Officials brace for another Block the Boat protest in Oakland

With yet another “Block the Boat” demonstration scheduled for Oct. 25 at the Port of Oakland, anti-Israel protesters aiming to turn away a cargo ship partially owned by Israel interests have been playing cat-and-mouse with those seeking to thwart them.

The upcoming protest would be the third at the port since August. On its Facebook page, a group called “Block the Boat for Palestine” is urging supporters to gather at a BART station and then march to the port, where the Zim Beijing is scheduled to dock.

While the Zim Integrated Shipping Services website lists the vessel for an Oct. 25 arrival, the schedule shows no more Zim dockings in Oakland beyond that date, and a report on noted that Zim “may not call Oakland home again.”

“Block the Boat” protest at the Port of Oakland on Sept. 27 photo/ktvu

Nevertheless, Zim spokesman Maor Aharoni said in a statement to J. that his company has not pulled out of Oakland and has no plans to do so. “The customers there are important for [Zim],” he said, “and [Zim] will continue to service them at the highest level in any situation.”

Zim, Israel’s largest shipping company, is a private company 32 percent owned by the Israel Corp., with the other 68 percent owned by various financial institutions and shipowners.

In August, “Block the Boat” protesters failed to stop the offloading of the Zim Piraeus. The ship departed the port, but did a U-turn and was quickly unloaded by dockworkers. However, last month, about 200 protesters succeeded in turning away the Zim Shanghai, which eventually was offloaded in Long Beach.

A key aspect of the protesters’ strategy has been trying to gain sympathy from members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, Local 10.

Though the union officially remains neutral on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, some members apparently have declared publicly their sympathy with the protesters.

Oakland Police public information officer Frank Bonifacio told J. that some union dockworkers have “agreed not to show up” because they “sided with the people protesting.” Other longshoremen, however, “deemed it a day not to work” because of the picket lines and concerns about access and safety.

The protests have caught the attention of the Anti-Defamation League. In a letter this week, Abraham Foxman, ADL’s national director, called on Gov. Jerry Brown to “take notice when protesters are permitted to mark the Port of Oakland as a place where anyone with a gripe against a country can impede the free flow of goods carried by ships from that country.”

In a written statement this week, the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council noted it “has been closely monitoring the Block the Boat protest with concern from the start, meeting with labor leaders, port authorities and public officials to address this matter. We are deeply troubled by the extremist rhetoric that has gone hand in hand with these protests, as well as the potential harm the Oakland economy may incur as a result of these actions.”

Dr. Mike Harris of StandWithUs said his Bay Area–based pro-Israel group has no plans to hold a counterprotest on Oct. 25. “We want to make it extremely clear to the city of Oakland, the Port of Oakland and the general public that any disruption in port activities is due solely to the anti-Israel, pro-Hamas extremists who may show up,” he said.

Harris claimed that on Sept. 27, the anti-Israel protesters “forcibly blocked workers trying to enter the port to get to their jobs.”

The union concurred, saying in a press statement that its members were “met with hostile demonstrators effectively blocking all access to the terminal.”

However, Robert Bernardo, a spokesman for the Port of Oakland, told J., “It was our understanding that all terminal gates were clear so that anyone wanting to enter and exit were fully able to do so.”

The situation has brought about a Catch-22.

After the August protest, the union claimed that the presence of police (along with protesters) created safety concerns for dockworkers, which is why its members refused to enter the docks to unload the Zim Piraeus.

But while a softer police presence on Sept. 27 would seem to negate that reasoning, it did not change the outcome: With protesters feeling free to block terminal entranceways and parking spaces, workers claimed they could not get through to unload the Zim Shanghai.

On Oct. 1, the Zionist Association of America sent a letter to Oakland Police Chief Sean Whent decrying “the police department’s failure to intervene” on Sept. 27, which “surely contributed to this unfortunate result” of the ship not being offloaded. Signed by Morton Klein, ZOA’s president, and Susan Tuchman, director of the agency’s Law and Justice Center, the letter had received no response as of midweek, ZOA officials said.

Andy David, the S.F.-based consul general of Israel to the Pacific Northwest, pins blame for the protest’s success on Local 10 of ILWU, which he says could easily have ordered members to report to work during the Sept. 27 protest.

David claims that because the local’s contract with the port expired in July, there is no current mechanism for negotiating with the union. That makes for what he calls a “perfect storm.”

“There is no arbitrator to say you have to go to work, safety hazard or not,” David said. “So the workers can do whatever they want. They play the safety card, meaning if there is a picket, they can say, ‘It’s dangerous for us so we will not cross.’ But we’re not buying it.”

David pointed to similar protests at ports in Tampa, Long Beach, Seattle and Vancouver. In all those cases, those Zim ships were unloaded.

“The demonstrators [there] tried to block the boat with zero success,” David said. “Why? Because the workers wanted to work, and the police enforced law and order. If you’re anti-Israel, you’re entitled to your opinion, but don’t be a coward and hide behind excuses like the safety excuse.”

David said the protesters do no harm to Zim or Israel, but rather hurt Oaklanders, the city and merchants awaiting delivery of goods from the ship. Port officials estimate that approximately 73,000 Bay Area jobs depend on the free flow of goods out of Oakland’s port.

“This boat doesn’t go to Israel,” David said. “Zim has alternatives [in choices of ports]. For Israel it doesn’t matter if Zim unloads at this port or that port. I think it does matter to the people of Oakland.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.