The Zim Piraeus traversed the Panama Canal two weeks ago, then turned its 964-foot deck north, toward California, where it was scheduled to offload tens of thousands of tons of cargo at the Port of Oakland this weekend — just like 1,897 other container ships last year. But the Zim Piraeus, which arrived in San Francisco Bay on Sunday afternoon, is not unloading — and might not anytime soon.
The problem with the Piraeus is that Israel Corporation, Israel’s largest holding company, founded by the Jewish state’s government in 1968, owns 32 percent of the Piraeus’s operator, Zim Integrated Shipping Services. For the protesters who have formed picket lines at Oakland’s docks, the container ship moored in the bay is a symbol of “apartheid,” “Zionism,” and “imperialism.”
Last week posters appeared advertising a planned protest against the incoming ship: “Block the Boat, End Israeli Apartheid.” The sponsors — a Bay Area coalition of 70 organizations that includes such varied partners as the Arab Resource and Organizing Center and Critical Resistance, which opposes the “prison-industrial complex” – wrote: “Every week, the Israeli-owned Zim shipping line docks and unloads its cargo at the Port of Long Beach. Let’s boycott Israeli Apartheid and stop the ship from ever unloading in our town. From Seattle to Oakland to Los Angeles: Turn the Israeli ship around!”
Waving Palestinian flags and posters calling for the end of “Israeli apartheid” and for a “Free Gaza,” protesters first gathered on Saturday to find that the Piraeus’s arrival was delayed — a postponement protesters claimed as a victory. The Guardian reported that between 2,000 and 3,000 protesters participated in the demonstration; local media claimed it was about 500. The ship finally arrived on Sunday afternoon, but dockworkers from the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 10 were unable to pass picket lines.
Zim is no stranger to this activity in Oakland. In 2010, pro-Gaza activists who were protesting Israel’s raid on a Turkish flotilla attempting to break the blockade of the Gaza Strip managed to turn away a Zim ship. The victory was short-lived: As even organizers acknowledge, a Zim ship unloads in the Port of Oakland about once a week. But they hope this latest demonstration will have a longer-term impact: “Our intention is to really build a movement here,” one organizer told The Guardian. “Our goal in the long run is for the workers themselves to refuse to unload that ship, stand with us, and take a position against Israeli apartheid.”
Oakland is known for its radical tendencies. The city’s Occupy movement, Occupy Oakland, devolved into riots that made national headlines in November 2011. Occupiers rampaged through city hall in January 2012. Despite beginning as a protest against economic inequality — the 1 percent versus the 99 percent — Occupy quickly became an empty vessel into which left-wing discontents poured a hodgepodge of dissatisfactions. Anti-Israel sentiment was among the Occupiers’ many grievances, and it crystallized when the Occupy Oakland chapter voted to support the BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) movement against Israel. In grand conspiratorial fashion, the proposal taken up by Occupy Oakland claimed that Israel had “prodded” the U.S. into the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
So it is no surprise that Oakland-area Occupiers have become involved in the current port blockade. At its website Occupy Oakland wrote:
Palestine is calling us to action! Palestinians laborers, Palestinian General Federation Trade Union (PGFTU), have called on workers around the world to refuse to handle Israel goods. Palestinians throughout Gaza, the West Bank and 1948 Palestine have demonstrated their unity in the struggle against Apartheid Israel and have taken to the streets in the tens of thousands, bravely facing Israeli military armed with US made weapons to call on the international community to stand with them as they resist Zionism throughout all of historic Palestine. We will be answering this call by organizing community pickets at the Port of Oakland, asking the longshoreman to honor this request and to stand with the people of Palestine as they have done in the past.
Occupy Oakland also sponsored a Friday-night march in support of demonstrators in Ferguson, Mo. The result is that the police presence at the Port of Oakland event (to ensure that the picket lines did not turn violent) spurred cries of “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” — a common refrain among protesters in Ferguson. Oakland’s professional protesters have ensured that its demonstrations grow increasingly inchoate.
The Piraeus will eventually unload its cargo, Israel will continue to retaliate against Hamas, and Ferguson will calm down. A few protesters in Oakland will have little effect on any of it. But that is really beside the point: As long as Oaklanders have something about which to protest, they will be perfectly content.
— Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.