Conflict & Justice

American Activists and the Birth of Bangladesh

Forty years ago this month, the country of Bangladesh declared its independence from Pakistan. Then-President Richard Nixon supported Pakistan during the war because he wanted to prove the US would stand by an ally.

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Many Americans disagreed with that stance. And when a ship headed for Pakistan with military equipment and ammunition was set to stop at a US port, one group of Americans felt it was necessary to get involved.

"I was ready to risk my life there," says 78-year-old Richard Taylor. "I just wanted to get in front of that ship."

In July 1971, Taylor and a group of protesters used canoes and kayaks to try and block the Pakistani freighter Padma from reaching the Port of Baltimore.

The ship was coming from Canada, bound for Pakistan. It was said to be carrying military equipment and ammunition, presumably to aid the government in its war with what was then called East Pakistan.

The US had ordered an arms embargo on new shipments to Pakistan. But newspapers reported that Pakistani freighters like The Padma were still visiting US ports to load military equipment that had been purchased before the embargo.

Taylor's flotilla of two canoes, three kayaks and a rubber raft left from Baltimore's Broening Park. The police and Coast Guard tried to stop it. But Taylor says the group was undaunted.

"One of key parts of this was that the US government was sending military aid to the West Pakistani government that was doing the invasion," says Taylor. "So that made it poignant. People were suffering thousands of miles away, but our government was helping that suffering to happen."

Timmy Aziz knew that suffering first hand. He grew up in East Pakistan. He was 10 when war broke out. He now teaches environmental design here in Baltimore.

"It's really impressive how far they would have had to have gone," says Aziz. "They would have been way in the middle of the water and completely in harm's way. This massive freighter and these tiny little canoes, which would easily get washed away in the wake of the ship that size."

Forty years on, Bengalis are expressing a renewed interest in their country's independence movement. One of them is New Yorker Aris Yousuf. He finds the canoe blockade story so fascinating that he's making a documentary on it.

"I wanted to see if I could make a film about the history of 1971, Bangladesh's independence war and what happened in the US and be able to put it together from the people who participated at that time," says Yousuf.

What happened that time in July 1971 was that the US Coast Guard foiled Richard Taylor and his friends. The Padma made it into the harbor; it was eventually loaded and left. The following month, protesters expanded their actions to include any Pakistani ship trying to dock in the US, regardless of its cargo. And they enticed longshoremen at the Port of Philadelphia to join the boycott.

"The cause had a heart, had a deep heart," says 64-year-old Elliot Gevis. "And there were tremendous atrocities that were going on."

Today, Gevis is a pediatrician. But back in 1971, he worked the docks in Philadelphia. He learned about the war in East Pakistan and the canoe protest from flyers, and helped convince other longshoremen not to load ships. The first freighter affected was The Al-Ahmadi. Richard Taylor and other protesters again used canoes and kayaks to try and block the ship. When it ran the blockade, Gevis and other dockworkers refused to unload it.

"Not everybody was supportive of that," Gevis recalls. "But then again, they did respect unions. And they did respect not crossing picket lines, things of that sort. But at the same time, they had to pay bills and feed families. That was a big consideration."

When the ship pushed off, no cargo had been loaded or unloaded.

After four more months of intense protests—and picketing in front of the White House— the US government finally ended all arms exports to Pakistan. It marked the end of one of the more unusual protest movements in America's history.

"We've been just humbled by people who are Bengalis saying we couldn't have done it without this movement here," says Phyllis Taylor, Richard's wife.

She, too, was involved in the protests.

"Not us necessarily, but a small group of committed people giving us hope, as Dick said, in the jungles that you could make a change."

After nine months of fighting, East Pakistanis won the war. Their prize: a country now known as Bangladesh.

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