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Confronting the War Machine in the Pacific Northwest

Showdown at Port Tacoma

by RON JACOBS

When one thinks of militant political action taking place in the United States, their thoughts usually turn to cities like San Francisco, Chicago and New York. The US South and its Pacific Northwest probably don’t spring immediately to mind. This is despite the rich legacy of militant labor protest in the filed, woods and apple orchards of the northwest and the Seattle General Strike of 1919, not to mention the actions of the Seattle Chapter of the Black Panther Party and the Seattle Liberation Front in the 1960s and early 1970s. As for the US South, one tends to think in terms of militant right wing political action against blacks and labor, but the converse of that is equally true. It was in the South where Martin Luther King, Jr. began his campaign of militant non-violence. It was in the US South where students began the sit-in campaigns to desegregate public facilities and it was in the US South where Robert Williams confronted the night riders of the Ku Klux Klan with and armed force of African-Americans when confronted with the violent racism of the klansmen in white and in blue.

Equally under the radar in terms of militance is the US Midwest. Once again, this misconception is based on an ignorance of history. It was in Madison, Wisconsin where some of the most radical and militant protests against the war in Vietnam took place. The history of the first Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) tells us that the greatest proponents of the direct action form of protest came out of the midwestern colleges: Ann Arbor, MI., Kent, Ohio, Grinell in Iowa, to name a few. Why was this the case? Perhaps because of an anger at discovering that America wasn’t all she was cracked up to be. Perhaps a reflection of a working person’s understanding that action got things done, not words. Or perhaps a combination of these and other factors.

The Northwest Shows the Way

On March 5th, 2007, several people were attacked and at least three arrested by police in Tacoma, WA. at a series of protests against shipments of military supplies at the city’s port. The reasons for the attacks and arrests were not clear to onlookers, who told the press that the protesters were doing nothing but holding signs. In an exchange I had with Jeff Berryhill of Olympia, WA. (who was arrested along with Wally Cudderford and Caitlin Esworthy) I was told that all he was doing when he was shot with a rubber bullet by the police was "holding a sign that read "Courage to Resist. org.’" (Courage to Resist is an organization supporting military resisters.) The next thing he knew he was hit in the thigh by a police-fired projectile. All of this occurred in the predawn hours of March 5th, 2007. The reason for the unusual timing of the arrests is because even though the protest began the evening before, the actual loading of the equipment did not begin until after midnight. Protests continued each evening throughout the week, although no more arrests were made until Friday, March 9th when a woman was taken in by police for carrying a backpack into an unauthorized zone. The Friday protests were some of the largest of the week and were met with tear gas, concussion grenades and other forms of police violence. Among the protesters was Attorney Lynne Stewart, who is out on bail following her questionable conviction on "providing support to terrorists" charges.

If one recalls, there was a similar protest last May at the Port of Olympia, some thirty miles south of Tacoma. Those protests resulted in the arrests of a couple dozen folks and a few injuries. in addition, they appear to have caused the military to relocate its shiploading operations to Tacoma. in fact, the trial of these folks, known as the Olympia 22, begins on March 26th. The judge in the trial has disallowed the necessity defense and, like the military judge in the first trial of war resister Lt, Watada, does not want the trial to be about the war. Although military officials are reluctant to give a clear answer as to why there have been no more shipments loaded at the Olympia port since the May protests, the fact that they are now taking place at Tacoma speaks volumes.

To the credit of all of the antiwar groups in the northwest–from the pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation to the sponsors of the direct actions at the Port, the Port Militarization Resistance (PMR)–the solidarity shown for these protests has been constant and clear. The Tacoma action had the backing of Vets for Peace, the Olympia Movement for Justice and Peace, the Washington Greens, Iraq Veterans Against the War, and others. This solidarity is important, especially in the face of attempts by the State and the media to delineate what is good protest and what is bad protest. Indeed, the Tacoma News tribune reported on the actions of the protesters arrested and shot by quoting the police officer in charge of policing the event: demonstrators "have been told they could protest but they have to follow the rules, including, among others, that they can’t block streets, sidewalks or cross a police line." This was followed by a quote from a military official telling reporters that he only wanted to see the weapons of this brutal war be loaded on in "as safe a manner as possible."

When I asked Berryhill for the PMR’s rationale behind the direct actions at the ports, he told me, "I believe the strategy we are employing, which is concentrated on ending our communities involvement with the escalation and continuation of the war is one of many that should be utilized. Obviously other methods are valuable and should be continued, but ours is a direct demonstration to the troops that we want to keep them home safely. Traditional avenues have been used repeatedly (like lobbying, letter writing, and standard marches) with varying degrees of effectiveness. We are hoping to try something a bit unconventional, and in doing so have generated significant publicity and prompted serious interest within peace and justice communities." Asked about the intended effect of the protests on soldiers on the other side of the lines from the protesters, Berryhill responded: "It is also important for the soldiers to witness police repression of democratic assembly. Many joined to uphold the standards and ideals of democracy and liberty and when these are denied to citizens of our country it illustrates the disconnect between the rhetoric of the political elite and the realities we face."

Many communities across the nation, large and small, are connected to the effort by Washington to militarily subjugate the people of Iraq and Afghanistan. It may be that there’s a military post or base near the town you live in, or it may be that there is a weapons manufacturer in town. Perhaps your town hosts a company involved in the rendition and torture of prisoners under US control. The fact is that there is hardly a town in this country that the military-industrial complex has not stretched one of its bloody tendrils into. This economic reality not only means we all share some culpability for the destruction and bloodshed carried out in Iraq and Afghanistan; it also means that every one of us has the ability to expose that connection wherever we live and from there, hopefully oppose it.

(The City of Tacoma has dropped the charges against the three individuals arrested Monday morning. According to Berryhill, the original charge was for third degree felony assault on a police officer. The city attorney failed to even file a probable cause and "quickly dismissed the charge." On another note, a student who was videotaping the protests on Tuesday was arrested by Tacoma police officers who insisted he turn off the video camera and when he didn’t do so immediately, arrested him.)

RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is forthcoming from Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: rjacobs3625@charter.net