The effort was led by Arab Resource and Organizing Center (AROC). Mondoweiss spoke with AROC executive director Lara Kiswani about the protest, ZIM, and how BDS is growing within the labor movement.
Lara Kiswani: During the war on Gaza in the summer of 2014, we organized a series of demonstrations with people all across the world and formed a direct action work group to think through BDS targets in the Bay Area. We were thinking about more disruptive campaigns that could have a political and economic impact on the state of Israel. As part of that, we engaged in various forms of direct action and liked the idea of returning to the Port of Oakland, as we did in 2010, where workers honored a community picket in solidarity with the Freedom Flotilla.
At the time, we we thought it’d be a good idea to build on solidarity with workers. The Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions in Gaza had just put out a statement asking for support and solidarity from labor in the United States. So we formed the Block the Boat Coalition. We did a lot of legwork to build with workers, we did outreach at union halls day and night for weeks on end before we actually set to go to the port to and mobilize.
At the time the Israeli ship was docking there every weekend and we successfully blockaded it for five consecutive days and then three months and since then it had not returned until this year.
Talk about ZIM, the Israeli shipping company you’re targeting. What’s their history in all this, what do their ships offload?
ZIM was actually an instrument used in the settler colonial project of the state of Israel. It brought over European settlers to Palestine in 1948. It also historically has exported weaponry from the state of Israel to various parts of the global south, but also to the United States. And in 2014, when we were blockading the ship, the same shipping line was bringing weaponry to ports across the United States to be used against black and brown communities.
And at the time, of course, there were the Ferguson uprisings as well. So there’s a direct connection between the Israeli ZIM ship and the settler colonial project of the state of Israel. It’s the largest shipping line from the state of Israel and it has an ongoing role in global militarism and policing, broadly speaking.
Can you describe the scene at the port? What was the scope of the crowd, what was the mood that day?
We prepared as soon as we found out the shipping line was attempting to return for the first time since 2014, we put out the call to action. We set up a text alert system. Over 5,000 people subscribed. We were preparing at any moment to mobilize to the port and we did outreach to the workers. I also was invited to speak at the union hall to address the membership in the leadership of International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 10 about the call from Palestine.
And as part of that, we built a lot of momentum and the ship wasn’t docking. It was set to dock and for over two weeks it kept staying at bay and not docking at any of the terminals. Once we got word it was docking, it was within hours that it showed up. So we had to mobilize fast and we sent a text alert through the system. And that morning we had over a thousand people there blocking six different gates simultaneously. We had workers driving in and honoring the picket, sitting aside and asking questions and people talking to them.
It was a pretty lively and very inspiring morning. To see all the worker solidarity, but also to see the truck drivers coming through and honking. Communities, families, and allies all coming together. We had rank and file in their own capacity joining our community picket of different locals. So it was a true reflection of international solidarity in the Bay Area and also sort of the reflection of the ongoing movement building that’s been taking place for decades.
We left after we successfully shut down the port. The workers left. Then we heard there was a second shift happening. We put out another call through text alert and within hours, another thousand people showed up to again, simultaneously hold six community pickets at six different gates, which for those who weren’t there, there’s a long distance between each gate. So we had to put a lot of time and thought into accessibility, making sure we had drivers who could take people not only from West Oakland to the port itself, but also between terminals and move people accordingly.
At the very end of the afternoon, around 6:00 pm, we got to actually watch the ship leave, which was pretty dramatic. I think it was a great moment for all of us to see the economic and political power of labor and community organizing.
You talked about this a little already, but can you expand on the relationship between Block the Boat and the Longshore Union? I’m also wondering about your impressions of labor’s role in BDS efforts.
I would say the relationship with ILWU is between AROC and the Palestinian movement. There’s a long history of relationship building there that’s taken place over the years. So continuing to show up for one another, showing up when the port workers are asking us to stand in solidarity against the privatization of the port. Similarly, on May 25 the ten locals of the Northern Council put out a statement in solidarity with Palestine against the Israeli settler colonial violence there.
So this relationship is very much rooted in the long history of anti-racist struggles and the internationalism of ILWU. They have historically stood against all forms of oppression and racism and have deep ties and connections to the community. They don’t cross community pickets and we’ve continued to build on that on that solidarity. So that day when we were there, you saw the workers standing on the side and parked honoring that community picket, and then when we went to go thank them, you see children running up to them and giving them hugs and people thanking them and them honking their horns and raising their fists. That all speaks to the relationship.
It’s a deep, deep solidarity between movements and an understanding that it’s not just about a statement that came out from the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions. It’s actually the true spirit of internationalism and worker solidarity. Knowing that change is not only what was made possible in 2014, which proved to so many people the impact that working with communities and the labor movement can actually do to largest military in the world..but also what’s made possible in terms of the long standing relationship and building on that history.
We have rank and file members who are Palestinian. ILWU Local 10 is a predominantly black-led, black union, and the other Local 10s have historically also honored pickets. So it goes far beyond just this question of Block the Boat and actually is rooted in the spirit and character of ILWU as an internationalist anti-racist union.
Do you have any impression of how this is impacting ZIM financially or how this pressure is impacting them?
We know it impacts any shipping line pretty dramatically and drastically if they’re not able to dock and their cargo is waiting. They have to go to a different port and they still are carrying this cargo and now they’re moving up towards Canada and all the way north to Prince Rupert. There’s no way to estimate the exact amount, although we do have researchers who have been crunching numbers and we know their losses are in the millions.
But that being said, I don’t think you can expect our opposition, our adversaries, to admit defeat or to acknowledge the impact we’re having on them. But we know from our other work in 2014 that the impact of a Zionist ship not being able to dock at one of the largest ports in North America, that being the Port of Oakland, it did significantly impact them. They actually lost profit since 2014 and it wasn’t until this last year that their profits had actually gone up again.
Part of that is because they’ve also went public. Now part of ZIM is owned by the state of Israel and part of ZIM is now public on the stock market. And they created this new shipping line, which they were hoping would continue to increase their profits coming to the West Coast. We basically disrupted this new shipping line, which was their pride and joy in terms of what potential profits they could be making in the coming days. So, again, we don’t know the exact numbers, but one can’t underestimate the significance of this victory and the political and economic impact it had on Israel’s largest shipping line, and also the impact it has, broadly speaking, on what’s possible through BDS work when you can actually disrupt international commerce and build worker and community solidarity.