FLASHBACK: The Charleston Five and the black struggle for justice

After a January 2000 fracas with police near the Charleston shipping docks, five members of the black-led International Longshoremen's Association union were singled out for felony convictions; South Carolina's attorney general even compared them to the 9/11 World Trade Center terrorists. After the rise of an international solidarity campaign, the state freed the dock workers on lesser misdemeanor charges. ILA Local 1422 has continued to be a vital force for activism in the Charleston community. (Photo: AFL-CIO.)

The June 2015 Charleston church massacre has brought attention to the rich history of social activism at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal and in the city's broader African-American community, dating back to church founder Denmark Vesey, who planned a major slave revolt in 1822. In July 2001, Facing South publisher Chris Kromm looked at the role of this history in the case of the Charleston Five, dock workers and members of black-led Local 1422 of the International Longshoremen's Association who were targeted with felony convictions after a picket-line fracas with police in January 2000. Freeing the South Carolina dock workers became a national and international cause, and eventually the state backed down, agreeing to release them on misdemeanor charges. ILA Local 1422 has continued to be a vital center for community action in the area, including serving as a meeting ground for the Charleston Black Lives Matter movement after the police shooting of Walter Scott in April 2015.

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CHARLESTON, S.C. — Take a short stroll circling the waterfront off Battery Park, and it's hard to tell whether the Old South or a new, updated version, is winning out in Charleston. In and around the park stand genteel mansions, a slouching white gazebo, and the occasional hoop-skirted tour guide, buttering up a gaggle of visitors in search of Old South charm. These nostalgic flourishes reflect a deeper tone in the port city, run by a good-ol'-boy network just the way one might expect in a state that keeps the very senior Sen. Strom Thurmond propped in Congress, and whose fondness for the old ways kept the Confederate battle flag flying over the state capitol until last year.

But Charleston is also the crown jewel of a state desperately wanting to be seen as cosmopolitan and "world class." And if one refocuses the eyes further down the coastline, faintly visible are the massive cranes, vessels and kindred machinery that comprise South Carolina's portal to its global future: the Charleston shipping ports.

The old ways are cute, but integration in the global economy pays the bills. Harboring vessels from nine of the world's 10 biggest shipping lines, Charleston is the fourth-busiest container port in the country. And the port's role in making South Carolina a "global player" is only expected to rise, as international auto companies like BMW funnel their wares through Charleston to expand operations on the other side of the state.

So for the state's leaders, stakes were high when, in January of 2000, 150 members of the International Longshoremen's Association Local 1422 held a militant picket to protest the use of non-union labor by a small, renegade shipping line on the Charleston docks. The demonstration soon escalated into a violent face-off between authorities and the workers, five of whom now face trial for felony rioting charges in what has become one of the most closely-watched Southern labor battles in over a decade, and which speaks volumes about the economic and political struggles at the heart of the South today.

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IN SOUTH CAROLINA, the Old South culture occasionally comes into conflict with the excited Newer South visions of the boosters. There was the time in the mid-1990s, for example, when one multinational company, courted by state leaders to move to South Carolina, took note of the state's flag controversy and ultimately shunned what it labeled "the cracker capitol of the world."

But usually the minds of the Southern elite, both traditional and modern, meld on a common program: pro-corporate economics, and racially coded politics, the only question for debate being the appropriate proportions of the two.

This past June 9, some two hours inland from the coast, 5,000 spirited demonstrators gathered on the state capitol in Columbia to protest what they saw as the latest manifestation of this unholy alliance, the case of the Charleston Five. For over 200 years, the Charleston docks have been worked by generations of African-American labor — and four of the five facing charges are black — making the crackdown on the ILA a flashpoint for labor and freedom struggles.

The June rally was originally called by the South Carolina Progressive Network and local labor leaders, but soon attracted interest nationwide. Many agreed with Bill Fletcher Jr. — who has coordinated the national AFL-CIO's support for the workers — that "this is a very compelling case, one that brings together all the issues, a voice at work and the right to organize, issues of racial justice and issues of democracy."

Tracing the same route through Columbia's downtown that was used by over 40,000 demonstrators against the Confederate flag last year, the June mobilization was impressive not only for its size — as an older city native commented, "this has got to be the biggest labor rally in Columbia since the 1930s" — but also for the range of participants. Buses from North Carolina, Georgia and even New York delivered dozens of union locals who militantly declared their solidarity.

The rally also attracted a sizable showing of Seattle-generation protesters (sans handkerchiefs) and several left grouplets who ringed the demonstration, newspapers held high. And in South Carolina, where labor rights are civil rights, the program featured leaders of the civil rights establishment.

The larger political and economic dimension was not lost on the marchers. Numerous speakers noted that South Carolina's unionization rate — at 3 percent, the lowest in the country — is no accident. Anti-union and anti-worker zeal, begun in earnest during labor's textile campaigns of the 1930s and refined during the industrialization boom of the 1970s, has reached a new level.

One piece of legislation pending before the state legislature would prohibit municipalities from setting a wage higher than the federal minimum — pre-emptively spiking local "living wage" initiatives. Another bill preventing longshore workers from serving on Charleston's Port Authority — targeted at ILA Local 1422 President Kenny Riley, who was unanimously asked to serve on the Authority in 1999 — has been revived from last year.

As Brett Bursey of the Progressive Network remarks, "they'd bring back slavery if they could."

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IT WAS IN 1821 that a recently freed slave in Charleston, Denmark Vesey, having bought his way out of chains, began planning a slave revolt to free the rest. Vesey had originally planned to spark rebellion throughout South Carolina through agitation, which would hopefully spread to undermine the South's entire plantation complex. But he grew impatient, and began organizing his own uprising.

It almost worked. By the next year, nearly all the slaves in plantations surrounding Charleston were prepared to join the revolt. But a day before the insurrection, one slave betrayed Vesey, who along with five associates were quickly tried and hanged. Once Vesey's intricate plan became known, it struck fear into the planter class; the public execution of Vesey and his compatriots was seen as critical in convincing slaves across the South to think twice before daring to act for their freedom.

The port picket planned by ILA Local 1422 in January 2000 was, of course, much less ambitious, but one wouldn't know it from the response of law enforcement officials. What exactly transpired on that chilly day is now a matter of legal dispute, and the workers' legal team is staying silent as the Charleston Five await trial, probably this fall.

What is known is that the trouble began in October of 1999, when the small-time Nordana shipping line notified Local 1422 that it was ending its 23-year relationship with the union and would be using non-union labor to work its ships. A couple peaceful pickets followed, but eventually state officials decided it was time to show which side they're on.

On Jan. 20 of the next year, as the Nordana ship Skodsborg rolled into harbor with 20 non-union workers prepared to unload its cargo, 150 ILA picketers greeted the ship to express their dissatisfaction. Also on hand, to the surprise of the ILA workers, were massed 600 paramilitary-style officers representing law enforcement agencies from local cops to highway patrol.

The show of force was dazzling: police helicopters hovered overhead; land units rode on horses and others in armored vehicles; canine units held snarling dogs at bay; black-clothed police squads stood poised with beanbag bullets; patrol boats cruised the waterside of the terminal, apparently staving off a possible union invasion by sea. "You would think there was going to be a terrorist attack on the state of South Carolina," Riley says.

As the saying goes: When you prepare for war, that's what you get. Some say a longshoreman made the first move, trampling a local cop's foot. Others say the cops pushed into the group of picketers first. Another version holds that a longshoreman had jumped the gun, but the local police — who were holding the line against the protest — were doing just fine until a state officer further back ordered a second phalanx of armed cops to charge the picketers. Riley says that he stepped in the middle to calm the situation, and was clubbed on the head.

Whatever the spark, the fight was on — although, given the imbalance in numbers and firepower, the fracas was fairly brief. All in all, the skirmish itself was a relatively minor footnote in the nation's history of bloody labor battles. Yet the morning after, a dispirited mood hung over the port city. Unlike elsewhere in South Carolina, labor had earned the respect of the Charleston authorities, who in the cut-throat dockside world knew the instrumental role organized longshoremen played in maintaining the port's prosperity. According to one observer, "both sides felt bad that it had come to this."

It was a testament to the understanding between the union and authorities that the local police decided against aggressively pursuing charges. Nine workers were arrested for trespassing — misdemeanor charges that were later dropped for lack of evidence.

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WHAT THE CHARLESTON longshoremen could not have calculated is the role that political ambition would play in determining their fate — namely, the political ambitions of South Carolina's Attorney General, Charlie Condon.

Condon had grown up in Charleston, and by his 20s was fast becoming a darling in Democratic Party circles. Sensing a shift in the political winds, he turned Republican. Condon's years as attorney general have been distinguished by his ravenous appetite for media attention — including his publicity-grabbing, if legally questionable, law-and-order crusades, like those stripping the right of accused criminals to appeals, and most recently, campaigns to jail drug-addicted expecting mothers for "child abuse" against unborn fetuses. He may be the only state attorney general in the nation who has lost every case he has brought before the federal Supreme Court (three so far) on 9-0 decisions.

In the case of the Charleston longshoremen, Condon saw political gold. A crackdown on the ILA would not only bolster his law-and-order credentials, but make a similarly clear statement about the place of blacks and workers in Condon's South Carolina, where he announced his intention to run for governor this past March.

Such ambitions explain why, in February of last year, as Charleston authorities were quietly letting the cases against the dock workers slide, that South Carolina television viewers were treated to an unusually strident piece of political propaganda. With George W. Bush and John McCain trading blows for the state's presidential primary, Condon broadcast a now-infamous campaign ad, endorsing Bush and promising "jail, jail and more jail" for the dock workers. What bearing the presidential race had on the Charleston labor battle wasn't mentioned, but the ultimate message was clear: A vote for Bush was a vote against the ILA.

Bush won South Carolina. And Condon soon set to work to make good on his political promise. The state singled out what were to become the Charleston Five and served them with a laundry list of charges, including felony rioting, conspiracy to riot, two assault cases, and resisting arrest. The accused are currently under house arrest, which requires them to stay at home from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.; the felony riot charges alone carry up to five years of potential jail time.

As for Nordana, they joined with WSI — a stevedoring company, that supplies the non-union workers — to sue Local 1422 and their sister union, checkers and clerks Local 1771, $1.5 million in alleged financial losses. But last April, the unions bargained with Nordana to establish a new "small boat agreement" which holds union wage levels, but which loosens union standards for hours and staffing levels. Upon reaching the agreement, Nordana dropped out of the civil suit and encouraged WSI to do the same — but WSI instead added 27 more ILA picketers to the suit, which it is still pursuing.

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THE MORE the state presses, the more determined the opposition — rooted in labor-community coalitions and far-reaching solidarity networks unique to Southern organizing — seems to become. A growing number of unions nationally are pledging support; the ILA and ILWU, longshore unions often at odds, have joined forces behind the Charleston Five banner; and a Swedish representative of the International Dockworkers Council promises that workers will shut down ports across Europe if justice isn't served.

Back on the Charleston waterfront, the port is still humming. The dockworkers of Local 1422, including the Charleston Five, are back at work, loading and unloading the fortunes of the global South. But the city seems haunted — by a new consciousness of labor's power to shape shipping port economics, by fear of what this power, tied to freedom and worker struggles the world over, may spell for the South's future.

Through the Charleston waterfront and the mind of the South, the ghost of Denmark Vesey blows still.

(This piece was originally published in the July 7, 2001 issue of CounterPunch.)