NC Report on the Charleston 5

BY: Evelina Alarcon| November 10, 2001

The fight to free the Charleston 5 already had special significance prior to the tragedy of September 11th and the now urgent war or peace emergency. But the new situation and the surrounding challenges of deepening economic crisis, threats to civil liberties, the racist and chauvinist hate attacks against Arab Americans and immigrants, the heightened racial profiling, the attacks on democracy, place even more importance to this battle for justice set in the Deep South.

We are at a critical moment in this fight. The national and international movement to free the Charleston 5 alongside of the well organized popular grassroots campaign within Charleston itself have moved political mountains. The extreme right are on the ropes in South Carolina. Developments over the last two weeks are signals that victory can be won.

A battle with the extreme right

The stakes are high in this battle centered in the Deep South. 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 who have stood tall in the face of ceaseless 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 last week. Attorney General Condon withdrew himself from the case and appointed a local prosecutor. His withdrawal immediately resulted in the Charleston Five being released from house arrest after nearly two years.

Attorney General Charlie Condon

To comprehend the full meaning of his withdrawal, one has to understand that it has been Condon who has led the charge against the Charleston five, the International Longshoremen’s local 1422 and Kenneth Riley from the beginning. Condon, the chair of President Bush’s South Carolina campaign committee, was the one in January 2000 who sent 600 police armed with tanks, helicopters, tear gas and rubber bullets to the ILA picketline of 150 dockers. It was he who allowed the police to conduct themselves as if they were going to war including that they were executing military maneuvers alongside the picketline and outside the ILA Local 1422 union hall. These storm troopers shot workers point blank with rubber bullets.

Condon was the one who insisted that the original trespassing misdemeanor charges against the dockers be changed to rioting and conspiracy to riot which are felonies in South Carolina bringing prison sentences of 5 to 10 years. And then he loudly proclaimed to the media that he would only be satisfied with ‘jail, jail and more jail’ for the Charleston 5. In a press release issued the morning after January 20th, Condon spoke of putting dockers ‘under the jail.’

Condon, as a current candidate for Governor, has stated that prison would send a strong message that South Carolina is a strong right to work state. He has been brutally blunt in his anti union position which he wears like a badge of honor. He has declared over and over again that nothing would stop his drive to imprison the five dockers. That has been his message for twenty-two months.

That is why the national steering committee to defend the Charleston 5 led by Ken Riley and the AFL-CIO have built a movement throughout the nation and the world targeting Condon to drop the charges.

Over 23 defense committees have been built in cities. Resolutions, petitions, letters have targeted Condon. The Mayor of Charleston himself wrote a letter to the Attorney General calling on him to drop the charges. The Charleston police made it clear to the Attorney General that they believe that he went too far and they have told him that he should drop the felony charges. Thousands of citizens of Charleston have ‘Free the Charleston 5’ posters posted in front of their homes. As Ken Riley has said on his speaking tour, ‘You would think the Charleston 5 are running for office with all the signs in Charleston.’

It is also well known by Condon and the extreme right that the campaign is mobilizing an International Day of Action for the first day of the trial in cities throughout the country and ports around the world. The significance of the fact that five of those cities are in Bush’s Texas is not lost on the extreme right, I’m sure.

About two weeks ago, Condon went to the South Carolina media and told them that he was receiving tremendous political pressure to drop the charges from all over the nation. He vowed arrogantly, ‘I will never succumb to that pressure!’ Then he dared to say that the ‘ends justifies the means’ is the way of the terrorists and the dockers represent that message. To compare working class sons of Charleston to terrorists is the most despicable, unforgivable raving from this right wing, bombastic Southern despot.

The Charleston 5 lawyers immediately went to court to file a motion against his conduct. Two days after this filing, about 9 days ago, Attorney General Condon called another press conference. This time Condon announced that his office was withdrawing from the case. He designated the case to a local prosecutor and his office is officially out. He cannot reenter into the case under any circumstances.

This was a monumental victory and turning point in this fight. Kenneth Riley & Local 1422 and their allies brought down the extreme right Goliath. ‘I will never succumb’ he had said. But out he went.

The lawyers then went to the court to ask the judge to withdraw the house arrest. For the first time, last Monday the Charleston 5 —Elijah Ford, Peter Washington, Kenneth Jefferson, Jason Edgerton, and Ricky Simmons were out of their homes after 7 PM.

A fighting Local 1422

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 picketlines 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. 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.

This has been and is a battle of global and national proportions which is at it’s essence about uplifting the entire class struggle of our nation. In the context of the current crisis, the results of this fight will have huge ramifications on how the struggle for Peace, economic justice, against racism and for immigrant rights emerges in our country. A victory in the South for labor and against racism will reverberate. It will inspire. It already is inspiring all those who have heard about it.

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. We have to do all we can to help build the November 14th National Day of Action during the trial and to keep the pressure on the extreme right in South Carolina. Freeing the Charleston Five means greater liberty and democracy for us all.


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