguez says, "to me it's — uh, it's part of doing business in San Francisco."

It's not easy to outmaneuver the ABU, but if anyone's done it, it's Terry Rawlins, the community hiring coordinator for the UCSF Mission Bay project. When the ABU started picketing the UCSF construction sites and Rawlins' own office, demanding jobs for its community, Rawlins did them one better. He called in 14 of San Francisco's community-based job placement groups, and started working out a plan in which each community group would be in charge of job placements for a certain period. This makes Richards furious. "He just neutralizing us," he says.

Rawlins doesn't exactly disagree. "We're trying to get them to come to the table with the rest of the community, because we can't cut side deals with them," he says.

Rawlins is also black, and a child of the '60s. He doesn't mince words, even though he and Richards both try to show some respect for each other. Rawlins calls the ABU "a maverick organization that claims to represent the community."

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