Since October 7, the Israeli military has killed over 10,000 people in Palestine, almost half of whom were children. In response, people around the world have mobilized in solidarity. Many are seeking ways to proceed from demanding a ceasefire to using direct action to hinder the United States government from channeling arms to Israel. Despite the cold weather on Monday, November 6, several hundred people showed up at the Port of Tacoma in Washington State to block access to a shipping vessel that was scheduled to deliver equipment to the Israeli military.
In the following text, participants review the history of port blockades in the Puget Sound, share their experience at the protest, and seek to offer inspiration for continued transoceanic solidarity.
On Thursday, November 2, demonstrators protesting the bombing and invasion of Gaza blocked a freeway in Durham, North Carolina and shut down 30th Street Station in Philadelphia. Early on Friday, November 3, at the Port of Oakland in California, demonstrators managed to get through security and board the United States Ready Reserve Fleet’s MV Cape Orlando, which was scheduled to depart for Tacoma to pick up military equipment bound for Israel. The Cape Orlando is owned by the Department of Transportation, directed by the Department of Defense, and managed and crewed by commercial mariners. After an hours-long standoff, the Coast Guard finally managed to remove the protesters from the boat.
Afterwards, word spread that there would be another protest when the boat arrived in Tacoma. The event was announced by a coalition of national organizations and their local chapters: Falastiniyat (a Palestinian diaspora feminist collective), Samidoun (a national Palestinian prisoner support network), and the Arab Resource & Organizing Center, which had also participated in organizing the protest in Oakland.
The mobilization in Tacoma was originally scheduled for 2:30 pm on Sunday, November 5, but the organizers changed the time due to updated information about the ship’s arrival, calling for people to show up at 5 am on Monday. Despite fears that the last-minute change would undercut momentum, several hundred demonstrators turned out that morning. The blockade itself consisted of a continual picket at multiple points, bolstered by quite a few drivers who were willing to risk the authorities impounding their cars.
All of the workers that the ILWU deployed for the day shift were blocked from loading the ship. Stopping the port workers from loading it was widely understood as the goal of the blockade; unfortunately, however, this did not prevent the military cargo from reaching the ship. Acting as scabs, the United States military stepped in to load it, apparently having been snuck into the port on Coast Guard vessels.
Now that the fog of war is lifting, we can review the events of the day in detail.
Drawing on Decades of Port Blockades
The Pacific Northwest has a long history of port shutdowns.
In 1984, port workers in the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) coordinated with anti-Apartheid activists and refused to unload cargo ships from South Africa. Between 2006 and 2009, the Port Militarization Resistance movement repeatedly blockaded the ports of Olympia and Tacoma to protest against the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2011 and 2012, participants in Occupy/Decolonize Seattle organized in solidarity with port workers in the ILWU in Longview and shut down the Port of Seattle, among other ports.
In 2014, demonstrators blockaded the Port of Tacoma using the slogan Block the Boat, singing “Our ports will be blocked to Israel’s ships until Gaza’s ports are free.” One of the participants was the mother of Rachel Corrie, a student who was murdered in Gaza by the Israeli military in 2002 while attempting to prevent them from demolishing the homes of Palestinian families. In 2015, an activist chained herself to a support ship for Royal Dutch Shell’s exploratory oil drilling plans, using the slogan Shell No. In 2021, Block the Boat protesters delayed the unloading of the Israeli-operated ZIM San Diego ship for weeks. The Arab Resource & Organizing Center played a part in organizing the Block the Boat protests.
Today, the Port of Tacoma appears to be the preferred loading point for military equipment in the region—perhaps because the Port Militarization Resistance successfully shut down logistics at the Port of Olympia, while Tacoma police were able to use enough violent force to keep the Port of Tacoma open for military shipments to Iraq and Afghanistan. The various port blockades fostered years of organizing between ILWU workers, marginalized migrant truck workers, environmentalists, and anti-war activists. New tactics of kayaktivism emerged out of anti-extractivism struggles in Seattle, where seafaring affinity groups were able to outmaneuver both the Coast Guard and the environmental nonprofit organizations that wanted to keep things symbolic. On one occasion, a kayaking group managed to run a Shell vessel aground without being apprehended. Some participants brought reinforced banners to the demonstration on Monday, November 6, 2023, because they remembered how police used force to clear away less-equipped demonstrators during the “Block the Boat” picket at the Port of Seattle in 2021.
Over the years, these port blockades have inspired other innovations in the genre. In November 2017, demonstrators blockaded the railroad tracks that pass through Olympia.1 At a time when Indigenous water protector and land defense struggles were escalating and locals wanted to act in solidarity, blockading the port seemed prohibitively challenging, so they chose a section of railroad tracks via which fracking proppants were sent to the port. This occupation was arguably more defensible and effective than a port blockade would have been, lasting well over a week. It may indicate a future field for experimentation.
Gathering at the Port
The Port of Tacoma and the nearby ICE detention center are located in an industrial area that also houses a police academy. They are only accessible through narrow choke points; in the past, police have taken advantage of these to target and harass protesters. The preceding action at the Port of Oakland took place in a more urban terrain; as protesters prepared for the ship to dock in Tacoma, concerns grew about the various possibilities for repression. Veterans of the Port Militarization Resistance and other logistically-minded individuals compiled lists of considerations to take into account when carrying out an action at this particular port.
On Monday morning, people showed up with positive energy and reinforced banners. Hundreds of people coordinated to bring in supplies and additional waves of picketers. The plan was to establish a picket line at every of the three entrances into Pier 7. As it turned out, the police preemptively blocked the entrances, sitting in their vehicles behind the Port fence. Demonstrators marched in circles, chanting, while others gathered material with which to create impromptu barricades.
Other anarchists remained at a distance, standing by to do jail support and advising the participants on security precautions. Others set up at the nearby casino, investigating and squashing rumors in the growing signal groups and helping to link people to the information or communication loops they needed. Whether autonomously or in conversation with the organizers, all of them did their best to contribute to the unfolding action.
The demonstration successfully accomplished what some had thought might be impossible, preventing the ILWU workers from loading the military shipment. Unexpectedly, this was not enough. Even seasoned longshoremen were surprised that the military could be brought in to act as scabs by loading the ship.
Could we have focused instead on blocking the equipment from reaching the port in the first place? According to publicly available shift screens, the cargo that was eventually loaded onto the ship had already arrived at the port before the action’s originally planned 2:30 pm start time on November 5. Considering that Sunday afternoon was arguably the earliest that anyone could organize a mass action on such short notice, it is not surprising that the idea of blocking the cargo was abandoned in favor of blocking the ILWU workers. Of course, if the information that military supplies were entering the port had circulated earlier, something else might have been possible.
The organizers chose the approach of blocking the workers in spite of the tension it was bound to cause with the ILWU Local 23. Our contacts in the ILWU describe the Local 23 president as a Zionist; most workers in Local 23 were supposedly against the action, despite respecting the picket.2 The president allegedly went so far as to suggest bringing in ILWU workers on boats, a plan that the military apparently rejected.
There were rumors that a flotilla of kayaks was organizing to impede the Orlando’s departure the following morning. In the end, a canoe piloted by members of the Puyallup, Nisqually, and other Coast Salish peoples and accompanied by a few kayakers blocked the ship’s path for a short time on November 6, but nothing materialized for November 7.
This intervention is an important reminder of the ethical and strategic necessity of working with Indigenous groups who know the land and water and preserve a living memory of struggle against colonial violence that includes repeatedly outmaneuvering the United States military.
The ship departed, but one Stryker Armored Personnel Carrier that was scheduled for work according to the ILWU shift screens was not loaded, presumably due to the picket. Given the military work-crew’s inexperience in loading shipping containers, it’s unclear how much of the shipment was completely loaded in the time allotted for the ship, as ports hold to a strict schedule in order not to disrupt capital’s global supply chains.
The main organizers received feedback in the course of the protest and adapted their strategy as the situation changed, shifting their communication to articulate what they were trying to do and explaining their choices rather than simply appealing to their authority as an organization or as Palestinians. Nonetheless, some participants have expressed displeasure about how things unfolded. It was difficult to get comprehensive information about what was going on, and this hindered people from making their own decisions and acting autonomously. Some anarchists who were on the ground report that the vessel was still being loaded when the organizers called off the event; others question the choice not to reveal the fact that the military was loading the equipment while the demonstration still had numbers and momentum.
It is hard to determine to what extent organizers intentionally withheld information. We believe that it is important to offer constructive feedback and principled criticism while resisting the temptation to make assumptions about others’ intentions (or, at worst, to engage in snitch-jacketing, which can undermine efforts to respond to actual infiltration and security breaches in the movement and often contributes to misdiagnosing the problems in play).
Cooperating with the authorities—especially at the expense of other radicals—is always unacceptable. This is a staple of events dominated by authoritarian organizations. Fortunately, nothing of this kind appears to have occurred during the blockade on November 6. Those on either side of this debate should be careful to resist knee-jerk reactions and to avoid projecting bad intentions onto imagined all-white “adventurists” or repressive “peace police.”
In that spirit, we will spell out our concern. The organizers simultaneously announced that the weapons had been loaded onto the ship, and at the same time, declared victory. This fosters room for suspicion that the original intention had been to “block the boat” symbolically without actually hampering the weapons shipment, in order to create the impression of achieving a “movement win” without any substantive impact. Such empty victories can deflate movements and momentum, sowing distrust in the hundreds of people who showed up on short notice with the intention of stopping weapons from reaching Israel. It might be better to acknowledge failure, admitting that despite our best efforts, the authorities succeeded in their goal, and affirming that we have to step up our efforts if we want to save lives in Gaza. We need organizers to be honest with us so we know what we are up against.
It’s important to highlight that ultimately it was the military that loaded the ship, not the ILWU. This move was unprecedented, just like the military spying on demonstrators during the Port Militarization Resistance. But it should not have been unexpected. From now on, we should bear in mind that the military is prepared to intervene directly in the logistics of capitalism.
This also highlights a weakness in the strategy of blocking a ship by means of a picket line and blockading the streets around the terminal. To have actually stopped the ship, a much more disruptive action would have been called for, potentially including storming the terminal itself and risking police violence, arrests, and federal repression.
In Oakland, people had succeeded in penetrating port security to board the vessel, but they accomplished that by acting with the element of surprise when the police had not concentrated their numbers. It would have been a much different thing to attempt to reach the vessel in Tacoma. The action in Oakland bought crucial time for organizers in Tacoma, but it also made it much more difficult to reuse the same strategy. In any case, neither approach ultimately prevented the ship from departing.
This is not to argue that there is never any reason to blockade the terminal in the way that we did. Rather, the point is that the mechanics of war-capitalism are more pervasive and adaptable than the strategies that people employed to block it in Oakland and Tacoma. Any form of escalation will require more militancy, risk tolerance, and innovation.
We should be honest about our capabilities, our limits, and the challenges we face. Although many people were prepared to engage in a picket, storming a secured facility involves different considerations and material preparation, and demands a cool-headed assessment of benefits versus consequences. We should not simply blame the organizers for the fact that it did not happen. A powerful enough movement cannot be held back, not even by its leaders.
Considering that the United States military outmaneuvered the picket strategy—and in view of the grave stakes of what is occurring in Palestine—”Why not storm the port?” might be a good starting point for future strategizing. Yet from this point forward, the port is only going to become more and more secure. Another approach would be to pan back from the port, looking for points of intervention outside it. In this regard, the rail blockade in Olympia in 2017 might offer a promising example.
Likewise, while we should explore ways to resolve differences when we have to work together, we can also look for ways to share information and coordinate while organizing autonomously. We might not be able to reach consensus about what strategy to use, but we can explore where we agree and diverge, acquire and circulate intelligence, and try many different strategies at once.
The logic and logistics of the ruling order are intertwined all the world over. Israeli weapons helped Azerbaijan invade the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in September. The technologies of surveillance, occupation, and repression, refined from besieging Gaza and fragmenting the West Bank, are deployed along the deadly southern border of the United States. The FBI calls Israeli tech firms when they need to hack into someone’s phone. Everything is connected, from the ports on the Salish Sea to the eastern coast of the Mediterranean.
Here’s to mutiny in the belly of the empire. If not us, then who? If not now, then when?
Further Reading and Listening
- The Olympia Train Blockade
- Strategizing for Palestinian Solidarity—Expanding the Toolkit from Demands to Direct Action
- The Boat That Wasn’t Blocked
From a paper that appeared eleven days into the Olympia rail blockade, chronicling the experiences and motivations of the blockaders: “I got home from work at 5 pm and had about a million text messages all telling me the same thing: there’s a fracking train blockade downtown. Same place as last year. Come down. I was exhausted, cold, and wet from work, and had plans to do Shabbat with friends, but I wouldn’t miss a railroad blockade for the world. ‘Shabbos at the blockade!’ I told my friends. If stopping a train full of materials used in the destruction of the environment and genocide of Indigenous people isn’t Tikkun Olam, I don’t know what is.” ↩
There was some discussion about whether the workers would officially stop work due to health and safety concerns, as union workers have in the past, but apparently this did not officially take place. ↩