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Honoring Black history
Longshore union unites past, current struggles
By Joan Marquardt
Published Feb 22, 2009 3:11 PM
Several hundred people gathered in the International Longshore and Warehouse Union’s historic union hall Feb. 14 for a Black History Month rally, entitled “Racism, Repression and Rebellion: The Lessons of Labor Defense,” in San Francisco.
ILWU leader and rally chairperson Clarence Thomas recounted the history of the ILWU, a predominantly African-American union in the San Francisco Bay Area. He reminded the crowd that “Racism is pervasive in our society and affects the labor movement, like it does all other areas of society” and that despite the history-making election of the first African-American president, Barack Obama, “Racism is still alive and well in this country.”
Thomas noted the recent news story of some juvenile court judges accepting kickbacks from racists to convict Black youths accused of petty crimes.
He added that the police killing of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old Black father, in Oakland on Jan. 1 by a white transit cop, would not have become known if it had not been recorded on several passengers’ cell phones and made public.
The ILWU’s 1984 historic refusal to load cargo from apartheid South Africa was later recognized by Nelson Mandela himself.
This past week the Congress of South African Trade Unions held a national week of action, entitled “Free Palestine, Isolate Israel,” where Durban dockworkers refused to offload cargo from a ship from Israel. Clarence Thomas called this action a strong testament to the power of international labor solidarity.
Tayo Aluko, a Nigerian actor, performed a cultural piece, originally written, spoken and sung by the great African American, Paul Robeson. Thomas stated that “The ILWU made Paul Robeson an honorary member of the union because he was a revolutionary artist who put his career on the line to defend the oppressed.”
Cristina Gutierrez, a longtime supporter of Mumia Abu-Jamal and community activist, told the rally that immigrant workers are tired of being used against striking workers, often striking Black workers, because immigrant workers are part of the whole working class. She ended by leading the crowd to chant, “Free Mumia! Workers of the world, UNITE!”
Haiti Action Committee founding member Pierre LaBossiere spoke of the historic uprisings of Haitians against foreign exploitation and oppression.
LaBossiere explained that Haitian President Aristide’s attempt to raise the minimum wage of Haitian workers triggered the U.S. Marine invasion that forcibly removed Aristide from office and out of Haiti.
Martina Davis-Correia, sister of death row prisoner Troy Davis, spoke about her brother’s wrongful conviction for killing a man he was actually attempting to protect, and the years since 1991 he has spent on death row in prison. The crowd stood up and chanted, “Free Troy Davis!”
JR, Minister of Information of Prisoners of Conscience, spoke about Oscar Grant and called on everyone to support freedom for the Oakland 100, those arrested for participating in a spontaneous rebellion following Grant's killing.
Richard Brown, one of the San Francisco 8 and a former member of the Black Panther Party, demanded that all charges be dropped against the eight longtime community activists.
Rev. Cecil Williams spoke on racial profiling and commended the ILWU for promoting action to empower Black youth to overcome racist oppression.
Jack Heyman of Local 10 recalled the heroic ILWU shutdown of West Coast ports in 1999, demanding that world renowned political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal be set free.
Robert Bryan, lead attorney for Abu-Jamal’s defense, talked about the years of struggle to get Abu-Jamal released from prison, where he is still on death row.
Clarence Thomas closed the rally by recognizing the women responsible for much of the organizing of the rally, stating that “These young ILWU members are the future of the ILWU.”
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