Marie Harrison was a fighter and an organizer, and, nearly until her last breath, she continued to do both of these things.
“On Friday morning, I was on the phone talking to her about organizing issues surrounding the India Basin project and the Hunters Point Shipyard,” says Bradley Angel, the CEO of Greenaction, an environmental nonprofit where Harrison served as an organizer and board member for decades. “And, on Friday night, she stopped breathing.” She died Saturday after being taken off life support.
Harrison, who was 71, arrived in Bayview in 1966 as a teen with her mother and eight siblings. She lived in Bayview Hunters Point for decades and, for two years, worked at the toxic Hunters Point Shipyard. She did not think it was a coincidence that she, a nonsmoker, developed a severe and inoperable lung condition that, in recent years, required her to lug oxygen tanks everywhere she went.
Decades ago — back in the early 1990s — Harrison was sounding alarms that the Hunters Point Shipyard project was a looming toxic nightmare and that efforts to clean it up were slipshod and not to be trusted. As a former worker on the site, she, personally, slammed on the typewriter keys to ensure the requisite five — yes, five — copies of every document were produced. So she knew the documents were out there even if, as an activist, the powers-that-be wouldn’t turn them over.
In recent years, the media has, belatedly, began writing about what Harrison was agitating for decades ago. Toxicity, a botched clean-up, and a series of cover-ups at the Hunters Point Shipyard are, arguably, the worst eco-frauds in the nation’s history. Yet, despite this spate of recent coverage, it remains an underreported story. The highest echelons of political movers and shakers in this region are deeply lashed to this ongoing catastrophe and accountability remains elusive.
Because this story remains critically undercovered — and because this level of environmental degradation affects every neighborhood in this city — we are choosing to run Harrison’s obituary in Mission Local. But, truth be told, it affects some neighborhoods worse than others, which is why it was so easily ignored for so many years.
“Marie was a clear and strong voice who brought community knowledge to the forefront regarding the contamination of the shipyard,” Angel continued. “She did this as her friends and neighbors continued dying of pollution-related causes. Finally, the state of California as well as the Bay Area Air Quality Management District acknowledges what neighborhood residents have said for decades — Bayview-Hunters Point continues to bear a disproportionate impact from pollution, and many of the health problems in the community can be attributed to it.”
Harrison’s calling as an environmental crusader came after she and so many others were forced out of the misbegotten Geneva Towers project. She took up residence with her daughter in Hunters View, just a stone’s throw from what was then an operating PG&E power plant. “She would come in in the mornings and tell me how she had to sit up all night with her grandson, because his nose wouldn’t stop bleeding,” recalled Mary Ratcliff, the publisher of the San Francisco Bay View, who ran Harrison’s column for years. “She kept watching the smoke pouring out of that chimney and heading right at them.”
Harrison was in the mix as staunch community activism led to this plant being shuttered in 2006. “Some in the community were bought off by mega-developers and polluters,” says Angel. “But Marie could not be bought.”
Harrison joined Greenaction as a community organizer in 1999. It was more than a job for her.
“All she wanted was for us to have a fighting chance to live without worrying about the water or the air,” says Leaotis Martin, a friend and fellow organizer brought into the fold by Harrison and Tessie Ester. “They opened my eyes to how real this work is. I never really knew how toxic Bayview was until I started messing with Marie and Tessie.”
After her husband died several years ago, Harrison’s health declined. She lost her home in Bayview and moved in with her son in Stockton. And yet, she would commute back to San Francisco to carry on her work. She wanted to keep people alive and, friends say, the work kept her alive.
Harrison, recalls her friend Martin, was not a physically imposing person. But “she was big all around. She enjoyed doing what she was doing. And if she felt you didn’t care about the community she loved, she could be a little hard on you. When I first started, if I wasn’t serious enough, she’d say ‘I’m gonna break your neck.’ You know, she doesn’t mean it. But she means it. To get your attention.”
As such, Harrision was in character last year when she was honored for a lifetime of activism by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. She spoke quietly, and had oxygen tubes in her nose. But she spoke her mind.
“I would be remiss if I did not ask for you to continue to support the community effort to get the shipyard cleaned up, completely — i.e. a full re-testing of the shipyard,” she told the board on June 26, 2018. “I don’t want to see another family out there and be worried to death if they’re safe or not. And you know it’s not safe yet. … You guys are endowed with the ability to make sure our community and our new community members are safe. That’s all I’m asking. That’s all any of us are asking. Say no to corporate interests. Do the right thing. Remember the community you actually work for.”
Harrison is survived by three adult children and several grandchildren. Her survivors and loved ones agreed that the best way to honor her legacy would be to continue her fight — and clean up the shipyard.