10 DAYS THAT SHOOK OLYMPIA
By Peter Bohmer
** Olympia Port Militarization Resistance, Olympia Movement for Justice and Peace **
November 15, 2007
"There's a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part, you can't even passively take part, and you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop! And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!" --Mario Savio, the steps of Sproul Plaza, UC Berkeley, December 2, 1964.
For 10 days, anti-war activists in Olympia, Washington, have slowed down and, for two different periods of 12 hours or more, stopped the flow of military weapons and military cargo that were unloaded from a Navy ship that had returned from Iraq. For 24 hours a day, we have used a variety of tactics and actions. They have included sitting in front of trucks carrying Stryker vehicles and other military equipment from leaving the Port of Olympia, building barricades on the roads where these military vehicles were traveling, anti-war demonstrations through the streets of Olympia, and vigils downtown. A hearing was held at City Hall last Sunday, November 11th, 2007, to document the excessive police force used against people who participated in these actions. We testified at the Olympia City Council and at a hearing of the elected Port Commissioners demanding that they take a stand opposing the U.S. war against Iraq by not letting our Port be used to transport war supplies. About 500 people have taken part in some or all of these protests.
For three years, various anti-war, social justice, and student groups such as Students for a Democratic Society, SDS, have demanded that Olympia officials take a stand against the war by not permitting our Port to be used for military cargo going to and coming from Iraq. To make this a reality people have put their bodies on the line each time the port has been used, with the most recent actions being the longest, largest, and most successful in actually stopping shipments. Lt. Ehren Watada, who was the first commissioned officer to refuse deployment to Iraq, was, in part, inspired by anti-war Port protests in 2005, in making his decision to refuse to go to Iraq. There have also been protests against and resistance to military shipments to Iraq in spring 2007 in Aberdeen and Tacoma, WA, which is the main Port used by the military. We hope by our actions to inspire direct and militant action against the U.S. war in Iraq and to end the complicity of local communities, e.g., our ports in the carrying out of this war. Growing non-cooperation with this war and the possible future war with Iran by more and more communities is one key part of a strategy to get the U.S. to withdraw from Iraq and not attack Iran.
The major group coordinating the current actions is the Olympia Port Militarization Resistance (PMR) organization. It was formed in May 2006 when Olympians outraged by the war attempted to block outgoing Stryker vehicles and other military equipment in advance of the deployment of the 3rd Brigade Stryker team from Ft. Lewis, Washington, 15 miles north of Olympia. The troops from this Brigade returned to Ft. Lewis in October 2007 minus the 48 soldiers who did not return; they were killed in Iraq. PMR’s goal is to “end our community’s participation in the illegal occupation of Iraq by stopping the military’s use of the Port of Olympia.” Its strategy from the beginning has included public education about the war and how the military’s use of the Port supports the military occupation, and a commitment to non-violent civil disobedience. PMR has tried to work with the Longshore Union (ILWU), Local 47, although this has been difficult because the members of this small local are dependent on military shipments for a significant proportion of their work and few feasible alternatives to contracts with the military have been put forward. In the most recent protests, the union, or at least its leadership, was not supportive of our actions to close the port.
About two weeks ago, PMR found out from a City Council member and major peace activist, TJ Johnson, that the USNS Brittin would dock in Olympia and unload its cargo. The original PMR position was that we would try to block outgoing shipments but not incoming military equipment. However, on November 4th, 2007, the night before the ship landed in a very long meeting, PMR voted 29 to 14 to try to stop the Stryker vehicles and other military equipment to leave the port. The reasoning was that the military equipment was part of the ongoing war against the Iraqi people, that is was being refurbished and repaired at Ft. Lewis to be used again in Iraq, that it was part of a revolving door of war materials coming from and going back to Iraq. In addition, participants at this and the next meeting pointed out that the Depleted Uranium (DU) on the returning military vehicles was a danger to the Longshore workers unloading the ship, to the soldiers and truckers transporting the equipment, and to the residents of Olympia. We shared the information on DU that we gathered with the ILWU although they proceeded to unload this military ship.
10 DAYS OF ACTIONS
On November 5th and 6th, there was a vigil and a march through Olympia of 160 people and a rally at the Port, where two of the main speakers were Iraqi vets. As pointed out by local activist and geographer, Zoltán Grossman, there are few if any other locations in the U.S. where a major military base is near a progressive community. We have been making the argument that ending the war and working for economic justice such as health care for all, free college education, and a living wage is a principled way to support the troops. Members of Veterans for Peace have played a major role in PMR. On Wednesday, November 7th, as military equipment and Stryker vehicles left the Port, almost 100 people sat or stood in the streets to block the vehicles. The Olympia police cleared the streets using pepper spray and their clubs. One participant in this action, with no warning, was hit directly in the face by a police officer’s club causing his chin to split open.
Over the next few days divisions between those favoring physical barricades versus those who have favored sitting down in front of the trucks leaving the port have diminished as both tactics were seen as having value by most participants. All of the people who originally opposed physically blocking the supplies changed their minds and by the third of actions, November 7th, supported and participated in slowing down and/or stopping the weapons and military cargo from leaving the Port. Gender dynamics have improved. Initially some of the men opposed women meeting separately and a few were disrespectful. Mutual respect has grown through these actions that have gone on 24 hours a day with people leaving and coming back. Positive has been the growing intergenerational unity. Although most of the participants in these 10 days of actions are under 25 years old, and the majority of these are students at the Evergreen State College, there are many older participants. Although there have been some tensions over definitions of non-violence and over tactics and goals, anarchists, socialists, people who define themselves primarily as peace activists, and black bloc people are working together in a functioning alliance.
On Friday, November 9th, about 60 courageous people sat down in front of a truck inching forward, endangering the people sitting down. The driver finally stopped as did another truck carrying military cargo. Barricades were built at the other exit and for 17 hours no military equipment moved out of the Port. This is longer than the WTO was closed down in November 1999 in Seattle. The next day, Saturday, riot police shooting pepper spray into people’s eyes eventually forced us away from the port entrance. The military equipment was temporarily blocked from moving through downtown Olympia and onto the main entrance to the freeway to Ft. Lewis. Sixteen people were arrested and many more were pepper-sprayed or butted by clubs. Olympia resembled an occupied city with police spread out in riot gear and military convoys on the streets. Activists, including key medical and legal support teams from surrounding communities including Portland, Tacoma, Grays Harbor, and Port Townsend, joined us in acts of solidarity.
Protest continued Sunday and Monday, Veteran’s Day, as did the transport of the Strykers, although the majority of military cargo remained within the Port. Riot police surrounded protesters limiting direct action.
Tuesday, November 13th, will be a day long remembered by many in Olympia. In the morning about 20 people sat down at the Port entrance blocking military equipment from moving. For 13 hours no military equipment moved out of the Port. Hence, for a minimum of 30 hours, we stopped Stryker vehicles from returning to Ft. Lewis, a major action and statement. In the evening about 200 people gathered at the Port of Olympia entrance to resist by various and complementary means the war and the militarization of Olympia. In the midst of this action, a GI from Ft. Lewis who was supposed to be involved in the transport of these military vehicles to Ft. Lewis, walked out of the Port, saying he was against the war and refused to transport the war equipment. This was a really powerful action and reminded me of the increasing resistance to the Vietnam war by active duty soldiers. Civilian anti-war and GI cooperation and solidarity is a key to ending this war. This is a victory for the Olympia Port Militarization Resistance organization (PMR) and the anti-war movement as a whole.
Also, in the evening of the 13th, 38 courageous women sat down, linking arms, at the entrance to the port and the women refused to leave even as riot police told them they would be pepper-sprayed. They were all arrested by the police beginning at 9:00 p.m., and held for seven hours although it is not clear whether they will be charged. Beginning around 10:00 p.m., a large convoy of Stryker vehicles left through a different Port exit with the connecting roads being cleared by police shooting tear gas, projectiles, and pepper spray. Some of the vehicles were delayed by barricades hastily constructed by protesters as we moved though Olympia trying to stop this movement. By 1:30 a.m., Wednesday, November 14th, the resistance slowed. Vigils have continued as most but not all of the military equipment has left the port. Over the last 10 days, 63 people have been arrested, many more have been hit by pepper spray.
On Sunday, November 11th, 100 people attended a forum at the Olympia City Council where protesters spoke up about the excessive police violence -- pepper spray in their eyes, being arrested for no cause, being hit with a police club. Olympia, Washington, is divided. Participants and a few non-participants in these protests have seen firsthand totally unjustified police force at some of the actions. For example, last night, November 13th, a non-participant in these actions who was skateboarding at a local park was hit in the face with rubber bullets and tear gas. He decided not to go to work today at a local children’s museum because he was afraid his appearance would scare the kids. On the other hand many residents believe that the demonstrations are wrong and that the police are justified in the force they are using.
For the most part, barricades and human blockades have been aimed only at military vehicles, e.g., non-military cargo has been let through. Although residents have been occasionally inconvenienced, it is important that this not be an aim of an action, that “No Business as Usual” does not mean disrupting people’s lives unless that cannot be avoided when directly interfering with the war machine. People decided not to throw anything at the police even when attacked and that has been upheld with very few exceptions. These few exceptions have occurred only in direct response to excessive police violence.
Although there were and are ongoing tensions in discussing and acting on effective tactics and actions, the majority of participants believe or at least accept the idea that a variety of actions from vigils to forums to rallies to legal demonstrations to civil disobedience to sit-ins at politician’s offices to direct action have value -- that all of these tactics combined are stronger than each one separately, that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. A strategy of many of the SDS members has been to raise the dollar costs of the militarization of the port and of sending war supplies through Olympia -- police costs, transportation costs, etc. These costs have been quite large for a small city. I believe instead that our aim should be to raise the social cost of waging this war in every community -- to make the war less legitimate by building stronger social movements with more popular support that challenge not only the war but also make increasingly illegitimate those in power and the unjust economic system behind it; and contribute towards building movements for a fundamentally different society. This will scare those in power, maybe not Bush but the next president who probably does not want to withdraw from Iraq, but will be “forced” to do so.
Have these strong and powerful “10 days that shook Olympia” helped build a stronger anti-war movement in Olympia? Many, mainly younger people, took major physical risks in blocking Stryker vehicles from moving and sitting down in front of them. Hopefully, this courage and commitment will continue as we build a stronger movement that integrally connects the war to economic injustice, repression, and racism at home and to U.S. corporate domination abroad, that the primarily white student protesters act more in the future in solidarity with the repression and oppression faced by Muslims, African-Americans, Native Americans, Latinos/Latinas, poor people, and workers in their daily lives. It is hard to assess the support for this port resistance in Olympia; probably the majority does not support it. More outreach needs to be done. The Olympia Port Militarization Resistance organization (PMR) needs to talk to and explain our actions to the general public and make it easier for people to be involved in our actions who are not already on our listservs. Hopefully, the militancy, courage, tactics, and spirit of these very strong actions will inspire others throughout the United States to stand up and not be complicit with the torture and occupation being carried out in our name.
It is very likely the military will not use the Port of Olympia again for military shipments during the duration of the occupation of Iraq. This is a victory. A bigger victory and ongoing task is for PMR to educate ourselves and others about how Olympia is being militarized, e.g., by challenging military recruiters in the schools and the deployment of the National Guard to Iraq. It also means working with the Longshore Union, and other communities in Washington State and nationally and with military resisters to raise the social cost of this war and make it impossible to wage. Now is the time to increase militant and dramatic action against this war as well as more traditional demonstrations where 70% of U.S. residents oppose the war while those in power continue to wage it and most of the Democratic Party leadership acquiesces to it. NOT IN OUR NAME!!