Oakland activist: How we blockaded the Israeli ship

Saturday, August 23, 2014
Demonstrators marching to take part in a picket to stop an Israeli ship unloading its cargo at the Port of Oakland on August 16.

In an action that has reverberated around the world and inspired pro-Palestinian activists, five days of pickets by activists prevented a ship from the Israeli shipping company Zim Integrated Shipping Services from unloading almost any of its cargo at the port of Oakland.

The blockade was organised as part of the global boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign targetting Israel called for by dozens of Palestinian civil society groups. It was the longest blockade yet of an Israeli ship anywhere in the world.

Below is the account of a participant in the blockade, Oakland-based activist Peter Turner.

* * *

I am one of the “autonomous activists” referred to in the press releases of the Arab Resource and Organizing Center (AROC). I am not affiliated with any of the groups listed as endorsers on the AROC website. I am an experienced waterfront activist who took part in every picket while the Zim Piraeus was in port.

The original call for a blockage of a Zim ship went out from AROC in late July, but that was quickly retracted and the August 16 date was substituted. We then watched the ship on tracking websites and it became clear it was delayed while the protest situation unfolded.

During that time, tactical differences emerged within the movement. AROC changed its call and instead advocated a march to Pier 57, where the ship was due to dock, on August 16 for a protest against the war on Gaza.

The march also raised the situation in Ferguson, Missouri (where there are ongoing protests against the police killing of an unarmed teenager), at least partly because the march was met by a contingent of Oakland police.

The march was energetic but peaceful, but the ship was still at sea. About 2000 people took part.

When the Zim Piraeus finally docked on August 17, it was met by pickets at Pier 57. We ascertained which gates would be used by trucks and longshoremen to enter work and posted pickets there. Our intention was to discourage any cargo operations in order to force the ship to leave port.

Trucks entered the gates, but the longshoremen honoured our pickets. The Oakland Police and Alameda County Sheriff Department created openings at the gates.

The picketers could be generally described as Occupy Oakland activists, mostly young; experienced left militants who abound in the San Francisco Bay Area; and those specifically concerned with the war on Gaza, many of them Palestinians.

Others might describe us differently, but I think this is a good description of most of us. The assumption that it was AROC or any other group that led the picket effort is inaccurate.

For four days, we met at the pier and succeeded. A small number of activists were arrested for civil disobedience, but the situation was peaceful. The longshoremen honoured our pickets and no cargo moved.

The union released statements saying they took no position on the political issues at hand, but felt the police presence created a safety hazard. This is connected to a 2003 anti-war demonstration at the port at which the police attacked peaceful demonstrators and longshoremen reporting to work. Some were shot.

Resentment over that continues. During the picket we were aware that few dispatches from the union hall took place.

Several times small groups of longshoremen approached or assembled nearby. We engaged them in conversation and relations were friendly.

The ranks shared the official union position, but went beyond it to express sympathy for our cause and resentment of the stevedoring companies.

Coincidentally, the union and stevedoring companies are in contentious contract negotiations. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) contract expired July 1, so the longshoremen are working without a contract.

As a result, longshoremen who honoured our pickets lost pay, a fact known by the picketers.

This added to the solidarity created between the picketers and longshoremen, something pre-existing because of the militant history of the ILWU and its tradition of honouring community pickets.

After four days the ship announced its intention to sail. No cargo had been moved, in spite of a public declaration by Israeli sources that it had.

AROC Executive Director Lara Kiswani appeared on the morning of the fourth day to announce a victory, praising the solidarity of the longshoremen.

The ship sailed without unloading its cargo, but then the ship's pilot pulled a U-turn at the pilot station off the Golden Gate. The ship returned to dock at pier 22-24 and was quickly met by picketers who had monitored its movements.

Since the longshoremen had made it obvious that they would honour our pickets, the ILWU Local 10 Business Agent took longshoremen from other ships and moved them to the Zim Piraeus.

This was a violation of the dispatch rules and the solidarity felt by the ranks, so it was met with a reaction. I would politely call it a “lack of enthusiasm” for the work on the part of the rank and file, but the result was little cargo was offloaded, reportedly some perishables.

On the morning of August 20, the fifth day of the action, at about 6.30am, the ship departed after an hour of picketing.

For some reason the media reported the cargo had been offloaded and the ship departed at 8.45am. That is inaccurate, as I drove home from the picket at pier 22-24 to view the ship from my house as it anchored off Hunter's Point in San Francisco Bay about 8am. The ship was still fully loaded and had not backloaded any containers.

This entire action revealed several lessons. One is that concerted effort of dedicated militants together with the solidarity of the affected workers can bring serious economic and political pressure to bear.

Reciprocal solidarity will be forthcoming, a strong message to any employer seeking to weaken the ILWU. We all talked about it, with no dissent.

Also, we should never trust the word of the employer or the establishment press. They collude to undermine the majority and deceive the public in the interest of profit.

We also should be wary of the motives of entrenched union bureaucrats, too many of whom have instinctive sympathy with employers and will betray the interests of their members. The strength of the union is its rank and file, and democracy and consciousness are necessary for their interests to be furthered.

There are tactical differences within our movement, and we should tend to defer to the judgment of those who put in the commitment to take part and who make the connection with affected workers. Bureaucracy exists on the left as well as in unions, government, or any other institution.

We should show wisdom in our strategy and tactics, but not retreat in the face of adversity and have the courage to fight and win. Together, we can make a better world.

Above: A short video giving a recap of the historic blocking of an Israeli ship in the port of Oakland in light of the role the Bay Area has played in the anti-apartheid movement.

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From GLW issue 1022