Revolutionary Worker #1195, April 20, 2003, posted at rwor.org
While the world watched in anger as the U.S. military pulverized apartment buildings and markets in Baghdad, images of the "war at home" in the U.S. hit the international news.
On April 7, in the most brutal attack yet on antiwar demonstrators in the U.S., authorities in Oakland attacked protesters with shotguns firing wooden dowels, rifles shooting "beanbags" full of birdshot, and "stingballs"--a rubber grenade filled with approximately 80 .45 caliber rubber balls surrounding an explosive charge. Hundreds of the wooden bullets and bean bags and dozens of stingball grenades were fired at protesters over a period of more than two hours during an antiwar protest at the Port of Oakland.
500 protesters blocked a gate at the Port of Oakland. The police arrested 31 people and dozens were injured, including six longshoremen who were waiting to go to work. Some of the injuries were severe. A longshoreman required surgery after being hit in the hand. Several protesters were hit in the head and had blood streaming down their faces. Other protesters lifted their shirts to reveal a number of large discolored welts caused by the wooden bullets.
Sri Louise was shot in the face by the police as she sat on the ground doing yoga at one of the entrances. At a city council meeting the day after the protest she held up a picture of herself, published in newspapers nationwide, showing a huge purple golf-ball-sized welt to her jaw and a large crescent shaped bruise on her neck. "This picture is all over the world," Louise said. "The entire world is watching."
Shutting Down the Docks
The protest on April 7 was aimed at Stevedoring Services of America (SSA) and American Presidents Lines (APL). These companies were targeted because of the role they play in the U.S. war effort. In the weeks before the protest, the U.S. government awarded a $4.8 million contract to SSA to manage the Umm Qasr seaport in Iraq. APL has a "close, decades-long working relationship with the U.S. Department of Defense (APL website)."
The action at the port of Oakland was one of a number of actions in the Bay Area in response to the call for a national Day of Direct Action to Stop the War. There were also demonstrations at the San Francisco Federal Building, at Port Chicago Naval Shipyard and students from San Francisco State and San Francisco City College blocked a freeway during the morning commute.
People began arriving outside the gates of Stevedoring Services of America (SSA) and America Presidents Line (APL) before 5 a.m. Picket lines were formed at several gates which effectively shut down operations on the port because the longshoremen refused to cross the picket line.
Police moved in on the protesters charging protesters and discharging their weapons. Every few minutes a line of police on motorcycles and police on foot wearing gas masks would again charge the crowd, firing their weapons, roaring their engines, aiming at anyone daring to set foot on the street in front of them, or chasing people with their batons drawn. The sting balls exploded overhead and protesters felt wooden blocks whiz by their heads. Several people commented that this was the home front version of `shock and awe.'
"I'm out here because I don't believe it's right. I look at what the government is doing and I can't justify it," a young woman protester told the RW . "Today we're being hit with tear gas and rubber bullets and look how upsetting it is to us--we get cut on our head or whatever--but people are actually dying somewhere else. I saw a psychologist on TV who told people to turn off their TVs because we're getting too upset. I think we should get upset. The U.S. needs to be held accountable for what it's doing."
"This is what democracy looks like," shouted the protesters, then started to chant, "this is what a police state looks like."
Trent Willis, business agent for ILWU, Local 10, said that he had been sent by the union to observe the protest and had instructed workers to stand clear of both the riot police and the protesters. "We had a situation in front of the SSA terminal where the Oakland Police Department, the riot police, after pushing the protesters further down the street then turned on the longshore workers waiting to go to work," Trent Willis told Pacifica radio. "The police fired concussion grenades, wooden bullets and little sandbag bullets, I guess you'd call them, that injured nine longshoremen, six of them sort of bad. My partner, Jack Heyman, the other business agent for the ILWU, Local 10, when this incident started, he tried to run over to the police and explain to them that they were firing on longshore workers who were standing by on safety. He was dragged from his car and arrested."
"I'm confused, are we living in a new police state?" Willis said, and then added, "We're not just going to lay down and let this happen without saying anything."
Scott Fleming, a civil rights attorney shot five times by police, described the incident: "I was shot by what are called wooden baton bullets which are pretty nasty weapons... The police advanced on us with motorcycles and foot cops and these guys armed with all these quote-unquote "sub-lethal" weaponry. They lowered their guns on us. I turned to run and I got hit in the chest and four times in the back. I was able to stay on my feet and get out of there. It's really, really painful and I have severe bruises all over my back."
The authorities have tried to downplay the brutality of these weapons. The Chief of the Oakland Police said that the weapons "just sting a little." However, ALS Technologies, a company that manufactures weapons similar to the ones used by the Oakland Police, writes on their website of the wooden bullets: "Never aim above the sternum. Less lethal ammunition can cause contusions, abrasions, broken ribs, concussions, loss of eyes, superficial organ damage, serious skin lacerations massive skull fractures, rupture of the heart or kidney, fragmentation of the liver, hemorrhages, and death. Medical assistance should be contacted immediately after an actual deployment of a less lethal monition even if no physical injuries appear on subject or subjects."
ALS also manufactures sting balls like the ones used against protesters in Oakland. The company warns that their "Hornets Nest" sting ball grenade "may produce lethal trauma when vital areas are struck and energy imparted exceeds 90 foot pounds by causing massive skull fractures, rupture of vital organs, heart compression and/or serious skin lacerations. Normal use may result in contusions, abrasions, broken ribs and concussions."
The Docks andthe U.S. War Machine
The heavy response by the government was meant to send a message to antiwar protesters that the government will not tolerate protests aimed at hindering their ability to wage war. And it was also meant to send a message to dockworkers that they had better not use their strategic position to take any action against the war.
In recent years International Longshoremen and Warehousemen Union (ILWU) workers in the Bay Area have taken many progressive positions, including in support of revolutionary political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal. They have also taken a position opposing the Iraq war and contingents of ILWU workers marched in recent antiwar protests behind their banner which reads, "An Injury to One Is an Injury to All." The ILWU contingent featured a disciplined drill team of men and women dockworkers, marching with steel grappling hooks.
The U.S. considers uninterrupted access to the docks crucial to their "national security." At the end of 2002, when dockworkers on the West Coast threatened to go on strike, the Bush administration moved to intervene. Tom Ridge, the head of Bush's Homeland Security Department, called ILWU President Jim Spinosa to warn that a strike would be viewed as "a threat to national security." In other words, if the dockworkers strike, they would be labeled "traitors" who are "with the terrorists." The government threatened to invoke the Taft Hartley Act and use troops to occupy the ports.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld asserted in a sworn statement that the port dispute threatened to "degrade military readiness, hinder the department's ability to prosecute the global war on terrorism, and undercut other defense needs and world-wide commitments."
The government's actions during the labor dispute at the end of last year are only a part of their efforts to clamp down on the docks with a police state atmosphere. Congress also recently passed "The Port and Maritime Security Act of 2002" which institutes extensive background checks on dockworkers and ordered the issuing of special security cards.
"It's not going to deter me"
"It's not going to deter me, but I think that they think it will. It only makes me angrier and want to protest more."
Young woman protester at the Oakland docks
The extremely violent response of the Oakland Police has generated widespread outrage in the Bay Area and nationally. Amnesty International has asked protesters to submit testimony about the incident.
At the same time the city's top officials have been unapologetic in defending the brutal suppression of the protest. Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown said, "Groups were coming to take over the port, that's not acceptable. ...Police, in the line of fire there, reacted in the best way they know how."
On April 8, over 100 people packed the Oakland City Council meeting to speak out against the police attacks. When Council President Ignacio De La Fuente attempted to cut off public testimony on the incident, people responded with chants and shouts. De La Fuente tried to declare the meeting over and left the room with a police escort. People continued to testify about the brutality of the police and there is a call for further hearings.
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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