Above photo: Brooke Anderson.
Hundreds of protesters took action at ports in Oakland and Tacoma to try and stop the Cape Orlando’s progress.
Meanwhile, dockworkers in Barcelona called for a cease-fire and announced they would not work on ships carrying weapons.
About 100 protesters arrived at the Port of Tacoma at 5 a.m. on Monday determined to block any efforts to load cargo onto the Cape Orlando, a ship the activists thought could be transporting weapons to Israel. They chanted “Free, free Palestine!” and by 6 a.m. the group had grown by hundreds more.
“We are here today because we are blocking a military vessel that has come from the Oakland dock up to Tacoma,” said Bissan Barghouti of the group Samidoun Seattle, according to The Seattle Times.
“Heavy police presence; U.S. Coast Guard has reportedly planned for the protest. Hearing that the port hopes the ship will set sail by 12 p.m., activists determined to stop them,” according to the tweet. Officials at the Port of Tacoma did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The protest raged on throughout the day. Some activists apparently may have even taken to canoes to try and deter the Cape Orlando from making any progress. Dockworkers in Barcelona, also on Monday, called for a cease-fire in Israel and Palestine and declared that they would not work on ships carrying weapons.
“Workers have committed to not load, unload, or facilitate the tasks of any boat containing weapons,” the Spanish publication El Diario reported. The announcement in Barcelona follows a group of transport unions in Belgium — which included some port workers — that about a week ago “called on their members to refuse to handle military equipment being sent to Israel,” according to Reuters.
The effort to stop the Cape Orlando, a military ship with a long wartime resume, started Friday at the Port of Oakland when a wave of people descended on the docks early that morning, armed with megaphones, banners and Palestinian flags. Operating on a tip that the ship was allegedly bound for Israel and hundreds of protesters organized by the Arab Resource and Organizing Center (AROC) in the Bay Area showed up early in the morning determined not to let the Cape Orlando leave.
“We came here to demand an immediate cease-fire,” Lara Kiswani, the Palestinian executive director of AROC, told the San Francisco Chronicle. She and the protesters showed up willing to put their bodies on the line by physically blocking the ship’s progress if needed.
AROC issued a news release on Monday asserting that “Confidential sources say the vessel will be loaded with weapons and military equipment in Tacoma, with a final destination in Israel.”
In These Times first reached out to the U.S. Coast Guard for more information about the Cape Orlando, but the request was referred to the Office of the Secretary of Defense. In an email, Pentagon spokesperson Jeff Jurgensen wrote that the Cape Orlando “is currently under the operational control of U.S. Navy’s Military Sealift Command and is supporting the movement of U.S. military cargo.” Jurgensen declined to provide additional information about the ship’s cargo or any further information.
Kiswani has some experience with this sort of thing as the action in Oakland on Friday wasn’t the first time she helped take on the herculean task of blocking an entire cargo ship in the pursuit of justice. (She helped organize the “Block The Boat” protests in 2014.) “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,” she said during a 2014 interview with Jacobin. “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.”
What exactly the 635-foot long Cape Orlando is doing or not doing remains a bit murky. Melvin Mackay of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 10, which represents workers in the Bay Area, told the San Francisco Chronicle that the ship was no longer in operation. Its sudden swing back into service caught the attention of local organizers and maritime experts. Local news quoted workers and union officials saying that the ship in Oakland was actually empty.
But what’s critical about this action — and speaks directly to the scale of what is happening in Israel and Palestine — is not whether there were weapons on the ship, but the extent to which some organizers and activists will go right now in order to challenge even the possibility that more weapons will be shipped to Israel for use in the assault on Gaza. For the protesters, any wrench thrown into the gears of the U.S.-funded Israeli war machine is worthwhile.
Holding banners reading “No Military Aid to Israel” and waving Palestinian flags, the protesters began arriving in Oakland at 8 a.m. to call for an immediate cease-fire and an end to the occupation. As time went on, their numbers increased from a few dozen to nearly 300, according to Oakland Uprising, and the chants grew louder. In the early afternoon, three protesters locked themselves to the ladder of the ship, according to KRON4. The crowd erupted in cheers, and activists on the ground relayed that they thought at least one ship worker may have walked off the job in solidarity.
To some dockworkers witnessing all of this unfold, it may not have been particularly unusual. The Port of Oakland has long been a site of working class struggle, and the unionized ILWU workers lay claim to especially radical roots, especially from the bloody 1934 waterfront strike that saw the ILWU successfully win gains for workers across West Coast ports.
In 2020, the ILWU also shut down ports for 8 minutes and 46 seconds in solidarity with George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and all other victims of racist police violence; they timed the action to coincide with Floyd’s funeral in Houston, which Mackay and two other Local 10 representatives traveled to attend. A decade before, the union shut down the Port of Oakland to protest the police killing of Oscar Grant.
“We believe that labor should strive to be at the vanguard of all social struggles, because we understand that labor has a responsibility to fight for those beyond just our own membership,” ILWU member and former secretary-treasurer Clarence Thomas told Jacobin on the day of the 2020 protest.
It would appear that political protests against authoritarianism, apartheid and deadly force are as much a part of the ILWU’s history as seawater and sailors’ knots. Friday was not the first time its members have been present at — or part of — efforts to block weapons-laden ships bound for Israel, or refused to cross protestors’ picket lines.
“The ILWU first officially condemned the Israeli treatment of Palestinians in 1988, at its convention, declaring Israel guilty of ‘state-sponsored terrorism,’” explains Peter Cole, a professor of history at Western Illinois University and the author of Dockworker Power: Race and Activism in Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area.
“In 1935, when fascist Italy invaded Ethiopia, Local 10 workers refused to load supplies aboard an Italian ship. In the late 1930s, after imperial Japan invaded China, ILWU locals up and down the West Coast coordinated with Chinese community picketers in refusing to load supplies for Japan. In the 1960s, ’70s and for 10 days in 1984, ILWU Local 10 refused to unload cargo from South Africa to protest apartheid, which was the policy of the white minority, racist government. In the past decade, as part of the Block The Boat campaign led by Arab Americans, Israeli-owned ships have been boycotted and picketed on occasion.”
In These Times reached out to the ILWU for comment — and to speak with Local 10 President Farless Dailey III — about the protests at the Port of Oakland and the Port of Tacoma, but were not able to make contact and did not immediately receive a call back.
A Bay Area organizer who was involved in the blockade in Oakland (and who asked that their name not be printed to protect their identity) added, in a private message to In These Times, what they believe is additional context around the circumstances of similar actions at the port: “Since the police opened fire on a picket line there in 2003, it has been understood through various announcements at past port blockades that Local 10 stops work when there is any police presence at the port. Many longshoremen stand with us and have for a long time.”
The organizer was referencing an event on April 7, 2003 when the Port of Oakland erupted into chaos when Oakland police fired on a crowd of demonstrators who were holding a peaceful anti-war protest. As the ACLU reported in its ensuing lawsuit against the police department and the City of Oakland, at least 40 people — including nine dockworkers from Local 10 — were “injured with large wooden bullets, sting ball grenades and shot-filled bean bags in the most violent police response in the nation to protests against the war in Iraq.”
No injuries were reported at Friday’s protest, but three activists who locked themselves to the Cape Orlando were arrested. The ship was finally able to leave port after the arrests and head north, but the protesters succeeded in part of their goal by blocking the boat for a large portion of the day. In doing so, they echoed the 2014 protests that successfully blocked an Israeli cargo ship at the Port of Oakland from unloading its goods during another period of heightened Israeli violence against Palestine. That action came in response to a call from Palestinian and South African trade unions, and Local 10’s dockworkers refused to cross the protesters’ “Block The Boat” picket line.
“We blockaded a military ship for seven hours, and the images and footage has gone viral internationally,” says the Oakland organizer. “Direct action is an intentional escalation that serves to push issues into the forefront and this action was exactly that. … Around the world, people have seen this escalation in tactics and will be inspired to take it up a notch. I would say that’s amazingly effective!”
Part of Monday’s protest included a call from AROC to disrupt business as usual by blocking traffic in an effort to slow or shut down operations at the Port of Tacoma. “We are jamming traffic, pull up for Palestine,” read a graphic AROC posted on social media.
The news release from AROC also explained: “A mass protest of over 500 community members at the Port of Tacoma is picketing Terminal 7, have blocked multiple lanes of traffic, and multiple gates. They are picketing the Cape Orlando, a U.S. military supply vessel bound for Israel, which is slated to be loaded with weapons at the port. Protesters intend to prevent the cargo from being loaded.”
At the time this article was published Monday evening, it appeared that the protest in Tacoma may have finally been called off. Eyewitnesses reported Monday afternoon that the port was entirely blockaded by cars and hundreds of protesters, and nearby traffic had been snarled. Meanwhile, the Cape Orlando had remained motionless for hours. AROC amplified that at least one worker allegedly walked off the ship in solidarity, taking their place in Tacoma’s own centuries-long history of labor activism.
One activist, earlier on Monday, shouted into a megaphone: “We have disrupted the entire port and their ability to function by delaying all of the trucks!”
Katrina Pham contributed reporting to this article.