Day of Action: Free the Charleston 5

The national spotlight is once again on South Carolina as five dockworkers, four African-American and one white, seek justice in a Charleston court this week when their long-awaited trial begins.

The Charleston Five, as they have come to be called, will not walk into the courtroom alone. Thousands of supporters from throughout the nation will be demanding freedom for Elijah Ford Jr., Jason Edgerton, Kenneth Jefferson, Peter Washington and Ricky Simmons at a National Day of Solidarity on Nov. 14.

Rallies, marches and other actions are planned from coast to coast in response to the call by the Charleston based International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) Local 1422, the AFL-CIO and numerous Charleston Five defense committees which have sprouted up in cities across the country.

Congregated right outside the North Charleston Courthouse Annex will be a massive showing of supporters including labor, civil rights and religious leaders who are planning to maintain a steady presence there for the duration of the trial. Kenneth Riley, ILA Local 1422 president, who has carried the Charleston Five cause to the nation and around the globe, has also won support from international dockers and transport union members who are organizing actions at ports in their respective countries Nov. 14.

“This one case has awakened trade unions around the world to the importance of organizing in the South,” said Riley as he toured. “The outcome is crucial to the future of the labor movement in South Carolina, the South and the entire Southeast.”

Riley is right. The stakes are high in this battle centered in the Deep South. Donna DeWitt, president of the South Carolina AFL-CIO, told the World, “If these five men are found guilty, our rights go with them – that’s the bottom line.”

As of press time, negotiations around a possible settlement in this case are continuing.

From the beginning, the essence of the fight has been about struggling for workers’ rights and racial equality against the worst of the Republican extreme right in our nation represented in South Carolina’s Attorney General Charles Condon.

Condon’s political gang is embedded in the despicable and backwards traditions of slavery in the old South, and works in sync with the State Chamber of Commerce and pro-corporate forces to turn back progress for working people with the goal of ridding the right-to-work state of unions altogether.

Their primary target is ILA Local 1422, a local composed of virtually all African-American longshoremen who represent third-, fourth- and fifth-generation dockers who work at the Port of Charleston. These are unionists whose forefathers went to the docks at a time when the work was dangerous, dirty, low-paying, unorganized and no one else would do it.

Today, because of the union, longshore jobs at the nation’s fourth largest port are the highest paid jobs in the state, a fact which riles the racist Southern ruling class to no end. These union jobs are the bedrock of a decent economic life for working people there and even more so for the African-American community. To lose them would have dire consequences for the entire South, which has become the site where manufacturing corporations are moving at great speed to find low-wage-non union labor.

The fact that a local union of African-American workers plays the leading role in the fight to change the South has brought out the worst in the extreme right. Their goal has been to crush that leading role and the workers’ rights movement with it. If the Charleston Five are sent to prison, that would send a chilling message about what will happen to workers if they join unions and if they engage in fighting back.

That is why the courage of Kenneth Riley and the five dockers in not bending to the attacks is a stirring example and model to inspire all those who seek justice in the difficult times after Sept. 11.

That tenacity – along with the solidarity of the AFL-CIO, the South Carolina AFL-CIO, the West Coast International Longshore and Warehouse Union, civil rights and community organizations who built a national movement to free the Charleston Five – resulted in a momentous turning point in this battle a few weeks ago.

Attorney General Condon withdrew himself from the case and appointed a local prosecutor. This from the arrogant, bombastic official who told the press only days before that he would “never succumb” to the political pressure being put on him. This from the racist intimidator who demanded “jail, jail and more jail” for the five, who in a press release issued on the morning after the arrests brazenly spoke of putting dockers “under the jail” and who only days before withdrawing from the case, dared to compare the dockers – working-class sons of Charleston – to terrorists.

Condon’s withdrawal was a huge victory that immediately resulted in the Charleston Five being released from house arrest after nearly two years.

ILA Local 1422 has another important dimension. Five years ago, when Kenneth Riley took the helm, the local reached out to its allies and the community in a new way. The union began to use their resources and open their doors to become a real center where the community met and held social gatherings. The progressive movement and forces for democracy of South Carolina found a home under the local’s roof.

Local 1422 also entered into the political/electoral arena as it had never done before, emerging as a leading force where people’s struggles could count on their support in a multitude of movements.

Longshoremen’s visibility on picket lines and rallies, their financial donations for working people’s causes became a bedrock of support apparent to all.

They played a key role in removing the Confederate flag from flying over the state capitol and in establishing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday as a holiday, something achieved only recently after massive protests.

They played a decisive role in electing a Democratic governor, the only statewide post that is held by a Democrat today. After that is when the Republican Party attack on the local began to hit full-throttle.

When newly elected Gov. Jim Hodges nominated Ken Riley to the State Ports Authority Board Port Commission, the State Chamber of Commerce – along with the GOP – waged a statewide campaign to persuade businesses to rally against the nomination. They said that if Riley was appointed, it would jeopardize the right-to-work policy of the state with a message that South Carolina is pro-union.

They stopped the appointment but that was not enough for them. Republicans introduced a bill in the legislature called the Kenneth Riley Act. The act, passed in the lower house and currently being considered by the legislature, bans union members from serving on state boards and commissions.

Local 1422 also entered the international arena by joining the International Dockworkers Council, which brought together dockers’ unions worldwide in a united effort to stop the global maritime industry from its drive to bust longshore unions around the world.

That totality of fightback was the backdrop to Jan. 20, 2000, when Attorney General Condon sent 600 riot-geared police to the ILA picket line of 150 workers protesting Nordana shipping’s bringing non-union labor into the port.

It was also the backdrop to the police physically attacking and injuring longshoremen, including Ken Riley, that night. That was the backdrop to the unjust charges of rioting and conspiracy to riot against the Charleston Five – charges that could bring up to ten years of imprisonment – after Attorney General Condon maneuvered to change misdemeanor trespassing charges into felonies.

The results of this historic fight will have huge ramifications on how the present struggle for peace, economic justice, against racism and for immigrant rights emerges in our country.

A victory in the South will reverberate. It will inspire.

A victory will set the stage for workers to move to the offensive in South Carolina. The lesson will be that even in this most challenging moment in our nation, with organization, unity, coalition and mobilization, victory is possible – even in the most politically extreme-right state in the nation.

That potential calls on everyone to join this cause. Freeing the Charleston Five means greater liberty and democracy for us all.

– Evelina Alarcon is the coordinator of the Los Angeles Charleston Five Defense Committee and a member of the National Charleston Five Defense Steering Committee.