Building a Movement Against the Shipment of Weapons to Iraq
Like many other communities, activism in Olympia, Washington against the war and the U.S. occupation of Iraq declined somewhat since the large protests in February and March 2003. Currently, although the victory by Bush and the Republicans nationally has caused significant despair, activism against the occupation has picked up again in Olympia. There is the potential locally and possibly, beyond to build a movement against war supplies going to Iraq. On Friday, November 5th, from 7 A.M to 9 A.M., about 200 people held anti-war signs and distributed informational leaflets against the war at 15 major intersections in Olympia and two nearby towns. The strongest presence was on a bridge to downtown where 70 people organized by a newly formed Code Pink chapter and dressed in pink held up banners and talked to passer- bys. The reception was very positive; many people driving and walking by commented that seeing people in the street protesting reduced their feelings of isolation and powerlessness.
On Saturday, November 6th, a peace and justice summit organized by the Olympia Movement for Justice (OMJP) drew 140 people. This was larger than the organizers expected. Many attendees had been Kerry supporters, who now wanted to get involved in organizing against the War, and against neoconservative policy, attacks on civil liberties and civil rights, and the pro-rich person agenda of the Bush administration. In response to the murderous attacks on Falluja and anticipating the expected loading of a ship with war supplies for Iraq, there were daily vigils at the Port of Olympia beginning on November 15th. The ship, the Intrepid, docked on November 17th and loaded cargo for a planned departure for Iraq on Thursday, the 18th. OMJP called for a rally at the port on that day. About 100 people attended. Featured speakers were military veterans. Their message was that ending the war was a way to support U.S. troops. Sending military supplies would further the continuing war against the Iraqi people and cause more U.S. casualties. After the rally at 5:00 P.M., many people from the rally joined by others, marched to a fence about 50 yards away that separated the public space from the actual Port of Olympia where the ship was being loaded. Members of the crowd cut down the fence. The small initial police presence grew quickly as large numbers of police, many in riot gear arrived. Two demonstrators who crossed onto Port property were arrested for trespassing. None of the demonstrators interfered with the loading of the ship which sailed out to sea about 8 P.M. that night loaded with trucks, helicopters and various supplies for the U.S. military in Iraq.
Tactical and Philosophical Differences
On Friday, November 19th, the local daily newspaper, The Olympian, carried a front page story on the action at the port with pictures of masked protesters and a focus on the $3500 of damage to the fence. This action has led to a strong, healthy and unresolved debate among the anti-war movement in Olympia about the effectiveness and morality of the property damage that occurred. To some extent, there are age and cultural differences among those who supported and opposed the tearing down of the fence. Similar debates took place in Olympia and beyond about direct action versus legal rallies and demonstrations at the WTO protests, which occurred five years ago this week sixty miles north in Seattle. Those who argued that tearing down the fence and if possible delaying the ship's departure was a positive and necessary act claimed that this action was non-violent, and dramatically illustrated Olympia's complicity with the U.S. murderous policy in Falluja and Iraq.
Participants in this action want to emphasize and make visible to people in the United States and beyond that the United States government does not represent them, that there is a significant group of people who will not allow U.S. aggression to occur in their name. It is an attempt to raise the social cost of the war by showing through actions the growing forms of resistance that will occur in the United States as the war continues. The participants in this action and its advocates were primarily younger people. Many of the people over 30 years old and many of the members of the Olympia Movement for Justice and Peace (OMJP), a longtime local group, did not support the property damage. They believed tearing down the fence would become the issue rather than the war. Some members of OMJP believed as a result of the property damage and pictures in the newspaper of protesters wearing bandannas to cover their faces, residents of Olympia and surrounding communities could easier dismiss the movement and ignore the larger issues.
They believe what occurred was counter productive because it will make it more difficult to reach the broader community and build a stronger anti-war movement. A member of OMJP said to me she would support a highly planned civil disobedience where people sat down near the ship but not what happened on November 18th. There was general agreement that criticisms and debates about the anti-war actions of others should occur face to face and not in the mainstream media. My position is that actions such as the ones that occurred at the port are necessary as are rallies and vigils. They must take place, however, in the context of and together with a growing movement that is doing outreach and popular education beyond the anti-war movement. It means talking with people and listening to their concerns one to one and going to churches, workplaces, schools, and community groups to discuss why the U.S. occupation of Iraq is wrong and should be stopped and linking the war to growing economic problems at home such as unaffordable healthcare, childcare and higher education, falling wages and the related ballooning balance of payments deficits. It means talking and listening to people in the military and their families about the immorality and the unwinnability of the war against Iraq.
The Port of Olympia Hearing
On Monday, November 22nd, the Port of Olympia Commissioners met. The port like others in Washington State is publicly owned and run by three elected commissioners. The current commissioners in Olympia are a conservative group who run a port that has been losing money. By contracting with the military, revenues to the port have increased by about $200,000 a shipment or $600,000 a year creating a small surplus and more work for the members of the Longshore Union. Because of the public interest in the militarization of the port and the activities of the week before, there was a turnout of about 150 people at the hearing. Usually there are only a few people in attendance.
The great majority of those attending were against the port being used to send military supplies to Iraq, even if it meant taxes would be slightly higher to cover a deficit from the port. Of the approximately 50 people who gave testimony, 40 spoke against the port being used for weapons shipments. Much of the testimony was very eloquent. The hearing was televised on the local community access TV station. We pointed out the revenues received yearly by the port were a drop in the bucket compared to the 80 million dollars per year which is the pro-rated share for county residents of the 100 billion dollars being spent yearly on the war. Speakers challenged the argument that we were endangering U.S. troops by trying to limit war supplies from going to Iraq by explaining that these weapons and policies are causing needless death and suffering of the Iraqi people as well as putting U.S. troops at risk. The way to protect and support U.S. troops is not by sending weapons but by ending the war. This will create the possibility of peace in Iraq as the U.S. leaving will remove a major cause of fighting. In response to the argument that if the Port of Olympia did not continue to contract with the U.S. military to send supplies to Iraq, the military would use other ports such as Olympia and Tacoma, we responded as follows. We hope our actions will spur residents of nearby ports such as Tacoma and Seattle and their port commissioners to take similar actions. We believe that non-cooperation and resistance by more and more communities will further opposition to the war and increase the chances for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. One difficult issue is the question of jobs for those loading these ships. At the hearing, the president of the union, Keith Bausch, stated that the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) opposes the war with Iraq but supports the shipping of military supplies and the ongoing contract of the port with the military. These are livable wage jobs for their members in a small port. Members of OMJP met with the ILWU leadership of Local 47 a few days after the hearing to open a dialog and had a productive discussion about the war and labor issues. We agreed on jointly organizing a community forum although the ILWU made it clear that they would continue to load the ships.
The organizer from the ILWU, Paul Bigman, pointed out at this meeting that many unions have taken positions against the war, there is strong worker opposition to this war. Much of the anti-war movement has not reached out sufficiently. It is necessary for the peace and justice movement to become more inclusive in membership, to include more centrally issues of concern to workers, and to form active coalitions with unions when possible The Port of Olympia Commissioners did not budge, basically arguing that theirs was a neutral decision made purely on business principles and that opposition to the war should be directed not at them but to the policy makers in Washington. They ignored calls by Olympia residents for a referendum on whether the port should send weapons to Iraq. We will continue to challenge their policy and future military shipments.
Hopefully, we will do better and more education and outreach in the future about military shipments and the war. To be meaningful, this needs to be an ongoing campaign not a one-shot action. We need to discuss in more depth effective strategy and tactics, and improve our efforts to build a movement that incorporates the insights, energy, and actions of people of diverse ages, classes and ideologies. We have a long way to go. Hopefully, this example of organizing against military shipments to Iraq is of relevance to other organizations, individuals and communities who are committed to justice and peace. To end the U.S. occupation in Iraq is a difficult but not impossible task. We need to build a broad-based, grass roots movement using many tactics including non-violent but militant ones to achieve our goals. One part of this movement should be to call attention to and challenge the sending of weapons to Iraq.