LOS ANGELES – Momentous gains have been made in the case of five South Carolina dockworkers known as the Charleston 5. After almost two years under house arrest, the five were released Oct. 12.
Their release came days after the announcement by Republican State Attorney General Charles Condon that his office was withdrawing from the case and assigning it to a local prosecutor.
‘This is a huge victory for our cause,’ said Ken Riley, president of Local 1422 of the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA), who has spearheaded the national campaign to free the five. Riley, who was addressing students and faculty at the Labor Center at UCLA as part of a national tour, had just received the news of the release.
‘We have been fighting for the end to house arrest for so long that I think I am in shock that it has finally happened,’ said an obviously happy Riley.
When asked to speculate on what the five would be doing that night, Riley said, ‘I’m not sure about tonight but I can tell you what Peter Ford will be doing Friday night. He will be watching his son play football at his high school game for the first time.’
Prior to the house arrest, which only allowed the five to leave their homes from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. to go to work, Ford had not missed a high school football game in years.
The fact that his own son was now playing football and he could not watch him was part of the cruelty of the unjust house arrest. The five had been prevented from visiting sick relatives, attending funerals, going to church, attending graduations and being with their families on many important occasions.
The case began Jan. 20, 2000, when 600 riot-geared police attacked a lawful picketline of 150 members of ILA Locals 1422 and 1771 who were protesting the use of non-union labor by Nordana Shipping at the Port of Charleston.
Police arrested eight dockers on misdemeanor charges. Condon, who is now running for governor, intervened and raised the charges to rioting and conspiracy to riot, which are felonies. If convicted, the five could be sentenced to five to 10 years of prison.
Their lawyers have now filed motions to dismiss the charges. At press time, the judge still had not ruled on these motions.
At a packed reception for Riley by the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, the longshore local president was greeted with rousing applause and cheers as he spoke of the significance of Condon’s withdrawal from the case and the resulting release. He told the exuberant audience that only days before Condon’s withdrawal, the Attorney General had vowed that under no circumstances would he succumb to political pressure. ‘But succumb he did,’ said Riley.
Riley emphasized that the national organizing of defense committees and support for the five in cities throughout the nation, along with the organizing of grass-roots backing in Charleston itself, were the critical factors leading to Condon’s withdrawal.
‘Condon was determined to jail these men,’ said Donna Dewitt, president of the South Carolina AFL-CIO. ‘He thought he could ride into the governor’s office on the backs of five innocent men. I think he resigned because he knows how flimsy his case is and didn’t want to be publicly embarrassed by losing in court.’
Dewitt said the response to the Charleston Five proves that it is possible to win, even in South Carolina, where fewer than 4 percent of eligible workers belong to unions. ‘I think it shows that the labor movement can move into the South and score some important victories,’ she said.
‘If final justice is to be achieved, now the focus must go to Nov. 14,’ said Riley. This is the first day of the trial, when an international day of action in support of the five is planned in cities across the nation and ports across the globe. John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, has issued a call to all Central Labor Councils to participate in the local events, which will include rallies, press conferences, picketlines and other actions.
For more information on the International Day of Action, contact the South Carolina AFL-CIO at (803) 798-8300 or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
– Fred Gaboury contributed to this article.