Workers Vanguard No. 940

31 July 2009


Two Black Longshoremen Face Second Trial

Drop the Charges Against Harrison and Ruffin Now!

OAKLAND—For two long years the Yolo County California District Attorney has relentlessly prosecuted Aaron Harrison and Jason Ruffin, two black Bay Area longshoremen caught in the cross hairs of the government’s “war on terror.” Their only “crime” was calling their union for advice after security guards demanded to search their car as they were returning to work after lunch in the Port of Sacramento. A Yolo County jury was unable to reach a verdict on the trumped-up charges of “resisting arrest” after a nine-day trial last January. The court has now severed their cases and they face separate retrials.

The D.A. has persistently tried to strong-arm Harrison and Ruffin into accepting a settlement in which the prosecution would be dropped if the two agree to participate in an Orwellian court-approved “diversion” program that requires those completing it to admit in writing, and make “correctives” to, “misconceptions” that supposedly led to their arrest. The arrest and charges would also remain on their records. Harrison and Ruffin did nothing wrong! The two are courageously standing up for their union rights and refusing to let themselves be branded criminals, the fate that usually befalls victims of racist cop brutality under the system of capitalist injustice.

The San Francisco Bay Area’s International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 10 membership has voted to stand behind Harrison and Ruffin. The union organized defense rallies outside the Yolo County courthouse in October 2007 and in October 2008 that brought together ILWU members from the Bay Area, Sacramento and Stockton, as well as other unionists. Supporters of the Labor Black League for Social Defense, which is fraternally allied with the Spartacist League, joined the rallies (see WV No. 900, 12 October 2007 and WV No. 926, 5 December 2008). The June meeting of the union’s Longshore Division Caucus voted additional funds to the local to help cover legal fees. What’s also needed is a mobilization of the ILWU membership and other unionists at the upcoming court proceedings. The union must aggressively pursue the defense of Harrison and Ruffin, whose blatant frame-up demonstrates the union-busting purpose of the “war on terror.”

The domestic aim of this “war”—which the Democratic administration of Barack Obama has taken over from the Bush gang with only a few cosmetic adjustments—is to intimidate and repress immigrants, blacks and the entire working class. This can be seen clearly in the Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) program, which has now been implemented at ports across the country (see WV No. 936, 8 May). Over 1.5 million workers have had to submit to criminal background and immigration checks before being issued the biometric ID card now required for unescorted entrance into port facilities. Workers lacking U.S. citizenship or legal immigration status have been permanently barred from working in the ports, as have workers convicted of certain felonies. Port workers with selected other felony convictions—including fraud and drug possession with intent to distribute—have been denied cards if their convictions were within the last seven years or if they were released from incarceration in the last five. A recent report by the National Employment Law Project (NELP), which the ILWU engaged to help longshoremen denied TWIC cards navigate the appeals process, reveals that some 54,000 port workers were rejected. These rejections were based on FBI criminal record files, some 50 percent of which are known to be inaccurate or out of date!

Those who received denials were disproportionately black and Latino, as one would expect—the racist “war on drugs” (currently responsible for over 20 percent of the felony cases in the U.S.) has particularly devastated the ghettos and barrios. NELP makes much of the fact that almost all workers who appealed inaccurate records, as well as those with disqualifying offenses who applied for a waiver, were eventually granted one, though many underwent significant financial hardship while they waited (an average of seven months). But the bottom line is that tens of thousands of port workers have lost their jobs. Fully one-quarter of those denied cards—13,148—never appealed. Another 10,000 workers were fired by angry employers because the TWIC screening process left them without a card in time for the deadline. And the report doesn’t even mention the unknown number of workers—including many of the mainly immigrant, non-union port truckers—who never even applied, knowing they would be rejected.

The ILWU, following the capitalist Democratic Party that they slavishly support, has criminally joined in the chorus for increased “port security.” A March statement by the ILWU International actually called for more “staffing and resources to properly administer the TWIC program,” insisting, “While the ILWU has always cooperated with the TWIC program, it has been on the basis that the program is administered fairly and non-discriminatorily.” Now, after tens of thousands of port workers have lost their jobs, the ILWU Longshore Division Caucus has finally voted to “seek the abandonment of the TWIC program altogether” on the basis that…“it does not actually improve port security” and “improperly inserts the employers (many of them foreign) into a United States government program” (Dispatcher, July/August 2009)!

These latter two statements embrace “port security” and “national unity” patriotism and belie any genuine opposition to TWIC. In fact, the ILWU bureaucrats tout Democratic Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez’s proposed legislation to streamline, not eliminate, TWIC. Acceptance of the capitalist government’s “war on terror” crackdown on the docks undermines the defense of the union and its members, such as Harrison and Ruffin. Down with TWIC and the Maritime Transportation Security Act that mandated it!

We publish below a July 16 protest letter to the Yolo County District Attorney sent by the Partisan Defense Committee, a class-struggle, non-sectarian legal and social defense organization associated with the Spartacist League.

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It is an outrage that your office continues to prosecute two black longshoremen, Aaron Harrison and Jason Ruffin from Bay Area International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 10, who are being railroaded to separate retrials on August 31 and September 14. In August 2007, Harrison and Ruffin entered work at the Sacramento port in the morning after being cleared by security. On returning to work after lunch, they were stopped by the security guards, who demanded to search their car, citing the maritime security regulations that are part of the government’s “war on terror.” While the two union longshoremen were calling their Local 10 business agent for advice, the guards called in the notoriously racist West Sacramento police. Harrison and Ruffin were dragged from their car, assaulted, maced, handcuffed and thrown in jail on charges of trespassing and resisting arrest. The trespassing charge was later dropped, but for two years the state has continued to press its anti-union prosecution of the two longshore workers whose only “crime” was trying to return to work and appealing to their union for help in doing so!

A joint trial of the two on the trumped up charges of “resisting arrest” resulted in a hung jury last January. In the past, they have rejected a settlement that would have left the original arrest on their records and compelled them to complete a demeaning and self-incriminating “diversion” program. Now Ruffin and Harrison face vindictive retrial.

The persecution of these two union members places them on the front line of the defense of labor and immigrant workers against the government’s attacks under the so-called “port security” laws. The Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC), implemented at West Coast ports this past spring as part of a “national security” program, vastly increases the government’s ability to ride roughshod over workers on the docks. It is in the direct interest of dockworkers and the labor movement to defend Harrison and Ruffin as part of the defense of the entire working class. We demand: Drop all charges against Harrison and Ruffin now!