Another View

of the Blockade of the ZIM Piraeus in Oakland

by Marsha Feinland

In response to the recent horrific attacks on Gazan civilians by Israeli armed forces, a coalition of left groups and individuals decided to initiate a “port action.” A force of demonstrators could persuade the longshore union members to refuse to cross a picket line, and thus prevent a ship's cargo from being off-loaded.

Israeli Zim Line ships dock and deliver cargo at the Port of Oakland regularly. The action was originally scheduled for August 2. Fliers were distributed at the numerous demonstrations being held in the Bay Area against Israel's occupation of Palestine and the ongoing attacks on civilians. But at an organizing meeting a few days before the scheduled event a number of the major groups voted to reschedule the action to August 16 “in order to give time to build a stronger blockade (according to the International Socialist Organization [ISO]).” Some individuals and smaller groups, feeling strongly that the mobilization was already in gear, decided to gather at the West Oakland BART station on the morning of August 2 to carry out the mission as planned. When a critical mass did not materialize, they disbanded and joined the effort to build the August 16 action.

The call went out to assemble at the West Oakland BART station at 5:00 a.m. the morning of August 16 and then march to the Port. The Arab Resource and Organizing Center (AROC) set up a place on their website for the action, including a phone number to contact to receive updates by text message. On the evening of August 15, people were notified that the action was postponed until 3:00 p.m. because the ship's scheduled arrival had changed. Some people who showed up early Saturday morning got the word to return later that afternoon.

By 3:00 p.m. a crowd was amassing at the West Oakland BART Station. Various speakers addressed the growing throng. When the march started, most participants were under the impression that they were going to “block the boat, block block the boat.” But in fact the Zim Piraeus was at sea somewhere near Monterey, and would not be arriving in Oakland that day. This was a protest march, not a picket, but at the outset this was not clear to the rank-and-file demonstrator.

As the march of 2000-3000 progressed to the Port, there were pauses for speeches heard by portions of the marchers. Towards the end, speakers announced that the ship was not in the port because of our presence. They declared victory and congratulated all the participants. This was apparently the end of the action, although the potential was there to block the unloading of the boat when it did arrive.

The next day, Sunday, August 17 at 5:08 p.m., a text message went out. A “worker-supported picket” would be set up at 6:00 p.m. at Berth 57. People should come to the West Oakland BART Station as soon as possible and tell their friends.

Arriving at the BART station around 6:00 p.m., we were connected to a ride to Berth 57. About 100 (or more) people formed two picket lines at the first two gates (I was not aware of any other lines at further gates). The Piraeus was in, but the ILWU workers did not cross the picket lines and the cargo stayed on the ship.

At 8:00 p.m. our work was done. The picket line broke up as demonstrators headed back from the port.

A local labor activist told whoever would listen that we should return at 5:00 am the next morning to keep the next shift of workers from off-loading the ship. I did not hear any response, although a friend and I planned to check it out.

There was no official call to mobilize between Sunday night and Monday morning. I set my alarm for 3:30 a.m. and drove to West Oakland BART at 4:45, having received an email and a phone call from two of my friends.

I found a handful of activists when I arrived at the BART station. Not having been notified about the days' activities, a couple of police officers approached to ask us if we needed an escort to the Port. By 5:30, over a dozen activists were present. Hearing that a couple of picketers were already at the port, another driver and I each took a carload of people to join them.

By 6:00 a.m. there were about 25 picketers at the Port. We distributed ourselves among the three entrances that we thought would be used by the longshore workers assigned to the Piraeus. We proceeded to march around in picket lines. A rover on a bicycle let us know when more people were needed at a particular entrance, and some of us moved around accordingly. We would learn later that there was one picketer at another gate further down the road.

The police were there in force. After a while they told us that we could not walk across the driveway entrances to the gates, and that if we did we would be arrested. I wondered who had ordered the creation of this special zone. I thought that people could walk peacefully in front of any public place as long as they kept moving. Who does the OPD work for anyway? The people of Oakland?.. the Port of Oakland officials?.. the shipping companies?

At the first gate about ten picketers formed two groups on either side of the gate. Five of us were at the second gate where one independent activist, determined to exercise his legal rights, kept walking back and forth across the driveway. The police managed to grab him, handcuff him, and hold him at the site for about a half hour. They released him with a citation. At the third gate another local activist, enraged at being denied his right to walk peacefully across the street, sat down in the middle of the driveway.

The police arrested him and took him to the police station on 7th Street, where they cited and released him without taking him inside. From there he made his way back to the port.

After a while a few of us walked down to join others at the third gate, having heard that reinforcements were needed there. At that point some police officers announced that the cars parked in the 15 minute zone would be towed. I walked back with my companion to pick up my car. As we drove back toward the gate, someone hailed us to say that in order to successfully stop the work we needed more people at another berth further down the road where only one picketer was present. Until then we had been unaware of both the need to picket that site and of the location of that activist.

I dropped my friend off where there were some other picketers so that he could give them the news. I then proceeded to check out the new (to me) location. I saw a lone demonstrator sitting down in the entrance driveway. The police appeared to be talking to him (it was reported later that he had been arrested). I drove back to report to the other picketers. I picked up my friend and took him to the new site, where we saw workers gathered across the street and a few more activists at the gate.

Not being able to park, I drove around from gate to gate, passed on messages, and gave people rides to and fro. Word came down by 8:30 am that the ILWU was honoring our picket line (or attempted picket line) and the ship would not be off-loaded that morning.

Twenty five people went to the Port on Monday morning because they knew the importance of continuing to present a picket line. The threat of a large action had kept the ship out at sea on Saturday.

A substantial picket line had prevented the longshore workers from off-loading the ship after it had arrived on Sunday. We were winning. We were not about to stop in the face of victory. A small group of people managed to keep it going.

After Monday morning's action the larger body of protesters reactivated themselves. More people came to the port to prevent the Piraeus from being off-loaded on Monday evening and for both the morning and evening shifts on Tuesday. By Tuesday night the ship left the port, but turned around and came back to a different berth. There workers were transferred from another job to work the Israeli ship.

The mainstream news reported that the Oakland-bound cargo was removed from the boat before it left for other destinations. I later heard this on the KPFA news as well. But some people who have contacts in the union say that the workers slowed down and unloaded very little before the Zim Piraeus was sent on its way. This view is reinforced by pictures of the ship with a full load of cargo after it had left Oakland for good. In any case the news of the opposition of the people of the Bay Area to Israel's aggression against Palestine, and the power of joint action of workers and community activists, is reverberating around the world.

August 26, 2014