Activism

Why Activists Are Blocking an Israeli Ship From Docking on the West Coast

A coordinated “Block the Boat” solidarity action will leave Israel looking elsewhere to unload its goods.

Photo Credit: Block the Boat's Facebook page

Amidst the terror Israel has unleashed on Gaza, activists on the West Coast have organized a Palestinian solidarity action that is not only politically symbolic, but economically hits Israel where it hurts.

Starting Saturday, activists in Oakland, Los Angeles and Seattle plan to block an Israeli ship from unloading goods at their city’s ports as part of a larger boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. These “Block the Boat” actions come as a response to the Palestine General Federation of Trade Unions’ call for supporters to “educate and build awareness among the labor movements of the U.S., and urge them to condemn the Israeli aggression and to boycott Israel.”

On Saturday, organizers in Oakland will march to the port and form a picket line in front of its gates early in the morning before the port workers, who are members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, are scheduled to begin their shift. Organizers are hoping to stop workers from unloading a ship owned by Zim Integrated Shipping Services, which is the biggest cargo shipping company in Israel and has ties to the Israeli government and military via stock ownership.

More than 1,000 protesters are expected at the Oakland action, said Reem Assil of the Arab Resource and Organizing Center, which is one of more than 70 groups endorsing the event.

“Symbolically for Oakland we can say, not in our name,” Assil said. “We’re not going to be complicit and an accomplice to the ongoing genocide and massacres going on.”

Oakland organizers have coordinated with supporters in Long Beach, CA, and the ports of Tacoma and Seattle in Washington in hopes that Zim won't reroute to another port on the West Coast like it did four years ago. In 2010, in response to Israel’s attack on a flotilla bringing humanitarian aid to Gaza, Oakland activists and port workers made history by being the first to ever block an Israeli ship in the United States. That ship redocked in Los Angeles a day after, and unloaded there.

“This time, we want to make sure there’s a disruption to Israel commerce all over the West Coast,” Assil said, adding that this would cause a sustained economic burden on the company.

The Oakland organizers’ biggest coordination efforts, however, have been with the labor movement. In fact, the event, which was originally scheduled for August 2, was postponed in order to do more outreach to the ILWU workers.

“We don’t want workers to be alienated, we want workers to be part of the fight,” Assil said. “And so we have spent the last few weeks really honoring that commitment and building with the workers themselves.”

Assil said Block the Boat organizers and active members of the ILWU have been flyering and talking to members about the Saturday action in terms of “worker power”—especially because they are under negotiation for a new contract.

But these negotiations have made the action this year more complicated than in the past. For one, ILWU is unable to take an official stand on the action. Also, during negotiations there is no arbitrator who can evaluate the port during the Block the Boat action and deem working conditions unsafe; this happened in 2010, leaving workers with no option of crossing the picket line. 

This, along with a loss of double-time pay for workers, presents difficulties for a successful action. An ILWU port worker named Anthony, who is spreading the word about Block the Boat, said he responds to co-workers’ financial concerns by talking about the bigger picture.

Anthony said, “I ask them, ‘Are you okay with innocent people being killed?’’’

The ILWU has a track record of taking stands on social justice issues and not crossing community pickets, Assil said. The union’s historic fight against South African apartheid is one of the major talking points organizers are using in an attempt to convey the Palestinian struggle to a largely African American workforce at the port. In 1984, ILWU workers made history when they refused to unload a South African ship, sparking other port workers to follow suit worldwide.

While Zim ships currently unload every Saturday in Oakland, Assil said the Block the Boat action is just the beginning of a long-term plan of educating and organizing port workers with the goal of permanently boycotting Israeli goods in the future.

“While direct actions are really amazing and they do cause one-day disruptions, we know that the real work of the boycott, divestment, sanctions movement is really to garner ground-up support,” she said. “And part of that support has to come from the workers.”

The other part has to come from community members. Assil advises anyone concerned about the U.S.’s role in killing innocent people to come to the Saturday action. She said the blockade will send a message to the Obama administration to end its support of Israel, as citizens are no longer willing to have atrocities committed against Palestinians in their name. But Assil said this action is more than just protesting U.S. militarization overseas.

“The police forces here in the U.S. are actually being trained by the Israel Defense Forces,” she said. “The police shootings of unarmed black civilians here in the U.S. is not much different than what the occupation forces are doing in Palestine. So we need to make those connections.”

As a Palestinian-American whose family members were active in the Palestinian struggle, Assil said another reason she will be blocking the boat is to inspire youth to recognize the importance of continuing the fight.

“Palestine is a long and hard fight. I know this all too well,” Assil said. “I flash back to when I was young saying, ‘Why do we continue to fight? The monster, it seems so big.’ But these are the moments when I truly believe the tides are turning and things are shifting, and the movement to free Palestine is growing. We have to seize this moment.”

There are Block the Boat actions in Oakland, Long Beach and Seattle/Tacoma, and solidarity actions in New York City and Miami

Alyssa Figueroa is an associate editor at AlterNet. 

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