Bushfires on the Docks

Last April 7, just as the morning sun was rising over the hills east of San Francisco Bay, Darth Vader-clad riot police in the port of Oakland opened fire on some 700 people demonstrating peacefully against the war in Iraq. Police fired lead-shot bean bags, wooden dowels, rubber bullets, tear gas and stinger grenades. Dozens were injured. Twenty four demonstrators and one longshore official were arrested.

A Bay Area group called Direct Action to Stop the War that organized the “community picket line”, had specified that it was “not a civil disobedience action” and the goal was “not to get arrested”. But the bloody police response turned the demonstration into what The New York Times called “the most violent (clash) between protesters and authorities anywhere in the country since the start of the war” (NYT 4/8/03).

For more than 90 minutes the battle-geared cops were charging on foot in military formation and simultaneously in a phalanx of motorcycle cossacks, a policy long-since abandoned by police forces of most major cities. The Times got it wrong. This was not a bloody confrontation between two clashing forces. Demonstrators were fleeing the police which is why so many were shot,in the back, with so-called “less-than-lethal” weapons. Peter Keane, former dean of the Golden Gate Law School and TV legal consultant has said that “Prosecution of the Oakland Port peace protestors is the most shameful threat to political dissent in America since the brutal assaults and arrests of civil rights marchers in 1960’s Selma, Alabama.”

The anti-war activists were not the only victims of police violence. Despite a letter from the Pacific Maritime Association, the employers’ group, assuring that the police would be “present to guarantee the safe passage of employees”, nine members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) reporting for work were hit when police opened fire. Five were sent to the hospital, one with a painful and bloody complex hand fracture when he was hit by a police projectile. Police had not fired weapons against longshoremen since the maritime strike of 1934, when six workers were killed, one by a projectile to the head, similar to the one that hit the longshoreman that morning . A much-touted “blue ribbon committee”, hand picked to investigate the actions of the police, was disbanded before it even convened. Nevertheless, ILWU Local 10, the injured longshoremen and other victims of police terror have initiated a class action lawsuit against the OPD.

But this was not a police riot–the authorities had planned their bloody tactics well in advance. Maritime employers had admittedly met with police and the Port Commission on April 4 to coordinate a plan to quash what was widely-known would take place in the port 3 days later. Two days earlier, the California Anti-Terrorist Information Center- a state agency quietly formed two weeks after 9/11 by then-Governor Gray Davis and Attorney General Bill Lockyer (both liberal Democrats)- had sent an ominous bulletin to the Oakland police warning that “potential violence…may be associated with the advertised protest,” thus giving a green light to police actions. Police plans included commandeering the port’s intermodal yard as a temporary prisoner detention area and police headquarters where company executives and police officers could be seen consulting. They also had been gathering anti-war announcements on the internet and monitoring email messages from the ILWU chat room. The ACLU has sharply criticized this police spying as a violation of constitutionally protected free speech.

After the police attack, then-spokesman for the state anti-terrorism agency Van Winkle ripped into civil liberties using a chilling justification: “If you have a protest group protesting a war where the cause that’s being fought against is international terrorism, … you can almost argue that a protest against that is a terrorist act.” He went on to explain that terrorism can be “anything that has an economic impact'” (Oakland Tribune 5/19/03), presumably like a union picket line, a solidarity action or a civil rights boycott.

The protest had targetted the Iraq war profiteers, American President Lines (APL) and Stevedoring Services of America (SSA). APL ships carry war materiel and SSA, closely connected to the Bush administration, received a “no bid” contract to run the port of Umm Qasr, newly-privatized by military action, in large part by British troops. In a fallout amongst thieves, the “no bid” port contract caused ruffled feathers amongst “jilted” British companies who felt well-qualified to take on Iraqi dockworkers.

On the Oakland homefront police moved in, when according to Police Chief Word, “the two shipping companies…had asked (OPD) to disperse the crowd because the demonstration …. was disrupting business.” (NYT 4/8/03) Impending misdemeanor charges range from “trespassing” to “creating a public nuisance” to “resisting arrest” to “interfering with a business”.

Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown, once a self-styled “progressive” is now keen on promoting business. He unabashedly hawks cars in TV ads for the city’s “Buy Oakland” campaign. Brown defended the police action saying protesters wanted to stop port truckers and he wasn’t going to let that happen. Yet, in 1998, to acquire “labor credentials” in his bid for mayor of Oakland, he joined a picket line in the port in solidarity with sacked dockers in Liverpool, England, stopping trucks at a terminal gate associated with the same company, SSA. Obviously, he has abandoned even the political pretense of sailing on labor’s ship for the more profitable buccaneers: business and “national security”. Brown, who served as governor of California from 1975 to 1983, is now reportedly eyeing a bid as “law and order” candidate for Attorney General under Governor Schwartzenegger.

As seen in the recent brutal police response to anti-FTAA protesters in Miami, a repressive pattern is beginning to emerge under the aegis of “protecting national security” and global business interests, especially in ports. Like the state’s anti-terrorism agency, a Port Safety and Security Plan for San Francisco Bay that’s been drafted by a multi-agency committee headed by the U.S. Coast Guard does not distinguish between terrorists, labor unions and anti-war groups. (Oakland Tribune 6/29/03). During the McCarthy period the ILWU, under the leadership of Harry Bridges, was in the forefront of labor’s fight against the government’s campaign of redbaiting and blacklisting on the waterfront.

In 2002, again in the government’s crosshair, during the longshore union contract negotiations Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and Homeland Security Czar Ridge threatened the union that if there were any jobs actions on the docks, troops would be called out to occupy the ports. Then, when for 10 days the maritime employers shut down all of the ports on the West Coast by locking out longshore workers, the Bush administration did nothing. As soon as the lockout was lifted the Bush administration, without a peep from the Democrats, invoked Taft-Hartley, the slave labor act, forcing longshoremen back to work under conditions demanded by employers. Such “iron heel” maneuvers only show that “national security” like the Iraq war are advanced to promote business interests and shackle those of the working class.

If dockworkers don’t have the right to protest in ports because they’re deemed to be “national security zones”, then international maritime companies, regardless of union contracts, are given a “freehand”: free to hire whomever they want, pay as little as they want and disregard any safety or environmental issues. Since World War II, the ILWU has had a legacy of opposing U.S. imperial wars like the one in Iraq and U.S.-backed military dictatorships like Pinochet’s in Chile, while supporting progressive struggles internationally like the anti-apartheid struggle and the Cuban revolution. Attempts by the Oakland police and the Bush administration to stop or change the ILWU’s progressive direction will not go unchallenged.

JACK HEYMAN was the longshore union official arrested during the anti-war demonstration in the port of Oakland. He has been active in ILWU solidarity actions since the militant 1984 anti-apartheid action in San Francisco. For more information visit: www.defendilwuba.com

Note: There will be a noontime rally February 6, in front of the Superior Court in Oakland (7th and Washington Sts.) to demand that the bogus charges be dropped and to defend the Constitutional right to protest. The hearing begins at 2PM in Department #115.


Jack Heyman is a retired Oakland ILWU longshoreman who was an organizer in San Francisco of the historic 1984 union boycott action of a ship from aparthied South Africa, the 2008 May Day anti-war protest shutting down all West Coast ports against the U.S. imperialist war in Afghanistan and Iraq, the militant 1997 Bay Area solidarity port actions for the Liverpool dockers and numerous anti-Zionist port protests from 2002-2021. He published the class struggle Maritime Worker Monitor with the late Portland longshoreman Jack Mulcahy who died last year in a mountain-climbing accident on North Sister peak in Oregon.