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Charleston 5, plus eight
Date 08/03/27/00:05

Journal of Commerce
March 24, 2008 Monday

Charleston 5, plus eight

THE TEAR GAS HAS dissipated, the injuries have healed, and the criminal charges have been dismissed, but more than eight years later, the case of the Charleston 5 still reverberates. It began on the night of Jan. 19, 2000, in a violent confrontation between 660 riot-equipped police officers and a crowd of International Longshoremen's Association members protesting Nordana Line's hiring of a non-union stevedore at Charleston.

State port officials and police had organized the show of force after weeks of increasingly assertive ILA protests. The resulting melee left several people injured and eight dockworkers charged with misdemeanor trespassing. Later, a politically ambitious state attorney general secured felony rioting indictments against five of the longshoremen, transforming the case into a protracted legal battle and a labor cause celebre'.

Authors Susan Erem and E. Paul Durrenberger examine the controversy in a new book, "On the Global Waterfront: The Fight to Free the Charleston 5" (Monthly Review Press). This is not a dispassionate, down-the-middle history. The authors are labor historians and writers, and sometimes they try a bit too hard to frame the controversy against a backdrop of globalization and South Carolina's segregated past and conservative present. But their book offers a fascinating perspective on the case.

The book's hero is Kenneth Riley, president of Charleston's largest ILA local. Riley wasn't one of the Charleston 5. When the arrests were made, he was at a hospital getting 12 stitches after a nightstick's blow to his head. But after the felony charges were filed against his colleagues, he emerged as their leading spokesman.

Riley thought that John Bowers, then the ILA's president, acted too slowly in supporting the Charleston 5. Bowers insisted that he did all that he legally could do while working behind the scenes, and that attorneys initially advised that union funds couldn't be spent on the Charleston 5's defense.

The ILA's response to the case was complicated by Riley's involvement in the Longshore Workers' Coalition, an intra-union reform group, and by his acceptance of support from the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and from leftist groups that are anathema to Bowers and the ILA.

The Nordana situation eventually was settled through the involvement of the International Transport Workers Federation, whose Spanish dockworkers affiliate refused to work Nordana ships. Legal proceedings against the Charleston 5 dragged on for nearly two years before the charges - which to most observers seemed excessive - were dismissed.

Erem and Durrenberger analyze these and other events with a strong point of view, and some of their descriptions and conclusions will be disputed. However, "On the Global Waterfront" is a book worth reading by anyone seeking to understand what happened on and since the night of Jan. 19, 2000.

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