Closing the port for Black lives (Socialist Worker)

Closing the port for Black lives

Ragina Johnson reports on the dockworkers’ shutdown of the Port of Oakland to protest the epidemic of police murder across the U.S.

ILWU Local 10 members demonstrate at Oscar Grant Plaza in Oakland in 2010

ILWU Local 10 members demonstrate at Oscar Grant Plaza in Oakland in 2010

HUNDREDS OF union members, activists and community groups gathered at the Port of Oakland early on May 1 to protest police terrorism and support the Black Lives Matter movement.

As the crowd grew, news that Baltimore’s lead prosecutor planned to indict the six cops involved in Freddie Gray’s murder was arriving. There was a feeling of vindication in the crowd that there had finally been a step toward justice for the Gray family, people in Baltimore and families struggling for justice against the national epidemic of police violence.

The decision of Oakland dockworkers to shut down the port on May Day in solidarity with the struggle against police brutality continues the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 10’s decades-long tradition of militant labor struggles. Local 10 has not only fought around bread-and-butter economic issues for its own members, but has also taken many stands in opposition to racism, war and police brutality. ILWU Local 10 has a well-deserved reputation of taking concrete action in solidarity with community fights.

The rally was called prior to the escalating rebellion in Baltimore around Freddie Gray’s murder. In the lead-up to the event, retired longshore worker Jack Heyman wrote about the importance of dockworkers and labor being part of the struggle against police and state terror:

When police in North Charleston, S.C., killed Walter Scott, a Black worker, the longshore union members there organized protests. ILWU Local 10, which has close relations with the Charleston union, responded with its call to stop work and march on May Day. The South Carolina AFL-CIO commended the ILWU local for its “courageous actions of solidarity with the families” and also is calling for May 1 “actions to protest the continuing unjustifiable killings.”

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AS THE rally at the port kicked off in the morning, speakers reminded the crowd about the need to continue fighting in city after city. “These kinds of actions will continue to occur until we see a change,” said Wanda Johnson, who is the mother of Oscar Grant, an unarmed African American man murdered by Bay Area BART police in 2009.

These struggles for justice especially hit home for longshore workers and their families, who are not immune from the epidemic of police terrorism and mass incarceration that has devastated so many communities across the U.S. ILWU members are family to Jeremiah Moore and Richard “Pedie” Perez III, both killed by police in the last couple years. These cases have not received the same attention as some of the more high-profile cases in the Bay Area, but they are just as devastating.

Moore, who was 29 years old and autistic, was killed by a Vallejo police officer in 2012. “This is a citizen issue,” said Moore’s family member Rebecca as she surveyed the crowd holding photos of countless people killed by police. “I’m here to support everyone.”

Last year, Richmond police killed Richard “Pedie” Perez III, who was 24. His father spoke briefly and powerfully to thank the crowd for coming out. “It’s so tough,” he said of the devastating loss that family members wake up to each morning. “Every day I cry.”

Police target African Americans disproportionately because of racist policing practices and the deeper structural and systemic discrimination that oppresses communities of color. Yet the Moore and Perez families are not African American–their tragic loss reveals the fact that the violence of police terrorism affects all working-class and poor people.

Mollie Costello of the Alan Blueford Foundation reminded everyone that we’re coming up on the two-year anniversary of Oakland high school student Alan Blueford’s murder by Oakland police. “We’re here as a community, and we’re here for labor,” she said.

After the speakers finished, the whole crowd chanted together: “Justice for Freddie Gray, justice for Pedie Perez, justice for Oscar Grant, justice for Jeremiah Moore, justice for Alan Blueford.”

In the crowd, there were activists from other unions who had taken the day off to support the Black Lives Matter movement and the movement against police terror. In an interview, one union carpenter, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation by conservative elements in Carpenters Union Local 2236, referenced the 1934 general strike in San Francisco that centered on the dockworkers’ struggle:

I think it is important to be educated in history. Regarding Black Lives Matter and police violence, it wasn’t long ago that labor was facing police terror. Labor needs to support these movements now. In 1934, during the San Francisco general strike, tens of thousands of workers went out to protest workers who had been murdered by the police.

This protest in 1934 against the police killing of two workers–what is known as “Bloody Thursday”–helped galvanize other unions to support the dockworkers’ strike and turned the struggle into a general strike that shut down San Francisco. These historic actions by port workers and the broader labor movement led to the unionization of the docks and the formation of the ILWU.

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On May 1, dozens of longshore workers, with their banners “An injury to one is and injury to all” and “Stop police terror,” led the march–along with the dockworkers’ drill team–towards Oscar Grant Plaza in downtown Oakland. ILWU members held signs “Justice for Pedie” and wore shirts with the faces of ILWU family members who were victims of police terror.

As the march moved through Oakland, African American families and community membered picked up signs and put them in the windows of their homes. Some also joined the protest, swelling the size of the march to about 1,000. In a touching display of support, grade school kids at two Oakland schools ran out cheering across their playground and fields to meet the march, yelling and chanting while peering through the schools’ fences.

People talked and chanted as they covered the several miles to downtown Oakland. Along the way, many engaged in discussions about how to build labor support for the Black Lives Matter movement and the need to connect the attacks on working people with a struggle against racist police violence. In an interview, ILWU Local 10 member Anthony Leviege pointed out that the movement needs to talk about how the system as a whole stands in the way of justice:

We need to talk about jobs. We should make demands for economic change. These economic problems are what lead to ghettos and police aggression. The police should turn their guns on who the real criminals are–corporations and those running the system. People are getting ground down. We can’t breathe. Police and war are all symbols of how this system just doesn’t work.

The march ended up with a rally at Oscar Grant Plaza, where the number of unions and activists taking part grew to include many Oakland and Berkeley public school teachers, transit workers in the Amalgamated Transit Union 1555, and organizations fighting for a living wage, such as East Bay Organizing Committee and the Fight for 15 Bay Area.

The ILWU action coincided with a rally of Service Employees International Union Local 1021 and International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers Local 21, who are organizing for a new municipal workers’ contract with the City of Oakland.

ILWU Local 10 members spoke at Oscar Grant Plaza and expressed solidarity with the rebellion in Baltimore over the murder of Freddie Gray. They connected these struggles to the economic, political and class system that is waging war on all working people and trying to keep African Americans on the bottom rung of society.

“I understand why those kids are out there throwing rocks and bottles,” said Trent Willis, former president and business agent of Local 10. “It’s a result of many generations of people out there facing poverty and violence. We have to understand that this is a class struggle, my union understands that, and that’s why I am proud to be a Local 10 member.”

Clarence Thomas, who recently retired after 30 years as a longshore worker, union activist and former executive board member, expressed the militancy needed for this fight:

The ILWU is in the vanguard of the entire U.S. labor movement. If we want to stop this reign of terror, we have to stop commerce. When workers stop, they shut down America. The supreme task of the U.S. labor movement is to confront the corporations head on and lead a movement of workers and oppressed to build a just and peaceful world.

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