Happy Anniversary at the Oakland Docks

Anniversaries have always made me cringe. Even if it is a birthday or wedding anniversary I always seem to find a way to become cynical about the whole affair. As judgmental as I am, I find myself usually in attendance. Regardless of where you live, many of you most likely ended up at the 1-year anniversary of the war with Iraq a couple of weeks ago. Here, in San Francisco, the anniversary triggered memories of the day-after shutdown of the financial district by thousands of people taking uncompromising direct action ranging from blocking intersections to inflicting property damage to military symbols such as army recruiting centers. The aura of the previous year was heavy upon the most recent demonstrations and unfulfilled expectations of a repeat disappointed some. As a generation of activists trying to recreate Seattle year after year and summit after summit, with varying success but mostly unsuccessfully, sadly, we are used to this kind of disappointment.

Yesterday was a different kind of anniversary; the painful memory was lot more real and personal. A year ago on April 7th, a 600 person picket line formed early in the morning at the Oakland Docks to take direct action against shipments to Iraq. The picket was brutally attacked by the police using less lethal weaponry such as rubber bullets, wooden dowels, concussion grenades and beanbag rounds. 50 people were injured and some sustained huge welts that made national news. 600 people met again yesterday to go back to the docks to remake the point they made a year ago but with the specter of police brutality and repression rising tall behind them.

This specter was in the form of the Oakland Police Headquarters providing the backdrop for the anniversary rally. The OPD HQ is an enormous tall cement box without windows. A friend who had the recent opportunity to visit the building told me that it was the most depressing sight ever, with run down walls that looked to be passed down uninterrupted form the 60s. At 4pm when the rally was kicking off there were about 50 people gathered, gradually more and more arrived and we numbered in the hundreds as Venus Noble, 41 year old mother, social worker and community activist, took the microphone. “Why are we here? Because of the children and mothers in Iraq!” Venus Noble, who had already lost a son in a shooting 2 years ago, told the crowd how the Oakland Police had beat up her other son at the dock protest for photographing another incident of gross brutality. “I’m feeling parents in Iraq”, she pointed to the windowless tower in the back, “The people behind me don’t.”

The presence of the grassroots community organization People United For a Better Oakland was powerful and made the message of police brutality in Oakland communities a reality for those who had not experienced it first-hand. Berkeley Copwatch founder Andrea Pritchett, who was the MC, knows how to inject energy into a listening crowd. All ears were attentive as she laid it out word-by-word “The violence of the Oakland Police Department will stop when we make it stop.”

Clarence Thomas, from the International Longshoreman and Warehouse Union Local 10, was fully fired up as he took the stage. The ILWU, being one of the more militant unions in the United States, has traditionally supported anti-war protestors in the Bay Area. Having been threatened military action by Bush during contract negotiations a year ago, the Longshoreman know first-hand how bitter the fist of the state tastes.

I had heard Clarence Thomas speak before, and as he had previously he opened his talk by addressing the enemies, the undercovers in abundance, within the crowd. Almost 50 years ago, Malcolm X began his famous speech, “The Ballot or the Bullet” in an identical manner. I couldn’t help but think that he was the inspiration. Thomas had visited Iraq on a tip of solidarity with workers at the port of Umm Qasr, operated by Stevedoring Services of America (SSA), which also operates part of the Oakland Docks. According to Thomas, the Mayor of Umm Qasr was offered a $10 million bribe by the Coalition Provisional Authority to handover the port to SSA. The CPA has also banned political demonstrations. The local police station is on SSA grounds and even though there is a thriving trade union movement in Iraq, SSA has been continuing the union busting tactics it regularly carries out at home. In fact, SSA was the leading culprit in the locking out of the West Coast longshoreman during renegotiations in the fall of 2002.

It was exactly 2 weeks before the first dock protest, on March 24th 2003, that SSA received the $4.8 million no-bid contract from US Agency for International Development (USAID), the “humanitarian” front organization for the Pentagon. This port run by SSA was built by Bechtel, a name that has become synonymous with war profiteering. According to Direct Action to Stop the War “SSA actually received $14.3 million for the contract that includes the handling of cargo, shipment tracking, managing security and customs and ongoing management of dockside operations. SSA was paid under a formula that guarantees a profit after their costs are covered. The contract grants SSA control of the port for up to three years. However, the contract amount of a possible extension remains undisclosed.”

Oakland Docks are probably one of the most crucial in all of the United States. It is one of the main ports where goods from Eastern Asia and China arrive and are trucked to the numerous Walmarts in the United States. Every year approximately 7 million tons of goods are imported and exported through these docks (www.portofoakland.com). They are thus a lifeline for capital and must function uninterrupted. This is the primary reason why the ILWU was threatened with military force and why the non-violent picket line in front of the docks was brutally attacked by the police last year.

As we headed back to the docks a year later I believe that many people in the crowd were as lost as myself. Were we going back to attempt to picket and shut it down or, as a poster put it somewhat matter-of-factly, were we returning to the docks to “Remember the shots?” The purpose was not clear and the crowd ranged from those who were contemplating an overnight sleepover to others willing to be satisfied with a brief rally and march.

We soon realized the decision was not up to us. As the march neared the Oakland Docks, heavy truck and car traffic could be seen fleeing the docks in an almost panicky manner. This multi-billion dollar business, around $7 billion in annual revenues, was in complete evacuation and by the time we could see the docks from the top of the road ramp leading into it all that was left was the surreal view of an abandoned industrial site with towering steel containers. The docks are usually never empty as containerized shipping and cargo trucking continue to serve the interests of the global capitalist class around the clock.

The crowd marched uninterrupted into the Oakland Docks and instead of being confronted with the latest in less lethal weaponry we were greeted with policeman wearing black jackets with the word “Negotiator” printed on the back. I asked one of these men what their purpose was here. “Oh just to coordinate with the organizers and make sure everything goes according to plan.” I’d heard that many times before and it was usually followed by the swinging of batons and the smashing of heads. But this fellow was less familiar with the situation than I was. “We usually don’t do these kinds of things, this is only the second, we’re involved with more serious conflict situation, like hostage situations or barricade removal.” The militarization of the police that had shown its hideous face in Oakland and more recently at the FTAA protests in Miami was now moving in to the psy-ops realm.

A few symbolic picket lines were formed to make the point and hundreds of activists felt the eeriness of being able to move freely in the 4-lane boulevard that circled the now desolate docks. The speakers were talking of victory, that our presence had made them shut down the docks. Maybe it was true but it was definitely not our present presence that had caused this but our reputation and history. We had arrived to a port already shut down. Who had made the decision to shut it down?

In an ideal world this decision would be made by workers acting in solidarity with the longshoreman of Umm Qasr, and the brutalized protestors would stop the docks with their non-compliance. Unfortunately this was not the case yesterday and American President Lines (APL), also a war profiteer , and SSA bosses, not the workers, shut down the ports. Clearly they wanted to avoid the catastrophe that occurred last year, where 9 longshoremen were shot by wooden dowels in the melee, and minimize the effect the demonstration would have on the workforce. They did this by telling the employees to go home and obediently this is what they had done, apart from a symbolic number of APL and SSA workers.

The nostalgic recollection of the refusal of ILWU members to load ships on pier 80 in San Francisco, that were headed for Apartheid South Africa twenty-five years ago was repeated at the post-march rally. Where was that refusal now? I asked Business Agent Jack Hayman from the ILWU Local 10 that question since he was with the ILWU 25 years ago at that historic moment. The majority of the membership of the ILWU is African-American and in Hayman’s view the strong identification black workers had with their brothers and sisters under apartheid was the critical factor. Although he told me that concrete action was currently missing, the optimism was there. “The momentum is building and eventually it will be much more powerful because Apartheid was in one country but the war in Iraq is an imperialist war which will attack the working class all over.”

I can’t say I am convinced that working people in America will become more class conscious as a result of this latest imperialist war. I wasn’t even alive during the Anti-Apartheid picket but it is a fact that, as we move into the 21st century, labor and working people are systematically losing what little power they held onto during the Reagan years. Union membership is now at an all time low in this country. While a great portion of the blame rests upon capitalist interests that govern this country responsibility also lies with the leaders of the AFL-CIO and union bureaucracy. It was union bureaucracy that caved in to the owners during last year’s ILWU renegotiation and not the rank and file. I find that this betrayal by Washington-centered union bureaucracy of US workers is echoed each time when the younger counter-globalization/anti-war movement and the traditional militant labor movement crosses paths, like they did yesterday.

The ILWU Local 10 is aware of the discrepancy between the union leadership and the need for fundamental change and is planning a march on Washington for some time in mid October. You can read their proposal at http://www.indybay.org/. They are calling it the Million Worker March. “Attacks upon working families have been carried out with the complicity of congress, both Democrats and Republicans are responsible”, declared Clarence Thomas at yesterday’s rally as he explained the need for a million worker march. I have also heard from other union organizers involved that this march is planned in a radical light and the AFL-CIO is either going to have to endorse it and take a meaningful stance for a change or continue in its spineless direction and further alienate the majority of rank and file members from the Washington D.C. leadership. Hopefully the Million Worker march will not be co-opted by the AFL-CIO into a rallying cry for the Democratic Party and the rift between workers and union leadership will widen. From my vantage point it seems clear that only when the workers are able to shake union bureaucracy off their backs will longshoremen and not their owners make the decision to shut down the ports.

ALI TONAK is a recent graduate from Bard College in New York. He volunteers with the San Francisco Bay Area Independent Media Center (www.indybay.org).