It Took a Police Crackdown to Get Israeli-Operated Cargo Unloaded in Seattle

For weeks, pro-Palestine protesters physically prevented the unloading of Israeli-operated cargo that had entered the Port of Seattle. It finally took a violent crackdown by Seattle police to get the ship unloaded.

Protesters, including socialist city councilor Kshama Sawant, prevent the unloading of an Israeli-operated cargo ship at the Port of Seattle. (Kshama Sawant / Twitter)

It took a police crackdown to get the Israeli-operated ZIM San Diego ship unloaded in the Port of Seattle.

For weeks, pro-Palestine Block the Boat protesters had prevented the ship from unloading its cargo in the port. The group recently scored a victory in Oakland when another ZIM ship, the Volans, was forced to leave without unloading. ZIM is Israel’s largest shipping company, and one of the biggest in the world, and the protests targeting it are part of the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

Block the Boat actions, led by the Arab Resource and Organizing Center (AROC), focus on the “boycott” part of BDS. Participants do so not via consumption choices but rather in coalition with workers who can boycott Israel by refusing to unload goods transported by Israeli vessels. These actions are a response to appeals from Palestinian unions for their comrades in the US labor movement to boycott the Israeli occupation by taking “courageous and brave stances against the occupation and stand with us as we demand freedom, justice, and human dignity.”

The ZIM San Diego had originally been scheduled to dock in the Port of Seattle on June 2, but heat from organizations like AROC and Falastiniyat, a Palestinian feminist collective organizing the Seattle picket, kept the ship sitting in Elliott Bay for nearly two weeks.

On Saturday, June 12, the ship tried to unload its cargo. Protesters set up a community picket early that morning, and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 19 members tasked with unloading the ship refused to cross. The picket continued throughout the week. Before long, SSA Marine Corporation president Edward DeNike, who runs the terminal in which the ZIM San Diego was docked, urged the vessel to leave the port.

But the situation changed suddenly on Thursday, June 17. With the picket up and running — and socialist city councilor Kshama Sawant present on the line — the Seattle Police Department stepped in, telling protesters to disperse. Eleven people were arrested — all have since been released.

According to AROC, the ship was finally unloaded Thursday night after the picket line had been broken up by the police.

“In order for the ZIM San Diego to be unloaded, it required a police crackdown,” says Wassim Hage, AROC’s press coordinator. “This moment when police are cracking down on pro-Palestine protesters in Seattle is deeply connected to when Israeli mobs and Israeli police are ethnically cleansing Palestinians in East Jerusalem and Israelis have broken the ceasefire in Gaza.”

In an email template written by AROC for supporters to use when urging elected officials not to interfere with the blockade, AROC alleges that the Israeli Consulate General put pressure on officials like Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan, as well as SSA Marine’s DeNike, to get the ship unloaded. Were this allegation proven, it would mean Israel pressured a US mayor and US company to sic a police force, itself trained by the Israeli military, on people who were exercising their rights, all in service of the smooth flow of commerce.

“ZIM is clearly desperate. No workers crossed our picket and ZIM was unwilling to leave after SSA Marine Corporation had asked the ZIM San Diego to leave,” said Aisha Mansour of Falastiniyat in a statement on Thursday’s arrests. “It’s telling that this corporation would rely on police violence to suppress a peaceful picket protesting against Israeli apartheid. These actions are clear attempts at intimidating our community that is standing up for human rights in Palestine and everywhere. We will never stop fighting against Israeli apartheid, from Seattle, to Jerusalem.”

Block the Boat actions have taken place across the country, and workers have refused to handle Israeli cargo in South Africa and Italy as well. In the United States, the cooperation of the ILWU is key to these efforts. The union has a history of militancy, but these recent actions differ in an important way. When the ILWU refused to handle South African cargo during the apartheid era, dockworkers, rather than community organizations, initiated the pickets — and they paid a price in injunctions and lost wages for doing so. Today, with the labor movement as on the defensive as it’s ever been, even the ILWU does not have that level of militancy. This might explain why, while Local 19 stated that it supports Block the Boat’s First Amendment right to “peacefully and nonviolently assemble” at the Seattle terminal, some members may have worked the ship once police broke up the picket.

Despite the arrests and at least partial unloading of the ship, organizations involved in the Block the Boat actions have called the five days of pickets a success.

“From Oakland to Seattle, we have demonstrated that workers and social justice movements support the Palestinian struggle for freedom, and that there will be a high price for all companies who do business that profits the apartheid state of Israel,” said Lara Kiswani, executive director of AROC. “We will not stand down.”