Changing the Course of Apartheid

In August a coalition of activists successfully blocked a Zim-owned ship for four consecutive days at the Port of Oakland. Though the Zim Piraeus feigned departure, and left under the cover of an Israeli-consulate press release, the ship returned in the same day to unload “perishable goods” at a different terminal run by Ports America on the other side of the Oakland’s seaport. Zim and Ports America tried to outsmart activists by transferring workers from one ship already docked at that terminal to the Piraeus—no workers would have to enter the terminal for this ruse, and thus pickets could not stop workers from unloading the ship. But the tactic backfired, violating a long standing rule of the port workers union about being transferred to work another ship.

Had there been a labor contract, Ports America’s strategy could not have worked–the attempt most likely reminded rank and file port workers that they had been working without a labor agreement for over a month. Independent accounts suggest that the workers began a slow-down until they left for lunch. Many tried to honor the pickets when they returned but were pressured into shuttling in through other entry ways by management. But in the end all of these factors only exacerbated the delays. By all accounts the Zim Piraeus unloaded only a fraction of it’s Oakland-bound cargo. The ship left for Russia, its next port of call, with most of that cargo on board.

The victory was tremendous, recalling the ILWU’s refusal to unload a South African ship during that state’s apartheid regime. The Zim line, though privately owned, is an Israeli “security asset”. Israel owns a “golden share” which it can use to control the sale of the corporation, and other operations—such as conscripting the line into national service during times of conflict and crisis. In this case, perhaps, given that fact, the repercussions are even greater. Blocking the Zim Piraeus was a direct blow to the state of Israel. The completely popular origin of the blockades also suggested a new anti-apartheid movement is rising after long years of moribund state-side protest. The question now: what next?

The next stage of blocking Zim ships proved challenging. There were many variables and moving parts to the organizing effort. The goal of the Block the Boat coalition was to partner with port workers, and to encourage them to re-spark the ember of previous years of solidarity with international liberation movements. But the Block the Boat coalition also sought to mobilize a mass popular force to march to the gates of the port and set up impressive pickets that even the police would find hard to breach. Even after the first successful blockade, the question remained, could it be done again, and when?

While many workers at the port remain true to their roots of social and political engagement, like all U.S. unions, the ILWU has gone through a long period of demobilization and de-politicization. There is a logical limit to how much support—however direct or indirect—workers can give a direct action like Block the Boat. Many wondered if that limit had been reached, and if further actions would alienate workers. Workers were, after all, being asked to give up paid work, and in the event of a significant victory, lose a port client and potential source of work in Zim.

The question of greater police repression was another issue. Multiple actions increased the stakes for both port and city of Oakland. Both are hostile to direct action, and constitutionally guaranteed expressions. OPD and other agencies might try harsher tactics, and could use violence to disperse the crowd. That well-known potential for violence, in fact, had been the main reason the port workers union local had given for not crossing the picket lines. After OPD had fired less-lethal ammunition on workers during another port demonstration in 2003,  the ILWU could never trust them again to safely police actions at the port.

As planning for Block the Boat went on for the late October arrival of the Zim Beijing, workers honored a much smaller group’s picket in September. The September picket was carried out by an autonomous group of activists, not the original larger Block the Boat coalition. For reasons that still aren’t clear, OPD stayed clear of protesters, not even enforcing the most basic traffic laws—this after ticketing cars in August parked in 15 minute zones as soon as the driver left their vehicle. The ILWU international, the parent body of the local, subsequently issued a harsh condemnation of the picketers, erroneously referring to them as the Block the Boat coalition, and accusing them of “violence” and intimidation. Questions rose if the police would respond more aggressively, or even if they would block access to the port completely. They now had an ILWU statement which painted Palestinian and Arab organizers with an unfortunately familiar and inflammatory smear as their cover if they chose to do so.


This was all in addition to hard logistical and tactical planning to march hundreds, if not thousands, of people to the port, to safely picket 6 entry gates of varying size across a mile-long stretch for a period of time that could last anywhere from 18 hours to 4 days. The Zim Beijing could delay in any number of ways in an attempt wear out protesters—coming later in the day, or even an entire day late, or arriving in the area or mooring within a distance that could be traversed in short hours. Organizers had only their text blast system, social media, and interpersonal networks to rely on to get the word out, but every possible time of day and hour bore a distinct challenge, including ready transit and transportation.

There were more complications, ironically products of how effective Block the Boat organizing had been to that point. Following the announcement of the Block the Boat action in October, Zim removed all references to Oakland and Los Angeles arrivals on their online schedule after October. Clearly, Block the Boat was working, and Zim was running scared. But in the meantime, the organizers had far less reliable means at their disposal to gauge the destination and position of Zim ships that had previously been destined for Oakland in November and the coming year. Zim’s counter-measures brought uncertainty about what other responses it was capable of—whether Zim would send its Oakland-bound ships to Los Angeles when they were meant for Oakland, and vice versa, to throw off organizing, for example.

Container ships like the Zim Beijing and Piraeus generally proceed through well-traveled shipping lanes, and these are especially limited and uniform in the stretch between the Panama Canal all the way up to Baja California. This meant that for the 9 day journey between the Panama Canal and the California West Coast it would be mostly impossible to tell what the ship was doing. Container ships only begin to diverge into lanes bound for the U.S. West Coast on one side, and those for China and Russia further West around the Baja Peninsula area. There were many possibilities. Zim’s Oakland-bound ships could divert to Los Angeles, where activists had already organized for a block a week earlier. The Zim Beijing might also travel in a shipping lane bound for Russia before suddenly diverting to the Bay Area once it was in proximity.

Like many other observers, Block the Boat was following the ship using a marine tracking web site that made use of a network of satellite and AIS land and sea tracking nodes. The nodes provide dynamic information, like the ship’s speed and heading. They also provide self-reported information, like the ship’s destination. The Beijing updated its destination information to Oakland shortly after leaving the Panama Canal, which was a normal step. But then, just south of Baja, the Beijing did something completely unexpected—it bore northwesterly, away from both Russian and West Coast shipping lanes heading in an idiosyncratic direction that bore no resemblance to any other ship around it. In fact, for days, and at the time of this writing, there were few—and sometimes no—ships with a similar heading and position. For much of this journey, in fact, the consumer version of the tracking web site would have been useless as there were no AIS nodes within reach. The ship had to be tracked via satellite. Despite these evasive maneuvers, the ship’s self-reported destination remained Oakland.

Block the Boat organizers prepared for different scenarios as they tracked the ship along its course, plotting different arrival times, and debating how and when to announce the right day for the picket. By Thursday, organizers had ruled out Saturday for the Zim Beijing’s arrival. Sunday, Monday and even later in the week were still possibilities, given that Zim’s strategy remained inscrutable and previous behavior showed that it was capable of unexpected duplicity.

The question became not just one of anticipating the ship’s arrival, but keeping the confidence and morale of hundreds of activists high despite the twists and turns. They needed to be engaged enough to turn out with short notice. It also became clear that a well-timed show of strength at the port with significant numbers might urge the ship onward if Zim had intentions of playing an extended cat and mouse game at sea.

Again there were problems. One was a devastating technical glitch that delayed dissemination of the call-out for the Sunday afternoon action. This was a lucky break for Zim that remains difficult to explain. In fact, it’s suspect given the DDOS attack on Electronic Intifada this week, and on the heels of announcement about the Zim and Sodastream BDS victories.

The call-out was finally made in the nick of time, and despite the delays and impediments, hundreds of people came out to march to the port. As the crowd proceeded down the overpass at Adeline Street, workers honked in support and waved as they passed. The Oakland police were also out in force, sending undercover officers into the crowd, and staging dozens of officers to watch over a peaceful crowd that largely ignored them. Ironically, OPD blocked the very entry gates that the coalition had carefully designed their rally to avoid, so as not to inconvenience workers unnecessarily.

At the rally, support of various local Bay Area communities to the Palestinian cause was awe-inspiring. This solidarity was best symbolized by the words of Cindi Mitchell, the sister of Mario Romero. Romero was shot by the Vallejo police over forty times in 2012. Mitchell spoke about the lies that authorities tell to make “your life unimportant.” This is a dynamic Palestinians, who have endured the murder of thousands this Summer, including over 400 children, know only too well. Her words of solidarity and support were passionate and inspiring:

“We stand in solidarity with all of you, be cause this terrorism has got to stop. We stand in solidarity with you all. we know how it feels to be oppressed, we know how it feels to be under attack…who do you call when the police are the murderers? Who do you call when they’re doing the killing? You’re going to call them to help you? No, you have to fight for yourself and stand up.”

As organizers called an end to the rally, they hunkered down and waited out the Zim Beijing. Though the ship never updated its destination of Oakland, it continued on its course. By Monday, it had angled northward–either headed for Russia or so far out of its way that the odds of it coming to Oakland were now minimal. Organizers declared victory on Tuesday, October 28th.

The outcome of this particular battle has been decisive. For the first time in the history of an ocean carrier vessel, Zim was virtually interdicted at sea and turned away from a port of call by the threat of a popular uprising against the policies of its parent nation. Seeing the array of forces assembled against it, Zim chose to turn the Beijing in mid-journey and head to safer harbors, its Oakland-bound cargo undelivered to the intended port.

As the Beijing sails beyond the horizon, with the destination “Oakland” barnacled onto its transponder signal, Zim has purged all references to the California West Coast from its online schedule. At first glance, this is a remarkable victory. A popular mobilization by a coalition that did not exist before July has banned a multi-billion dollar Israeli security asset from unloading at a US port. They did it with little lead-time and with an absurdly small budget that wouldn’t pay for a used car on Craigslist.

But only time will tell if the alterations to Zim’s schedule represent substantive changes, and an end to Zim in California. Since August, the Block the Boat coalition has partnered with other spontaneous efforts in Los Angeles, Tacoma, Tampa and Vancouver. Though those movements have had less luck in their endeavors, they are learning and shaping their actions to reflect the different terrain of their ports and labor movements. Labor organizations in other ports throughout Europe have also sent congratulatory messages of solidarity, and it’s clear that throughout Europe and the UK, direct action interventions are becoming more and more prominent.

A new horizon has opened up in the fight against Israeli apartheid, one that is both popular and direct, and in solidarity with the local communities Palestinian activists work within. Only time will tell if that horizon leads to a bold anti-apartheid movement—a movement in which the banning of Zim in California would be the mere first step. But it certainly is a fantastic start.

Jaime Omar Yassin is a writer in Oakland, California.