by Guy Oron
On Saturday morning, June 12, around 250 protestors rallied on Harbor Island to block the Port of Seattle from unloading cargo from an Israeli shipping company’s vessel, the ZIM San Diego. Gathering at 5:30 a.m., protestors marched to the entrance of Terminal 18 and blocked the road, disrupting traffic for about an hour.
After an hour, protestors declared victory after hearing from sources within the longshore workers’ union that the ship would not be worked on that day.
Organizers are targeting ZIM as part of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS) for its role in supporting the state of Israel. The company, once owned by the state, is now a publicly traded corporation and is the tenth largest shipping company in the world.
The BDS movement aims to isolate the state of Israel and complicit corporations economically and politically until it upholds equal rights for the Palestinian citizens of Israel, ends the military occupation Palestine and the siege of Gaza, and guarantees the right of return for Palestinian refugees displaced from their homes. ZIM, along with a number of other companies, is on the boycott list.
The ship blockade campaign, called Block the Boat, is being organized by the Seattle-based Palestinian feminist collective Falastiniyat in coordination with the Oakland-based nonprofit Arab Resource and Organizing Center (AROC).
In an interview with the Emerald, Falastiniyat member Alia Taqieddin explained that activists are targeting ZIM because it profits from Israel’s apartheid policies.“We know that because Israel is a settler colonial state — it’s an apartheid state — any revenue that … a company gains, that is also profiting the continued apartheid,” said Taqieddin. “On top of that … the goods that ZIM transports to and from Israel are [often], if they’re not arms, then they’re products that are manufactured in illegal settlements, or that are also BDS targets.”
Israeli human rights NGO B’Tselem and international human rights group Human Rights Watch have both described Israel as an apartheid state or committing the “crime of apartheid.” Local activists such as Wendy Elisheva Somerson, who is Jewish and recently wrote an opinion piece for the Emerald about her participation in the BDS movement, are adamant that boycotts of the Israeli state and companies that support it are a legitimate and effective strategy for ending this apartheid system.
On Sunday, June 13, campaign organizers rallied again on Harbor Island, drawing a crowd of about a hundred people to Bridge Gear Park in a pouring rain. Falastiniyat members declared that they had delayed the ship but stressed to the crowd that they should remain prepared to hold more protests. In addition, representatives from the Seattle Democratic Socialists of America and the office of Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant expressed solidarity with the Block the Boat campaign.
Despite their success, the demonstrations did not go without issues. Several dockworkers were angry at the picket line setup by the protestors, who blocked them from being able to work. Two longshoremen, however, declined to comment after being approached by the Emerald.
More worryingly, a person drove their car into the crowd while protesters were blockading the road, mildly injuring one person and destroying three bicycles that were part of a bike brigade. The driver appeared to be wearing a security uniform. Organizers told the Emerald that the protester was not seriously injured and recovered.
On Thursday, June 17, the Seattle Police Department arrested some of the protesters for blocking traffic, and a video taken at the scene showed officers knocking several protesters off their bicycles.
Following the actions on Saturday and Sunday, Falastiniyat stated in a post on Twitter that Edward DeNike, president of SSA Containers, a subdivision of the company SSA Marine, which operates Terminal 18 on behalf of the Port of Seattle, had asked the ZIM San Diego to leave the port. Organizers also claimed that the Israeli consulate in San Francisco is pressuring the Port of Seattle to work the ship and ensure its goods are unloaded. As of Monday, June 14, the ship is still docked at Terminal 18 but has not yet been worked.
In a phone call with the Emerald, SSA Marine Senior Vice President Bob Watters dismissed claims that SSA Marine had asked the ZIM San Diego to leave, saying he didn’t know where those claims came from. Watters added that SSA Marine was contractually obligated to work the ship and was figuring out how to do so in a “safe manner” in light of this weekend’s protests.
When reached for comment, Port of Seattle spokesperson Peter McGraw sent the Emerald a three sentence statement stating that “the Northwest Seaport Alliance respects the expression of first amendment rights and prioritizes the safety of both workers at our properties and those exercising their rights.” McGraw declined to give further comment, saying “we don’t have anything further to say outside of this statement.”
ZIM has not responded to a request for comment about the status of the ZIM San Diego.
The Block the Boat campaign was founded in 2014 in Oakland. According to AROC Executive Director Lara Kiswani, the Block the Boat campaign came together in response to a call to action by Gaza unions. “During the war on Gaza, we initiated the block the boat coalition, then to engage in a BDS campaign locally at the Port of Oakland,” Kiswani said, “in response to a call from the Palestine General Federation of Trade Unions in Gaza, asking for workers to be in solidarity with them.” Kiswani says that their coalition, which included the local longshore worker union ILWU Local 10, succeeded in blocking a ZIM ship from unloading in 2014.
This May — just as a new round of Israeli bombing and Hamas rocket fire was occurring, that resulted in the deaths of 248 Palestinians (including 66 children) as well as 12 Israelis (including two children) — a ZIM ship attempted to dock at the Port of Oakland. AROC revitalized their Block the Boat campaign, successfully blockading the ship “for the entire day and [ensuring] workers didn’t cross [the picket line],” said Kiswani. Kiswani said that this year, other port cities such as Seattle have joined the campaign on a much larger scale, leading to a wider and wider network of mobilizations across the country and internationally.
If Seattle organizers succeed in blocking the ZIM San Diego from unloading, it would result in a second major victory for the nascent campaign.
Organizers say that their campaign is already winning, citing the delay of the ZIM San Diego. “We know for sure that at least six other ships have docked in front of the ZIM San Diego that weren’t supposed to be in front of the ZIM San Diego,” said Aisha Mansour, a member of Falastiniyat. Taqieddin says that the delay is “costing ZIM thousands of dollars, so we are considering that victory.”
Mansour expressed hopes that the Block the Boat campaign will extend to further worker solidarity and other BDS actions. “We definitely want to build with our union — with our longshore union folks more,” said Mansour. “I think that’s our number one priority. But on a larger scale, [the goal is] to just to get Seattle more engaged in BDS.”
Guy Oron is a Seattle-based writer and journalist. His writing has been featured in the Nation, South Seattle Emerald, Seattle Globalist, and the UW Daily.
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