Two Weeks That Shook Olympia
For almost two weeks in November 2007, anti-war activists in Olympia, Washington stopped the flow of military weapons and cargo being unloaded from a Navy ship from Iraq. Tactics and actions included sitting in front of trucks, building barricades on the roads where these military vehicles were traveling, and holding anti-war demonstrations and vigils. A total of 600 people took part in these weeks of historic protests.
For three years prior to the November actions, various anti-war, social justice, and student groups— such as Students for a Democratic Society (SDS)—had been demanding that Olympia officials take a stand against the war by not permitting the Port to be used for military cargo going to Iraq. To make this a reality people put their bodies on the line each time the Port was used. Lt. Ehren Watada, the first commissioned officer to refuse deployment, was, in part, inspired by the 2005 anti-war Port protests. The recent actions in 2007 were the longest, largest, and most successful in actually stopping shipments.
The main group coordinating these actions was the Olympia Port Mili- tarization Resistance (PMR), which was formed in May 2006 when Olympians, outraged by the war, attempted to block the deployment of the 3rd Stryker Brigade from Ft. Lewis, 15 miles north of Olympia. (The troops from this brigade returned to Ft. Lewis in October 2007 minus the 48 soldiers killed in Iraq.)
PMR’s goal was to “end our community’s participation in the illegal occupation of Iraq by stopping the military’s use of the Port of Olympia.” Its strategy included civil disobedience combined with public education about the war and how the military’s use of the Port supports the military occupation.
The November Actions
On November 1, 2007 PMR found out from a City Council member and peace activist that the USS Brittin would be docking in Olympia and unloading its cargo. The PMR position had been to try to block outgoing shipments, but not incoming ones. However, on November 4, the night before the Brittin landed, PMR voted 29 to 14 to stop military equipment from leaving the Port. Most of the 14 who voted against the action believed that blocking incoming military supplies would not be understood or supported by the community. The 29 who voted to stop the shipments argued that military equipment was part of the ongoing war that it was being refurbished and repaired at Ft. Lewis to be used again in Iraq as part of a revolving door of war materials to and from Iraq. In addition, participants at this and the next meeting pointed out that the depleted uranium (DU) on the returning military vehicles was a danger to the Longshore workers unloading the ship, to the soldiers and truckers transporting the equipment, and to Olympia residents.
|War resisters assert control at the entrance to the Port of Olympia on November 9—photo by Rob Whitlock, www.olywip.org|
On November 5 and 6, there was a vigil and a march of 160 people and a rally at the Port where 2 of the main speakers were Iraq vets—a few members of Veterans for Peace have played a major role in PMR.
On Wednesday, November 7, as Stryker vehicles left the Port, almost 100 people sat or stood in the streets to block the vehicles. The Olympia police cleared the streets using pepper spray and clubs—one participant was hit in the face by a police officer’s club causing his chin to split open.
Over the next few days, divisions between those favoring physical barricades versus those who favored sitting down in front of the trucks diminished as both tactics were seen as having value by most participants. By the third day of actions, more people joined the original organizers in slowing down and/or stopping the weapons and military cargo from leaving the Port. Gender dynamics improved as mutual respect grew through these actions that went on 24 hours a day. Although most of the participants were under 25—and the majority of these were students at Evergreen State College—many older participants gradually joined the protests. There was some tension over definitions of non- violence and over tactics and goals, but anarchists, socialists, peace activists, and black bloc people were able to work together in a functioning alliance.
On Friday, November 9, about 60 people sat down in front of a truck, which kept inching forward, endangering the protesters, until the driver finally stopped. Barricades were erected at the exits and for 17 hours no military equipment moved out of the Port. (This was longer than the street closings at the 1999 WTO meetings in Seattle.) The next day, riot police shot pepper spray into people’s eyes, eventually forcing protesters away from the entrance. Nevertheless, military equipment was temporarily blocked from moving through downtown Olympia and onto the freeway to Ft. Lewis. Olympia resembled an occupied city with police in riot gear and military convoys stopped on the streets. Activists, including key medical and legal support teams from surrounding com- munities, joined the protest. Sixteen people were arrested.
|Karin Craft, a witness to police assaults, demonstrates in Olympia—photo by Jim Mayfield, www.olywip.org|
Protests continued Sunday and Monday, as did the transport of the Strykers, although most of the military cargo remained at the Port. Riot police surrounded protesters limiting direct action. Additionally, on Sunday, November 11, 100 people attended a forum at the Olympia City Council where protesters spoke about the excessive police violence—pepper spray in their eyes, being arrested for no cause, being hit, etc.
On Tuesday, November 13 about 20 people again sat down at the Port entrance, this time blocking military equipment for 13 hours. This means that protests had stopped Stryker vehicles from getting to Ft. Lewis for a minimum of 30 hours—a major action and militant statement.
That evening about 200 people gathered at the Port to resist. In the midst of this action, a GI from Ft. Lewis, who was supposed to be transporting military vehicles to the fort, walked out of the Port, saying he was against the war and was refusing to transport the war equipment. This powerful act of resistance was celebrated as a victory for PMR and the anti-war movement as a whole.
Also, on the evening of November 13, 38 women sat down at the Port entrance and refused to move, even when riot police told them they would be pepper sprayed. The women were arrested and held for seven hours.
Around 10:00 PM, a large convoy of Stryker vehicles left the Port as the police cleared the roads by shooting rubber bullets and pepper spray at protesters. Some of the military vehicles were delayed when protesters hastily constructed barricades along the route.
By 1:30 AM Wednesday, November 14, the resistance slowed. Vigils continued as most, but not all, of the military equipment left the Port. The two weeks of actions ended with a march of more than 400 in support of the Port resistance. From November 7 to 15, 63 people were arrested and many more were hit by pepper spray.
The city’s only mainstream newspaper, the Olympian, wrote two major editorials on November 15, calling the protesters “whiners” for complaining about police behavior and urging that protesters be prosecuted and fined. The Olympian focused on the small amount of property damage and disruption of traffic in condemning the actions. There were many letters to the editor praising the protests, some comparing them to the Boston Tea Party as an example of worthwhile civil disobedience. However, the majority of letters to the editor strongly criticized the Port blockade, claiming that anti-war behavior should be limited to voting for anti-war candidates and protests that were non-disruptive and legal. That the mainstream media were critical and misrepresented the actions came as no surprise. But the letters indicated that we needed to explain face to face why we were engaging in civil disobedience and incorporate more people before, during, and after the actions.
For the most part, barricades and human blockades were aimed only at military vehicles, e.g., non-military cargo was let through. Although residents were occasionally inconvenienced, it was important that this not be the aim of an action, that “no business as usual” does not mean disrupting people’s lives unless that cannot be avoided. Protesters decided not to throw anything at the police even when attacked and this was followed with a few exceptions that occurred only in response to police violence.
Although there were and are ongoing tensions in discussing and acting on effective actions, the majority of participants supported a diversity of tactics—from vigils to forums to rallies to legal demonstrations to civil disobedience.
An unresolved question that surfaced was how groups who have significant differences around ideology, strategy, and tactics can work together in an action such as this one. The main organizing group was PMR, which was committed to non- violence. During the actions, there were debates over what is non-violence and what tactics are strategic. For example, PMR members were strongly against using the personal property of non-participants to block military vehicles. Others were less so.
If each group (or individual) does what it thinks is best and ignores another group’s actions, it affects all of us and our movement. There may be some actions that jeopardize people’s safety in ways that they do not want or that discredit the actions of the majority. In this case, such actions should be criticized and we should try to stop them from occurring—e.g., preventing breaking windows of small locally owned businesses. In other words, there should be a diversity of tactics within and between groups, but not anything goes.
Many SDS members wanted a strategy that raised the economic costs of the militarization of the Port and of sending war supplies through Olympia—police costs, transportation costs, port security, etc. These costs have, in fact, been quite large. I believe instead that our aim should be to raise the social (and political) cost of waging this war—to make the war less legitimate by building stronger social movements with more popular support that challenge not only the war, but also expose as increasingly illegitimate those in power and the unjust economic system behind them. This should contribute towards building growing movements for a fundamentally different society.
Did the “Two Weeks that Shook Olympia” help build a stronger anti-war movement in Olympia and did it raise the social costs of waging this brutal war and occupation of Iraq? It is hard to assess this. Most likely the majority of the public did not support it, which means more outreach needed to be done. PMR also needed to make it easier for people to be involved who were not already on listservs. In light of these critiques, PMR is continuing to meet to reflect on what happened and to plan further education, action, and outreach.
It is very likely the military will not use the Port of Olympia again for military shipments. This would be a victory. A bigger victory and ongoing task is for PMR to educate others about how Olympia is being militarized—e.g., by challenging military recruiters in the schools and the deployment of the National Guard. It also means working with the Longshore Workers Union, communities in Washington, and with military resisters to raise the social cost of this war until it is impossible to wage.
|A march through Olympia’s streets on November 17—photo by Elliot Stoller, www.olywip.org|
As pointed out by local activist and geographer Zoltán Grossman, there are few other locations in the U.S. where a major military base is near such a large progressive community. We should be able to make the argument that ending the war and working for economic justice such as health care for all, free college education, and a living wage is a principled way to support the troops. More than 70 percent of U.S. residents oppose the war. Now is the time to increase militant and dramatic action against this war as well as more traditional demonstrations.
Peter Bohmer has been an activist in movements for radical social change since 1967. He currently teaches political economy at Evergreen State College.