Plugging the flow

Occupy blocks ports spanning the West Coast
|
()
About 1000 Occupy protestors marched to the Port of Oakland at 5:30 a.m., Dec. 12
PHOTO BY LUKE THOMAS/FOG CITY JOURNAL

rebeccab@sfbg.com

When significant events related to the Occupy movement occur in the pre-dawn hours, it usually means a protest encampment has been raided. But on Dec. 12, Occupy protesters were the ones carrying out a strategic plan before sun up.

Activists organized by OccupyOakland effectively blocked cargo shipments from moving through several Port of Oakland terminals that day, as part of a coordinated West Coast Port Blockade that featured similar actions in other cities including San Diego, Portland, Seattle, and Longview, Washington.

About 150 longshore workers were sent home from their morning shifts at Oakland shipping terminals because protesters were marching in circular picket lines outside the gates.

The day began when more than 1,000 protesters met up at the West Oakland BART station at 5:30 a.m., sleepily raising signs and banners in the chilly morning air as they proceeded down 7th Street toward the port. Once they reached the sprawling shipping hub, they formed picket lines outside terminal entrances. Police were on the scene and clad in riot gear, but no clashes with protesters occurred early in the day.

Around 7 a.m., when the morning shift would have typically started, two International Longshore & Warehouse Union (ILWU) dockworkers — who declined to give their names — stood near the Hanjin Shipping gate at berths 55 and 56. Past the gate, a cargo vessel which had likely come from Japan was berthed and waiting to unload.

The men calmly surveyed the roughly 200 chanting Occupy activists as they marched around and around in a circular picket. "Ain't nobody going to cross it," one offered. The other gestured toward the protesters. "These are Americans wanting American jobs," he said.

Around 10 a.m. outside the same terminal, protest organizer and Oakland hip-hop artist Boots Riley declared the first part of the port shutdown to be a victory. "Longshoremen are going home now," he said. "Effectively, the Port of Oakland is shut down." Later in the afternoon, protesters returned to prevent the start of an evening shift.

Until recently, the nationwide Occupy movement manifested as tent cities springing up everywhere in rebellion against the lopsided economic conditions. After a series of police raids cleared the tents away, however, organizers in the Bay Area and beyond took a different tack with the port blockade.

Working in tandem with allies from labor, occupiers from San Diego all the way up to Anchorage directed their gaze at international shipping hubs, critical infrastructure for multinational businesses importing and exporting goods between Asia and North America.

Cargo terminals make for heavyweight targets, as five of the nation's 10 largest ports are located along the West Coast. The value of annually traded goods flowing in and out of Oakland alone is $34 billion, and authorities there estimate some $8 million could be lost if business were to be halted for a full day.

 

MAKING HISTORY

OccupyOakland unanimously approved the call for a coordinated West Coast port blockade at a Nov. 18 General Assembly.

"The ports play a pivotal role in the flow and growth of capital for the 1 percent in this country and internationally," occupiers explained on a website announcing the port shutdown. "For that reason alone it is the ideal place to disrupt their profit machine."

The ports weren't selected as a target for that reason alone, but rather as an affront to specific corporations whose labor practices have sparked the ire of port workers. Export Grain Terminal (EGT) and its parent company, Bunge, Ltd., came into Occupy's crosshairs because of their ongoing dispute with ILWU Local 21 in Longview, Wash., stemming from what longshoremen characterize as union-busting practices.