October 23, 2010 marked a peculiar day in labour history. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 10 shut down all the San Francisco/Oakland Bay Area ports. The eight-hour strike’s demands were unrelated to increased wages, benefits, or the like. Rather, workers left their posts for one reason: to protest the persistence of police violence against the working class, particularly Black and Latino youth.
The strike centred on the brutal police murder of an unarmed black father, Oscar Grant, on New Year’s Day in 2009. He was one of many apprehended by police in response to a fight on the Bay Area Rapid Transit subway platform. Though witnesses contend that Grant was trying to stop the fight, police proceed to aggressively subdue and handcuff him. Things took a turn for the worst when officer Johannes Mehserle unholstered his firearm to shoot the helpless Grant in the back––at point blank range––as he lay flat on the floor. A crowd of onlookers in the Subway train witnessed the murder and recorded several videos (which can be found on YouTube).
The blatant act of murder is but a symptom of the spectacular disregard for human life on behalf of the police, particularly among Black and Latino working class communities in the United States. The scores of protesters who took to the streets during the strike wore shirts emblazoned with the words, “I am Oscar Grant,” to embody broad sentiment that this police terror is an everyday reality for many. The officer, Mehserle, was convicted with involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to less than a year of jail time. His argument ran along the lines of his having meant to reach for his taser, rather than his pistol.
Such cases are not just isolated to the United States. Junior Manon, Freddy Villanueva, Alwy Al-Nadhir, Jeffrey Reodica and Byron Debassige are but a few youth recently killed by police in Toronto and Montreal. These incidents have sparked significant demonstrations, community organizations, and even riots. Similar reactions also occurred in the aftermath of Oscar Grant’s execution. What is unique about Oscar Grant’s case is the broad support of organized labour.
In the days before the conclusion of officer Mehserle’s trial, labour unions, community organizations, and a variety of socialist groups organized a rally. The ILWU led the rally with the eight-hour port shut-down, with ILWU Local 10 executive board member Jack Heyman saying, “No Work Today! Justice for Oscar Grant!”
This action by ILWU local 10 sets an important example for workers everywhere. The labour movement has a rich history of not only raising demands that affect their membership, but also providing leadership to the entire working class. These demands unite the entire working class, build class solidarity and raise the capacity to defend the needs of workers everywhere.