Juneteenth honoured by West Coast port workers in mass walkout

Click to play video: '‘Juneteenth’: march against racism' ‘Juneteenth’: march against racism
Anti-racism demonstrators prepare to take to the streets of Vancouver for a freedom march. Global BC speaks with one of the organizers of that event. – Jun 19, 2020

Ports along the West Coast of Canada and the United States were quiet Friday as workers with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union stopped operations to support racial equality and social justice.

A statement from the union said the eight-hour action was to honour Juneteenth, the celebration of the emancipation of slaves in the United States on June 19, 1865.

READ MORE: Thousands join Vancouver Freedom March against racism

The union has 60,000 members who work in ports in Alaska, British Columbia, south to California and Hawaii.

A statement posted by the Canadian union, which is autonomous from its U.S. counterpart, said the organizations have “a proud history of defending the rights and dignity of people.”

In the United States, the traditional day of celebration turned into one of protest Friday as Americans marked Juneteenth after widespread demonstrations against police brutality and racism.

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Click to play video: 'Juneteenth: Marches held across the U.S. to commemorate end to slavery' Juneteenth: Marches held across the U.S. to commemorate end to slavery
Juneteenth: Marches held across the U.S. to commemorate end to slavery – Jun 19, 2020

In addition to the traditional cookouts and readings of the Emancipation Proclamation — the Civil War-era order that declared all slaves free in Confederate territory — Americans were marching and holding sit-ins or car-caravan protests.

In Toronto, hundreds of protesters staged a peaceful sit-in where they blocked two major downtown roads.

There was a festive atmosphere with songs playing from loudspeakers, protesters dancing and people shouting anti-racism slogans in front of Toronto police headquarters.

READ MORE: Juneteenth: Anti-Black racism protests, coronavirus reshapes holiday this year

People wrote “defund the police” and “no justice, no peace” in chalk on the road in front of the police station, and protesters chanted “Black lives, they matter here.”

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Demonstrators said they were happy to see that anti-racism protests were sustaining momentum and had continued for weeks in the city.

“I hope it keeps on going … the system needs to change,” said Leigh Harrison, who was sitting on the ground during the protest.

Click to play video: 'Anti-Black racism protest in Toronto calls to defund the police on Juneteenth' Anti-Black racism protest in Toronto calls to defund the police on Juneteenth
Anti-Black racism protest in Toronto calls to defund the police on Juneteenth – Jun 19, 2020

Hermes Azam said he wants the protests to result in police being defunded and abolished.

“We’re out here today in solidarity with the protests that are happening around the world against police brutality,” said Azam.

“There are far more talented and capable people who can take care of and secure their own communities.”

Police officers were at the protest directing traffic and blocking entrances to the building.

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READ MORE: Black History Month: What Juneteenth represents for Black Americans

In Vancouver, demonstrators marched through the downtown late Friday afternoon before rallying at Sunset Beach in the west end.

The Black Freedom Society, which organized the march, released a list of demands addressed to the City of Vancouver, the Vancouver Police Department and the local police union.

The demands include the recognition of Aug. 1, Emancipation Day in Britain, Canada and other former colonies, as a provincial holiday.

The society also wants greater inclusion of community groups in determining the police department’s budget and for the reallocation of funds to support youth crisis centres, after school programs and addiction recovery-therapy services for people of colour.

The work stoppage affected the Port of Vancouver, Prince Rupert, Stewart and Chemainus in B.C.

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The Vancouver Fraser Port Authority, which manages the Port of Vancouver, didn’t respond to the union action, but the Prince Rupert Port Authority said it supports the temporary halt of operations to commemorate Juneteenth.

“Now more than ever, it is important to take time to learn from the past, recognize that discrimination and hate has no place in our communities or workplaces, and declare that we are strongest when we work together to build a better future,” the authority said in a statement.

The Port of Tacoma in Washington state issued a statement recognizing Juneteenth.

“With this proclamation, the port is making it clear where we stand: We stand with our African American community members and that Black lives matter,” said Kristin Ang, a Port of Tacoma commissioner, in a tweet posted by the port.

READ MORE: Demonstrators protest anti-Black racism during rallies in Toronto

Rob Ashton, president of Canadian union, said systemic racism is built into all levels of life in the United States, but this country shares the blame, in the past and the present.

“We also had slavery, there was the internment of Japanese Canadians, the incident of the Komagata Maru and the residential schools,” Ashton said in a statement.

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“In present day, we have the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and we see systemic racism in Canadian society.”

In 1914, 376 Indian immigrants on board the Komagata Maru were forced to return to India after spending two months on their ship anchored at Vancouver harbour.

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