NEWS: Keeping apartheid at Bay

This article was written by SJP member Sid Patel and initially appeared in the International Socialist Worker.

PROTESTS BY Palestine solidarity activists delayed an Israeli-owned ship from docking in the Port of Oakland on August 16 and inspired port workers to refuse to unload the ship over the coming days, in an important victory for the Palestine solidarity movement. As this article was being published, the Zim Piraeus remained docked in the Port of Oakland, but with all its cargo still onboard.

The Block the Boat for Gaza action on Saturday, August 16, drew some 1,500 people down to the docks. It was organized by a coalition of over 70 groups, led by the Arab Resource and Organizing Center (AROC), as a response to Operation Protective Edge, the most recent massacre committed by the Israel Defense Forces in Gaza. The action was carried out in step with the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.

The Zim ship tried to evade protests by delaying its arrival from the morning, when the action was planned, to the afternoon. The coalition used its text alert system to shift the entire mobilization to 3 p.m. At that time, 1,000 people gathered at the West Oakland BART station and began the march to the docks. Popular chants included “When people are occupied, resistance is justified,” and “From Ferguson to Palestine, occupation is a crime.” The march picked up strength along the way.

Midway through the march, organizers using a vessel tracking website realized that the Zim ship was in a holding pattern dozens of miles away–in other words, its captain had backed down and had no intention of confronting the march at the dock. While it is highly likely that dockworkers would have respected the large picket lines put up by demonstrators, it wasn’t even necessary on Saturday because the Zim crew and its owners flinched.

The following day, the Zim ship did dock at the Port of Oakland, but organizers used the text alert system to mobilize over 100 activists to set up picket lines at the gates in front of the ship’s berth. Workers from International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 10 refused to cross the community picket lines, and the Zim ship’s apartheid cargo sat untouched for yet another day, extending the victory.

That was repeated on Monday, with a small number of activists picketing in the morning until an ILWU official reportedly told them no one would be working for that shift. The fact that the picket was small and the ship still wasn’t unloaded is a testament to the ILWU members and their commitment to social justice

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THE BLOCK the Boat for Gaza action inspired solidarity organizing in New York City and at the Ports of Long Beach, Seattle/Tacoma, and Vancouver. It also generated press coverage in theĀ Jerusalem Post, Al Jazeera and other widely read outlets. The Israeli political establishment is keenly aware of the political threat of the BDS movement, and effective direct actions like this will echo from port to port and country to country.

Zim Integrated Shipping Services is the largest shipping company in Israel and the tenth-largest in the world, so interfering with its operations does make an impact. Sharif Zakout, an organizer with AROC, explained the significance of the action:

Blocking the boat today set a good precedent. It may lead to other blocks. Every day or every time we’re able to delay that boat or keep it from even docking, we’re costing the Israeli state money, and we’re effectively organizing more people towards boycotting, divesting from and sanctioning Israel.

And we heard recently that companies like Starbucks had to say that they are not doing business with Israel. There are companies like Motorola, Caterpillar, PG&E and General Electricity that are losing money because people are becoming more aware about what’s going in Palestine and making the those connections.

So it’s a lot of small actions hopefully making big change in the long run. But really, it all comes down to building community and making those connections together with people who live in this area.

The action depended on the solidarity of the workers of the ILWU, which has a rich tradition of supporting struggles against imperialism and racism. The ILWU refused to handle cargo from apartheid South Africa in the 1980s, a direct historical reference point for today’s campaigns.

The Block the Boat for Gaza action highlighted the potential power the ILWU and other unions could wield in the fight against Israeli apartheid and occupation–but for such actions to spread will take further political education and engagement between the Palestine solidarity movement and the labor movement.

Speaking at the victory rally at the end of the march on Saturday, Clarence Thomas, a longtime leader of ILWU Local 10, said:

Many longshoremen have learned about Gaza and Palestine because activists have been leafleting the union hall. Many workers are now watching the ship’s progress and are very interested in the issue. But some of our members aren’t well informed about Palestine, so it’s important that the left reach out to them. And when they get the information, the rank and file will make the right choice.

Speakers at the victory rally drew the connection between empire abroad and repression at home, made all the more vivid by the images of military equipment and tactics deployed by local police against unarmed people of color protesting police brutality in Ferguson, Mo. The march and rally were infused with the sense that the struggle for Palestinian liberation is intertwined with the struggle for liberation by the exploited and the oppressed here.

The Zim ship may eventually offload its cargo in Oakland, but the now three-day-long blockade creates a new reference point for future organizing.

There are important strategic and tactical questions for the solidarity movement in the Bay Area that go well beyond a single or even a recurring picket of Zim ships–questions of selecting targets, reaching different audiences, growing the active base and sustaining mobilizations. The movement is preparing to develop its next steps in the aftermath of this big success.

Geming Lai contributed to this article.