Civil Liberties Victory in Oakland Courts: All Charges Dropped Against Port Anti-War Protesters; Longshoremen Plan Mass March on Washington

“This is a victory we’re all gonna celebrate!”, exclaimed Charles Braves, deacon of the predominantly black Charleston, South Carolina longshore union. He was talking about the April 22 court decision by the Alameda County District Attorney’s office to drop all of the bogus charges against antiwar protesters and a longshore union official arrested after being attacked by riot-clad police in the port of Oakland a year ago. The Charleston longshoremen, themselves the victims of a police attack in their port, had participated in one of the several rallies held between the headquarters of the Oakland Police Department and the Alameda County Superior Court House. The Bay Area protest rallies, crammed in between the police building and the courthouse, had become both a metaphor for and a test of civil liberties in America since 9/11.

The day after the police attack in the port of Oakland, the New York Times quoted OPD Chief Richard Word as saying that police dispersed the crowd at the behest of the maritime companies. American President Lines (APL) and Stevedoring Services of America (SSA) were being picketed for war-profiteering. SSA, a hostile anti-union outfit, received a “no bid” contract by Bush to run the Iraqi port of Umm Qasr. Maritime employers had even admitted that they met with the police and the Port Commission three days before the April 7th demonstration to discuss how to handle the protest. The California Anti-Terrorism Information Center, the state’s anti-terrorist agency, “warned” police that they could expect violence from the protesters. This was not so much a “police riot” as it was a planned police attack. The Department of Homeland Security paid Oakland police nearly 1/2 million dollars for their “services”.

The District Attorney’s bogus charges against the defendants were filed nearly two months after the police attack and only when they learned that a press conference was being called to announce a civil suit against the OPD with the lead plaintiff being the longshore union, ILWU Local 10. Many of the nearly 50 people injured were shot in the back, including 9 longshoremen on their way to work. Several required hospital emergency room treatment. One hitch: the police were not allowing ambulances for protesters in the port area. It was beyond the classic case of blaming the victim for the crime: now, unconscionably, the victims had to suffer until medical attention could be found. Even the U.N., which sanctioned the U.S. war against North Korea, and later, Vietnam and NATO’s war in Yugoslavia, cited the Oakland police violence against anti-war activists as a “human rights” violation.

The real sideshow in this political circus is “progressive” Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown, who from the very beginning defended the indefensible police onslaught. Police had maintained that they fired on demonstrators with “less-than-lethal” weapons only after they were pelted with rocks and bottles. Even police videos show this to be a lie. Nevertheless, while the Oakland school system is bankrupt, Brown was doggedly protecting his “boys in blue” by pursuing this costly and unwinnable litigation. A “blue ribbon” panel appointed to investigate, disbanded before it even convened. The City Council and the Citizens’ Police Review Board (CPRB) held public meetings on the police attack which had been characterized by the New York Times as the most violent “clash” during the Iraq war. One member of the CPRB announced that he had resigned because the Board was a sham that whitewashed police atrocities. One of the Oakland 25 defendants, a legal observer, said the KGB in her native Ukraine never treated her as badly as the OPD. In 1997 before he was elected mayor, Brown participated in a similar picket protest in the port of Oakland in support of Liverpool, England dockers, blocking trucks from entering the marine terminal. He even faxed a message: “Congratulations on your efforts to advance and protect the right of working people to join in solidarity. Free speech is the cornerstone of a democratic society.” To date, Brown, who only a few years ago said big business donors had corrupted both parties and was talking about an alternative political party, has not uttered a word of criticism of the police violence nor of international maritime companies with whom the police colluded.

With the implementation of IMF-type capitalist “free trade” agreements, port workers around the world have especially been targeted for increased government repression. In Rotterdam and Barcelona last November, dockworkers protesting a union-busting measure in the European Parliament to privatize the ports, were viciously attacked by police. And since the 9/11 terrorist attack, the Bush administration has steamrollered its anti-labor agenda. During West Coast longshore negotiations in 2002, Defense (i.e. War) Secretary Rumsfeld and Homeland Security Czar Ridge, threatened to occupy the docks with troops, ostensibly for “national security” reasons, if there were any dockworker protests that delayed ship sailings. The Bush administration’s coercion paved the way for a lockout of longshore workers by Pacific Coast maritime employers, which shut West Coast ports down for ten days. Hypocritically, this was not deemed a risk to national security. This, in turn, was followed by Bush’s invoking of the Taft-Hartley Act at the request of Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein, which forced longshoremen back to work under conditions demanded by the employers. No politician in Washington, Democrat or Republican, spoke out against the longshore union being shackled by this slave-labor law. Moreover, the “war on terror” with its attendant legislation, the Patriot Act, Homeland Security Act, ad infinitum as well as the imperialist war in Iraq enjoy bipartisan support. How do working people solve this political conundrum without wading into the “lesser of two evils” swamp?

Longshore Local 10, which has inspired many by its stands on social and political issues through dock actions — against South African anti-apartheid, in solidarity with anti-WTO protesters in Seattle, for freedom for black political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal, in protest against the bloody Pinochet military dictatorship in Chile — now is calling for a Million Worker March on Washington on October 16th (<www.millionworkermarch.org>), independent of both the Democrat and Republican Parties. Organizers say it’s time for the working class to stop being the whipping boy for capitalist greed — no more cannon fodder for imperialist wars, defend workers’ rights, civil rights and civil liberties, an end to the piracy of public institutions through privatization, increased funding for social needs like health care, education, housing and jobs. The power of workers, they say, has to be harnessed into a massive protest mobilization in Washington to demonstrate to the ruling class that their political monopoly will no longer go unchallenged. The momentum for the longshoremen’s call for the march seems to be growing with endorsements from the San Francisco Labor, Charleston (South Carolina), the Albany and Troy, New York Labor Councils, Long Island City Teamsters’ Local 808, an IBEW local in Philadelphia, the Northern California Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, the Black Caucus of the Teamsters Union and other unions and community groups around the country. Danny Glover and Dick Gregory have signed on as well.

The last time longshoremen were shot by police,in 1934, it provoked a general strike in San Francisco. It is a history that is imbedded in the culture of longshore workers on the West Coast waterfront. AFL-CIO officials have either been intimidated by or bought into Bush’s “war on terror” and the Iraq War, but not so the rank and file. Portland longshore worker Jack Mulcahy intoned,”If the ports had been shut down when police fired on longshoremen and the antiwar activists, maybe the government would never have filed charges.” Government repression and employer takeaways are the tinder that fuel the fire for mass marches.

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

 

Jack Heyman (jackheyman@mac.com) is chair of the Transport Workers Solidarity Committee www.transportworkers.org and a retired longshoreman who writes on labor politics and history.