A letter from Bellingham
Shortly after we shut down a war profiteer at the Oakland docks on Armed Forces Day (5/19/2007), there came a letter from an SDS activist in Bellingham, Washington. This led to an exchange which I'm posting with the sender's permission.
June 6, 2007
I am a college student from Bellingham, WA, semi-active in politics (occasional involvement in the local SDS chapter, more regular involvement in the local Books to Prisoners). I am also a veteran of two Washington port protests (Tacoma and Aberdeen), and have some friends among the Olympia 22. I have recently been doing some research into attempts at Port Militarization Resistance across the country, because since news of this sort doesn't travel very far many of us thought that it was a purely Northwest tradition, and that we were largely alone. I found your blog when looking up the port protests in Oakland, and needless to say it's full of valuable information that I have learned a lot from.
I am writing because it seems to me that the main difference between what you guys are doing and Washington-based PMR activities is that you seem to have the support of the local longshoremen, which is something that we lack. I am wondering how this relationship was developed …
~ Joshua Neuhouser
June 8, 2007
Thank you for writing. I heard about the port actions in Tacoma, but not about the ones in Aberdeen. As you might well imagine, I'm glad to hear about them.
Actually, I grew up in that area, on a farm near the town of Ferndale. Before that, back in the 1930's my father worked in the Bellingham Coal Mine; I think there's a shopping mall on that site now. We used to go into Bellingham now and then, and I remember a fish market up above the docks there, and I recall there'd often be a cargo ship docked there. I remember that, and, I think I witnessed the birth of a monster on those docks--the baby monster which has since grown to be SSA (Stevedoring Services of America), the war profiteer we shut down recently on May 19. According to the SSA website, they started out as a tiny company in Bellingham back in 1949. I was a little kid back then, but I can only imagine that it must've been the operations of the baby monster that I was looking at back then.
Anyway, you asked me about the Longshoremen here in Oakland. Local 10 of the ILWU. [ … ] I've been working on an article about May 19 and the events and doubts and negotiations leading up to it. […] Meanwhile, I'd like to know more about what happened at Aberdeen as well as other ports.
I'll pass your letter on to the others in the Port Action Committee.
~ Daniel Borgström
June 10, 2007
It's cool to hear that you're from up here, I certainly wasn't expecting to make a local connection when I wrote you. I find it kind of amusing that SSA started in Bellingham, because our port has almost no activity these days aside from occasional passenger ferries to Alaska. Typical that the monster seems to have forgotten its birthplace.
I've gotten pretty used to there only being small groups at protests where something is actually at stake – but due to my youth, I've only really been politically active since 9/11, so I don't know if this is a recent thing or if it's always been this way. I also don't find it surprising that Marxists didn't show up – in my experience most Marxist groups seem to do nothing but split hairs and (ironically) try to out-compete each other in selling newspapers. Whenever the tear gas starts flying, they always seem to be the first to leave. Now don't get me wrong, I've got a lot of respect for the old man (his behavior in the International excepted), but I think there's something fundamentally bankrupt about political groups that base their platform around events that occurred fifty to one hundred years ago instead of what's happening in the world today. I also knew the ILWU hadn't been in good shape since the Bridges era, and the situation you described was what I was expecting, but I was hoping that maybe the leadership of the Local 10 was an exception.
Re: Aberdeen, not much actually happened. I don't recall seeing any newspaper articles that mention anything other than that there was a protest down at the port. If you're from Washington originally, you probably know something of Aberdeen, how it's far from the major cities and fairly conservative to boot, and after Olympia and Tacoma, moving military shipments there was a natural choice. I was only down there for one day, so this is mostly cobbled together from stories I've heard from friends and acquaintances: basically, the activist community in Aberdeen is fairly small and inexperienced, they've done marches of good size, but has had little experience of police repression or direct action tactics. Representatives from Olympia PMR and SDS went down to try and organize something, but the police had spread rumors that the "dangerous Eugene anarchists who only want to destroy things" (the weapons of mass destruction that have been haunting the Northwest Left ever since the WTO) were coming to town, and this instantly isolated us radicals from the local community. At one point, some of the SDSers had made arrangements with some local punk bands to try and promote the weekend's actions, and the police responded by threatening to shut down the club. Anyone who came from out of town was followed around by the police (no matter how many yellow ribbons they put on their car as camouflage) and many were given tickets on bullshit charges: nothing that would stand up in court, but enough to discourage people from driving halfway across the state for a protest in the future. As a result the protest itself was a small, insignificant thing, and reportedly the government is going to make many future shipments out of Grays Harbor, which is a major letdown after we managed to successfully ban shipments from the Port of Olympia.
There is one thing, though, and this is hearsay, so I'm not sure how much stock you should put in it, as I haven't yet had time to research it myself. The Olympia and Tacoma protests both lasted over a week, and I'm not sure if this is just because we were effectively slowed the shipments down (which could be wishful thinking on my part) or because it just takes a while to load a ship bound for Iraq. At Aberdeen, however, the shipment lasted less than a weekend, and the port was dead almost the entire time people were down there – I know one guy who saw a ship being loaded very late at night, but that is it. At the time it struck me as being odd, but I thought nothing of it. But recently, I was informed that that same weekend there was a spike of activity at the Tacoma port, with many ships bound for Guam. So there's a possibility that incredibly minor shipments were going out of Aberdeen as a distraction, and were thus able to make unpublicized shipments through Tacoma without the cost and bad publicity of the crackdown they made back in March.
I'm not sure how much you know about Tacoma, and that's a much longer story, and one that mainly involves a lot of running away. Basically, the police set up this labyrinthine security network surrounding the port so that if we wanted to get anywhere near the ship, we'd have to go through all sorts of twists and turns and past multiple police checkpoints. Longshore workers seem to have gotten a shortcut, and we never really came into contact with them while at the port (they had also made it clear beforehand that they were determined to move the shipment). The police were obviously monitoring our planning discussions some way or another (probably a plant, although many people think that they were monitoring our cell phone calls), and every move we made to try and get around their obstacles was known far in advance. This seemed to be a psychological warfare tactic, however, because they would go out of their way to make sure that we knew they were listening – I'm thinking mainly of one morning where, a group of maybe 12-14 people the night before had decided to do some further planning at a nearby Flying J, but when we got there the place was literally crawling with policemen and the ones at the table next to ours would loudly announce into their walkie-talkies that "there are seven of them getting breakfast right now – all units down to the port." Stuff like that. It gave us the chant "Taze Fewer Vets!" Tacoma was a disaster in a lot of ways, and it sounds like a more subdued version of the protest you guys had back in '03, but I suppose it was something of a moral victory in that it got a lot of locals upset and gave some publicity to the cause. One thing that was very inspiring was that some of the soldiers who were part of the Stryker brigade whose equipment we were trying to keep from shipping out came and supported us. And you're right that these things can't stand on their own, but must spread if we're to have success. I don't know if you're going to the US Social Forum this year, but some of the people in Olympia Port Militarization Resistance (who have had a far larger role in these protests than I have) are doing a workshop on port protests and how to conduct them in cities that haven't seen them yet. It would be good to compare notes between Washington and Oakland.
I can give you the complete blow-by-blow later if you want, but this is finals week for me and I've got some more studying I need to do. But it was really great to hear back from you, and if you felt excited when UCLA SDSers showed up, then I definitely feel the same when I hear about older people involved in this kind of thing
June 11, 2007
Thank you for this informative letter. I'm forwarding it to the others as I know they'll find it interesting.
I just now looked up Aberdeen on a map and discovered to my surprise that it's way out there under the Olympic Peninsula. I though it was somewhere on Puget Sound; I guess I was confusing it with Arlington (which isn't even a port). I've ridden past Tacoma numerous times, but no, I don't know the port.
So the military are now going to have to do their shipping from Grays Harbor instead of Tacoma and Olympia? Wonderful!!! This means that our warlords are admitting that they've lost control over a hunk of territory right here in the U.S. That has got to be a psychological blow to Neocon morale.
And yes, it indeed is inspiring to hear that some soldiers from the Stryker brigade supported you. One of the major things that stopped the Vietnam war was that U.S. troops lost interest in fighting it.
I'm hoping that you'll write more about those port actions when you find time. If you do, I'd be glad to post them on my website, if that's okay with you..
June 18, 2007
[…] I don't want to make the military's retreat to Gray's Harbor into too big of a deal - yes, it is quite exciting that we managed to push them back, but it's also a retreat that they can well afford to make. The main base of support for these actions is in the South Puget Sound area, and wherever they go in that region they can count on our presence. When they moved the shipments to the Pacific coast, they forced us to overextend ourselves, and I doubt we'll be able to accomplish anything until we build up a strong base of support among the locals in Aberdeen, and if the recent protest there was any indication, preventing us from building ties with the locals is the #1 priority for the police when there's a shipment coming out of their port. We did not rout them, they made a calculated, strategic retreat, and as long as port actions remain isolated in places like Oakland and South Puget Sound they can be contained and dealt with, even recuperated. At Tacoma it was disheartening to see the degeneration of tactics over a period of three days from direct action (attempting to tear down the fence separating us from the Strykers, with the idea that we could physically block their path with our bodies) to purely symbolic civil disobedience (arranging for a series of arrests with the police beforehand - for calmly stepping over barricades - in order to bring publicity to what was going on). But it's not like we had any choice in the matter, because this change in tactics was made in the face of police repression and our options were being narrowed more and more each day.
Some more on Tacoma:
I wasn't there the first weekend, but from what I hear, it started out fairly small. On one night, they dragged a couple people across the "do not cross" line, tazed them, and arrested them on trespassing charges or something like that (this is where the "Taze Fewer Vets!" came from, which hopefully should have made the police feel guilty about what they were doing, but this doesn't seem to be the case). When news started to travel about that, momentum picked up. The Bellingham delegation came down on Friday the second weekend, which was the first major night. The police set up a lot of barricades, and we had to pass through lots of checkpoints to get near the ship. At the final checkpoint, there was a no-backpack rule that the police were trying to enforce. The cops claimed that if you hid your backpack behind a dumpster, no one would take it, but everyone I know who did this ended up having to reclaim it from the police a couple weeks later with the contents removed. This seems to have been a diversion: get people mad about a blatant civil rights violation that could never hold up in court, and they'll forget about the Strykers. If that was their plan, it worked. One guy crossed the no-backpack line that night - which was legitimate, because you can't let that stuff go unchallenged (video here), but then a couple days later, at the point I mentioned above where symbolic actions were the only kind we could take, where a group of people decided to get arrested en masse for wearing backpacks, which seemed silly to me, since we already had a case that we could use to challenge it in court. But anyways. Back to Friday night, after a large crowd had built up in front of the ship, a small group of people attempted to tear down the fence. This failed, because we were outnumbered, so it ended up scaring many of the protestors more than it scared the police. After that there was an hour or two of dead time, where no one knew what to do, and the police kept bringing in more reinforcements. People kind of milled around, tried to find a place where they could discuss things without the police overhearing (which was impossible), hung out around the Food Not Bombs area, etc. The low point came when the megaphone passed to someone who tried to read poetry to the riot cops, but it just came across as an embarrassment. Eventually the decision was made to march away from the ship, and back towards the first police barricade. At that point, we all sit down and start singing "Give Peace a Chance" and they start shooting tear gas, rubber bullets, pepper bullets, etc. at us (a couple months later at the Aberdeen protest, when people started singing that song, I heard someone yell "Stop that, or they're gonna start shooting again!"). At this point, things turned out the way they always do when the police open fire, only this time the police were also able to cut many people off from their cars, which gave many protestors an extra degree of helplessness. Fortunately, I was not one of these people, but right before me and my friends take off, we see a semi truck (seemingly just someone making an early-morning delivery), whose driver had been holding back and watching until the police began advancing on us, and then they start barreling towards the police line, horn blaring. I heard from someone else that cops were able to open up the truck door and shoot the driver point-blank with some variety of "less-lethal" projectile. No one knows who they were or what happened to them.
The next night, nothing happened, really. All day was spent in planning sessions, and we were trying to find a weak point in port security. But when we got to what seemed to be our best bet, there was a line of riot cops without badges, several paddy wagons, and two empty buses. There was a lot of paranoia, and many people just went around accusing other people of being undercover cops. A couple people sang riot folk songs about the FBI ("I have the best job in the world!"). The local news showed up, got bored, and left. A couple people who were either agent-provocateurs or incredibly stupid kids (probably the latter, but it really doesn't matter because in my experience most people who are constantly pushing for confrontation no matter the situation are unpredictable no matter their motivation) tried to rush the barricades, there was sporadic rubber bullet fire, but the night just ended up fizzling out.
By Sunday, our actions were reduced to symbolic gestures, lots of arrests pre-arranged with the police, etc. I heard that by that Tuesday (the day the ship left), things heated up again and there was another big confrontation with tear gas, rubber bullets, and the like, but I had left town at that point.
And yes, it is exciting to see soldiers turn up at protests: I've met lots of people who went into the army as Republicans and came out as anarchists, and although maybe the people I meet at political events don't make for the best exit poll of soldier morale, discontent seems to be rampant. I don't think the conditions that made for the Vietnam soldier resistance are here in this war (for example, I've heard of people trying to restart GI coffeeshops, but that forgets that soldiers back then weren't as mobile back then and were something of a captive audience) and it seems that the military does a better job of keeping discontent soldiers isolated these days. But who knows what the future may bring.