Human Rights Defenders Ken Riley and The Charleston Five

“We are proof that working under a union contract can provide a living wage and that being organized means having political influence. That fact is what has scared those who want to maintain the old ways” – Ken Riley, President ILA Local 1422

The Charleston Five are labor rights activists who were arrested and faced politically motivated charges of rioting, conspiracy to riot, and assaulting a police officer after a peaceful union picket was violently broken up by police. Union members were threatened, racially abused, beaten and arrested during a protest that turned into a violent confrontation after the aggressive intervention of the police. During the eighteen months between their indictments and their trial, when the felony charges were dismissed against the five men, they were required to wear electronic ankle bracelets and to observe a 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. curfew. Each of the five faced potential sentences of five years in prison. Front Line is concerned that their prosecution was a politically motivated attempt to intimidate labor rights activists and deny their right to freedom of association.

At 7 p.m. on January 19, 2000, the Danish container ship Skodsborg slipped into the port of Charleston, South Carolina, carrying a load of heavy machinery and bulk paper. The Skodsborg’s owners, the Nordana Corporation, had made arrangements with the Charleston Port Authority and Winia Stevedoring Incorporated for the ship to be unloaded by nonunion dockworkers. This would be the first time such a nonunion arrangement had been made in Charleston. If successful, other shipping companies would surely follow, breaking the back of organized labor in the port.

In response, Charleston Local 1422, a predominantly African American chapter of the International Longshoremen’s Union, planned a peaceful protest for the time the ship was scheduled to dock. Such demonstrations had been a common occurrence in the port. The union and local police had maintained close, cordial relations, with police customarily assisting union members set up picket lines. One-hundred and fifty longshoremen (union dockworkers) planned to show up for the demonstration.

But South Carolina Attorney General Charlie Condon, the state’s top law enforcement officer and an aspiring candidate for governor, decided to take the opportunity to demonstrate his commitment to a right-to-work (anti-union) environment.

Around 2 p.m. on January 19, over 600 law enforcement officers began massing at the port. The force included South Carolina State Troopers, agents of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Authority, Charleston police, and other police officers drawn from jurisdictions around the state.

The force was equipped with full riot gear: sidearm, shotguns, rubber bullets, tear gas canisters, concussion grenades, truncheons, helmets, and shields. Subpoenaed videotapes released subsequently showed the officers being prepared as if for a military battle. The force was accompanied by prison buses, dogs, armored personnel carriers, helicopters, and patrol boats. Police snipers took positions on nearby rooftops. Police cruisers surrounded the port. The union hall was encircled by police preventing ingress and egress. Local jails had been cleared of inmates to make room for the large number of arrests anticipated.

Union local President Ken Riley felt certain that the show of force was intended to provoke and escalate a confrontation. He called an emergency strategy meeting of union leaders. They decided on a course of action intended to avoid such a confrontation: the longshoremen would leave the dock and return at midnight, presumably after the police force had dispersed. But police informants at the meeting quickly relayed this strategy to the force.

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When the longshoremen returned to the port at midnight, the police presence was even larger. Police were lined up in military configurations as far as the longshoremen could see. The piers were lit up by klieg lights. Dockworker Leonard Riley, Ken’s brother, recalls, “It looked like a scene from Vietnam or some war movie”.

The protesters were blocked off, harassed and intimidated, and prevented from taking up their usual positions. The police on the front lines began beating on their shields with batons. They shouted racial taunts and epithets at the predominantly African American demonstrators, including, “Bring it on, niggers! We’re gonna bust your heads tonight”. Officers began poking the demonstrators with batons.

Leonard Riley and others repeated over and over to police officers on the front line, “I need to go in there. I work in there”. Riley and others tried to convince the demonstrators to remain under control. As a way of avoiding a pitched battle, he and fifteen to twenty other demonstrators moved down the pier’s railroad tracks and made progress toward their usual work stations. Police pursued them with dogs. Leonard Riley was apprehended, smashed against a police cruiser, and handcuffed.

Meanwhile, back on the main line the confrontation became more volatile and more physical. Police began surging forward, swinging batons in wide arcs, felling demonstrators. The longshoremen fell back but police pursued them. More epithets were hurled by the police including, “Nigger, you better go back or we’re gonna beat you”, and “This nigger is fighting back!”

Gas canisters were fired. The demonstrators defended themselves and became increasingly physical.

Local 1422 president Ken Riley entered the fray and managed to separate the demonstrators from the police. But as he was persuading the last of the longshoreman to move, he was cracked in the back of the head by a police baton. He fell to the pavement, stunned and bleeding.

The longshoremen reacted to the felling of Riley by losing control and attacking the police line.

The confrontation lasted for one hour. Videos taken at the time showed the police firing rubber bullets and gas canisters, and wielding batons indiscriminately.

Eventually the demonstrators were pushed back to the union local hall. Nine longshoremen were arrested, including Leonard Riley. They were transported in prison buses, kneeling on the floor, handcuffed, heads forcibly bent down. A few of the prisoners vomited from trying to hold the position.

They spent the night in the Charleston city jail charged with misdemeanor trespass and were bonded out the following day.

But two days later, following the public intervention of Attorney General Condon, the nine longshoremen were re-arrested and charged with felony rioting, a charge carrying the possibility of five years in prison. Bond of $100,000 each was posted by family members.

A preliminary hearing was held thirty days later. After ten minutes consideration, a state court judge dismissed all the charges.

But Attorney General Condon persisted. He convened a grand jury and five of the longshoremen were indicted. They were charged with rioting, conspiracy to riot, and assaulting a police officer.

Condon assigned himself to prosecute the case and called for maximum bail, no plea bargain, and no leniency, promising “Jail, jail and more jail” and stating, “South Carolina is a strong right-to-work state, and a citizen’s right not to join a union is absolute and will be fully protected”.

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The arrested longshoremen came to be known as the Charleston Five:

Elijah Ford, Jr., 40, has nearly a quarter century of service on the docks and for the past decade has been a foreman. He is responsible for overseeing the securing of various types of cargo on vessels and containers. "Nordana was a very stressful situation in which we had to protect our work jurisdiction, especially since the company responsible for stevedoring of the vessel is my main employer", he says.

Jason Edgerton, 23, has been an ILA member for three years. As a Clerk/Checker, he is responsible for checking cargoes scheduled to be off-loaded or on-loaded aboard vessels and preparing shipping/receiving paperwork in the various terminal yards. "I appreciate being part of an effort to defend our jobs", he says. "I think what we have done will help other dockworkers and ILA members in the future".

Kenneth Jefferson, 42, an ILA member for seven years, operates industrial equipment, such as fork lifts and yard hustlers. When the melee broke out that resulted in his arrest, Jefferson believes he was defending himself and his job. "When your livelihood is at stake, you have to take a stand."

Pete Washington, Jr., 48, is an all around dockworker and an ILA member for thirteen years. "Working people have to stand up for their rights", he says, "and if a similar situation to Nordana arises in the future, I would again protest to protect my union job".

Ricky Simmons, 38, a twenty-year ILA veteran, feels the union protest against Nordana's hiring of non-union labor was fruitful because since May the shipping line has resumed working with the union. "I'm proud of the fact we're once again working this vessel.”

During the eighteen months between the indictments and their trial, the five men were confined to their homes from the hours of 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. They were required to wear electronic ankle bracelets that monitored their movements at all times. Each of the five faced potential sentences of five years in prison.

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African American and labor rights activists and organizations protested the case, portraying it as emblematic of the treatment accorded black workers in the South.

The South Carolina American Federation of Labor – Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO, the largest labor federation in the USA) formed a Campaign for Workers' Rights in South Carolina to build support for the five. The campaign was joined by Southern progressives and picked up by the national AFL-CIO and by dockworkers worldwide. In June 2001, 5000 people rallied in Charleston. The case became a focal point for defense of Black and union rights in the South. Many came to see a victory in the case as key to organizing a region historically known for endemic racism and opposition to unions.

Swedish Dockworkers’ Union President Bjorn Borg, of the International Dockworkers’ Council (IDC), announced that there would be a day of solidarity action on docks around the world. Longshoremen overseas threatened to close ports. As Ken Riley describes it,

European dockers who heard about the struggle actually went aboard ships and handed letters to the captains of the vessels warning them that if they loaded in Charleston using workers other than the ILA, they wouldn’t get unloaded [back in Europe]. After that began to happen, we did not have to contact Nordana. They contacted us and wanted to sit down and talk.

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In the autumn of 2001, the court issued an order forbidding Attorney General Condon from speaking publicly about the case. But in October 2001, in comments to the press he compared the five longshoremen to the terrorists who had destroyed the World Trade Center on the previous September 11.

Pressure built from the public and government officials for Condon to be taken off the case. He finally removed himself and a new prosecutor was assigned. The house arrest of the five men was immediately lifted.

On November 11, 2001, the day the trial of the Charleston Five was scheduled to begin, all felony charges are dropped. Within days, a deal is reached on the misdemeanor trespass charges. The Five plead “no contest”, and agree to pay a fine of $100 each.

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The consequences of the demonstration and the ensuing confrontation have been dramatic for both the individuals and the institutions involved.

The Charleston Five returned to their jobs on the docks. While their job duties have remained the same, their experience has given them new commitment to union organizing.

Shortly after his release, Leonard Riley returned to work at the port. For four months after his release he was required to report on his whereabouts and seek special permission for travel. For six months he was prohibited from assembling on the dock or participating in demonstrations. He describes the current atmosphere in the port as much more tense and intimidating, with Port Authority police constantly patrolling and city police mounting a presence whenever ships come in.

To shield them from taunts and insults at school, Leonard Riley has tried to explain the position in which he found himself to his three children. He tells them how he had to “struggle for the right to make a living”.

Following the blow from a police baton, Ken Riley’s head wound required twelve stitches to be closed. Before the demonstration, Governor Jim Hodges had nominated Riley to a post on the Board of the State Port Authority. Afterward the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce and its member businesses mounted a campaign to prevent his appointment, fearing undue labor influence on the operation of the port. Eventually Governor Hodges succumbed to the pressure and rescinded the nomination. Although Riley has become even more active in state politics, the demonstration has precluded the possibility of formal governmental roles.

Twenty-seven longshoremen, including Ken Riley, were sued by Winia Stevedoring Incorporated for loss of income. In mediation a settlement was reached requiring the ILA to pay Winia $90,000.

In the primary election for Governor of South Carolina in 2002, Charlie Condon received less than ten percent of the vote. He currently holds no public office.

Governor Jim Hodges lost his bid for re-election in 2002.

The trials of the Charleston Five and the support they received from national and international labor and civil rights organizations resulted in a net gain for the labor movement in Charleston, in South Carolina, and in the southern United States. The position of Winia Stevedoring and similar non-union companies was significantly weakened. The International Longshoremen’s Union primacy in the port was firmly established. A new coalition of labor unions, civil rights groups and community organizations has emerged.

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Labor Rights, including the right to be a member of a trade union and to freedom of association, are guaranteed in international human rights standards and international labor standards. The United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders includes in Article 5:

For the purpose of promoting and protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms, everyone has the right, individually and in association with others… to meet or assemble peacefully… to form, join and participate in non-governmental organizations, associations or groups.

Ken Riley sees the situation this way:

ILA Local 1422 is a predominately African American union and we are active in the community and in state politics. We are proof that working under a union contract can provide a living wage and that being organized means having political influence. That fact is what has scared those who want to maintain the old ways.

Our deep sea local was formed in 1936. We have two white members. The clerks and checkers local, on the other hand, is all white. The first blacks are just now trying to make their way into that local. That's the way it’s been throughout the history of the South, most of your southern ports were like this….it's not by accident, blacks were recruited to do the hard, back-breaking tasks on the waterfront.

The attacks on us today are a direct result of our awakening to the fact that we do have responsibilities that extend beyond our membership, to their families, their community, and to our state. We are supposed to stay in our places. As long as we were being quiet and dormant, focusing only on our work, we were ok. But when you get involved, you are singled out in our state. Especially in a state where unions are not welcomed, where there's open hostility toward you. It's not a subtle thing, it's not a hidden thing. When the Republican Party [of South Carolina] can announce that the two top items on their agenda for the year 2000 was number one, education, and number two, to rid the state of labor unions and union influence in state government, you know it's open season. It's not something you have to wonder about.

South Carolina is like a Third World country for working people. That’s actually the way we’re being marketed. We have some of the most productive workers in the world, paid twenty percent less than the national average. There is a hostile climate toward unions: South Carolina has the lowest union density in all fifty states, except North Carolina.

Bill Fletcher of the AFL-CIO, says,

When we look at the case of the Charleston Five, we have to look beyond the individuals and the local union….The conviction of the Charleston Five could [have] inspire[d] a wave of sentiment on the part of government authorities and employers that this kind of massive repression is acceptable and more importantly, that they can get away with it.

Business in South Carolina and the politicians who support it are even proposing to give people the ability to file harassment charges against union organizers. Think about the chilling effect this will have, not just on paid union organizers, but on volunteer and rank-and-file members participating in union organizing drives. Workers will have to stop and think, ‘Am I going to be sued by someone if I go to someone’s door to talk to them about the union, and I come across someone manipulated by the company into making these charges?’

This is something we see in the US time and time again. When capital wants to implement certain changes, they often go after people of color first. They hope they’ll frame the issue in such a way that whites will decide that the issue is irrelevant to them. ILA 1422 is a largely African American local. Moving against them is a way of introducing a very definite change for the worse in the whole community, for labor-capital relations in general in South Carolina. This is a direct attack on the freedom of association. It’s a direct attack on the right of workers to peacefully protest. It’s a direct attack on the right of workers to organize.

Ken Riley concludes,

Sometimes something has to happen like this for everyone to wake up and realize it is time to get together. It's been a tough time waking people up, but I think it's starting to happen. Sometimes things happen and you don't recognize right away what this is going to mean. Certainly we didn't think it would have meant all of this when we were out there that night getting our heads bashed in. But it didn't take long to realize the community was there.