Audacity on Trial
Things have a funny way of happening in the night, things that never would happen but for the mixture of fear and anger and the infuriating exertion of overwhelming force. Nineteen months later, the story of that night has shrunk to caricature in some tellings, as if the only way to defend the workers is to portray them as passive actors set upon by police and collapsing under the assault. Perhaps it's the liberal fetishization of nonviolence, or a reflexive response to the state's claim, seconded by the white press, that police were passive guards attacked by frenzied workers. What seems to have transpired instead was an explosion of human emotion when only one side has all the serious weapons.
Leonard Riley, Ken's brother, was at the front of the line as the workers approached police. "When you have forces like that come together," he said, "you're not gonna have huggin' and kissin' and glad-to-meet-ya's. But we did go out there with a peaceful plan." The workers came up to the line, told police they wanted to picket the port and were repelled by riot sticks, he said. Each time they returned and were repelled again. Workers now say they couldn't believe they were being treated like criminals. And they didn't yet know that the city jail had been emptied for them. At the line some pushed back; some grabbed hold of police sticks and engaged in a tug-of-war. Farther back in the crowd, William "Boogy" McPherson, a white clerk with 1771, heard a cop say, "We'll beat the hell out of you niggers."
"We were yelling and screaming," McPherson said. "I went up, said to a cop, 'I know what the white man's up to.'" Overhead the helicopters droned. People were pushing. Word passed back that guys up front were being clubbed. McPherson's not sure when workers started picking up rocks to hurl, but he remembers Ken Riley running from the union hall with the other local presidents and rushing to the front. Riley was trying to create a space between workers and police when he was cracked in the head with a baton, receiving a gash that required twelve stitches. It was then that, as 1422's recording secretary, Anthony Shine, put it, "things got ugly." Workers fought back, and some were clubbed mercilessly. They overturned a light tower and struck photographers. Meanwhile, police were beating on them, shooting at them and dispensing tear gas. Local 1422's James Freeman says he had just conferred with police and was getting workers to retreat when he turned and saw the headlights of a police SUV charging the crowd. Freeman dove to the side. Right behind screeched a highway patrol car. In terror, some workers ran; others smashed the car's windows. "They gonna kill us, man," McPherson remembers someone crying out, "they gonna kill us."
Not all of the Five, whose lawyers have advised them not to speak with the press, were arrested that night (one was singled out after his picture appeared in the local paper), and those who were arrested were charged by police with trespassing. That didn't sit well with South Carolina's elite, because almost immediately Condon had the men rearrested, this time on riot and conspiracy, and a range of other charges including assault and resisting arrest. A circuit court dismissed the charges for lack of evidence.
In the meantime, dockworkers around the world had begun to mobilize in solidarity. In Spain they refused to handle Nordana cargo. Pretty soon Nordana was negotiating with the Charleston unions; the scabbing was finished. Condon empaneled a grand jury and got indictments on the same charges the court had thrown out, plus some additional ones. The company that had contracted with Nordana to provide the nonunion workers, WSI, filed a $1.5 million civil lawsuit against the locals, their presidents and twenty-five members, holding them personally liable for lost business. *
There hasn't been a labor disruption in the Port of Charleston since 1971. It is the fourth-largest port in the country, a linchpin for the South's global economy; and, worldwide, only the dockers in Tokyo load and unload a ship faster. More than other industries, shipping depends on speed, a condition that both strains longshore workers and makes shippers vulnerable. At 1422's hall, men line up from 6 am most days as jobs are called out and gangs are formed to work a ship. Often they're asked to "work through," meaning work through lunch, through dinner, through the night, whatever it takes until the ship is ready to go. This brings overtime pay but also fatigue and greater risk of injury. Men eagerly volunteer for it, especially those at the back of the line, with the least seniority, the guys who will take any work--say, loading chicken boats at subfreezing temperatures--because they can't be sure when they'll work again. Much is made of the fact that a longshore worker can earn $100,000 a year, but the new people might go days, weeks without work and make a fraction of that.
A couple of days after the march on Columbia a worker was sitting in the hall with his head in his hands. Eddie Thomas, who started on the docks back in the 1960s, when "it was rough, baby, Johnnie-get-your-gun rough, everything by hand," was encouraging this fellow, telling him that things would pick up, that everyone's been through the waiting, and signaling to a union officer to loan the brother some money. Thomas, a retiree who trains new recruits to operate heavy machinery, said, "These guys catch pure hell trying to get work."
It seems people might resist the waiting and the lash of speed, but workers boast that Charleston is number one in the country in productivity, that they can load and discharge a ship with 2,000 containers in twenty-four hours or less, that the scabs couldn't come close to that time, so hiring them wasn't about cost; it was about power. Speed is the boss's game, but workers take pride where they find it. Some point out that not only have black men always worked these docks but after the Civil War they also organized one of the country's first longshore unions and won one of the first waterfront strikes for wages. "That dock out there," Riley said, "that's our house. We built it with our sweat, with our blood, with our injuries. And Nordana is our wife of twenty-three years."
* WSI had a neat shell game going, hiring workers through its subsidiary, a temp agency called Apollo Services. It charged Nordana $14 an hour for their labor, then paid the workers $8, appropriating the rest for administrative costs and profit. As Ken Riley illuminated the terms of their exploitation, "When I started on the docks, I was making $8.60 an hour. That was 1971." He expects those workers to vote handily for the union in a representation election in August. Back to text