Intervention – “Block the Boat, Float the Flotilla: Palestine, Surplus, and Solidarity”

Nikolas Kosmatopoulos, American University of Beirut / Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton

“Non carichiamo armi per Israele” (“We do not load arms for Israel”) was the decision by the Italian trade unions CGIL, CISL and UIL and their transport affiliates, FILT, FIT and Uiltrasporti, in light of the recent violence in Jerusalem and Gaza. Responding to the Palestinian call for global solidarity, Italian dockworkers in the ports of Ravenna and Livorno refused to load ships belonging to ZIM, the Israeli transport giant. The trade union L’Unione Sindacale di Base (USB) said that the Livorno port will not be an accomplice in the massacre of Palestinians as the cargo contained weapons and explosives that could be used to kill the Palestinian population. Similarly, South African dockworkers boycotted the offloading of the ship Zim Shanghai docked at Durban container terminal. The South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (SATAWU) said that the decision came after calls by the Palestine General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU) to refuse to unload Israeli ships and goods from seas and airports, and that the move was part of a global set of actions against ZIM. Later in the week, at the US Port of Oakland, protesters carried signs with slogans calling to “Block the Boat”, “Shut Down Apartheid”, “Stop All US Aid to Israel”, “Free Palestine”. The action, carried out by the Arab Resource and Organizing Center (AROC), succeeded in blocking another ZIM-owned ship from offloading at the port. The AROC announced that the dock workers in the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 10 honored the six simultaneous community pickets and did not work the ship. The dockers’ decision brought success to the action and enthusiasm to the participants, as well as to this commentator on an AROC Bay Area social media page:

Wow! ILWU local 10. My father’s and grandma’s union. The ILWU local 10 refused to work ships to or from Viet Nam during the war. Right on.

The comment illustrates a long history of dockers’ support and solidarity to popular struggles for justice, liberation and antiracism around the globe (Cole 2018). If mobilizing against the Vietnam war and the South African apartheid were the cause célèbre of dockworker power during the Cold War, Palestine has become the beacon of dockworkers’ strikes after its end. Today, port protests certainly highlight an often overseen terraqueous component in the international Palestine solidarity movement (Kosmatopoulos 2019). Crucially, however, they allude to something much more structural, namely Palestine’s centrality in global terraqueous geographies of surplus and solidarity.

Today, there is an unmistakable renewed interest in the sea. While the Cold War witnessed the expansion of militarized, state-funded oceanographic science (Oreskes 2021), there is currently a drive to territorialize the oceans through (social) science, technology, law, and the economy. New mapping technologies are bounding and fixing oceanic space; remote sensing devices are chronicling the more-than-human as accessible resources; mechanical, biological, and aqua-cultural advances are assembling into new foundations for corporate investment and state sponsored “blue growth”; military, security, and extractionist regimes are expanding their jurisdictions, and previously impossible territorializations are emerging along with new forms of regional, national, and international planning and technocratic governance.

To these conventional masters of the sea, new actors have broken floating ground. Principal among them are the sea-crossing refugees and contemporary maroons, challenging state borders and terracentric spatial orders. Also central are dockworkers fighting against the automatization of the ports and the precarization of their labor, as well as mobile laborers on ships suffering under deteriorating protection regimes through Flags of Convenience. Others are refugee rescuers, that become witnesses to state neglect at sea while saving lives in transition, and activist-humanitarian campaigners, such as the Ships to Gaza (Kosmatopoulos 2019), that take to the sea to protest sieges and challenge territorial enclosures. These are the more recent articulations of the battle for the seas that critical scholarship has begun to take note of but has only scratched its surface.

In this text, I draw on fieldwork in the civil society campaign “A Ship to Gaza”, docked in Piraeus, Greece, and on related ethnographic moments around the same port to suggest that terraqueous geographies of solidarity could be better understood within a recent context of a rising terraqueous cosmopolitics. These can be sea-based or sea-oriented movements, actions and institutions that objectively challenge the postcolonial constitution of maritime (b)orders while promoting a vision of a common world beyond and against geographies of surplus. Today, global commercial ports such as Livorno, Ravenna, Durban, Oakland, and Piraeus constitute nodes in terraqueous geographies of surplus and solidarity at the top of which rests Palestine, the prototypical site both of surplus population management and popular solidarity mobilization. Thus, as a blueprint of despair and opportunity (Shaw and Waterstone 2021), Palestine becomes an analytic compass that can help us navigate global geographies of surplus and solidarity, some of which are resolutely terraqueous.

Ports, Camps, Borders: Terraqueous Geographies of Surplus

Scene I: Elefsina Refugee Camp, Piraeus Municipality, Greece

Two men step out of a van that had just parked next to the wall of the refugee camp. They stop to talk to the Afghan kids playing outside the camp, asking them about their life there. Refugee camps in Greece are subject to suspicion, securitization, and strict state controls. Hence a few NGO staff – mainly camp teachers – approach the men to inquire about the aim of their visit. The men claimed to be geographers in an Israeli university, currently studying the Piraeus port. Apparently, they found the camp by happenstance and wanted to include it to their field observations. However, the NGO staff noted that the site is off the beaten track, while others noticed that a few Israeli researchers were already inside the camp on an official tour guided by the camp manager. Alarmed, the NGO staff, an anthropologist among them, followed the thread of the visit upwards. Their research took them to government plans to re-organize the camps as closed-off militarized structures, for which they sought the expertise of Israeli state-science nexus (Machold 2018).

In the story, the port features merely as the narrational entry-point to the camp. Yet, developments during the last decade suggest a stronger affinity between the archetypal sites of the port and the camp, as highly securitized sites of surplus control. As mentioned above, refugees in Greece are increasingly subject to enclosures, torture, and thanatopolitical practices akin to the force of the prison-industrial complex applied on surplus populations (McBrien 2016). The Elefsina camp is a case in point. A few kilometers further, the port of Piraeus has been a prime case of clampdown on labor rights and social protections. In recent years, the container facility was divided into two parts: one run by the Greek port authority (OLP) and staffed by unionized labour; and the other leased to a local subsidiary (PCT) of the Chinese state-owned enterprise COSCO, which introduced a highly precarious labour regime (Neilson 2018).

As strategic sites for the transport and circulation of surplus value, seaports undergo transformations that render them a “forgotten space” (Sekula and Burch 2010) external to urban waterfronts and labor protection regimes. Through containerization and automation (Campling and Colás 2021), ports are expected to facilitate the flow of surplus value. As strategic sites for the concentration of surplus life, refugee camps and other borderlands are subject to immobilization and state violence (Mezzadra and Neilson 2013). Through enclosure and surveillance, camps are constructed to block the flow of surplus humanity.

Blockades, Rescues, Flotillas: Terraqueous Geographies of Solidarity

Scene II: Industrial Terminal, Piraeus Port, Greece

A middle-aged man enters the terminal on foot. He walks by a swath of electric wheelchairs waiting to be loaded onto the ship “Free Mediterranean”. Using a makeshift bridge, he climbs onto the repurposed bulk carrier. He is a port worker in Piraeus, answering a call by the union to volunteer for the ship to depart for Gaza. With him, a motley crew of migrants, refugees, dockers, and precarious youth paint, clean, and prepare the ship that carries humanitarian aid to the besieged population. The so-called “Gaza Freedom Flotilla” in spring 2010 was the ninth and by far the largest attempt to break the Israeli embargo on Gaza. Organizers were the US Free Gaza Movement, the Greek Ship to Gaza, the Swedish Ship to Gaza, the Turkish NGO IHH, and others. Initially the fleet consisted of eight ships, but only six sailed together. Two more ships, the Irish Rachel Corrie and the US Challenger II, failed to join, due to technical failures, or possibly sabotage. The ships carried 10,000 tons of humanitarian aid, consisting of building materials required for the reconstruction of houses, along with generators, prefabricated homes, drugs, medical equipment, children’s toys, school materials, and more. Among the 700 participants were academics, artists, doctors, lawyers, journalists, trade unionists, and lawmakers from dozens of countries, including parliamentarians from Malaysia, Egypt, Sweden, Germany, and Israel/Palestine (Kosmatopoulos 2019).

To be sure, the list includes civil society members with a rather high social standing, such as lawyers, academics, parliamentarians. However, these joined only at the last minute. During my fieldwork I could observe on a daily basis how the necessary and crucial labor – both practical and political – was undertaken by that motley crew of precarious port-workers, futureless students, and contemporary maroons and refugees. Their participation indicates more than just a civil society initiative mobilized mainly by humanitarian sentiments. Rather, it reveals an alliance of humanity rendered wasteful through multiple waves of structural, often spectacular, and almost always slow, violence. Navigating hostile regimes – migration control and labor precarity – this surplus humanity discovered in terraqueous solidarity a geography of internationalism (Featherstone 2015) and shared cosmology.

Terraqueous geographies of solidarity identify those forces that counter and complicate the expansion of terraqueous geographies of surplus. The operational logic of terraqueous solidarity often challenges and inverts the logic of surplus. Sabotages, strikes, chokepoint blockages (Alimahomed-Wilson and Ness 2018) freeze the movement of merchandise, inflicting immense costs to a time-sensitive global commodity chain. Solidarity flotillas and refugee rescuers facilitate the movement of surplus humanity, unfolding an emerging atlas of alter-logistics (Chua et al. 2018).

Terraqueous solidarity is a common thread to current movements undertaken at sea or onshore by diverse actors: refugees and rescuers, striking dockworkers, Palestine solidarity flotillas. Regarding them as components in a rising terraqueous cosmopolitics arguably draws a new political map of the sea, beyond the anti-politics of contemporary humanitarianism (Ticktin 2014) and the shortsightedness of terracentric analysis. This conceptual move inadvertently carves out a novel political space of imagination that de facto operates beyond state territoriality, allowing – even for a fluvial moment – hidden histories of internationalism (Featherstone 2012), novel political practices and cosmopolitical alliances to proliferate. While keeping in mind the ambivalent relationship between capitalism and the sea (Campling and Colás 2021), the sea as a rising topos for cosmopolitics deserves scholarly attention and epistemic care. This rising is yet another debt to Palestine.


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