A Glorious Day for Labor in the Movement for All Black Lives!

ILWU banner at protest
Photo: Peg Hunter
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Tens of thousands of people of all shades participated in a lively shutdown of the Port of Oakland on Juneteenth 2020. The historic holiday that celebrates when slaves in Texas were finally freed years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued drew throngs with its focus on stopping police violence. The action was organized by the Committee to Stop Police Terror and End Systemic Racism, a labor and community coalition led by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU). The ILWU organized similar shutdowns at other West Coast ports. 

Bay Area Freedom Socialist Party (FSP) and friends arrived at the port as part of a car caravan, but there were so many vehicles that the procession soon ground to a halt. So, myself and others took signs off our cars — “End Police Brutality! An Injury to One is an Injury to all!” — and joined the vocal stream of protesters walking to the gathering site. Speakers at the docks pumped up the crowd. Then everyone marched in unison into the city streets of Oakland and ended up downtown at the movement-renamed Oscar Grant Plaza for a rally with an impressive lineup of speakers. The mile-long car caravan brought up the rear. 

The march was wonderfully spirited and even included a marching band! Thunderous chants of “Say their names!” “Whose streets? Our streets!” and “Black lives matter!” filled the air and could be heard loud and clear. Picket signs abounded declaring messages such as “The task is to transform society; only the people can do that!” (a quote from Black Panther leader Huey P. Newton), “No Privatization of the Port of Oakland,” and “Defund/Abolish the Police/Prisons!”

Thanks to the strong leadership of the ILWU, the country’s most radical union, the program was powerful. Speakers condemned police terror, racism, and, to my delight, capitalism. They explicitly celebrated the current political movement, Juneteenth, labor strikes, and the collective power of the working class.

The strong presence of labor on the issue of racial justice was vital. Speakers included several longshoremen, the president of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) 1021, New York labor organizer and unjustly fired Amazon warehouse worker Chris Smalls, and others. As an Amazon worker, I was absolutely thrilled to see Smalls speak in person! He has given me a great deal of inspiration in my own labor struggle, and his fiery speech highlighting the power of rank-and-file workers fueled my fighting spirit.

Other speakers included Bay Area revolutionary hip hop artist and filmmaker Boots Riley, several Black student activists, and Angela Davis.  Especially moving were the words of relatives of victims of police murder, including Oscar Grant’s uncle, Michael Brown’s father, and a relative of Alan Blueford. 

One controversy that erupted reflects the growing pains of this new movement’s efforts to be multi-issue. Suddenly, disrupting a speaker addressing the police murder of their nephew, a group in the crowd blared through a megaphone, “Where are the Black trans women speakers? Where are the Black disabled speakers?” The speaker responded that he was talking about a loved one and their disruption was disrespectful, to which the woman with the megaphone replied, “I don’t care!” Although organizers then added a representative from the group to the speaker list, the women demanded to speak immediately, causing confusion among the committee members on stage.

Organizers ultimately decided to let the women speak then and there. Unfortunately, after they took the stage, a few longshore workers shouted transphobic and homophobic slurs, but they were promptly shut down by union organizers. To their credit, ILWU Local 10 made it abundantly clear that the bigotry of those few members did not in any way represent their union. And after MC Trent Willis unintentionally misgendered one of the trans women, he sincerely apologized. 

As a nonbinary unionist with a disability, I understand the impetus of those trans and genderqueer women to demand that they and their comrades with disabilities be heard. The need for all Black people to be included in Black Lives Matter really is crucial. My party, the FSP, strongly promotes the crucial message that Black Trans Queer Lives Matter. 

However, the women’s disruptive and disrespectful tactics were clearly wrong, harmful, and divisive to the movement. Even if the overall message is valid, such ultra-left tactics get in the way of us being united for our common cause. And if we are going to win, we must be united. We must build each other up, foster understanding and growth, and respectfully push each other to improve without inciting infighting.

I also understand the importance of labor’s role in our current struggle for justice. I credit the ILWU for being willing to listen and learn, to check their own members’ bigotry, and ultimately to do the right thing to be more inclusive. I trust that their organizational efforts will be stronger in this aspect going forward.

Overall, the event was incredible. Turnout was fantastic, the march was uplifting, and the speeches were inspiring and remarkably anti-capitalist. The collective energy of the crowd was really mighty. The fact that this union went out on strike, shut down a major portion of the region’s capitalist economy, and gathered a huge public show of support on Juneteenth as part of a general mass movement for Black lives is tremendously significant. Hooray for this action! Let us sustain the energy and militancy unleashed by the response to the murder of George Floyd until we win freedom from capitalism for workers of all colors, here and around the world!

Sam Rubin is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area branch of the Freedom Socialist Party.

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