Any Port in a Movement: Pondering the Shutdown

Categories: In Other Media, West Coast Port Shutdown - 12/12/11

By KATINSF  (reposted from

We shut down the Port of Oakland on Monday.  Activists in Long Beach, Los Angeles, Portland, Longview and San Diego also shut down their ports, or parts of them, for some or all of the day.  Activists in Houston did a solidarity action at their port and were tented – the fire department brought a big red tent to throw over them before – well, who actually knows what they did under there?  They said they did it in case they threw up sparks while cutting the blockaders out of their lockboxes.  Some people pointed out that sparks inside a tent didn’t seem very safe.s far as I know, no workers crossed the Occupy picket lines, but that didn’t necessarily mean they supported the action.  If you can believe any of their words, the leadership certainly did not, and a lot of the rank and file weren’t too thrilled either.  The San Francisco Chronicle quoted truckers in Oakland complaining about lost wages, while both ILWU international president Robert McEllrath and Longview local president Dan Coffman, whose speech at Occupy Oakland partially inspired the West Coast Port Shutdown, said in the media that Occupy should leave their struggle to them.
Oakland union leaders held a press conference last Friday to defend the organizers of the day-long shutdown against charges of carpetbagging.  Betty Olson Jones, president of the California Teachers Association, was eloquent in explaining why the port deserved to be targeted, that they get tons of revenue from the City and give next to nothing back.  Clarence Thomas, former president of ILWU Local 10 in San Francisco, said that Occupy had reinvigorated the labor movement, and the labor movement should support Occupy.  A group of truckers took the opportunity to release an Open Letter which reads in part:

An Open Letter from America’s Port Truck Drivers on Occupy the Ports 

We are inspired that a non-violent democratic movement that insists on basic economic fairness is capturing the hearts and minds of so many working people. Thank you “99 Percenters” for hearing our call for justice. We are humbled and overwhelmed by recent attention. Normally we are invisible.
Today’s demonstrations will impact us. While we cannot officially speak for every worker who shares our occupation, we can use this opportunity to reveal what it’s like to walk a day in our shoes for the 110,000 of us in America whose job it is to be a port truck driver. It may be tempting for media to ask questions about whether we support a shutdown, but there are no easy answers. Instead, we ask you, are you willing to listen and learn why a one-word response is impossible?
For sure, the energy in Oakland was jubilant on Monday night when the 5,000 or so of us out at the Port got the news that the Port – which had confidently asserted that they would not shut down – had decided not to call in the 6:00 pm shift at all.  When organizers decided to push their luck by extending the strike to the 3:00 a.m. shift, few of us were up for staying out there, many of us having been out there at 5:30 Monday morning, worked all day and then gone back out at 5:00 p.m.
The best thing about the day, according to most of my friends who went, was that it proved the power of Occupy.  It also showed that it might not be as easy to marginalize and fragment the movement as the 1%, including the mainstream media, believed.  Most of the actions took place without the heavy police violence I had feared, given the rhetoric of city officials and the fact that the action had at best only lukewarm backing from labor.
Certainly the argument put forth by people like Ellis Goldberg, an Occupy activist from the Bay Area suburbs quoted in the Chroniclearticle, that “99% actions are nonconfrontational” are ridiculous.  If this movement had been primarily nonconfrontational, no one would be talking about it.  Occupy/Decolonize, like every successful movement before it, will win by creating what social movement theorist Bill Moyer calls “dilemma demonstrations” or “sociodrama demonstrations.”
The success of nonviolent action campaigns is based on sociodrama demonstrations. Sociodrama demonstrations are simple demonstrations that:
— are dramatic and exciting;
— enable demonstrators to put themselves into the key points where the powerholders carry out their policies;
— clearly reveal the values violations by the powerholders;
— show the movement supporting and representing the values, symbols, myths, and traditions of the society; and
— are repeatable in local communities across the country.
These are dilemma demonstrations in which the powerholders lose regardless of their reaction. If they ignore the demonstrators, the policies are prevented from being carried out. If, on the other hand, the demonstrators are harassed or arrested, it puts public sympathy on the side of the demonstrators and against the powerholders.The argument that the movement is hurting the very people it was meant to support – repeated to the point of monotony by the mainstream media in the lead-up to and immediately after the port shutdown –has been used to against every successful movement I can think of.  The Montgomery Bus Boycott was costing Southern Blacks jobs because they couldn’t walk to work; the civil rights movement in the North was boycotting and picketing businesses where Blacks worked.  The Free Speech Movement was keeping students from getting the education they came to college for, and poorer students couldn’t afford to miss classes.  We were told that divestment from South Africa would hurt Black South Africans the most and an ANC victory would result in a blood bath.  Those of us who shut down the WTOMinisterial in Seattle did not “understand the benefits of free trade to developing nations.”
When Stop AIDS Now Or Else briefly disrupted the opening night at the opera in 1989, a local gay papers quoted a gay man with AIDS as saying it was the worst thing that ever happened to him.
So the fact that labor in general and some dockworker unions in particular were unhappy about the port shutdown does not necessarily mean it wasn’t the right tactic at this time.  But it’s not something to be dismissed out of hand either.  During the weeks leading up to the shutdown, I tried to get clear in my own mind both the political purposes of the shutdown and who was really supporting and opposing it.
 As for the first, the objectives seemed all over the place.  It was in solidarity with truckers in Long Beach who were fired for wearing union t-shirts, and with dockworkers in Longview, Washington, who sabotaged trains a few months ago as part of their struggle to keep their union.  It was to interfere with the flow of commerce, dealing a mighty blow to the biggest corporations in the country.  It was to stop business as usual.  It was to protest reliance on imported goods, which means export of manufacturing jobs, and the pollution of the waters by carriers like Cosco Busan, which spilled 53,569 gallons of oil into the Bay four years ago.  It was to protest the role of the port itself in bankrupting Oakland.  It was to punish the police for repressing the Occupy movement around the country.
All good reasons, and I’ve done plenty of actions that had multiple goals.  That’s often a plus in selling an action ‑ something for everyone.  But except for the labor issues specific to the docks and the bad citizenship of the port itself, I think there are better targets for most of those issues.
For the second question, who was supporting it, I asked friends who are members of the longshore unions and a lawyer who represents the Longview workers, among other maritime unions on the West Coast.  The response that I got from pretty much everyone I asked was that the workers they knew basically didn’t think this was the right action at the right time.  Now these are not anti-activist people.  They’re people who have been out in the middle of the night, defending camps and helping to get people out of jail.  But when I brought up concerns at meetings or on lists, I was told that only bureaucrats were opposing the strike, all the rank and file were excited about it.  I felt that a certain orthodoxy had set in, where to question the strategic wisdom of this action was to be opposed to militancy.
So I asked myself, have I become unmilitant in my middle age?  I sure never thought that would happen.  But I am unwilling to support something just because it’s militant.  I know people who have done that and ended up participating in actions they later regretted.  Some of them spent years in prison for actions they later concluded were well-intentioned but not the right tactic at the right time.
For sure, the attacks on the shutdown made me want to participate and defend it.  The port placed full-page ads in the Oakland Tribune and the New York Times denouncing the shutdown and pretending to speak for labor and the community.  The faux folksy tone made my skin crawl.  The threats of Mayor Quan and others to keep the port open at all costs – invoking the specter of April 2003, when police responded to a protest at the docks by shooting people with wooden dowels and rubber-coated bullets, and the relentless efforts of the media to portray labor as more united against the action than it was, to beat the drum of the good versus bad Occupiers infuriated me and made me want to block the port for a week.
But the fact that the authorities don’t want us to do something isn’t necessarily a reason to do it.
The other problem with this West Coast shutdown coming so soon after November 2 is how do we escalate from here?  Are people going to be willing to go back to blockading banks (I hope so, since we’re organizing a shutdown of the San Francisco financial district for January 20) or holding neighborhood councils or squatting foreclosed homes?  Maybe.  Certainly I can think of some very cool actions which would be escalations of a different sort, and I’m sure people have much better ideas than I do.  Personally, I’ll be happy if whatever those ideas are, they don’t involve getting up at 4:30 in the morning.


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