Worker Power Against Apartheid: Interview with Noura Khouri, Oakland #BlockTheBoat Organizer

On June 4, organizers with the Arab Resource and Organizing Center (AROC) led activists in Oakland to stop the Volans, a container ship operated by Zim Integrated Shipping Services Ltd (ZIM), a company based in Haifa which has been a focus of the BDS movement for years, from offloading at Oakland port. AROC’s organizing of #BlockTheBoat has received solidarity from organized labor and activist networks across the United States and internationally, and in Oakland, it brought together organized labor and local social justice organizations. Workers’ Voice has endorsed #BlockTheBoat and stands in solidarity with the liberation and self-determination struggle of the Palestinian people. We recently interviewed Noura Khouri, a member of the Al-Awda Right of Return Coalition National Committee and an organizer of #BlocktheBoat on the Oakland action.
WV: Can you discuss the #BlockTheBoat organizing effort in Oakland? What are its origins and which groups are involved? How has it developed since its early days in 2014? 
NK: Zim Integrated Shipping Services Ltd (ZIM) is Israel’s largest cargo shipping company, often dealing in Israeli manufactured military technology, armaments and logistics equipment. AROC first called on communities to block ZIM-operated ships in the U.S. in 2014. With the support of rank and file workers in the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 10, the AROC-led Block the Boat coalition successfully mobilized thousands to prevent the unloading of ZIM-operated vessels in the Port of Oakland. In a massive victory for advocates of Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS), no ZIM-operated vessel has docked in the Port of Oakland since 2014, and many similar actions around the world have sprung up in the intervening years.
In mid-May, we got word that the ZIM shipping line was, for the first time in seven years, scheduled to return to the Port of Oakland at a time when Israel was bombing civilians in Gaza, ethnically cleansing neighborhoods like Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan, and Palestinians across all of historic Palestine, and in the diaspora were rising up against Israeli settler-colonial expansion and violence. AROC immediately put out a call to action to prepare people to mobilize.
On May 18th, the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions in Gaza put out a statement calling on workers in the U.S. to support Palestinian workers, by boycotting the Israeli occupation and its institutions, including refusing to unload their cargo. We shared this call to action with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 10. We set up a text alert system and within days, had thousands of subscribers. We regrouped members of the 2014 Block the Boat coalition, and renewed the #BlockTheBoat campaign.
The Block the Boat campaign was endorsed by over 120 organizations, which you can find linked here, including the largest federation of trade unions in South Africa, COSATU, SEIU 1021, Grassroots Global Justice, About Face: Veterans Against War, Anti Police-Terror Project, Chinese Progressive Association, BAYAN USA, Critical Resistance, Jewish Voice for Peace, Causa Justa: Just Cause and The Rising Majority, Alameda Labor Council.
After weeks of preparing to mobilize, the ZIM-operated Volans, which was delayed from docking weeks after our initial call to action, docked in the Port of Oakland on Friday, June 4th. We mobilized by the thousands to the Port of Oakland at 6 a.m, and again at 4 p.m. We held six powerful simultaneous pickets across 6 critical gates at the terminal. Again International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 10 honored the pickets during both the morning and evening shifts, and did not work the ship. In a dramatic move as community members watched, the Israeli apartheid-profiteering ship — knowing that it could break neither our blockade nor the workers’ demonstration of solidarity — left the port of Oakland through the Pacific Northwest where communities organized to block it once again. The same Volans ship left Oakland with all cargo in tow, eventually landing in Prince Rupert, BC. After a public call to action, First Nation, Arab, and allied community members organized a picket to successfully block the ship from docking at the local port on Monday. In Prince Rupert, workers with ILWU Local 505 also refused to cross the picket line.
WV: Are there other actions planned in the US? Is #BlockTheBoat making connections to other cities across the US and beyond? 
NK: After the two weeks of the ZIM operated Volans avoiding our protests and remaining at bay, we called on an international week of action and in response: Seattle, Vancouver, Port Rupert, British Columbia in Canada as well as Los Angeles, Detroit, New Jersey/New York and other port cities act held actions in solidarity with Oakland. Last month members of the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union refused to offload a ZIM ship in Durban. The workers were heeding a call from the Palestine General Federation of Trade Unions for solidarity. Dockworkers in Livorno, Italy also refused to load a shipment of arms going to Israel. As a result, thousands of people have mobilized against ZIM across the world, and we have more activities planned.
WV: Speaking of Durban and Livorno, can you discuss the importance of international solidarity to the Palestinian freedom struggle? Can you also discuss why it’s important for organized labor to be in solidarity with Palestine?
NK: The work and support of the various committees, made up of over 70 people, and the different organizations that led and amplified actions across the world as part of our International Week of Action, all made possible this momentous victory for labor and community solidarity organizing. This was a truly powerful community, labor and cross-movement effort.
Like with any other social justice issues, when it concerns Palestine — clear, principled, anti-racist, and anti-Zionist voices are instrumental. They are instrumental in disrupting Zionist hegemony and this anti-semitic narrative that Zionists speak on behalf of all Jewish people. And they are essential in countering Zionist repression against Black, Brown, and Indigenous-led organizing in solidarity with Palestine. In fact, as we geared up for a community picket, a Zionist lawfirm attempted to intimidate ILWU Local 10 by submitting a legal letter threatening them with lawsuits. This only further exposes how apartheid-Israel is not only racist, but is also anti-worker. And for those of us at the receiving end of racism, Zionism, militarism, and systems of exploitation — it fortifies our commitment to joint struggle.
WV: What has been the response in Palestine to #BlockTheBoat? What are the successes of #BlockTheBoat campaign and where do you think it can build in the future? 
NK: This type of solidarity, and grassroots organizing, makes so much possible, and we are hopeful about what that means for the future. Our objectives, like all movements for justice — are freedom, dignity and liberation. In the case of us Palestinians, we are an occupied people being terrorized by one of the powerful militaries in the world, that is backed by the largest military in the world, being the United States. The struggle for the liberation of Palestine, is in turn, is a fight against U.S. imperialism. And through initiatives like #BlockTheBoat, we prove that people power, worker power, can have a significant impact on aparthied Israel — politically, economically, and culturally. We demonstrated that grassroots power can interrupt international commerce, and global capitalism.
This victory, the work that went into it, the solidarity that was demonstrated throughout, is a reflection of Oakland and its history of internationalist movement building. It builds on the radical history of ILWU Local 10. It is also a reminder to the world that Palestine is an internationalist issue, and an issue that concerns all social justice movements.

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