On the Line in the Port of Oakland
Dockworkers honored a community picket line in the Port of Oakland on May 19, 2007, and the shipping operations of a war profiteer were shut down for two shifts. Cargo did not move at the SSA terminal that day. It takes only two lines to sum this up, but it took two months to prepare.
by Daniel Borgström
updated September 6, 2007
April 7 is commemorated here in the East Bay because of an antiwar demonstration at the Oakland docks that became a struggle to defend our First Amendment rights.
In the morning on that date in 2003, soon after Bush&Co began their assault on Iraq, we moved in to the Port of Oakland to shut down two war profiteers, APL (American President Lines) and SSA (Stevedoring Services of America). We set up community picket lines which were honored by the longshoremen. Then the police attacked both protesters and longshoremen. 59 persons were injured by "less-than-lethal" weaponry.
During the days and weeks that followed we held rallies and mass meetings, eventually deciding to return to the port at a future date. We also took the matter of police brutality up with the Oakland City Council in standing-room-only sessions, and obtained their support. The police were averse to permitting us back into the port, but through community-pressure on and then by city council members the police finally relented and promised not to attack us. We weren't sure if we could believe them, but on May 12, 2003 some 500 of us marched back into the port, led by Clarence Thomas, (an executive board member of Local 10 of the dockworkers' union), and held a successful demonstration in defense of our civil liberties. On this occasion, the shippers shut down their operations for the day to avoid confrontation.
On the first anniversary of the April 7 attack we held a third demonstration in the port of Oakland. So, April 7 is the day we traditionally commemorate by asserting our First Amendment right to picket the shipping terminals of war profiteers.
Spring of 2007
The first demonstration, when the police attack occurred, was followed by two subsequent marches to the same docks, the last of which was in 2004. In the summer of 2006 and spring of 2007, there were community actions up north in the ports of Tacoma, Olympia and Aberdeen, opposing the shipping of weapons to Iraq. The news was inspiring, and shortly after that a notice appeared on the Indybay website: "The Oakland Green Party unanimously voted to endorse the call for a day of antiwar action at the Port of Oakland on April 7, 2007."
During the next few days there were more endorsements from antiwar and labor organizations. A community meeting to organize the proposed event was announced for March 5 at the Niebyl-Proctor Marxist Library, an old Victorian house in north Oakland used as a meeting hall for progressive groups.
Twenty labor and community activists attended, about as many as the small upstairs meeting room could hold. After we had introduced ourselves, Jonathan Nack, who had called this meeting, proposed that we shut down war profiteers in the Port of Oakland by means of an antiwar action on April 7, the fourth anniversary of the infamous police attack. It could educate the public about the role the port plays in supporting the war. While nearly everyone knew about Halliburton, the war profiteers right here in our own port were less well known.
A group of teachers brought up an additional issue: "The Port of Oakland grosses $33 billion each year," said Bob Mandel of the Oakland Education Association (OEA), "yet not one penny of that goes to support Oakland's schools." The Port acts autonomously, he explained, not sharing revenue with the City of Oakland despite the fact that the port belongs to the city. Traditionally, in such a situation, there is revenue sharing. The teachers proposed that we insist that the Port of Oakland allocate a small portion of their annual revenue for education and social services. This issue added a long-term, economic initiative to our antiwar objectives.
The themes, issues and demands we eventually worked out were:
"Stop war shipments."
"Bring the troops home now, and give them the healthcare they need."
"Allocate port money for schools and social services."
We also expressed solidarity with port protesters in Tacoma and Olympia.
These were the objectives initiated at the first meeting of the Port Action Committee. Subsequently, we held weekly meetings to plan for the event itself. Designing leaflets, writing press releases, finding speakers, lobbying politicians and negotiating with the police were among the many tasks that faced us. We also had to contact local progressive groups to invite their participation.
Our plan was to shut down the shipping operations of APL and SSA. They had military contracts and, according to the SF Chronicle and the New York Times, had instigated the police attack of 2003. We would organize a community picket line and ask the longshoremen of ILWU Local 10 not to cross it. Our problems were: could we get enough people to join us in this project, would public officials ensure that the police not attack us, and would the longshoremen be willing to honor our picket line?
During the following week we contacted the president of ILWU Local 10, but his response wasn't encouraging. He claimed to be against the war, but he didn't want a demonstration in the port. Definitely not.
Still, there did seem to be some rank-and-file longshoremen on our side. As we talked with them, we began to see all the things that we would have to do to in order to get ready for a successful action at the docks. A formidable task lay ahead of us, and it didn't look like we could be ready by April 7. So we decided to postpone our action at the docks.
Nevertheless, April 7 was significant and we wanted to make a statement on that day. "How about two events?" someone suggested, and that sounded like our best option. We decided to commemorate April 7 with a rally in front of the Port Headquarters and make use of that rally to build for the main event, which would be held at the docks on May 19, Armed Forces Day, an appropriate day to shut down a war profiteer.
We met with city officials to make arrangements to hold our April 7 rally at the Port HQ in Jack London Square. Port commissioners as well as police and even representatives from APL and SSA attended the meeting. They were surprisingly cordial to us and gladly gave permission. They seemed relieved to hear that we were holding this event in the square rather than at the docks. They seemed very concerned about this. "We have their attention," said Terry Lake with a grin.
Unfortunately, getting the attention of the progressive community was much harder. While everyone seemed to like the idea and even affirmed that it was a worthy cause, most seemed to regard it as just another antiwar event. We received endorsements, but not much in the way of actual help in organizing the event. We had started out rather well, it seemed, with twenty activists at the initial meeting, but, instead of getting larger, our organizing committee got smaller. At the second meeting there were fifteen of us, and after that generally about six or eight. Of course, not everybody who worked on this project felt it necessary to attend every meeting. In all there were about a dozen of us working on it, although four or five people probably did most of the work.
In the midst of everything, Jonathan Nack, who had initially called our committee together, had to leave town because of a death in his family. In a group this small, his absence left a gaping hole.
The morning of April 7 began with a dark, overhanging sky and a slow drizzle, but it ultimately cleared up and the sun peeked out. Some 200 people attended, certainly a lot less than the 500 or more we had hoped for.
Nevertheless, despite the relatively small crowd, we had a good program which came off well. It was emceed by Laura Wells and Larry Shoup. Among the speakers were ILWU's Jack Heyman, OEA's Bob Mandel (teacher's union), Wes Hamilton from Olympia (representing the people blocking military shipments out of Puget Sound), a staff person from Congresswoman Barbara Lee, and representatives of Veterans for Peace, U.S. Labor Against the War, West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project, and the Bay Area Immigrant Rights Coalition.
The location was particularly appropriate for the commemoration since the square itself was named after the Oakland novelist who wrote "The Iron Heel."
The rally was well covered by the media, including the Oakland Tribune and the SF Chronicle, several TV channels and radio stations. There was also a photographer for Indybay. So our event got good publicity. Newspapers across the country reprinted the Tribune article.
on to May 19
We took a week off, and then we set about getting ready for the May 19 action in the port itself. There were a few more of us by this time, and Jonathan was back as well. Bob Mandel, Mary Loeser and Karl Kramer were there to be counted on as always. The new people included Rev. Henry Williams, a neighborhood activist in West Oakland, and Krystof Candor, who'd been involved in organizing the Port events of 2003.
It was one thing to hold a rally in a public area such as Jack London Square, but it was more daunting to shut down a war profiteer in the port where protesters had once been attacked by the police. Even casual visitors were treated with suspicion. A couple years earlier I had been walking down Middle Harbor Road together with an artist who was taking notes and photos for the purpose of making line drawings when we were told to leave. Not even artists were welcome, it would seem. Antiwar protesters were clearly not welcome. Port security officials had actually equated a demonstration to a nuclear blast. Nuclear? Yes, on June 29, 2003 the Oakland Tribune reported in a front-page article:
"A nuclear explosion, a dive-bombing aircraft, sabotage -- and mass protests -- are equal threats to the port of Oakland, according to a classified security plan being developed by those responsible for thwarting terrorists."
The reporter should've asked the port officials how they'd managed to survive the demonstrations of that spring. It was also to be marveled that they avoided nuclear extinction the following year, 2004, which saw an anniversary port protest as well as an eight-day truckers' strike.
The protests subsequent to April 7, 2003 had taken place without further attacks, presumably because the police violence, though defended by then-Mayor Jerry Brown, had backfired. Oakland is a progressive city with popular support for the antiwar movement, so the attack resulted in a public uproar and a campaign to defend First Amendment rights. There was even an investigation by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, and, in the following year's UNCNR report, our city of Oakland was included along with abusers such as Egypt, Israel and Indonesia. There were, of course, lawsuits, and the city paid out more than $1.25 million in injury settlements. The Oakland police promised to change their ways and be nicer to protesters in the future.
Although it seemed unlikely that we'd be attacked this time, we still had to do everything we could to ensure the safety as well as the success of our demonstration, including arrangements for legal observers to attend, the submission, by an attorney, of a letter to the police on our behalf, and the contacting of city council members, the newly-elected Mayor Ronald Dellums and other politicians, requesting their support.
There were numerous other tasks. Once again, press releases and announcements had to be written. We had to contact organizations, groups and individuals, asking for participation and endorsement. There were two organizations in particular whose involvement we really wanted but had so far failed to enlist--Not In Our Name and A.N.S.W.E.R.--groups well-known for organizing large-scale demonstrations. Although we realized that they might take over our project and run the show, we decided that would be acceptable. We'd be willing to just do the footwork. The only reason for running it ourselves was that, if we didn't, it seemed that nobody else would.
Every detail had to be handled with meticulous care. Should the title of our leaflet read: "Block war profiteers" or "Picket war profiteers"? Several people favored the word "block" because the object of our picket line was to blockade the profiteers and shut them down. Others pointed out that "block" or "blockade" connoted civil disobedience, whereas our hope was to get longshoremen to honor our picket line.
The success of our action in the port depended largely on three conditions: police neutrality, a large turnout of picketers, and the honoring of our picket line by the longshoremen of ILWU Local 10 and the ship clerks of Local 34.
The Longshore Workers & Ship Clerks
Some decades ago the ILWU was led by Harry Bridges, remembered as a hard-line, no-nonsense, militant socialist. But those days had passed. Under pressure from a corporation-friendly government, the ILWU international had moved to the right.
At the same time there were still a few, old-time radicals left in Local 10. One was Jack Heyman, who had addressed the April 7 rally at the Port HQ. Four years before, when police attacked protesters and longshoremen, they arrested Jack on phony charges which were eventually dropped. Jack clearly wanted antiwar actions to succeed, but he and other longshoremen warned us that the May 19 operation was not going to be a slam dunk.
"Oakland is the one port in this country with the possibility of an antiwar demonstration succeeding," Jack told us, then drew in his breath and added with a tone of studied caution, "A possibility." Local 10 had never crossed a picket line, and he didn't want this to be the first time that happened. Such a precedent would be a disaster, both for the community and for the union, he emphasized.
We needed to have a strong picket line out there at the docks. It had to be loud, and militant. And we needed as large a turnout as possible. "What's the crucial number for a picket line?" someone asked. But that was hard to say. Back in 1997, when the ship Neptune Jade was picketed, eight persons had been enough. Today, however, more would certainly be needed. Would 50 be sufficient? Or would 500 be too few? Nobody could answer that question.
In the meantime, we were planning to join the upcoming May Day march in San Francisco, where we'd meet the ILWU contingent. So, on May 1st, several of us went to Dolores Park, the gathering place. However, the Local 10 people didn't show up. Later we learned that the Pacific Maritime Association (the employers group) had opposed the local's participation in the demonstration, and the ILWU's international leadership had agreed with the employers' demand and ordered the local not to attend. That was despite the unanimous vote of the members to take the day off from work to attend this demonstration to defend immigrant workers' rights. It was a heavy-handed maneuver that showed us something about today's ILWU leadership.
Presumably, the International's leadership would also frown on the notion of the locals honoring our community picket line in the port.
But would it really come to that? I recalled that when we returned to the port back on May 12, 2003 the war profiteers closed up shop for the day rather than risk a situation where their employees refused to cross our line. They'd done the same the next year during our anniversary demonstration. That's what the shippers had done then, and it seemed to me that they were certain to repeat that ploy. I expressed this view to the committee, but I seemed to be alone in this belief.
An executive board meeting of Local 10 was held a week later, and a delegation from our Port Action Committee, including Keith Brown, secretary of the OEA, addressed the session. Keith requested that the ILWU honor the line, and his presentation was well received. But according to their meeting procedures we had to leave and didn't know the executive board's decision on this critical question.
Monday the 14th came, and this would be our Port Action Committee's last meeting before May 19, which would be following Saturday. We had by now received numerous endorsements, mostly local but also from veterans' groups in Vermont and Louisiana.
Although neither A.N.S.W.E.R. nor Not In Our Name had shown much inclination to join us in this action, both had promised to send an announcement out on their email lists, which were quite large. So that would reach a lot of people. Notices were circulated on numerous smaller email lists. The Bay Area Indymedia website had put up a center column announcing the action. Our announcement was also on the UK Labour Net website, and it appeared a few days later on Congressman Dennis Kucinich's website, which listed several May 19 events and said in a headline: "But the greatest Armed Forces Day activity looks to be in Oakland, California."
SDS at UCLA had contacted us, expressing their intention to participate in the action. "SDS? You mean Students for a Democratic Society?" Two or three of our committee expressed surprise to hear the name of an organization that supposedly hadn't been in existence since the 1960's. "Well, it seems that SDS is back in business," said Jonathan, "and a small delegation of them are coming up from LA to join us Saturday in shutting shut down a war profiteer."
"All right!" It was tremendously good news. Then we turned to other business of the evening. There was a lot to be done this final week. We'd be addressing a city council meeting and going to numerous other places as well.
We were dashing around, often trying to be two or three places at once. Amazingly enough, things seemed to be getting done, most of it anyway. We'd written to Mayor Dellums, but so far hadn't heard back from him or anyone in his office.
On Thursday we had a banner-making party at Larry's home. Krystof blocked out the letters with a pencil on a large piece of cloth reading "Stop war shipments--Port money for community needs" and I painted them in. During a break we had pizza, then made picket signs, some of which read: "Honor the line." And this same evening, while we were doing this, the longshoremen were presumably having a general meeting and deciding on how they would respond. "To honor or not to honor the picket line?" --that was the question on the table, and in about 36 hours it would be the question in the port.
Friday, May 18--Port Day Minus One
In the morning I looked at my email, hoping to see news of the dockworkers' decision. There was an email from Bob Mandel, sent to our Port Action list, but instead of news from the dockworkers' meeting, the message read:
"… some late developments. We have reliable information that the police will blockade the port at three intersections: … Only longshoremen and others with 'business in the port' will be permitted to proceed beyond that point. The Police blockade will begin at 5:30 A.M. …"
For some moments I stared at the email with a sinking feeling in my stomach. Then one arrived from Jonathan:
"My initial reaction is that we need to call Mayor Dellums and the City Council members to find out who has authorized/ordered this police action. …"
More emails came and went as half a dozen of us discussed the situation over our computers. It was decided that Jonathan would do the negotiating. From time to time he sent progress reports from his talks with city council members and the police. "What do you folks think?" Jonathan would ask as he made his moves, and we emailed back our thoughts. At the same time, we also considered contingency plans; for example, if we couldn't get into the port, we might picket the two entrances instead. We were of course still expecting to get into the port where we would picket the gates of APL and SSA.
For the rest of the morning and all afternoon this email conference continued. Emails sometimes arrived just minutes apart; sometimes there was an hour or more between them. It was Friday, "Port Day" minus one, our last day to get things done and be ready, and, between emails, I worked on an article to send out with last minute announcements. The plan was to meet at the West Oakland BART station at 6:30 a.m. From there we'd shuttle to the APL and SSA terminals which were about a mile away. Any last-minute changes could be made at the station in the morning.
It was clear that the police intended to be setting up checkpoints in the port. The question was whether or not they'd let us through. Finally around 4:36 p.m. Jonathan reported that the police might not let our shuttle vehicles through but that we could walk in without interference. We might have to walk half a mile or so, but that didn't seem too bad. As for the police, they said they would be following the crowd control guidelines promulgated after April 2003.
Jonathan ended his report saying: "Well, I think we're done communicating with OPD [Oakland Police Department] until tomorrow morning. Then I've got to deal with these guys again. I can't tell you how much I enjoy this role. Remember, I didn't volunteer for this police liaison thing and was basically drafted. Hopefully people are satisfied with the way I've handled it."
"Jonathan, I think you handled things just fine," Bob wrote back. We all felt that way. Actually, our whole group had done well, keeping our heads, discussing the situation in a rational way, and giving out thoughtful opinions. We worked very well together as a team.
So this part of it was over, and I suddenly felt worn out and exhausted. It had been an incredibly stressful day, but I hadn't realized just how stressful it had been until it was over. Over? In the morning, only some 12 hours away, we'd be picketing in the port, but even that seemed like a relatively minor thing right now. Then I realized that I still hadn't heard any news of what had happened at the longshoremen's general meeting.
One more email arrived that evening. It was the long-awaited response from Oakland's Mayor Ronald Dellums.
"Dear Members of the Port Action Coalition:" the letter began, "It has been my long held view that peace is a superior idea. It has further been my view that for the most part the problems of the world do not lend themselves to a military solution. …[ ] … it is my honor to join with you in calling for an end to this war… …" It was signed Ronald V. Dellums, Mayor.
There was no actual mention of the action of the following day. The letter came with a cover letter written by a staff member, saying, "Here is the letter of support from Mayor Dellums. Have a good weekend."
A good weekend? Well, that's what we were hoping for.
Morning, May 19, Armed Forces Day
My alarm clock went off at the ungodly hour of 5:30 in the morning. Saturday, May 19th had finally arrived. It was Armed Forces Day, truly an appropriate day to shut down a war profiteer, though I rather doubted that there'd be any ships at the docks this morning. I still expected the profiteers to be closing up shop the way they had on the two previous occasions in 2003 and 2004.
I rode to the West Oakland BART Station with a couple of friends, Virginia and Steve. We arrived in fairly good time, around 6:30 a.m., just as people were starting to gather. One person was setting up a small table with a banner; she was going to stay here at the station and meet people as they came and direct them to the shuttle. Then we heard the news:
The longshoremen had voted overwhelmingly to honor our picket line, we were told, and, SSA had three ships waiting for cargo.
"Wow!" But would we have people enough to do it? There were less than 50 of us here. A few more were trickling in, but not a huge number. Others were already in the port, we were told. We were now waiting for our shuttle, consisting of two vans. After what seemed like a long wait, the shuttle returned from the port, having just delivered a previous load of picketers. After they had taken as many passengers as they could hold, there were still two or three dozen of us without rides. Rather than wait for the shuttles to return, we decided to walk. It was about a mile to the gates of SSA
We set out across the parking lot, then down Third Street and soon reached the Adeline Street Bridge, a lengthy structure that went over the railway yard. From the crest of the bridge we could look back and see the high-rise buildings of downtown Oakland behind us, and in front of us we had a clear view of the Bay Bridge, and, out beyond it, San Francisco, shimmering in the morning light. Below us, the Adeline Street Bridge became Middle Harbor Road which stretched on past APL to the gates of SSA which was still another half mile away. Along the waterfront to the left of the road were half a dozen tall cranes; I was used to seeing them every time I rode by on BART; they always reminded me of the descriptions of the invaders from Mars in H.G. Wells' "War of the Worlds."
There were hardly any vehicles, so we marched on the asphalt road itself. The police had a checkpoint well beyond the bridge, stopping all vehicles. They were not in riot gear. We'd already been assured they wouldn't bother us, and they didn't. We marched past without incident. However, they didn't allow our shuttle vans beyond that point.
There was a huge emptiness in this port, you could've marched a couple hundred thousand people through here and still not filled it up. As it was, there were only about three dozen of us walking along this route. Some distance up ahead I could see the main gate of APL with an office building, and, somewhere beyond it, the tops of a tiny grove of two or three trees, the only vestige of living green in this brown, oil-soaked no man's land of open sky and noxious fumes. It was from this vantage point that I'd seen the air bursts four years earlier which signaled the beginning of the police attack at the SSA terminal. Today we seemed quite safe, but I still had the feeling of entering a war zone where bullets could be flying at any moment.
This road to the gates of SSA had become a familiar, well-trodden path for port protesters, all because of the violence and the brutal suppression of our First Amendment rights back in 2003.
We continued on past the main gate of APL, which was closed down this morning, and headed on to SSA where the three ships were waiting. Finally, we reached our destination. There were already a couple dozen people or more picketing here, and we quickly joined the picket line. Even after more people arrived, there were less than 100 of us--far fewer than what we'd expected. But at this moment, it seemed that our numbers were sufficient to form an effective picket line.
There was an impressive display of large banners, including the one Krystof and I had produced, which urged: "Stop war shipments--Port money for community needs" Another read "Whose port? Our port!" One from the teachers union read: "Use port money for public schools." There was also a banner from the Transport Workers Solidarity Committee: "Stop the war abroad, win the war at home."
Inside the terminal, a few hundred feet away, stood the tall cranes, and on this side of them were cargo containers stacked high. Behind them we could see the superstructure of a ship. Someone explained that it was extremely expensive to have a ship sitting idle at the dock; therefore as soon as one is brought in and tied up, they definitely intend to get it loaded as quickly as possible. Our action would cost SSA dearly, but such is the penalty for doing a bloody business. There were still two more ships out in the harbor, waiting to come in.
"Does anybody know if the cargo includes war materiel?" someone asked. I shook my head and replied, "We'll probably never know. Historians are still trying to determine if there were munitions on the Lusitania."
What we did know was that SSA profited from the war in various nasty ways. When US troops rolled into Iraq in March 2003, SSA followed close behind, spearheading the corporate invasion. Only five days into the war, SSA received a no-bid contract to operate the Iraqi port of Umm Qasr. Two weeks later, on April 7, when Oakland police fired "less-than-lethal" munitions at protesters and longshoremen, SSA officials were seen at the police command post. The attack began right here at this very gate where we were now picketing.
During the 2002 lockout of the ILWU longshoremen, SSA showed itself to be vehemently anti-union. On that occasion, the Bush regime had intervened in favor of SSA and the Pacific Maritime Association. One could write a very long essay on SSA and their anti-union stances.
Our picket line was rather quiet at first. "We're too quiet, practically anemic," said a woman holding one end of a banner. But soon we got the volume up. A young black man took a bullhorn and led us in chants. "Tell me what you want--what you really want!" he sang out, and we replied in unison: "Stop the War!" He was so effective with that chant that for the next two or three days I awoke in the morning with those words ringing through my head. "Tell me what you want--what you really want!"
"War is for profit--Longshore workers can stop it!" was a chant suggested to us by ILWU members. Other chants included "Oakland! Show your pride! Teachers and longshoremen side by side!" and "ILWU! Stand with us and we'll stand with you!" Many of the people on our line were teachers; OEA president Betty Olson was there. Others were from various groups, including the Green Party, Peace & Freedom, LMNOP, Code Pink and KPFA (including four board members).
Then I saw a group of about fourteen young people trotting up the road with a giant model of a white bird on poles. They coordinated their movements so that the wings, made of white sheets, flapped as they went. After circling around for a bit, they stationed themselves on the gate-side of our picket line. So, with the banners in front of us, and the white bird raised high behind us, we had a rather impressive display. Later I learned that these young people were SDSers, some from the Bay Area, and three from the UCLA SDS chapter. They also called themselves the "Bay Rising Affinity Group."
By now the longshoremen were arriving for work. They gathered by the fence just up the road and stood there waiting, as yet not crossing our line. Among them I saw Jack Heyman, Lonnie Francis and Clarence Thomas of Local 10, and Local 34's President Richard Cavalli.
One longshoreman did attempt to cross our line in his car. The police came and told him he had a right to cross it. Our people spoke with him and I couldn't hear what was being said, but they were obviously asking him to honor the line. Several of us were standing in front of his car, blocking his way. After a bit he put his car in reverse and backed away from the line.
We had sent out press releases to the various media outlets, but the only reporter there was from Pacifica Radio/KPFA. Then we heard that the police weren't letting the TV crews bring their trucks in. Local 34's Richard Cavalli commented bitingly on the state of press-freedom left in this country when police deny media vehicles access to a news scene. After a while, a TV cameraman came on foot, carrying his heavy equipment. But no newspaper reporters showed up.
For some time, maybe an hour or two, we continued to walk our line, chanting, and sometimes singing. "We shall not, we shall not be moved / Just like a tree that's standing by the water / We shall not be moved."
Now and then a truck rolled by. Some drivers honked and waved peace signs in solidarity. They too had their issues. Many are immigrant workers.
Jonathan was doing the police liaison. There were also a couple of legal observers. Karl, Bob, Krystof and the others were running the show, handling the tactical stuff, doing whatever needed to be done and managing nicely. I just stayed in the line, walking and chanting. For a while I took a turn helping to hold up a large banner.
"The arbitrator's here!" someone announced. In a situation such as this, the employer calls in an arbitrator who makes a ruling.
However, the arbitrator ruled against us, and instructed the longshoremen to go to work. So what happens now? we wondered, and, to our relief, the next thing we saw was the longshoremen getting into their cars and driving away. Many honked and waved peace signs at us as they drove off.
Then Karl picked up a bullhorn and explained the situation. In spite of the arbitrator's ruling, the longshoremen declared that they "don't cross picket lines." So they went home. By doing so they gave up a day's pay, for which they would've been paid time and a half since this was a Saturday. They had chosen to lose a day's pay rather than cross a picket line.
The membership of Local 10 included a new generation of dock workers, persons who'd heard of the tradition of honoring solidarity picket lines, but hadn't themselves encountered that situation nor made that decision. Now they had a notch in their belt, not a bad thing with a contract struggle looming in the coming year.
The port is a strategic jugular vein, and to shut down a terminal for even the short space of a single shift is like giving the warmongers' collective throat a mild squeeze. It wouldn't really hurt them, but it might induce some intense discomfort.
But we had no time to reflect on such at this moment.
What to do now? We held a discussion. Our original plan had called for an all-day action here in the port. Should we stay on and meet the next shift of dockworkers? Or, should we declare victory and call it a day? There was the risk that it might not go so well in the afternoon, and that would certainly detract from this morning's victory. Jonathan and Krystof were for staying, Larry said we should call it a day. That's what I felt too. There was too much at risk here, best to quit while we were winning, and I was about to voice that opinion when word came from the longshoremen: "They want us to stay."
It's nice to be wanted. And the longshoremen, noticeably walking with a bit of a union swagger, certainly must've been confident of the outcome. However, and this was the next question: could we get enough people to return in the afternoon? The picketers were leaving; many were already well on their way up the road towards the bridge and gone from the scene. We asked those who remained, "How many of you can come back this afternoon?"
Nineteen people raised their hands. That didn't really seem like enough. So we asked, "Can everyone here please get on your phone, talk to your friends, and each of you bring at least one more person with you?" There was a general affirmation. So the plan was to be back at 4 p.m. in good time for the 6 p.m. shift. It was now around 10:30 a.m. Those with bicycles rode out to catch up with people who were on their way out and tell them about the afternoon.
Should we keep a skeleton crew of picketers on? We finally decided against that, and all of us dashed home, to our phones and computers. Some went to other events where they could make announcements. There was a KPFA board meeting scheduled to begin at eleven, and some went there.
I went straight home to my computer and set about writing a brief report for Indymedia. By the time I had it ready and went online, I found two or three other reports from the docks already posted. "War profiteer shut down!" "Community Picket …" "Victory at the Docks!" "Picketing to continue!" I added mine to the collection, and then set about emailing it out to everyone I had an address for, and got back to the docks at two minutes to four.
The police were nowhere in sight, though they did show up later. This time, our shuttle van and other vehicles were allowed to drive all the way down Middle Harbor Road to our picket line at the SSA terminal. That made things a lot easier for us.
There were fewer of us in the afternoon line, maybe around fifty or sixty in all, and they were not all the same people who had been here in the morning. Some came only for the morning and others only for the afternoon. One person told me he hadn't heard about the event till the afternoon when he happened to look at the Indymedia site and learned what happened that morning. The SDS people with the white bird were back.
This time, there were two drums. These drums worked really well together with the chants. There hadn't been any drums or musical instruments in the morning.
CBS News was there and stayed all afternoon; as far as I know, it was the only TV station that covered this event. As during the morning, no reporters from the print media showed up. This was in stark contrast to our rally at the Port HQ, a relatively minor event, which had been well covered by the commercial media.
On the other hand, several independents and participants took photos and videos and posted them on various websites. There was a reporter from a small community station, Berkeley Liberation Radio, who interviewed Mary Loeser, Rev. Henry Williams and me, as well as several of the longshoremen. The audio was later archived and posted on Indybay. The internet has enabled people like us to attempt an end run around the gatekeepers of the commercial media. Several of the picketers wrote and posted reports of this event; my favorite is the one written by Josh Russell, one of the SDSers with the white bird.
The workers began to arrive. They parked their cars in a long row in the center of the road both east and west of the gate, then gathered into a large group, and began a discussion. Eventually the arbitrator arrived. The longshoremen continued their parley, and the arbitrator seemed to be taking his time with what he was doing. This went on for half an hour or more. Finally, just as in the morning, the arbitrator ruled against us. The longshoremen went on with their debate, which appeared to be quite animated by now. One black longshoreman passionately recounted the events in which police shot longshore workers in the '03 dock antiwar protest.
Involved in the discussion were people from three ILWU locals. There were Local 10 (longshoremen), Local 34 (ship clerks), and Local 91 (foremen). The foremen are called "walking bosses." Some of them wanted to honor the line, but there were also some who actually urged the workers to cross it.
Finally, the workers concluded their discussion and announced, "There's no way in hell that we're going to cross a picket line!" Then they got in their cars and drove off, and, as they did so, many of them honked at us and waved peace signs.
We cheered and hugged each other. Twice that day, the longshoremen had honored the community picket line, joining with the antiwar movement to shut down a war profiteer in the Port of Oakland. This does not happen often--not every year, not every decade. Possibly not even once during the war in Vietnam. It was truly an historical event. Or perhaps it was just a small-scale rehearsal for a far greater event yet to come.
August 1, 2007, updated September 6, 2007