More than 100 years ago, with the creation of the Port of Seattle by King County voters, our community decided it would look out as much as look in when making our fortune in the world, establishing our reputation as an international port city.
Over a tense six days this month, that reputation — and our region’s standing as an open trade hub — was challenged after protesters temporarily blocked a cargo ship from unloading.
Activists with the “Block the Boat” campaign targeted the ZIM San Diego, which is owned by the publicly traded ZIM, an Israeli-based shipping company. The effort was part of the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement that seeks to put economic pressure on Israel to withdraw from occupied territories.
Led by the Arab Resource and Organizing Center out of California, the campaign successfully blocked ZIM vessels from unloading in Oakland and Prince Rupert this month.
Thanks to outstanding Seattle leadership, however, the effort failed in Seattle, with its reputation as a reliable international seaport intact. Port of Seattle officials, working with Mayor Jenny Durkan, the Northwest Seaport Alliance, terminal operator SSA Marine and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, were able to accommodate protesters while ensuring the safety of workers. The ship’s cargo was unloaded Friday without incident.
Clearly, protesters have a First Amendment right to make their voices heard and Israel’s policy toward Palestinians demands stronger international scrutiny. Politics aside, our region’s maritime economy, the jobs it sustains and the complex web of domestic and international customers should not be a casualty of politics a world away.
Surrendering to protesters would have set a harmful precedent and caused irreparable damage in a highly competitive environment, said Port of Seattle Commissioner Stephanie Bowman.
“We fight for every single box that comes into the harbor,” she told the editorial board. “Looking as though we’re turning cargo away, that we’re inefficient, that we’re not welcoming, is not the message we want to be sending.”
Our region is vying for discretionary cargo — freight that could go to any other port — not only against West Coast seaports such as Los Angeles-Long Beach and Prince Rupert, but even through the Panama Canal to East Coast terminals.
The math is simple: The more cargo that comes here, the more jobs and opportunities there are for our manufacturers and exporters to ship their merchandise out. Thanks in no small part to the Port of Seattle, Washington was the fourth largest state exporter of goods in 2018, according to federal data, representing 13.8% of the state’s gross domestic product.
Still, some Seattle officials seem confused.
Three Seattle City Council members — Teresa Mosqueda, Kshama Sawant and Lisa Herbold — as well as other elected officials, including state Sen. Rebecca Saldaña and Seattle School Board Vice President Brandon Hersey, signed on to a statement calling for the ZIM San Diego to leave the port.
In a lack of regional awareness, the statement asked that officials “respect the autonomy of Seattle community members and not prioritize the interests of foreign governments,” ignoring that workers and Seattleites who benefit from the port are also members of the community, just as much as those who protest.
The combined ports of Seattle and Tacoma support more than 20,000 jobs and $1.9 billion in labor income, according to a 2019 report by the Northwest Seaport Alliance, and the region’s marine cargo industry produced an average annual wage of $95,000 and directly supported $5.9 billion in business output.
Although the ZIM San Diego was ultimately unloaded, activists see the delay and the response by supportive officials as enough to claim victory, said Alia Taqieddin, a representative of local Palestinian feminist collective Falastiniyat, which helped organized the protest.
True, the incident posed a challenge, but ultimately local officials across jurisdictions stood behind the region and not international politics. Seattle must ensure that the message that we are open for business remains the loudest.
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