A new phase is developing in the US Palestinian solidarity movement: Block the Boat.
In organizing theory, activists often emphasize the importance of formulating what they call an “escalation plan.” When pushing for social change, they explain, it is important that one’s methods of exerting pressure on power slowly grow in strength, not remain stagnant.
Block the Boat is the next step in the escalation plan of US Palestinian solidarity activists. The idea of Block the Boat is quite simple: Hundreds of activists organize a protest in a local dock and prevent Israeli ships from unloading cargo.
The action has its origins in 2010, when Palestinian solidarity activists flooded the Port of Oakland, in protest of Israel’s attack on the six civilian ships that comprised the Gaza Freedom Flotilla. Members of the Free Gaza Movement and the Turkish Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief were trying to bring humanitarian aid and construction materials to Gaza—which was (and still is) under an internationally illegal siege by Israel—when the Israeli military reacted with a brutally violent crackdown, killing 10 civilian activists. Oakland protesters, repulsed that the Israeli government, with US economic and political support, would kill foreign human rights activists, retaliated by blocking an Israeli ship from unloading. This stood as the first time in history an Israeli ship had been blocked in a US port.
In the four years following Oakland’s 2010 action, this direct action strategy fell by the wayside. It was not until 2014, in the midst of Israel’s latest military assault on Gaza, dubbed “Operation Protective Edge,” that activists returned to the method.
Many contemporary American activists identify Israel’s “Operation Protective Edge” as a turning point in the Israel-Palestine conflict. In just 50 days, the Israeli military killed close to 2,200 people—including roughly 1600 civilians, 500 of whom were children—wounded over 11,000, and made over 100,000 homeless, bombing 10s of 1000s of homes, businesses, schools, mosques, churches, power plants, and even hospitals. Many activists felt frustrated at what they saw as the ineffectiveness of non-confrontational actions such as rallies and marches, and saw the need to turn toward nonviolent civil disobedience. Block the Boat for Gaza was organized to meet this need.
On 16 August 2014, thousands of Palestinian solidarity activists convened at the Port of Oakland and marched roughly 1.5 miles in order to prevent the Israeli cargo ship the Zim Piraeus from unloading. Zim Integrated Shipping Services is Israel’s largest cargo shipping company (and the 10th biggest in the world). The company has a close to $4 billion dollar annual revenue, and is partially owned by the Israeli government.
In early September, Bay Area activist Daniel Borgström published “A Diary of the Oakland Blockade of the Israeli Cargo Ship ZIM Piraeus Blocking the Boat.” Borgström explains that what was planned on only being a one-day protest expanded and multiplied, eventually morphing into a four-day blockade.
I interviewed an Oakland organizer in order to understand how exactly the activists prevent Israeli ships from unloading. He explained that at the bottom of the driveway leading to the main gates of virtually all ports is a strip of sidewalk. Activists hold moving picket lines on this sidewalk area. Police cannot make them move, because the sidewalk is public space, and as long as protesters are constantly moving on public space, they cannot be arrested.
In ports with sympathetic, unionized workers, such as in Oakland, activists only have to worry primarily about blocking the main gate. Many ports have five gates or more, nonetheless, and at ports where workers are less sympathetic, such as in Tampa, protesters must divide themselves into groups in order to prevent workers from entering in any of the side gates.
In Oakland, the organizer told me, they have not yet had any problems with the police. On the last day of the mid-August blockade, he said, police got a little antsy, but the dock workers were on their side. The longshoremen’s irate employer actually deceived them, claiming they would be working at a different time, but this only incensed the workers further, and even inspired them to engage in a slowdown when they finally did start working, increasing the efficacy of the action. In the end, only a small percentage of the ship’s cargo was unloaded, and activists faced no repercussions from the police. (It’s also helpful that elections are going to be held soon, the activist added, and political candidates don’t want to have a potential controversy on their hands.)
The Oakland activists’ action garnered attention from the international media, including the Guardian, Haaretz, and more. Journalist Roqayah Chamseddine, however, noted the “unpublicized impact” of Block the Boat’s successes. Unsurprisingly, the same US corporate media that is so unsympathetic to the plight of a people that has been ethnically cleansed for 67 years and military occupied for 47 has also largely ignored the actions citizens within its own borders have taken to stop this horrific and violent oppression.
When Block the Boat is mentioned in the corporate media, it is typically discussed as though it was a one-time phenomenon. Yet Block the Boat did not end with Oakland’s August 2014 action. In the time since, the movement has only grown—and rapidly, at that. Oakland activists have called for “allies in cities across the US to join us in building on our historic victory against Zionism by ensuring that Zim ships are not welcome anywhere!”, and advocates worldwide are heeding their call. Similar actions are being organized in Seattle, Vancouver, New York, New Orleans, Tampa, and more.
In the meantime, California continues to lead the way.
Block the Boat Los Angeles
The weekend of 18 October, Palestinian solidarity activists in Los Angeles will be holding another Block the Boat action. Block the Boat Los Angeles is organizing a community picket at 6 am at the intersection of Pier A Way and Pier A Plaza, on Long Beach, to prevent a Zim ship from unloading.
I spoke with Block the Boat LA activists, inquiring about their motivations, experiences, and feelings about the new movement they are advancing. They stated that their principal goal is to stop ships “from unloading cargo made in Israel in an effort to peacefully apply economic pressure and fight Israeli Apartheid.”
LA activist Garrick Ruiz explained that the advocates “believe this form of peaceful protest through applying economic pressure is one way to get Israel to pay attention to the growing global public opposition to the illegal occupation of the Palestinian people,” calling the Block the Boat movement “our part in adding to the already powerful Israeli boycott movement happening around the globe.”
Contrary to rumors about the supposed “hostility” of Palestinian solidarity activists, Block the Boat LA was careful to insist that “Any hostility or aggressive behavior towards port personnel or in general is not accepted,” and that it encourages “a compassionate/inspiring attitude.”
Activists expressed excitement at the efficacy of the movement, calling Block the Boat “one of the most exciting and effective methods of BDS so far, with estimates that a few hours of delay could cause the Israeli owned ZIM cargo company millions of dollars.”
Block the Boat LA organizers gave me an overview of how they have developed. In August, Oakland’s Block the Boat for Gaza reached out to LA allies, asking the latter to form its own branch. The advocates understood that any vessel unable to dock in Oakland could simply move south and unload in an LA port. They consequently organized an informational picket on 13 August, in which 50 activists asked port workers for support in future community pickets.
On 23 August, Block the Boat LA, held its first successful protest. Approximately 250 protesters met from roughly 6 to 8:10 am, at which point the picket was declared successful and the workers went home. The little time that the action required demonstrated its efficacy, and inspired activists to continue moving forward.
Block the Boat LA has remained busy. In mid September, Block the Boat LA and Oakland representatives spoke at the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation 13th Annual National Organizers’ Conference in San Diego, and organizers received national recognition among the larger Boycott, Divest, and Sanction Movement, of which it sees itself an important part.
The activists have too tried to strengthen their ties with local dock workers and unions. Block the Boat LA representatives attended various union meetings for ILWU Local 13 and Teamsters Local 848. On 4 October, activists held another informational picket, reaching out to dock laborers and port truckers.
Organizers told me they expect, as in their past demonstrations, to have hundreds of activists and workers in attendance at their 18 October protest. They also hope to reach non-union port truckers, in addition to the rank-and-file members of the local unions with whom they have worked.
The activists were incredibly accommodating, and included English-, Spanish-, and Arabic-language contacts in their press release. Block the Boat LA expressed optimism at its future, telling me that it “will continue to build with labor organizations, religious-based organizations, social justice organizations and the community at large.”
The organization itself is already a coalition of 18 civic engagement groups. It sees reaching out to a variety of community organizations as vital to building a strong, diverse base. Block the Boat activist Vicki Tamoush explained that “As a person of faith I see the protest against the Zim Savannah to stand against the injustice happening everyday in Palestine. My conscious tells me that killing 500 innocent children during Operation Protective Edge was wrong and that Israel should be held accountable.”
For those unable to physically attend the demonstration, activists recommend following and spreading the #BlockTheBoatLA tag on Twitter and Facebook.
Oakland’s Block the Boat for Gaza
On 25 October, Palestinian human rights advocates in Oakland will be holding another Block the Boat action. Activists will meet at West Oakland Bart, at the Port of Oakland, at 5 am, and march to Berth 57.
I got in touch with Oakland Block the Boat activists as well. In their public Call to Action, they call for four simple demands:
End the siege on Gaza!
End the colonial occupation of Palestine!
Right of return for all Palestinian refugees!
Free all political prisoners!
The activists see themselves as part of the larger, international Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, which maintains the same goals. Their ultimate goal is to “Take the wind out of Zim’s sails!”, to boycott the company and prevent Israeli ships from docking in any port, until their demands are met, until Palestinian human rights are respected. In their Call to Action, they proclaim: “Not in Palestine, not in the Bay, not anywhere. Stand against Zionism everywhere!”
Block the Boat for Gaza, like its counterpart in LA, has reached out to local workers and unions, educating and handing out fliers. Moreover, like many Palestinian organizations, Oakland Block the Boat organizers have noted the close ties between Israeli corporations like Zim and other forms of repression and oppression around the world, writing:
The apartheid state of Israel not only impacts Palestinians, but also plays a role in the oppression of communities all across the globe. The Zim shipping line is instrumental in upholding this system of global repression. There are direct ties—training, weapons, and surveillance—between Israel’s occupation of Palestine and the increasingly militarized occupation of black and brown communities in the United States. And it is now a well-known fact that police departments in and around Ferguson, Missouri, have received training from Israel.
The Oakland activists say they “salute the longshoremen who stood with the Palestinian people by honoring our Block the Boat picket and refusing to unload Zim in” both August and September, and are calling on the workers to do the same in October.
Organizers of Block the Boat for Gaza note that although Israel’s military assault on Gaza was “halted, thanks to the Palestinian resistance,” the struggle is not over. “With the full support of the US government, Israel continues to carry out its brutal occupation, confiscate more land and build more settlements, imprison thousands of Palestinians, and maintain the siege on Gaza as part of its policy of ethnic cleansing.”
US Palestinian activists recognize their complicity in fueling this occupation, repression, and ethnic cleansing, as $3.1 billion of the tax dollars they pay go to Israel each year. US allies are tired of their government bankrolling Israel’s destruction of Gaza, and seek a new, more direct strategy to force their government to listen to their calls, to practice democracy.
The Block the Boat movement sees itself as the next step in a long line of dock organizing. Block the Boat for Gaza pointed out that
Ports have historically been places for workers to assert their power and make social change. During apartheid in South Africa, ILWU workers refused to unload South African cargo in San Francisco in 1984. This action was a major catalyst for international anti-apartheid solidarity that helped topple the apartheid regime of South Africa.
As Israel’s crimes against the Palestinian people become more and more flagrant, as racism in Israeli society becomes more and more extreme, and as the world stands up and says enough to the colonization, occupation, and torture of the indigenous Palestinians, activists are taking matters into their own hands. Public support for Palestine is growing, around the world. Block the Boat, and myriad actions like it, continue to grow. The world’s peoples are standing up for human rights, freedom, and dignity. This is how history is made. It always has been, and it always will be.