Disrupting Apartheid (Jacobin)

Jacobin, October 27, 2014

Disrupting Apartheid

A conversation with Lara Kiswani about Block the Boat and the BDS movement.


Over the weekend, a ship for the Israeli company Zim was scheduled to dock and unload at the Port of Oakland. It never showed.

The ship’s absence was a result of the Block the Boat effort, a Bay Area initiative in accordance with the Palestinian call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS). The no-show comes two months after activists prevented another Zim ship from unloading for four days, and in the interim, Block the Boat has spread to other US cities.

Kumars Salehi spoke with Lara Kiswani, the head of the Arab Resource and Organizing Center (AROC) and one of the key organizers behind Block the Boat about direct action, worker solidarity, and the future of BDS.

Let’s start with what happened in August during the first Block the Boat. How did it play out?

In August we planned for a one-day action to disrupt the Zim ships unloading at the Port of Oakland on August 16. It was during the time of the bombardment of the Gaza Strip, so there was a lot more public awareness about what was happening in Palestine, and there had already been several mobilizations locally, and of course nationally and internationally as well. We wanted to take it one step further and do some more direct action.

The Port of Oakland was a particular target because of the regular docking of the Israeli Zim ship. Given the groundwork, given the organizing, given the heightened level of awareness and public support for Palestine we had a very successful action that actually resulted in a historic victory, with four consecutive days blocking the Zim ship.

This was a clear indication that BDS is thriving here in the Bay Area. While it isn’t necessarily new to us, in the sense that there is a long history of Bay Area activism, what is new is the escalation of tactics around BDS, and seeing BDS not only as a personal choice, or a choice of investments, or corporate investments or otherwise, but actually a matter of popular resistance, popular mobilizations, and popular support that can actually disrupt international commerce and make an economic impact on Israel.

What do you think Block the Boat says about the role of direct action in the BDS movement? And also how has Block the Boat, in similar actions, begun to change the perception of BDS and what it can accomplish?

BDS has largely been about consumer products or investment, from student organizing. But what Block the Boat has done is it has taken BDS to the streets, it’s taken BDS into impacted communities and allowed them to take ownership of the BDS tactic or strategy to connect to their own struggles, and to actually make a political and economic impact on the state of Israel. So how we see this as different isn’t so much that it’s never happened before.

In 2010, Palestinian and Arab community members, activists, and allies stopped the Zim ship at the Port of Oakland for the first time in US history for an entire day, and that’s huge. And back then, we did consider that as part of a BDS tactic as well. However, given the shifts from then to now, there is a lot more cross-movement building, and a lot more awareness about the relationship between the US and Israel, and how that plays out in our local communities.

Blocking the boat and stopping Israel at the Port of Oakland, a ship that actually transports weaponry into the United States and a country that actually trains local police departments, and at a time where black and brown communities, and Arab and Muslim communities are joining forces to challenge those partnerships, it means something very different.

It also means something very different because we are not only choosing not to purchase something. We are choosing to act, to disrupt the system. That’s essentially what direct action really is about. So bringing BDS and direct action together, that intersection is extremely powerful and impactful, because not only does it involve more people and more communities, but it actually makes a direct, tangible intervention, and it disrupts the system. And we saw that happen.

Usually when you take part in BDS, you don’t feel that tangible result. You don’t see a shift, or you don’t hear a shift. Also, public perception doesn’t necessarily shift overnight. Whereas when we blocked the ship for four entire days, we knew there was already an economic impact.

When we blocked the ship for four entire days, we also knew we were shifting the culture in the Bay Area, where Zionism in and of itself was not welcome. And that was part of our slogan, and that was intentional. BDS is not about saving Israel from itself. BDS is about ending Israeli apartheid. And that’s where we think Block the Boat took BDS to the next level.

What can you say about the economic impact or the potential economic impact, and related to that, what are the stakes? What is the state of Israel’s investment in Zim?

Ninety-eight percent of Israel’s trade is maritime. Zim is its largest shipping line. That in and of itself tells you it has a huge stake in Zim itself, and it’s a security asset and they name it as such. The Port of Oakland is the fifth largest port. So those two things combined tell us that if we make a dent in that partnership, or that relationship, there is definitely an economic impact.

Now, the exact number is difficult to come up with because there are so many different factors. We do know that there are docking fees. So we know that each day that the ship is docked, or each hour that it is delayed, it’s losing money because there are docking fees. We also know that the workers themselves when they are trying to maneuver, for instance as they did in August when they moved the ship from one terminal to the next in order to trick workers into working the Zim ship, that entire maneuvering also was quite costly for the Port of Oakland. So it’s not only Zim now. The port is also engaged in that economic flow of capital.

But ultimately we don’t know the exact number. There are articles and information that came out about different consumer products on the ship that were not able to reach their destination.

In terms of the economic impact, another point of discussion and some dispute has been the responses of actual customers of Zim to the successful blockade.

Obviously there is the story of the poor lady on Twitter who didn’t get her furniture, but in addition to that there was an article that quoted six different companies saying they were either not going to do business with Zim anymore, or were going to reconsider.

What do we know about the cost to Zim or the potential cost to Zim in terms of lost future business?

What we know is that. We made it inconvenient enough that customers are reconsidering doing business with Zim. And that’s part of our objective: to make it as inconvenient as possible for Zim, or any Israeli business to conduct its business anywhere in the world. As folks here in the Bay Area we’re focused here, on the Bay Area.

At the time of the Block the Boat action in August, we were unaware of this particular impact, in terms of how delayed all these products would be, so it came as a surprise to us, a pleasant surprise that is, that not only were we able to impact Zim’s ability to unload at the dock, to even dock at the port, to unload its cargo at the port, and delay it for four entire days, but we also prevented a lot of products from being transported to their destinations.

So that is an economic impact, and that makes it less interesting and less attractive to want to work with Israel.

Broadly, what are other companies and other products that are on these ships? Is it all Israeli products? Does Zim really have a global customer base?

They do have a global customer base. So people assume that everything on this ship Zim, or all Zim cargo is actually Israeli products, and they’re not. Zim is transporting goods from all over the world to different ports. So it’s one thing to target Zim, and it’s another to challenge companies that are doing business with Zim and allowing their products to be transported by apartheid ships.

It also should be noted that Zim also transports weaponry: Israeli-made weaponry and Israeli-made military vehicles into the United States. So what’s interesting is that some of the more consumer-based products are not Israeli, but the weaponry and the military products are Israeli. Which shouldn’t surprise us, but it’s an important point of information, because it does go to show what the role of Israel and what the role of Israeli production is in the global economy.

That gets really nicely at the intersectionality of the Block the Boat Coalition. I’m wondering if you can say a little bit about the strategies for outreach, in terms of tying the oppression of Palestinians into the oppression of people of color in the United States that Zim is complicit with.

What are those discussions like, what is the outreach to different activist groups and communities like?

One thing is for certain: no one can turn a blind eye to what’s happening in Palestine, and it’s very difficult to justify the Israeli occupation of Palestine. So you talk to any average person, and they’re probably going to be aware of the Palestinian struggle, and be aware that Palestine is occupied, and be aware that Israel is an apartheid state.

But the more significant intervention that we can make is to connect that to local struggles. And the other thing that is clear today is that the oppression at the hands of law enforcement, the state violence at the hands of the US government against communities here is also something that no one can turn a blind eye to. What we’re seeing in Ferguson is a clear example of that.

Not only are people no longer able to pretend that they don’t know that the police is in and of itself an arm of the police state, and the US government is complicit in the murder of black and brown people, and this is part and parcel of the architecture of this country, but also people can’t turn a blind eye to the fact that folks are going to resist. The mass rebellion in Ferguson, and they’ve been happening prior to Ferguson — after Oscar Grant’s killing in Oakland we also had mass demonstrations and mobilizations and direct action.

There is a history of resistance to state violence, and today we can make those connections really clearly, because they make the connections easy for us. It’s really easy to make these connections when the United States government and Israel are so explicit about their shared interests and so explicit about their partnerships.

So whether it’s the San Francisco city officials traveling to Israel to meet with government officials there and to discuss various different diplomatic relationships, economic relationships, or it’s the Israeli security forces and the Israeli government and the Israeli military coming to train local police here in Oakland, or to train people in Missouri, or to train people in San Francisco — these are connections that are easy for us to make.

And when people become aware of these connections, it’s no longer that Palestine is this occupied country in the distance, but Palestine is directly related to their struggle here. Because bringing down the state of Israel is actually weakening US imperialism.

At the heart of this all is the fact that the U.S. government is invested in maintaining its power and privilege all over the world, and instrumental to that is the state of Israel. That is why the plight of the Palestinians is so directly related to the plight of all oppressed peoples, because we really are in this together.

A lot of people say that the connection and engagement with labor was really instrumental to the success of the Block the Boat Coalition. Could you say more about what the relationship has been like and how worker outreach and relations have impacted the planning process?

Worker outreach didn’t begin in 2014, or it didn’t begin during the bombardment of Gaza. Worker outreach began years ago when the Palestine solidarity movement in the Bay Area began really organizing itself and building alliances in order to strengthen the BDS movement.

So that 2010 action at the Port of Oakland was part of that process, and part of the work that led to the success of August 2014. Our community members, AROC, and other organizations have worked closely with ILWU [International Longshore and Warehouse Union] to raise awareness about what’s happening in Palestine, and to draw on the connections, and also to bring the message from Palestinian workers on the ground about taking action here. We know that these governments and these states actually profit off our oppression.

The workers’ struggle is key to really developing that analysis and also building a movement that takes that into account, because we cannot really build a movement against all forms of oppression by discounting the struggle of workers. Especially if we are going to hold an action at the Port of Oakland. This is the livelihood of several workers who come in, day in and day out to unload those ships, and that is their bread and butter.

It takes a lot of work to build those relationships so we aren’t seen just as a bunch of activists taking action on a particular day, but more communities building relationships with workers to build a movement for social justice for everybody. What we did leading up to August 16, 2014, is we went to the union hall every morning and afternoon.

We had developed a particular flyer that was geared at addressing the concerns of workers and drawing on those connections, and also drawing on the links of different trade unions around the world that have also called on other workers to stand in solidarity with Palestine, everywhere from South Africa to Palestine itself, where people were actually making a call out for workers to stop allowing business to be done with Israel, because workers can really flex their muscles in that regard. They can stop international commerce.

So we went out every morning and afternoon. We went out with workers in our coalition, because our coalition was very broad-based, as you mentioned, and it had everyone working on economic justice, social justice, racial justice. We had youth organizations, we had adult membership, we had LGBTQ organizations. It was a very broad based organization that centralized Arab leadership, and within that, centralized worker outreach and worker solidarity.

That was one of our organizing principles and remains as such. So going out to the union hall made a huge difference. The workers not only knew that we were going to be out there that weekend, they also knew why we were going to be out there. They knew who was calling on them. It wasn’t simply individuals, it wasn’t just organizations, but it was communities, impacted communities both here and in Palestine and all over the world asking workers to stand in solidarity.

They also were able to ask us questions and engage in dialogue with us about what it would mean, what are the implications of this action, and what would that look like for them and their livelihood.

So, on August 16 when we mobilized five thousand people to the Port of Oakland, most ILWU workers didn’t even show up or take assignments that morning, because they already knew we were going to be out there.

That is really what led to the success of those four days, because the following day when we realized the ship was docking and we called for a last-minute, emergency mobilization or community picket at the Port of Oakland, and we were able within half an hour’s notice to get four hundred people to the port, the only reason that was successful was because all the workers had seen and heard, whether it was ILWU or truck workers, or otherwise, had seen or heard about the mobilization the day before.

They had seen the power of numbers, the power of our communities, the power of people, and how diverse the coalition was, so that also contributed to the workers making that decision and that choice to not cross our picket on Monday, on Tuesday, and on Wednesday.

It was very clear from being there that workers were not viewing us in an antagonistic way, in general. What I want to ask in closing is what all of this means going forward?

What is the Block the Boat Coalition looking for in the short term, and how are the relationships that we’ve built going to play into that?

One thing the Block the Boat Coalition has proven is that it’s reshaped BDS work. It’s shaped it in a way where it’s centralizing Arab leadership, its centralizing worker solidarity, and it’s also amplifying Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions within an anti-Zionist framework, and that is key.

So moving forward, our next target whether it is Zim cargo on any other form of transport, or whether it’s diplomatic relationships, or the relationships between the US police forces, local law enforcement, and Israel, ultimately, moving forward what we are doing is exposing the US-Israel relationship. We’re exposing Zionism as at the heart of it all.

How to challenge apartheid is to challenge the racist system that makes it up, and to do so, one has to be anti-Zionist. And furthermore, to centralize the work of the Arab community, because one thing that BDS has done in the past here in the United States, is it has sort of alienated the Arab community, and it hasn’t necessarily been a part of our organizing work.

Not because we didn’t start it: BDS came out as a call from civil society in Palestine. As activists and organizers here in the United States and all over the world, we took it on and really pushed it forward in our local communities. However, BDS took on various forms.

One form of BDS is to only target businesses or corporations that take place in settlements in occupied Palestine. That is a problem for us. Why should it be that we only target companies and corporations that do business in settlements, as if the settlements are the issue? Again that puts the question, what does it mean to be in solidarity with Palestine?

What we’re saying is to be in solidarity with Palestine, you must be anti-Zionist, you must be anti-colonial, you must be anti-imperialist, and you must draw on the connections between local policing, your local communities. So you cannot be anti-Zionist and be okay with the policing of black and brown communities in this country. And you can’t be anti-Zionist and be okay with the prison-industrial complex. You can’t be anti-Zionist and turn a blind eye to the oppression and poverty and displacement of people in your backyard.

In order to be anti-Zionist, you have to have a clear understanding about the intersections of oppression, and the role and the relationship that Israel plays in global repression. Israel is not an isolated state. In this day and age, one cannot speak about any state character without discussion of the global relationships that exist, and the flow of capital, and the interest in profit over people everywhere.

So, locally as Arabs, as Palestinians, we’re calling on all solidarity activists to take that call on. Do not stand in solidarity with Palestine simply to stand in solidarity with Palestine. Stand in solidarity with Palestine to bring down state violence everywhere, whether it’s state violence by the apartheid state of Israel or state violence by the US government, Oakland police department, or San Francisco or otherwise.

Kumars Salehi is a PhD student in German Studies and a member of UC Berkeley Students for Justice in Palestine.

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