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Audacity on Trial | The Nation

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Audacity on Trial

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Charleston, South Carolina

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JoAnn Wypijewski
JoAnn Wypijewski, who writes The Nation’s “Carnal Knowledge” column, has been traveling the country...

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Sex, or the fear of it, has been almost as important in the construction of this nightmare as racism.

We can pretend the politics of liberation can be tracked along clearly marked lines, or we can remember that history is like desire.

They give "ghost tours" of the Historic District in the evening, as if ghosts weren't present enough without conjury in this too-charming city: the ghosts of planters who stepped from porches of the grand mansions along the Battery within sight of Fort Sumter, headed for the auction house on Chalmers Street, there to appraise human backs and forearms and hips; the ghosts of Africans thus measured, put up for bid; of the ships that brought more captive Africans to this port than to any other American city, and of the black dockers, freemen and slaves, who loaded up the rice and cotton that the new arrivals would soon toil to produce; the ghost-vestiges of extraordinary violence, dressed up as heritage and gracious living--the South in inverted commas, which favored almost no one who lived in it, including the poor and landless whites who died for it under a battle flag that Charleston is too polite to fly but that figures, nevertheless, in our story.

This past June 9 the flag of the Confederacy hung lifeless in the afternoon heat in front of the state Capitol in Columbia. A year ago it was demoted from its place atop the Statehouse dome, and on this day the air around it vibrated with the shouts of people demonstrating in support of a labor union, International Longshoremen's Association Local 1422, that had been instrumental in organizing the protests that brought the flag down. At the height of the antiflag campaign last year, 46,000 people had marched on Columbia. This was a smaller crowd, about 5,000, but an old-timer told me he had never in seventy-five years seen so many people turn out for a union in South Carolina. They came because the state is gunning for this union of black dockworkers from Charleston who weren't polite about the flag and weren't docile when a shipping company whose vessels they'd worked for twenty-three years decided to use scab labor.

Their troubles with the state began on January 19, 2000, two days after the historic march against the flag. A ship from the Danish Nordana Shipping Lines pulled into the Port of Charleston. Nineteen scabs were mustered to unload it. On three of Nordana's prior visits the union had picketed without police interference. This time 600 battle-dressed troops from throughout the state surrounded the dock, decamped outside Local 1422's hall, patrolled the waters by boat, flew overhead in helicopters, mobilized armored vehicles and horse units, armed themselves with rubber bullets and "bean bags" full of buckshot, beat their batons against their riot shields and waited, waited in the rain for something to happen. After midnight something did, and now five longshoremen--four black and one white, four from Local 1422 and one from the smaller checkers' and clerks' union, ILA Local 1771--are under house arrest awaiting trial this summer on felony riot and other charges that could send them to prison for five to ten years.

They are the Charleston Five, Kenneth Jefferson, Elijah Ford, Peter Washington Jr., Ricky Simmons and Jason Edgerton. But the chant that rang in Columbia on June 9 was "We are the Charleston Five!" because the outcome of this case will not be felt by those five men alone.

The only thing stronger than racism in South Carolina is the hatred of unions and the attendant fear that workers might choose class solidarity over skin and challenge the setup that depends on keeping most of them poor, weak and divided. South Carolina is hardly the only state where this is so, but with some of the lowest wages and the second-lowest rate of unionization in the country, it is among the worst. The white Attorney General, Charlie Condon, openly links his prosecution of the Five with preservation of South Carolina's anti-union "right to work" laws, and it is not happenstance that he has chosen to make an example of the state's best-organized, highest-wage workers, of powerful black workers and white race traitors. Nor is it irrelevant that Local 1422 has supported progressive candidates in local and statewide elections, that it has lent its hall to such candidates and causes, and that Condon--an ambitious Democrat turned right-wing Republican--plans to run for governor.

But there's more. Nordana's switch to a nonunion stevedoring company that paid men $8 an hour without benefits for work that brings a unionist $16.50-$25 an hour with benefits was the first time in America that a major line used scab labor to load and unload container ships, the mainstay of longshore life. Charleston's dockers didn't just defy the police; they won their work back. Now they're organizing those former scabs into the union. Men pay for such audacity, especially black men, especially when they win.

Ken Riley, the president of Local 1422, remembers driving along East Bay Street toward the union hall on the afternoon of January 19 and being awed by the gathering army. Outside the Ports Authority's office next to 1422's hall, riot police were practicing maneuvers, lunging in formation with shields raised, batons up. "My Lord," Riley thought, "what are they preparing for?" After conferring with the presidents of Locals 1771 and 1422-A (port mechanics), he outlined the unions' strategy to workers assembled in the hall: They would do nothing. But because the grand strategy was to drive up the costs of working nonunion, they wouldn't go home either. They'd keep the police out there all night, costing the city, the state, the port and Nordana so much money that those forces would be hard-pressed to claim victory.

Throughout the evening members of all three unions--the blacks who load the ships and have since slave times, the whites who do the paperwork and have since slave times, and the blacks and whites who work as mechanics--passed through 1422's doors. At about 11:30 pm, guys coming into the hall were saying police at roadblocks had harassed them. A discussion followed. The show of force was meant to provoke but also to intimidate; the workers didn't want to fall into the trap, but they didn't want to be bullied either. These days, some union supporters say this is a case about democracy, but the talk that night was about respect, about not being ground down. "I Am a Man" read the famous sign carried by striking garbage workers in Memphis, 1968, and it was that statement the dockers wanted to make by going out to face the police line in Charleston. Riley watched as they funneled out of the hall. He says there were 130 to 140 workers; rank-and-file participants say there were no more than 200; the media's count has swung wildly, from 600 to 400 to 300.

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