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Protesters halt operations at some western U.S. ports

Posted: December 13, 2011 - 1:04am

OAKLAND, Calif. — More than 1,000 Occupy Wall Street protesters blocked cargo trucks at busy West Coast ports Monday, forcing some shipping terminals in Oakland, Calif., Portland, Ore., and Longview, Wash., to halt operations.

While the protests attracted far fewer people than the 10,000 who turned out Nov. 2 to shut down Oakland’s port, organizers declared victory and promised more demonstrations to come.

“The truckers are still here, but there’s nobody here to unload their stuff,” protest organizer Boots Riley said. “We shut down the Port of Oakland for the daytime shift and we’re coming back in the evening. Mission accomplished.”

Organizers hoped the “Shutdown Wall Street on the Waterfront” protests would cut into the profits of the corporations that run the docks and send a message that their Occupy movement isn’t finished.

The closures’ economic impact, however, wasn’t immediately clear.

The longshoremen’s union did not officially support the protests, but its membership cited a provision in its contract that allowed workers to ask to stay off the job if they felt the conditions were unsafe.

Some went home with several hours’ pay, while others left with nothing.

Oakland Longshoreman DeAndre Whitten was OK with it. “I hope they keep it up,” said Whitten, who lost about $500. “I have no problem with it. But my wife wasn’t happy about it.”

Others, such as the truck drivers who had to wait in long lines as protesters blocked gates, were angry, saying the demonstrators were harming the very people they were trying to help.

“This is joke. What are they protesting?” said Christian Vega, who sat in his truck carrying a load of recycled paper. He said the delay was costing him $600. “It only hurts me and the other drivers.

“We have jobs and families to support and feed,” he said. “Most of them don’t.”

From Long Beach, Calif., to as far away as Anchorage, Alaska, and Vancouver, British Columbia, protesters beat drums and carried signs as they marched outside port gates.

Rain dampened some protests. Several hundred showed up at the Port of Long Beach and left after several hours.

The movement, which sprang up this fall against what it sees as corporate greed and economic inequality, is focusing on the ports as the “economic engines for the elite.” It comes weeks after police raids cleared out most of their tent camps.

The port protests are a “response to show them that it’s going to hurt their pocketbooks if they attack us brutally like that,” Riley said.

Protesters are most upset by two West Coast companies: port operator SSA Marine and grain exporter EGT. Investment banking giant Goldman Sachs Group Inc. owns a major stake in SSA Marine and has been a frequent target of protesters.

They say they are standing up for workers against the port companies, which have had high-profile clashes with union workers lately. Longshoremen in Longview, for example, have had a longstanding dispute with EGT, which employs workers from a different union to staff its terminal. The longshoremen’s union says the jobs rightfully belong to them.

“Disrupting port activities makes it harder for U.S. manufacturing, the farm community and countless others to sell to customers and contribute to our nation’s economic recovery,” EGT chief executive Larry Clarke said.

While the demonstrations were largely peaceful and isolated to a few gates at each port, local officials in the longshoremen’s union and port officials or shipping companies determined that the conditions were unsafe for workers.

In Oakland, several hundred people picketed before dawn and blocked some trucks from going through at least two entrances.

A long line of big rigs sat outside one of the entrances, unable to drive into the port. Police in riot gear stood by as protesters marched in an oval and carried signs.

Shipping companies and the union agreed to send home about 150 of the 200 morning shift workers. Protesters cheered when they learned about the partial shutdown and then dispersed.

“It’s disappointing that those union folks were not able to go to work today and earn their wages,” said Bob Watters, spokesman for SSA Marine. “We think that everything is pretty well in hand and operations are moving along pretty well now.”

Scott Olsen, the Marine Corps veteran who was struck in the head during a clash between police and Occupy Oakland protests in October, led nearly 1,000 people marching back to the Port of Oakland on Monday evening.

A spokesman for the longshoremen’s union said shippers at the port would typically request 100 to 200 workers for the overnight shift but weren’t asking for any Monday due to the ongoing protests. Port spokeswoman Marilyn Sandifur said the move would bring nighttime operations to a virtual halt.

“Operations have continued throughout the day after sporadic interruptions due to the morning protest activities,” she said. “As for the rest of the day and overnight, the port anticipates very limited terminal activity.”

In Seattle, police used “flash-bang” percussion grenades to disperse protesters who blocked an entrance to a Port of Seattle facility Monday evening.

Officers moved in after protesters tried to set up a makeshift barrier using scraps of wood, aluminum debris and any other material they could scrape together. After the grenades went off, the protesters scattered.

Earlier, police reported “multiple” arrests at a nearby terminal after about 100 occupy protesters stopped traffic for about 20 minutes.

In Portland, a couple hundred protesters blocked semitrailers from making deliveries at two major terminals.

Security concerns were raised when police found two people in camouflage clothing with a gun, sword and walkie-talkies who said they were doing reconnaissance.

Port officials erected fences and told workers to stay home, port spokesman Josh Thomas said. He said port officials didn’t know early Monday afternoon the full economic impact of the blockade.

“We’re talking about tenants, customers, truckers, rail providers, a pretty far reaching group, and most of these people are not employed by the port,” Thomas said. “To say it’s going to be X amount of dollars right now is impossible.”

Kari Koch, an Occupy spokeswoman, said the two people taken into custody were not part of the demonstration.

“We do not send out folks with guns,” Koch said.

The decision to shut down the two terminals was relayed to about 200 workers from the longshoremen’s union, which said it sympathized with the goals of the movement but disagreed with shutting down operations that would deprive its members of pay.

Longshoremen at the Longview port went home over concerns for their health and safety, union spokeswoman Jennifer Sargent said. A port spokeswoman, Ashley Helenberg, said the port and the union made the decision jointly.

If union workers participated in the protest, Sargent said, they did so as individuals, not as part of the union.

___

Associated Press writers Marcus Wohlsen in San Francisco, Christina Hoag in Long Beach, Calif., Nigel Duara in Portland, Ore., and Manuel Valdes and Doug Esser in Seattle contributed to this report.

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