By Mark A. Leon
On January 20th, 2000, a protest on the Charleston, SC sparked a police riot and got the attention of a nation. Seventeen years later, we remember the five individuals that became the center of the protest, riot and trial. This was an event where class struggles and racism came together for one explosive chain of events. The trial coined a vocal moment called, ‘Free The Charleston Five’.
In January 2000, after a march on Colombia, SC 3 days earlier to lower the Confederate flag from the State Capital, 150 members of the International Longshoremen’s Association Local 1422 held a militant picket to protest the use of non-union labor by a small, renegade shipping line on the Charleston docks. The demonstration soon escalated into a violent face-off between authorities numbering over 600 and the workers, five of whom now faced trial for felony rioting charges in what has become one of the most closely-watched Southern labor battles.
Jason Edgerton, Elijah Ford Jr., Kenneth Jefferson, Ricky Simmons and Peter Washington Jr. were tried on federal charges of “felonious riot.” Considered by many as targets of a racist anti-union assault aimed at the heart of labor, as the bosses seek to break a key outpost of unionism in the South: Charleston, the East Coast’s second largest port. At the time, only 4% of South Carolina was unionized.
Freeing the South Carolina dock workers became a national and international cause, and eventually the state backed down, agreeing to release them on misdemeanor charges. ILA Local 1422 has continued to be a vital center for community action in the area, including serving as a meeting ground for the Charleston Black Lives Matter movement after the police shooting of Walter Scott in April 2015.
Today, with the Boeing anti-union activism in South Carolina, Walter Scott, Emanuel AME and smaller unspoken incidents, it appears, we may not have moved much in the last seventeen years, other than becoming a little more peaceful in our feelings and actions.
Excerpt of Article in The Internationalist, June, 2001:
“Three days before the police riot of 20 January 2000, ILA Local 1422 participated in a march of tens of thousands in Columbia, the state capital, demanding that the Confederate flag be taken down from above the statehouse. The brutal attack in Charleston was in good part a “payback” from the racist state government. Yet the protest against the hated flag of slavery and KKK terror was exploited as a vehicle by the capitalist politicians of the Democratic Party – the same party of racism and exploitation that put the flag there in 1962 as a threatening show of hatred of the civil rights movement against Jim Crow segregation. In response to the protests, a “compromise solution” backed by Governor James Hodges and Charleston mayor Joseph Riley, Democrats elected with union backing, moved the racist banner from the top to the front of the building.
South Carolina labor does the legwork for the Democrats, and in return gets kicked in the teeth. After the longshoremen helped elect Hodges governor, he nominated Local 1422 president Ken Riley to the Port Authority, that is, to serve as a “labor statesman” helping the bosses administer port workers’ exploitation. The maritime companies said no way – and the nomination was promptly withdrawn. The longshoremen, together with a range of “progressive” groups, responded by picketing the state Democratic Party in Columbia. Yet in Charleston, the Local 1422 union hall doubles as Democratic headquarters! Now the Republicans seek to ram through a bill, known as the “Riley Act,” banning “card-carrying” unionists from serving on state boards so that, in the words of lieutenant governor Harvey Peeler, “the right-to-work foundation of our pro-business climate is never again compromised by union politics.”
Today, the two Carolinas boast the lowest rate of unionization in the entire United States: just above 4 percent. South Carolina is one of two states that do not comply with the federal minimum wage law. Low-wage, non-union labor has been the attraction for “run-away shops” including from France (Michelin tires) and Germany (BMW and others). Seeing themselves as born-again plantation overseers, the capitalist authorities have a special hatred for black longshore unionists who are a nucleus of labor organization in this state, where attempts to drive workers into virtual slave-labor conditions are cynically called “right-to-work” laws.”
Read more about the history and politics of the Charleston Five Incident: Facing Flag Article ‘Flashback: The Charleston Five and the black struggle for justice’ (2015) and The Internationalist Article ‘Defend the Charleston Five!’ (2001)