Using Blockades to Raise Awareness and Mobilize Support

Using boats and other smaller sea vessels to form blockades, and blockades on land as a form of protest, have been historically successful as advocacy tools; able to garner both national and international attention, often producing tangible results. Below are examples of such blockades.

Bangladesh, then known as East Pakistan, declared independence from West Pakistan in 1971. To deny the secession, West Pakistan declared war, with U.S. support. Unknown to the vast majority of the American public, the U.S. was supplying military arms to West Pakistan in an effort to quell the uprising in East Pakistan. Knowing this, in Philadelphia, a group of activists decided in June 1971 to blockade Pakistani freighters from loading arms at U.S. ports. This was done by dispatching small boats that would place themselves physically between the freighters and the dock. The first blockade was held at Baltimore, followed by similar blockades at Philadelphia, New York City, and Boston. This tactic, used for the first time in U.S. history, proved a huge success when the publicity garnered by the blockades caused the International Longshoremen’s Association to shut down all U.S. ports to Pakistani arms shipments. Ultimately, the U.S. Congress responded to the pressure when in November 1971, the State Department announced that there would be no more military arms shipments to Pakistan.

In Australia, a similar blockade was held when the Rainforest Action Groups decided in February 1990 to form a blockade at Darling Harbor in Sydney against a ship carrying rainforest timber from Southeast Asia. Twenty-five environmental activists in kayaks and rubber dinghies formed a physical barrier between the ship and the dock. Similar blockades were held in Melbourne. The publicity from the blockades caused the Building Workers’ Industrial Union, three of the largest plywood manufacturers in the state of Victoria, the Transport Workers’ Union, and various other merchants, to ban the use of rainforest timber. The Waterside Workers Federation showed its support by banning a similar rainforest timber ship.

The environmental group, Greenpeace, have long used the tactic of blockades to promote their causes. Recently, on the morning of June 15, 2015, environmental activists in kayaks attempted to blockade the oil and gas company Shell's Polar Pioneer drilling rig as it sought to leave Seattle for Arctic waters to drill for oil. By this blockade, Greenpeace has successfully drawn attention to its position that arctic oil must be kept in the ground to avoid catastrophic climate change. Greenpeace had previously taken a similar step in September of 2006 in Estonia, when Greenpeace activists successfully blocked the toxic ship, Probo Koala, in the harbour of Paldiski, Estonia causing the Estonian Government to detain and investigate the toxic tanker said to have dumped toxic waste in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, killing seven people and causing 44,000 people to seek medical assistance.

More recently in May 2016, in Newcastle, home to Australia’s biggest coal export port, police have arrested 66 people in an anti-fossil fuel blockade where hundreds of kayaks and boats blocked the entrance to the harbor in an attempt to stop coal ships from leaving or entering the port. Another group blocked train tracks used to transport coal in the city. The blockades were successful, as more than 1,000 people attended, calling for the Australian government to take action on climate change and to reduce the use of fossil fuels. The blockades were part of several anti-fossil fuel actions happening across 12 countries.

New Tactics in Human Rights does not advocate for or endorse specific tactics, policies or issues.

What we can learn from this tactic: 
Due to the size and impact of a blockade, they are a great tactic for increasing the visibility of an issue, as they tend to draw national and international attention. 
Since blockades require a large number of participants, there must be tactics employed to coordinate such an event. Consider mechanisms for outreach that will be necessary to encourage participation. It helps to already have a large support base in order to mobilize people quickly in case an opportunity arises spontaneously. 
Organizations must be aware of the contexts in which they are working and exercise caution when considering this kind of tactic. Blockades are meant to be peaceful demonstrations, and must remain so for them to be effective. This tactic may not be effective or could have the potential to turn violent in regions where freedom of expression is restricted. The safety of the demonstrators should be the number one priority of the organization.