Workers shut down Port of Oakland to protest police violence

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Shawn Gaynor's picture
The Port of Oakland was closed Friday as members of ILWU Local 10 held a work stoppage to protest police violence.

By Shawn Gaynor

As news broke Friday morning (5/1) of the indictment of six Baltimore police officers accused of killing unarmed African American Freddie Gray, workers with International Longshoremen and Warehouse Union(ILWU) Local 10 gathered in front an idle Port of Oakland, to hold a rally against police brutality.

“All the cranes are up; no freight is moving today,” said retired ILWU Local 10 business agent Jack Heyman to a crowd of roughly 400 union members and Black Lives Matter activists. “We are here today to let the 'powers that be' know that we intend to stop this police terror.”

For members of the ILWU creating that reform is personal – it is a family matter for them. Before the death of Freddie Gray unleashed an uprising in Baltimore, Walter Scott was killed by police in South Carolina. That shooting, caught on video by a bystander, showed Scott being shot in the back as he fled from officers, in contradiction to the officers official account. Scott's death struck deep into the ILWU, as many of Scott's family are union Longshormen at the Port of Charleston.

“An injury to one, is an injury to all,” read the ILWU banner that later lead the march to Oakland City Hall, and that philosophy may have been enough reason for Scott's death prompted the union to act. But for the member of local 10, the tragedy of police use-of-force going to far strikes a stronger note, much closer to home.

Two members of Local 10 have had their sons killed at the hands of police in the past three years; another lost his brother.

Richard Perez, son of an ILWU Local 10 worker, was shot by police in Richmond, CA last year in what police characterized as an intoxicated struggle. He was unarmed. Though the account is disputed by police, witnesses said that Perez had been handcuffed prior to being shot and killed.

Jeremiah Moore, son of a Local 10 worker, was killed by police in Vallejo in 2012. Police claimed Moore was holding a rifle at the time of his death, but a neighbor who witnessed the incident and made the original call to the authorities (fire department, not police) was later quoted by KQED stating, “the man was waving his arms strangely — a flailing that he couldn’t seem to stop. He says he could clearly see the man’s hands, and there was nothing in them.”

The brother of former ILWU Local 10 president Trent 'Buster' Willis was slain in an incident with military police in Colorado. In that case, authorities reported the death of Willis' brother as suicide, despite what family says is evidence to the contrary.

All of these stories come from the lives of families affected by police violence in one single union local, in one single American workplace.

ILWU union officials were clear to point out that the work stoppage and rally was not a strike per se, but a “work stop meeting,” a contractual maneuver that allowed the union to call a halt to the day's work.

While gathering together to mourn tragedy is fit cause for a work stoppage, those in attendance expressed that the rally and march was not simply to mourn, but to push for change that will let them breath a little easier when their children are out playing in their neighborhoods.

“Do not be pacified by the victory in Baltimore today,” said Kat Brooks, member of the ONYX Organizing Committee and Black Lives Matter. “We are at a critical time, we are at the tipping point. Now is when we put on the pressure and today's action is a fresh start.”

For local 10 member Devien Thompson, police violence against young people of color is not an abstract worry.

“Me personally, it hits home because my son is the age they are targeting today, and I had to make sure that he was here to see this,” said Thompson. “I personally feel a little uneasy when he is out, because I don't want him to have to have an encounter with them.”

Thompson brought his son, 17 year old Dakri to the rally, saying it was an important lesson for him to be there. Maybe this was a part of what African American parents call “the talk.” But it was something more. It was a message that the conversation is broadening. That it is changing to a conversation about solutions. When asked about police reform Thompson felt it was time for police unions to step up.

“I think they need to implement things inside of the police union that will make them be accountable for the things that they do. Right now (the police union is) backing them instead of disciplining them and they need to be getting them off the force if they are not doing right. We're all people, no matter what our color. And we count, our lives count. Black lives count.”

Thompson said that he thinks the rally will send a message to the City of Oakland about reforming police use-of-force.

“One thing about the Longshoreman,” said Thompson, “when we stop and we talk, somebody has to listen. Because you don't want to get us started up. They are going to have to implement some rules and changes within the police force that will help us get this situation together. I understand that it is a hard job, but not everyone is out here doing wrong.”

The ILWU has a long history of involvement in struggles for justice. In 1984 the union blocked the unloading of South African freight in Oakland, in what is widely recognized as the start of the anti-Apartheid movement in the U.S.

More recently, during the Occupy Movement, some 30,000 people marched on the port, triggering a ILWU work stoppage as part of a general strike called in response the near fatal injury of Iraq War veteran Scot Olsen, who was shot in the head by police with a tear gas canister during an Occupy protest.

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