Before the break of dawn on the morning of Nov. 6, more than 500 pro-Palestine activists gathered at the Port of Tacoma to block the loading of the MV Cape Orlando, a U.S. military cargo vessel believed to be transporting weapons to Israel.
Starting at 5 a.m., protesters spread out along East 11th Avenue, the road running alongside port facilities, holding four separate pickets in an attempt to prevent longshore workers from starting their shift. According to a log obtained from the website of ILWU Local 23 — the union that represents longshore workers at the Port of Tacoma — shifts to load the Cape Orlando were scheduled at 7 and 8 a.m. ILWU Local 23 did not respond to a request for comment.
The protest continued throughout the rest of the day, with hundreds of activists weathering nearly 12 hours of wet and rainy conditions. At around 12 p.m., a contingent of Nisqually and Puyallup activists took to canoes and kayaks to try to stop the ship by sea. Despite significant police presence, the action remained peaceful and no arrests were made.
In a press release sent out on the morning of the action, the Arab Resource and Organizing Center (AROC) claimed that “confidential sources” had notified the group that the Cape Orlando had been slated to pick up weapons from Tacoma and deliver them to Israel. In addition to helping with the Port of Tacoma protest, AROC also organized its own action on Nov. 3, delaying the departure of the Cape Orlando from the Port of Oakland for multiple hours.
According to Alon Lapid, one of the organizers of the “Block the Boat” protest, the demonstration presented a potential health or safety hazard to longshore workers, leading them to call out of their shifts. Organizers said that one worker aboard the Cape Orlando also walked off in solidarity with the protesters.
Lapid said that U.S. military personnel ended up loading the ship instead, which departed around 9 p.m., significantly later than the original expected departure at noon. While this wasn’t a total victory, they said, it is still significant.
“We were able to materially delay this boat by half a day, which is incredibly significant in regards to naval logistics and global shipping,” Lapid said. “But is definitely only a partial victory, and is only the first step of many as we continue to feel called to take up more direct actions targeting the most direct manifestations of U.S. military support for the Israeli genocide of Palestine.”
The Block the Boat protest comes in the wider context of the ongoing war between the Israeli military and armed Palestinian resistance groups, the most notable of which is Hamas, which governs the Gaza strip. On October 7, a surprise attack by Palestinian fighters killed over 1,200 Israelis, both civilian and military, as well as the capturing of more than 200 civilian hostages and prisoners of war. According to the Foreign Ministry, almost 10,000 rockets have been fired at Israel, with many targeted at residential areas. The U.S. and other various Western countries condemned the attack and declared their full support for Israel.
In retaliation, the Israeli military launched a massive bombing campaign in the Gaza strip, killing over 11,000 Palestinians, including more than 4,000 children. It has also started a ground invasion targeting Gaza city. These attacks are reportedly aimed at both military targets and civilian infrastructure, including hospitals, schools, supply depots, churches and mosques. Israel also cut off almost all exit routes and humanitarian aid to the territory — including fuel, food, water and electricity — which is home to 2.3 million people. The Rafah crossing, which is located on the southern border with Egypt, has opened for very limited periods during the war. The Gaza strip had already been subjected to a 16-year military blockade before Oct. 7, which the U.N. says has undermined Gaza’s economy and Palestinian human rights.
The armed struggle has also expanded to other co-belligerents across the region. In support of Israel, the United States moved naval forces, including two aircraft carriers, into the Eastern Mediterranean, Red Sea and Persian Gulf. The country already provides more than $3.8 billion in military aid to Israel every year; President Biden has requested Congress to approve $14.3 billion more. Arab militant groups in Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq and Syria — many of whom are allied with Iran — have fired missiles and drones against Israeli and American military bases.
Lapid said that the armed conflict is not an isolated incident, but instead part of a decades-long occupation of Palestine.
“The root cause is really simple,” they said. “It’s over 75 years of ongoing ethnic cleansing, colonization and what the Palestinian people refer to as the ‘Nakba’, or the ongoing catastrophe: when over 750,000 Palestinians were violently ethnically cleansed from their homes and over 400 of their villages were destroyed by the Israeli occupation forces. The Palestinians currently living in Gaza — who are besieged — over 70% of them are refugees from this original ethnic cleansing 75 years ago. They have never given up on their rights to return to their homeland.”
They added that the only way to permanently end the armed conflict between Israel and Palestine is through addressing the displacement of Palestinians in the Nakba.
For over a month, Palestinian community members and their allies have been organizing regular protests in downtown Seattle, the University of Washington campus and Olympia, drawing in thousands of people. The Block the Boat action was seen as a continuation of these other protests, as well as an attempt to have a concrete material impact on the course of the war.
“We’re here [to] block this boat from sending weapons shipments from the United States to Israel in perpetuation of genocide of Palestinians,” said Bissan Barghouti, a local Palestinian organizer who helped coordinate the Block the Boat protest.
The two actions against the Cape Orlando are part of a long history of protests involving blocking maritime logistics. During the 1980s, Bay Area longshore workers refused to unload cargo from apartheid South Africa. In 2008, ILWU workers shut down ports along the West Coast in protest of the Iraq War.
More recently, activists and longshore workers have targeted the ZIM shipping company, whose largest shareholder is Israeli billionaire Idan Ofer. Campaigners successfully delayed or blocked ZIM ships from docking in Oakland and the Seattle area during the wars of 2014 and 2021.
Lapid said that the Port of Tacoma protest was in response to a Oct. 16 call by the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions to prevent shipment of arms to Israel. Trade unions in Belgium, Barcelona and Greece have all released pledges to prevent any such weapons deliveries. On Nov. 8, protesters in Melbourne, Australia blocked the road to the port where a ZIM ship was scheduled to dock.
Since the Cape Orlando left the Port of Tacoma on Monday night, Real Change has been unable to independently verify the location, contents or route of the ship. The Department of Defense did not respond to multiple requests for comment. The United States Coast Guard acknowledged Real Change’s requests, but did not respond to them either.
While most U.S. politicians have so far refused to call for a cease-fire or an end to the Israeli aggression in Gaza, Barghouti said the large turnout of supporters to recent protests shows that most Americans are in favor of Palestinian freedom.
“In D.C. we just witnessed one of the most historic marches for Palestine in modern history,” she said. “This is an incredible moment and the people are with us.”
This article has been updated to clarify the ownership of ZIM. The largest shareholder of ZIM is Idan Ofer. The newspaper regrets the error.
Read more of the Nov. 15-21, 2023 issue.