Finding Spirituality & Revolution at Block the Boat Oakland
by Adam Mostafa & Emily Loftus
Saturday August. 16, 2014. I arrived early at the West Oakland BART station to get a feel for the environment and also trek the distance from there to the pier prior to the march. Having been informed through Twitter and a marine vessel tracking website that the ship was still out to sea, I was skeptical of what was going on, yet still naively enthusiastic. After scoping out the BART station and hanging out with some locals, I headed toward the Port of Oakland.
As I reached the top of an overpass on the way, the elevated view of the port and all of its mechanical giants became clear. I realized how serious this task would be. Having not fully read the flyer, I had no idea the berth we would be blocking, so I rode down and began scouting each gate I saw. I passed the gate unknowingly. However, along the way two vans full of police and two squad cars with bikes in their trunks rode by me - not once, but twice, in each direction. I figured I was close. I completely circled the port and headed back to the BART station. It made me very happy to see a few people there were wearing Palestinian flags and holding signs.
I also noticed a gentleman on a bike who stated that he was going to ride over to the port. It was at this point I noticed the flyer on a light pole that said Berth 57. More people began to arrive at the BART station. I decided to ride back over to get a visual of where the ship would be pulling in, still believing it would. When I got back there I guess I rode too close to a security gate and a guy - a man I would be seeing often in the next few days - drove up to me in an official-looking truck and told me politely that I was on private property. I asked him if the Zim ship was pulling in, and he said it wasn't. I asked him if he was aware that a huge protest was on its way, he said he was. He asked what our actual tactics were going to be, to which I politely utilized the Fifth Amendment.
I rode my bike out into the street and waited, debating whether to go back to join the march or just hang back. As I sat there, the gentleman from earlier who stated that he was coming to the port rode up on his bike. He seemed to be looking for the ship, and I told him it was not there yet. Oddly, he told me that I shouldn't be there. Without thinking too deeply about that, I heeded his advice and suggested we ride back to the BART station together. I still didn't know who he was; I figured he was just a seasoned protester. I asked his name; it was Ihad. Upon returning to the BART station, I noticed the atmosphere had completely transformed: Protesters everywhere, music playing, picket signs, and a crowd ready to stand up against genocide and oppression. I started making my way through the crowd and taking pictures. After a few motivational speeches and chants, the march began.
What a march!
Every type of person you could imagine was there, chanting, playing instruments, filming, and an overall feeling of unity seemed to envelope the crowd. When I say this was a beautiful march, I really mean it. There was a band playing Sly and the Family Stone's "If You Want Me To Stay." A rolling loudspeaker and megaphones called out chants. A random man with an acoustic guitar danced, strummed and sang an original song about freeing Palestine. Members of Anonymous lurked through the crowd in their signature masks. People danced and shouted their desire to see Palestine free from Israel's seemingly endless, but not unstoppable, oppression and genocide.
Thousands strong, we made our way to the bridge that leads into the Port of Oakland. It wasn't until reaching the bottom of the bridge and watching the crowd go up it while still snaking around the corner below that I realized how large of a crowd it was. I think it is important to emphasize this. Most media outlets, online and others, consistently downplay the number of protesters at pro-Palestine marches. I stepped outside of the crowd to take a few pictures and rode my bike up the bridge on the opposite side of the street to get a clear picture from the top. A helicopter circled overhead.
As I reached the top of the bridge, I noticed the crowd had stopped and was listening to a man giving a powerful speech. I stopped to listen, too, and realized it was Ihad, the man who told me I shouldn't be at the port earlier where the ship was not. I still didn't give this much thought, and his speech was very good. He informed everyone that the ship was not in the port, that it had stayed out to sea because of our protest, and he declared victory. People seemed confused, then excited. He said we should continue our march down to the pier, which we did. As we approached the pier the police presence became apparent and with Ferguson and Mike Brown in mind, our attention immediately focused on them. Ihad then began speaking and telling us all to behold the line of police and how we were witnessing the police state at work.
We all chanted "Hands up, don't shoot!" Clarence Thomas (not the Supreme Court Justice) of the local International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) gave a speech and expressed his support for our cause. It was a serious, yet celebratory, moment. We began our victory march back. With a long ride back home ahead of me, I rode off. I stopped on the way home at a viewpoint of the Bay to reflect on the day. The sky was blue, a marine layer of clouds covered the distant hills and the sun sparkled on the water. I looked through the pictures and videos I took, reflecting on what I just experienced. I went home.
Sunday August. 17, 2014
I woke up and checked my Twitter, and not to my surprise people were pointing out how the ship was now heading into the Port of Oakland to unload. I knew this was going to happen, but being that I am not an organizer, I wasn't sure how to proceed. The tweets kept coming, emphasizing how we really didn't block the boat. For literally one minute I became upset at these tweets, then I realized they were right. Next thing you know, people were tracking the ship - it was getting closer and closer.
I was waiting for some sort of confirmation from AROC (Arab Resource and Organizing Center), the group that originally planned the march, but nothing. I decided to go myself. I tweeted out my intentions to head out and left. I don't use a cellphone and I only have a WiFi-capable iPad. I figured I would ride to West Oakland and find somewhere to get on the Internet before heading back to the pier. By the time I got there, my Twitter was going crazy. I became nervous because that has never happened before. People were showing support and also calling for others to show up. On my way there, I didn't know what would happen or what to do.
I didn't really think it out too much, either. I looked for the support of larger organizations on Twitter, but nothing yet. The only ray of hope was one other person from the Internet who tweeted a picture from the bridge leading to the pier. I got on my bike to go find them. As I rode back to the pier, I saw a guy looking at his phone and, sure enough, it was him. We identified each other from Twitter and began discussing what to do next. We both knew that if enough people showed up, we could pull this off. We walked toward his car and decided we would meet back up shortly to see what would happen.
I logged back on to Twitter to find support for the march from everyone except the original organizers. I headed back toward the BART station and found people were there and organizing shuttles to take people back and forth. I headed toward the pier. At some point during this time, the original organizers, with less than an hour to spare, finally gave the green light to come support this action that was initiated autonomously by people online. The group's last-minute support was tremendously helpful. Enough people showed up, and for the first time, we actually blocked the boat at the pier.
Talk amongst the crowd was to show back up at 5 a.m. to continue the action. Some people stated that Monday morning may not be a good time, being that it would mark the beginning of the work week. I wasn't sure if I should come back, but my fellow protesters were talking about the idea so we agreed to return. Interestingly, the original organizers somewhat discouraged this continued action. They did not give support for the most crucial day of our continued success: Monday morning.
Monday, August. 18, 2014
Around 20 or 30 people, mostly the elder veterans of the protest movements of the Bay Area and some others showed up. Steve Zeltzer of the Labor Video project and KPFA radio was there. It was cold outside, drizzling rain, and there were 40 foot big rig trucks all around us in the dark and early morning. It was not the glamorous, photo-friendly march we had on Saturday.
We were barely able to pull off the picket. To be quite honest, the workers could have made it through our thin picket lines. We blocked the wrong gate at one point and some machinists became very hostile and even tried to physically remove us and fight us, and they threatened us. What made the difference was that a massive police presence showed up, expecting a huge crowd. This police presence actually made up for our lack of people. A few hours passed and we all began to accept defeat. It wasn't until a high-ranking member of the union stated that the shift was called off that we all became aware of our success. I couldn't believe we actually did it. None of us could. It was amazing.
This energized us to come back that afternoon and continue the pickets, which were once again successful. From Monday forward, and partially Sunday, no organization or person was responsible for the success of Block the Boat. Every single person individually contributed to the collective effort. Between the Internet, elders, young people, union workers and police, we accomplished what the original goal was - blocking the boat. Larger organizations initiated and created the context for the original march but consistently and openly discouraged our continued efforts almost every step of the way thereafter. Apparently, money was also raised for Block the Boat.
Internet users ordered us pizzas, brought us food and water and supported us, with no financial support from larger organizations. Each shift we blocked the workers from going in was the catalyst for the next picket. There was never a definitive moment of victory that can be attributed to any one person or organization. It was a sustained effort by random people. It is true that some of us were there every single shift, every single day, but that means nothing when contemplating what it took to achieve the overall goal. This is very important for all Block The Boat actions going forward. The support of a centralized leadership-based non-profit organization is not needed or necessary to sustain these actions. Mobilization can be achieved by the sheer will and determination of dedicated individuals forming a collective. The support of larger organizations is desired and appreciated, but if they cannot maintain the endurance and stamina necessary to be successful, they should respectfully step out of the way of those who can and will. Furthermore, they should refrain from discouraging those who wish to persist.
Tuesday. August 19, 2014
Our pickets continued. Word started spreading that the ILWU was becoming weary. This is interesting to me because from what I saw and heard, most of the workers do not support genocide or apartheid. It is understood that they have a job to do and families to support. Many of us expressed the sentiment that if the workers would just refuse to work the ship, this action would be instantly successful. As they are in contract negotiations, this may not have been feasible for them. (It should be noted that in the past, police have been used to get workers through picket lines.)
One can only speculate why they did not cross this time, so I'll leave it up to readers to make their own assumptions. We persisted. The morning shift was blocked and word started spreading that the ship may be leaving. During actions like these one can never be too careful, so we waited. On the pier and then nearby, we monitored the ship online and visually. At one point, one woman stood at the pier alone and stood watch while some of us left to go eat breakfast. She also brought us donuts and orange juice. We waited all day to see when the ship would leave, and it did. If you followed the story, you know it doubled back very fast to pull into another port nearby. We were already aware of this as a possibility because a source, unknown to me, had tipped us off. We were not prepared for it to happen the way it did, though. The Zim Piraeus went under the Golden Gate Bridge, faking an exit both online and in the sea, then turned around and sped back to the port to try and unload. We mobilized again, this time a bit too late to stop all workers from going in.
Fortunately for us, the workers were originally scheduled to work another ship and were sent over to the Zim Piraeus. They were not happy over this, nor are they ever happy about this practice. Many speculate that they worked the ship slower, though I cannot verify that. What I can say is that we physically watched the one crane they had on the ship move very slowly, whether deliberately or not. I like to believe it was deliberate, but I cannot truly verify that. We began hearing rumors that they would be headed out to lunch at midnight, so we prepared to stop them from going back in and unloading anymore cargo. During this time, it was mentioned to me that the ILWU workers may only be unloading perishable goods, which has been a practice of theirs for around 30 years. This is very admirable, if you ask me.
Why let food go to waste? Lunchtime came. Someone contacted us on Twitter and offered to buy pizza for our efforts, which we greatly appreciated. We began to eat and discuss what we thought when someone yelled that they were letting people in the front gate. The most hectic time of this entire action began at this moment. A supervisor, who earlier had bought the workers pizza to try and convince them to stay within the gates, began sending them to every gate as quickly as possible. We followed as fast as we could on bikes from gate to gate, some fairly far apart. Some of the workers seemed to drive slower than normal if they truly wished to beat us to the gate.
We met them and blocked them at every gate. Some were angry, and some just continued on. At the end of this fiasco, some workers made it back in, but many did not. We began to wonder if they would actually fully unload the ship, but since the shift was almost over and many workers could not re-enter, we decided to assume they would not and planned our return in the morning. Some left after 3 a.m.
Wednesday, August 20, 2014
I returned home to shower and clean up, slept for 30 minutes and returned to the picket line, where devoted protesters had already been since 5 a.m. The picket was going strong but some workers were driving right in, stating that they were working another ship. We began to block them. Out of nowhere, a man in an ILWU vest came to the front of the picket and ordered all the workers to stand down and the ones who had penetrated our picket to come back out until we were finished.
We were amazed. Also, the police stood to the side and let us carry on - the first time this happened throughout the entire action. Corporate Port of Oakland officials stood on the side, so I approached them. I asked one of them if the ship had completely unloaded, and he stated that the ship originally intended to unload 176 containers but only unloaded 26. He also stated that we caused the Zim Piraeus to lose a lot of money. Because of their inability to unload their goods in Oakland, they would have to unload at another port and ship the goods some other way.
From documents I read online, the goods unloaded were mostly food items. This corroborates the rumor that the ILWU may only have unloaded perishable goods. Further, there was also a rumor going around since the first port we blocked the ship from that the Zim Piraeus had only wanted to unload its perishable goods. At 7:45 a.m. the ship was leaving the port and we decided to stand down and allow the workers to enter the port. Another rumor came around that the ship was considering docking at another pier.
We went to a park at the edge of the port and physically monitored the ship anchored out to sea with a telescope and our own eyes. It sat there anchored, and so did we. People brought us food and coffee. We took naps on the concrete and waited, monitoring Twitter and seeing if we should continue to block the ship. After much deliberation and consideration we almost decided to declare victory solely because of the fact that we did not want to abuse the workers for our protest. We then remembered why we were there in the first place: Palestine and Gaza. Over 500 kids were killed, 2,000 people total. We decided to block the ship for as long as we could. After sitting and sleeping at the park for hours, we decided to go to a safe house nearby and monitor the ship online. After the Zim Piraeus had tricked us the day before, there was no celebrating for us - we were worried and ready to go. Suddenly, the ship began to move, so we watched it online and waited before rushing out.
It headed toward the Golden Gate. We decided to ride back, just in case it decided to pull in again. We had already done recon on the gates needed to be blocked at the port it was rumored to be pulling into for a third time. By the time we reached our vantage point to view the ship, it was out of range, so we monitored it online. It sailed farther and farther away, until we felt comfortable enough to smile about it. Fellow protesters brought us pizza. We ate and had some laughs together, then headed to another protest in downtown Oakland.
Sunday, August 24, 2014
In the aftermath of Oakland's historic Block the Boat victory, my mind has been scrambled. I knew I should be writing, but I couldn't. It's the same way I've felt about most things in my life lately. The horrors of Israel's terrorism of Gaza and the world, U.S. complicity and the media's lack of honest coverage has made me sick. I've protested in San Diego, Los Angeles and Oakland.
Each place I felt a special connection with the people, my family, who oppose genocide and oppression. The people who are willing to sacrifice things to contribute to a greater cause. Every color, every race, every complexion, age and demographic represented Block the Boat. Rich people from Marin, and poor people from Oakland. The "educated" and the streetwise. Cars and bikes. Moms and dads. Grandmas and grandpas. Veterans and antiwar activists. Old and young. Jews and Muslims.
There were two minor arrests and no violence. This wasn't a Muslim event, it was a human event. However, as beautiful and fulfilling as protesting is, in the face of governments who do not even try to represent the will of the people, it is mostly self-gratification. An expression of frustration that relieves one of the empty feeling of helplessness in the face of injustice. That is what excited me most about Block the Boat: It was an opportunity to directly affect the governments who punish the people for their own personal and financial gain. I'm becoming tired of tweeting, tired of trying to make a song about revolution, tired of writing academic papers using big words to explain why they're wrong, tired of their violence. I'm tired of feeling helpless.
All of those things are good, but they have not historically ever stopped the monster we still face. Autonomous groups and individuals unified to make this an unprecedented success that is already inspiring a worldwide movement, even as I type this. The humanity of this event, unfortunately, was not immune to the forces of confusion known as media and politics. I noticed how rumors flew, people lied, news reporters came and selectively chose who and what to show the general public. It was dizzying. I constantly had to remind myself why I was there. Maybe others didn't, but I did.
The constant flow of information, legal hazards, local political implications and media attention can blur the vision of a person caught directly in a struggle of this magnitude. It becomes easy to forget that you are there because you oppose the deaths of innocent people, you oppose the destruction of nature, and whatever else it may be that brought you to the front lines of a protest in the first place. Many levels of humanity bring us together for causes we all support, but they can be forgotten in the heat of the moment. So, with that in mind I offer this piece of advice to all future movements: Keep searching for spirituality in the revolution.
ADAM MOSTAFA & EMILY LOFTUS
August 28, 2014