The charges stem from a Jan. 20, 2000, battle in which union members resisted an attack by 600 heavily armed riot police who used shock grenades, smoke bombs, dogs, and tear gas against an ILA picket line. The union was holding its fourth informational picket to protest the use of a nonunion stevedore outfit by the Nordana Lines shipping company. A number of workers were injured by the police assault. At one point the longshoremen's president, Kenneth Riley, sought to mediate but received a baton blow to the head, which required 12 stitches.
After charges against nine workers were thrown out of court, the state attorney general got a grand jury to indict the five unionists on charges of criminal conspiracy, riot, and assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature. These felony charges carry penalties of up to 10 years in prison.
The five who are now facing trial cannot leave their homes at night unless going to work or a union meeting and cannot leave the state. The nonunion contractor that the longshoremen were picketing has also filed suit against the union--ILA Local 1422--and 27 of its members. This is despite the fact that by last May the union had negotiated an agreement with the shipping company.
Union members have been winning solidarity for this fight across the country and internationally. For example, Riley reported to the teach-in that he had just returned from a meeting of the International Dockworkers Council in Barcelona, Spain. In a letter addressed to South Carolina attorney general Charles Condon, that organization promised to back the workers from Charleston "to the fullest legal extent possible." Meanwhile, as more people around the country find out about the case, unionists and others are planning actions on the day the trial begins.
Armond Derfner, a civil rights attorney representing the ILA, pointed out at the teach-in that the membership of the local is overwhelmingly Black and said that the case "is the most important civil rights case in the South today."
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