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How Dockworkers Are Fighting the Arms Trade

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After President Trump pledged an $8 billion deal to provide Saudi Arabia with weapons last month, the Senate passed three rare bipartisan resolutions intended to prevent the sale from going through. The very same day, the High Court in the United Kingdom—Saudi Arabia’s second-largest arms dealer after the United States—delivered a landmark ruling declaring arms sales to Saudi Arabia illegal on the basis of the Saudi government’s war crimes in Yemen.

Meanwhile, a series of actions by trade unions and community organizations in European ports has been blockading arms shipments on the ground. In a political landscape overwhelmed by increasing militarism and right-wing nationalism, the actions in Europe remind us of the possibilities available to us to build another kind of world through working-class internationalism and solidarity. Government involvement is crucial—but these blockades show that grassroots organizers also have an important role to play.

It started in 2017 at the Port of Bilbao in Spain’s Basque Country, where the Saudi shipping line Bahri was making regular visits to load arms and explosives from Spain. Bahri is Saudi Arabia’s national shipping carrier and an important player in the global shipping industry: It’s the exclusive transporter of weapons purchased overseas by that country. The company’s logistics division operates six vessels connecting the country to the rest of the world, four of which make regular visits to ports of call in North America and two of which make regular visits to ports of call in Europe.

In March 2017, Ignacio Robles, a fireman employed by the Port of Bilbao, refused to collaborate in the loading of a Bahri vessel with arms to Saudi Arabia and was disciplined. Over the course of the next year, a range of grassroots groups in Bilbao—including the refugee-rights organizations Pasaje Seguro and Ongi Etorri, Greenpeace, and the local feminist movement—undertook a series of actions at the port, including scaling Bahri ships. They were protesting Saudi Arabia’s role in Yemen’s humanitarian crisis, which has left 24 million people, or 80 percent of the population, in need of humanitarian assistance, with over half of those suffering at risk of famine. Save the Children estimates that 85,000 children may have died of starvation since 2015. Additionally, more than 3 million people have been internally displaced by the conflict.

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