Local longshore president among protesters arrested at EGT terminal

2011-09-21T22:45:00Z 2012-10-24T14:13:10Z Local longshore president among protesters arrested at EGT terminalBy Erik Olson / The Daily News Longview Daily News
September 21, 2011 10:45 pm  • 

Law enforcement officers arrested a dozen protesters — mostly women in addition to three local longshore leaders  on the tracks outside the EGT grain terminal Wednesday morning after scores of law officers clad in riot gear arrived to protect a train that arrived earlier in the day.

Among the arrested were local longshore president Dan Coffman, who sat on the tracks with nine women, all wives and mothers of union members, according to union officials.

Two other longshore union leaders, Byron Jacobs, 28, and Kelly Muller, 54, both of Longview, also were arrested. They were pepper-sprayed by police as they scuffled with officers when one of the protesters complained police injured her while arresting her.

After a brief delay, the mile-long unit train proceeded into the terminal shortly after 10:30 a.m. as the scene was being cleared. Later in the day, leaders of Local 21 of the International Warehouse and Longshore Union urged members not to retaliate by walking off other jobs or damaging the grain terminal, located at the Port of Longview.

Law enforcement officers responded from Cowlitz, Lewis, Thurston, Clark and King counties, the cities of Longview and Kelso and Burlington Northern Santa Fe.

"It's an unfortunate incident that happened. It's dividing the community. It would be easy for this not to become a physical incident by the folks that are protesting. They could easily get their word out by not violating the law," said Grover Laseke, a Cowlitz County sheriff's office spokesman.

"It's not our goal to be on one side or the other. (Sheriff Mark Nelson) is trying to be in the middle of the road. His job is to enforce the law and keep the peace. And that's what he's been doing," Laseke added.

In a written statement, officials with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union said people were exercising their First Amendment rights and that the police were wasting taxpayer dollars arresting the protesters. They accused law enforcement of using excessive force.

The Port of Longview stopped operations for about a half hour Wednesday morning when longshoremen walked off the job, port spokeswoman Ashley Helenberg said.

ILWU Coast Committeeman Leal Sundet said, "Longview longshoremen stood down from their jobs for 30 minutes in silence as a unit train rolled into EGT under the escort of police paid for by the very workers in the community of Cowlitz County that the company is undermining and exploiting."

Cowlitz County sheriff's deputies said they arrested all of the picketers on suspicion of second-degree trespassing and blocking a train, both misdemeanors. Wednesday's arrests brought the total number of arrests related to the long-running labor dispute to about 135.

The union contends that EGT's lease with the port obligates the company to hire Local 21 workers. EGT disputes that and is in a federal court battle with the port that is expected to be decided next year.

Jacobs was arrested on suspicion of third-degree assault and intimidating a public servant, both felonies, and four misdemeanors. Muller was also arrested on suspicion of three felonies, including second-degree assault and second-degree criminal trespassing, according to the Cowlitz County jail. Jacobs is secretary of Local 21, and Muller is a member of the local's executive board.

A dozen protesters arrived in three vehicles about 9:45 a.m., formed a line across the tracks and held pickets. The only law-enforcement vehicle there at that time was from Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad.

After about 10 minutes, law-enforcement officers began arriving on the scene in front of the slow-moving train. They arrested Coffman first and hauled him to the side of the tracks. Police then arrested a 57-year-old Phoebe Wiest, the mother of a longshoreman, and she began screaming that officers were hurting her arm. (see sidebar)

Muller, who had been standing to the side of the tracks, then rushed on the rails and tried to protect Wiest. Jacobs, who was standing nearby, smashed his sign on the ground and joined in the fray. About eight to 10 law-enforcement officers grabbed the two men and shot pepper spray into their faces and forced them into the ground. They continued to use pepper spray until both stopped struggling.

Union officials said Wiest was taken to St. John Medical Center for treatment of her injured arm. She was treated and released, according to the hospital.

Meanwhile, the train stopped a couple hundred feet in front of the protesters. Police then cleared the remaining picketers away from the tracks in about 10 minutes. Longview Fire medical personnel attended to Jacobs and Muller for about a half hour, flushing their eyes with water that drenched their shirts.

When asked if his actions were worth the pepper-spraying and arrest, Muller replied, "Yes, it was. Absolutely. I'll do it a hundred times. I'd do it every time. It's justice."

Sheriff's deputies also alleged Jacobs had threatened to sexually assault a deputy's relative in a separate incident on Sept. 16 when they were arresting another union member. In a statement released by the union, Jacobs said the deputy misunderstood him when he complained about the arrest of the other longshoreman.

"I said, ‘You're doing this in front of his kids?' The officer twisted it around as if I has said I wanted to do something with his wife. I told him my name and he started patting me down," Jacobs said in the statement.

Sheriff's deputies identified other protesters arrested Wednesday as Megan Jacobs, 23, Longview; Andrea Holde, 30, Longview; Cara Lindemann, 34, Kelso; Karen Mitchell, 38, Kelso; Melissa Bloomfeldt, 26, Kelso; Erica Farland, 32, Castle Rock; Jennifer Wood, 34, Kelso; and Kahne Witham, 32, Longview

Once the picket was cleared, a SWAT team clad in black armored riot gear, including billy clubs and rifles, marched in formation to the rail crossing. An armored riot vehicle with a gun turret at the top, which police call the "Peacekeeper," also stood guard as the train passed.

The 107-car train started in Cheney in Eastern Washington carrying wheat, BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas said. The mile-long train encountered no protesters in Vancouver, where ILWU supporters held up a train bound for EGT for a couple hours Sept. 7.

ILWU Local 21 Vice President Jake Whiteside said union members weren't surprised police amassed a large force, but they didn't expect the scene to become violent.

"I was surprised at the force (that was used) on the women," Whiteside said.

He added that union leadership is telling members not to retaliate or walk off the job. The union does not want a repeat Sept. 7 and Sept. 8, when rank-and-file members shut down the ports of Seattle and Tacoma and broke into the EGT terminal and damaged the train, he said.

Before he was arrested, Coffman prepared a written statement that said: "Citizens pay for law enforcement to protect the safety of local residents, not to act as private security detail for a multinational corporation that makes billions of dollars in profits every year. EGT has a choice: to play by the same rules as every other money-making grain export terminal in the Northwest or continue to create chaos in the community by breaking the rules."

By blocking a train for a second time, the ILWU puts itself at risk of again being cited for contempt of court. U.S. District Court Judge Ronald Leighton last week found the union in contempt for its actions at EGT Sept. 7 and Sept. 8, saying the union violated his injunction against blocking trains and refraining from violent protests.

"This grain delivery is an important step toward completing the facility's testing phase and bringing it online. Nevertheless, the ILWU's actions are in direct defiance of the law and the ruling of a federal judge. No citizens are entitled to act outside the law, and ILWU members are no exception. We appreciate the continuing efforts of local law enforcement to ensure the safety of workers and businesses at the port and allow commerce to proceed," EGT CEO Larry Clarke said in a written statement.

Earlier Wednesday morning, the area around Fibre Way and East Mill Road in Longview near the entrance to the terminal was swarming with police, including a half-dozen BNSF police vehicles.

Police set up a roadblock at Industrial Way and Fibre Way and were stopping vehicles and checking them before allowing some to pass. Officers blocked journalists from entering, and businesses in the area were reporting disruptions. Employees of the Cowlitz County Humane Society could not reach the animal shelter on Fibre Way.

Humane Society Animal Control supervisor Mike Nicholson said Fibre Way, Columbia Boulevard and International Way were blocked off by all police agencies and SWAT teams. At one point, Industrial Way traffic was backed up to the railroad crossing on Oregon Way, and vehicles on Columbia Boulevard were blocked from turning right onto Industrial Way.

Union longshoremen have been protesting the $200 million grain terminal for months. About 400 union longshoremen blocked a train for about four hours Sept. 7 before it was eventually allowed to pass. The following morning hundreds of protestors stormed the site, damaging train lines, spilling grain and threatening private security guards.

Also Wednesday morning, someone called St. John Medical Center and warned officials to prepare for an swarm of patients. The anonymous caller said there could be 200 people protesting the grain terminal and that they planned to claim to be having medical difficulty if they were arrested, said hospital spokesman Randy Querin. The hospital called the union to verify the warning and was told it wasn't true. Still, the hospital did take some precautions and put extra nurses on standby just in case, Querin said.

Copyright 2015 Longview Daily News. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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