This International Workers Day, Oakland dockworkers are joining protests against police brutality, recalling a history of police violence against their own members and the organized labor movement.
Founded in the midst of heated labor disputes over an 8-hour workday in the 19th Century, May 1 is recognized as a day celebrating labor worldwide. But despite its roots in the deadly Haymarket Riots in 1886 Chicago, May Day is not an official holiday in the U.S.
Unofficially, it has become a day of protest for the issues of the day, and this Friday disparate Bay Area activists are organizing protests to bring attention to issues including immigration, income inequality, housing affordability and police violence.
A march from the Port of Oakland against police brutality is being organized with the help of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 10. The union’s leadership agreed to move its monthly labor meeting to Friday, effectively shutting down operations at the port for the day.
Trent Willis, a former president of ILWU Local 10, said while speaking with a group of union members and former members who helped organize Friday’s march:
“Our main objective is to show our solidarity with other communities around the country that have experienced police brutality.”
They were inspired to join in with waves of protests over police killings of unarmed black men, sparked last year over the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and continuing with actions over police killings of men in New York, South Carolina, Oklahoma and most recently Baltimore, where protests have flared throughout the week, Willis said.
Issues of police violence hit home for Local 10 members, Willis said, as police gunfire killed two people in a 1934 strike that led to the unionization of West Coast ports.
He connected organized labor’s history of conflict with the police to the current conflicts nationwide over police killings of unarmed black men — incidents that many have argued are indicative of systemic racism in the criminal justice system.
Derrick Muhammad, a business agent with Local 10, said he has personally experienced police brutality as a black man who grew up in East Oakland. Oakland police officers detained him in 1987, when he was 15 years old, and took him to a shooting scene, where they threatened him and tried to coerce him to a confess to the shooting, he said.
It was only one of many incidents of police harassment he’s experienced, Muhammad said:
“Black people came here to be slaves. We came here to be property. We came here under the notion that white people are supreme to us.”
That cultural perception of a lack of value for black Americans’ lives continues to this day, he said.
The union members stood at Oakland’s Middle Harbor Shoreline Park overlooking the Bay Bridge and the port’s cranes alongside Cephus “Uncle Bobby” Johnson, whose nephew Oscar Grant III was shot and killed by a BART police officer in Oakland in 2009, and Mollie Costello, an organizer with the Alan Blueford Center for Justice. Blueford was unarmed when he was shot and killed by an Oakland police officer in 2012.
Johnson said, “We as a family are elated that the ILWU Local 10 is standing in solidarity with the communities” who are victims of police violence, Johnson said:
“When organized labor gets involved with community issues you will see systemic change.”
Costello said that as the three-year anniversary of Blueford’s death approaches, the issues that led to his shooting are only beginning to come to light.
“We have a very long and unfortunate history here in Oakland of not only police brutality but police terror,” she said.
Jack Heyman, a retired member of Local 10, compared Friday’s march to 1984 port actions over the apartheid regime in South Africa, when dockworkers refused to unload ships moored in San Francisco carrying South African cargo.
“We want this struggle against police brutality to resonate with the labor movement across the country,” Heyman said.
The march is scheduled to start at 9 a.m. at the foot of Adeline Street and head to Oakland’s Frank Ogawa Plaza, a central location for protests since the Occupy Oakland encampment started there in 2011.
Other actions planned on Friday include a 1 p.m. “Migrants Against State Violence” festival and a march from San Francisco’s Civic Center Plaza to 24th and Mission streets. A march in solidarity with protests in Baltimore over the in-custody death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray is also planned in downtown Oakland for the evening.
An early protest planned at the MacArthur BART station to block tech workers’ commuter buses has drawn less union support, with Teamsters-organized shuttle bus drivers criticizing the ongoing “tech bus” protests in an open letter distributed online.
Some activists have blamed the practice of busing technology workers to locations in the South Bay for higher rents in San Francisco and the East Bay.
“Let them know that they are not welcome,” protest organizers wrote in their announcement, “that their high-priced world is not welcome, and their terrible world of surveillance and alienation must end.”
But the unionized bus drivers called on organizers to instead focus their efforts on the companies rather than the commuting employees:
“Your efforts are hurting us, not helping. We are on the front lines of fighting income inequality in the high tech industry by organizing with the Teamsters union. … We call on you to join our efforts to hold high tech accountable to workers. If you want to make the economy work for struggling Bay Area families, then help the other drivers organize a union with us. Help push for affordable housing. But please don’t stop our buses.”