The Breakdown | Explaining Southern California's economy

Why is Occupy Wall Street protesting the ports?

Protesters blocking the Port of Long Beach
Protesters blocking the Port of Long Beach
Grant Slater/KPCC

It's a good question. What's the relationship between protesting the ascent of a global financial elite and protesting regular old trade in and out of the nation's largest Pacific coast ports?

Evidently, there's a Goldman Sachs tie-in. The Vampire Squid owns 51-percent of SSA Marine, a global mega-shipper that has major operations at the Port of Long Beach. The general idea, according to Occupy the Ports, is that SSA is somehow contributing to America's rather substantial trade imbalance with China. summarizes:

[A] flyer [circulated to protesters] cites a variety of reasons for focusing protests on SSA Marine. These include two specific claims—that the company the company failed to alert workers about potentially hazardous cargo in Oakland, and that it was fined for building an illegal road to a project in Washington. They also point to wider policies that protest organizers say have depressed wages and benefits for truck drivers and de-industrialized the United States so that incoming shipping containers at the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles outnumber outgoing shipping containers 7-1.

Michael Novick, a retired schoolteacher who is part of the Occupy the Port movement, responded to a call from and expanded on the implications of the imbalance of import-export traffic through the local ports.

“If there were as many containers going out as there are coming in there would be 10 times as many jobs,” said Novick, who said he expects Occupy the Ports to protest in front of SSA Marine this Monday from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m.

But coordinating a protest at SSA Marine isn’t easy. The company is so big that it has five locations within the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles: Pacific Container Terminal, Terminal A, Terminal c60, and Pier F, Berth 206 in Long Beach, and Outer Harbor 54/55 in San Pedro.

There's certainly precedent for the Occupy Movement moving on the ports: some of the most violent clashes with authorities that have yet occurred happened when the Occupy Oakland demonstrated at the port in that city last month (they're back today, in solidarity with their fellows up and down the coast).

But we're starting to see some mash-ups of issues, as well as the long tail of the Seattle WTO protest from 1999, which was focused on the evils of globalism far more than the sins of the global financial elite.

I've argued that the main Occupy message is "end the inequality," which is consistent with its "Were are the 99%" rallying cry. This connects the Occupy Movement with the anti-war protests from the Vietnam era, where the simple message was "end the war."

The ports are easy targets because they're such large and obvious symbols of global commerce. And it doesn't hurt that Goldman owns a majority of a key shipping company, in terms of connecting the original Occupy Wall Street complaint with whatever else protesters might think is wrong with the current economy. However, from what I can tell from the company's history, Goldman's interest in SSA Marine is in the form of an equity stake from the investment bank's infrastructure fund — and if you're a Goldman skeptic looking for some small part of the firm that might create jobs in the non-financial economy, this is it.

There's also a lot to be gained from Occupy forging links with labor, reviving a classic progressive alliance that goes back to the New Deal days.

But something else has been revived, and that's the messy coalition of anti-capitalist, anti-free-trade, anti-globalist groups and quasi-groups who took to the streets of Seattle in the late 1990s. This has already begun to dilute the core Occupy message. That might be a good thing, from the movement's perspective, broadening it appeal. 

But it could also be a bad thing, in that it takes the heat off the rogue capitalists who brought us the financial crisis. It's one thing to protest Goldman Sachs itself, quite another to protest a shipping firm that Goldman merely owns a stake in and that, on balance, serves the productive economy rather than the financial-services sector.

There's another factor to consider here and that's the degree to which Occupy is now actively looking for trouble, after having more or less defined itself as a peaceful movement that isn't about undermining the New World Order or anything so conspiracy minded, but rather seeking a more equal distribution of prosperity. The protests at the ports will probably show us how the movement, obviously still in its infancy, will manage its numerous existing and potential constituencies.

Follow Matthew DeBord and the DeBord Report on Twitter.