Protesters in Oakland blocked an Israeli ship from unloading its cargo to protest Israel's war on Gaza.
A sign at the August 16 protest at the Port of Oakland. Photo by Daniel Arauz
The Israeli Zim Piraeus cargo ship arrived at the port in Oakland, California for its usual weekly offloading last Saturday—but it was unable to unload any of its cargo. The ship’s crew had to wait four days at sea before faking a departure and then sneaking back into a new terminal to evade hundreds of activists who had created a picket line the longshoremen's union wouldn't cross. Even when the ship finally left, many believe it still had most of its cargo.
The ship’s acrobatics were induced by a coalition of Palestine solidarity activists and organized labor, with activists originally intending to delay it for just a day as a way to send a message that Israel’s treatment of Palestinians should make it an international pariah.
The Zim Integrated Shipping Services is Israel’s largest shipping company, but its appeal as a target for the growing Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement goes beyond its mere financial value. With Israel’s ability to drop thousands of tons of explosives on the captivated and densely packed population of Gaza and then sail into international ports without consequence, Zim vessels embody Israel's enduring impunity.
Hundreds of people marched to block the Zim Piraeus from unloading its cargo. Photo by Alex Chis
According to a source in the local International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU), the longshoremen who were finally forced to offload the cargo at around 10:30 PM on Tuesday were reluctant to do so. In fact, they apparently proceeded with deliberate slowness; by the next evening, the ship was only partially unloaded and still anchored in the middle of the San Francisco Bay, a day after it was originally slated to depart.
Lara Kiswani, executive director of the San Francisco-based Arab Resource and Organizing Center (AROC), told me the protest was aimed at exposing “Israeli apartheid and San Francisco’s complicity in it.” According to Kiswani, “The Zim Line reflects the huge flow of capital from Israel into the Bay Area and it is an opportunity for building a relationship between workers and Palestine solidarity activists.”
This week’s shutdown of the Oakland port marks the second time the Zim ship was selected as a target for BDS since the movement began in 2005. Both protests were mobilized in response to an appeal made by the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions for worker solidarity in the United States. In a historic first for the US, the Oakland port was closed to the Israeli ship in June 2010, after Israel attacked and killed nine people aboard the Mavi Marmara, which had been part of a fleet carrying humanitarian aid to the embargoed Gaza Strip.
This time, AROC was a leading voice among a loose coalition of organizations identifying themselves as “Block the Boat.” Organizers with AROC spent three weeks in the lead-up to the action diligently handing out flyers outside union meetings and talking to workers about the significance of the action.
Kiswani stressed that her organization was at mosques to solidify support for the action among the Palestinian solidarity community, but also passed out flyers on Bay Area street corners to reach beyond the traditional audience.
“We wanted to respond to what was happening in Palestine, but also build a long-term movement,” Kiswani told me. “So we decided to give ourselves a few weeks to build from the ground up; build alliances with workers and communities that are on the receiving end of over-policing, militarization and poverty so that we would create a cross-class movement.”
When the ship finally came, thousands of protesters assembled to greet it. Kiswani, who has been organizing for Palestine in the Bay Area for most of her life, noted that the crowd that gathered together was a reflection of the outreach they had conducted: “It was a real representation of a community. We had members of the Chicano, Black, Indigenous, Asian Pacific Islander communities; workers, youth. It didn’t look like a group of activists asking for something, but a community demanding it.”
Police hold the line at the Port of Oakand. Photo by Daniel Arauz
Faced with meeting thousands of protesters at Oakland’s port, the Zim Piraeus avoided Oakland altogether on Saturday, August 16. While the day was deemed a resounding victory, the fact that the Zim ship had remained in waters south of the port meant that workers in Oakland had not actually been asked to make a decision to honor the call for a picket.
Then something unexpected happened. After witnessing the remarkable turnout at the protest, according to Kiswani, members of the ILWU began calling her and others at AROC with questions. Their perception of the action had changed once they saw the broad support it generated from the community.
ILWU Local 10 has a long history of lending their union power to causes that concern human right. So while their sympathy to Palestine was not surprising, Kiswani said she and the coalition wanted to be sensitive and not ask too much from the workers, who would be making personal financial sacrifices to honor this picket line.
Local 10 has been in protracted negotiations since their contract expired on July 1, complicating the internal dynamics of respecting a picket. Normally, if a protest is deemed by a port arbitrator (a position that is unaffiliated with the union) to pose a risk to workers’ health and safety, the union calls off work and the workers still get paid. That’s what happened in 2010. Without a contract, however, that mechanism does not exist.
“But we sensed there was a shift,” said Kiswani. “We felt like the workers were on our side and so we wanted to give them that opportunity to honor the community picket that they didn’t get the chance to do on Saturday.” So they returned to the port the next day and again the Zim line remained untouched. The next two days, AROC stepped back while other individuals independent of any organization sprung to positions of leadership, maintaining a picket line that the workers continued to respect.
Photo by Daniel Arauz
While official statements written by the ILWU have maintained neutrality on the picket line, stating only that the protests created unsafe working environments, the groundswell of support within the rank and file is no doubt responsible for the union’s refusal to cross the rapidly-mobilized picket lines, day after day. Kiswani and other organizers told me that workers independently contacted them to give them information about the ship’s movements and the port’s plans.
The Zim Piraeus is now on its way to Siberia, but other Zim Lines are scheduled to dock in ports throughout America, and this week’s success in Oakland is prompting other cities to follow suit. Long Beach, California as well as Tacoma and Seattle, Washington all have actions planned at their ports on the days the Zim Line is scheduled to arrive.
“We are excited about the model that Oakland has created around the world,” said Kiswani.
Follow Charlotte Silver on Twitter.