Stopping the War Machine

Pacific Northwest anti-war activists up the ante by blocking military shipments to Iraq
by Linda Averill
June 25, 2007,

A new breed of struggle is flowering in the Northwest anti-war movement. Its aim: to stop public ports from being used for export of war materials. Activists in Washington state are evolving from demonstrators and lobbyists into direct actors against the war masters, blocking streets and facing arrest as needed.

This development isn’t happening in a vacuum. A product of anger over congressional inaction on the war and repulsion at the militarization of U.S. society, it is also inspired by a rising resistance movement among GIs.

A statement from the Port Militarization Resistance (PMR) puts it this way: “The weapons shipments, and the use of our public property to prolong and supply the war in Iraq, have made us complicit in crimes against humanity. We refuse to be complicit any longer.”

The first action took place last year in Olympia, near Fort Lewis. Participants blocked entrance to their port to stop the Army from shipping war materials.

In 2007, activists declared victory when the Army announced it was going elsewhere. The new location turned out to be Tacoma, 30 miles north of Olympia. Students from the nearby University of Puget Sound, military veterans, teachers, a city councilman, and many others quickly sprang into action, aided by organizers of the blockades in Olympia. As Tacoma protester Leah Coakley said, “We will not serve as a pit stop for the war machine.”

A cause catches fire

Campaign stalwart Molly Gibbs offers insight into the shift in thinking of those involved. Gibbs, who works in high schools to counter military recruitment efforts, is no newcomer to politics. On the war, she has emailed, lobbied and written letters to congressional representatives like Adam Smith, she tells the FS, “until I’m blue in the face.”

But this year, Fort Lewis was the scene of the high-profile case involving Lt. Ehren Watada, the first commissioned officer to openly refuse to serve in Iraq. His defiance, amplified by an effective defense effort, inspired many anti-war activists, including Gibbs.

In January, she helped organize a tribunal to publicize his case. She then left for Washington, D.C., to lobby Congress again. When her group tried to meet with U.S. Senator Patty Murray and got the runaround, it was the last straw. “I was so disgusted, so angry,” Gibbs says.

From that experience, she concluded that a different strategy was needed. “I’m done dealing with my congressional representatives,” she says. “It is in our hands. We have to do something.”

Opportunity came in March, when the military moved its port operations to Tacoma. Members of several groups mobilized, including Students for a Democratic Society, United for Peace of Pierce County, and the Olympia Movement for Justice and Peace. They held rallies, publicized their actions to the media, and lined the streets to take a stand.

On March 10, police used violence to break their lines, firing rubber bullets and tear gas into the crowd. Protesters refused to back down, and Gibbs was among several people arrested for stepping over police lines to deliver a “Citizens’ Injunction to Halt the Shipment of Military Material to Iraq.” When soldiers with the Stryker Brigade rode by one evening, many of them waved and gave the thumbs-up to the anti-war contingent.

On to Aberdeen

The Army ship sailed, but when the dust had cleared, Tacoma had spent $500,000 on police protection. Who would pay — the port or the Pentagon?

While that question lingered, the military moved its shipping operations to Aberdeen, 50 miles from Olympia near the Pacific Coast. PMR quickly spread word and headed west.

Military officials cordoned off neighborhood streets and called in police reinforcements from across the region. The military racked up another huge bill and angered local residents, who resented seeing their town become an armed camp.

Sparked by these examples, similar efforts and solidarity actions are spreading. In March, 100 students occupied a military recruitment office in New York City to express support and, in April, resisters blocked a port in Oakland, California.

Many campaigners have been charged with crimes. In the Northwest, a mistrial was declared on March 29 in the case of the “Oly 22,” who were arrested in 2006. Public support is being mobilized now for those arrested in Tacoma.

Grow the resistance

How strongly this movement will take root is uncertain. Those who are part of it harbor no illusions about the challenges ahead. The Army is operating in greater secrecy, keeping protesters on their toes. There are court battles ahead, and police violence to face. Gibbs mentions the need for more community training, strategy development, and reinforcements.

However, she is motivated by knowing one thing for certain: as long as the war continues, “the death and destruction is only going to get worse.”

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