Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Eliot Chun

Mark Loo: From the Streets of Chinatown to the Shipyards of San Diego

First Published: Workers Viewpoint, Vol. 6, No. 34, September 16-22, 1981.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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For almost a year, the tumultuous events at the NASSCO shipyards in San Diego have seized front Page headlines and resulted in one of the most explosive and controversial political trials in history.

All of the elements of a spy movie are there – a bitter labor dispute and struggle for power, an alleged bomb plot instigated by the FBI and charges of illegal surveillance and espionage.

At the center of the conflict are three young shipyard workers – Mark Loo, 29, Rodney Johnson, 23, and David Boyd, 33, better known as the NASSCO 3. They were convicted last month of conspiracy to bomb transformers at the West Coast’s largest shipyard.

The NASSCO 3 have become a cause celebre of progressive people throughout the country who maintain that the three were entrapped by the FBI, using a paid agent provocateur, Ramon Barton. The legal defense team, headed by attorney Leonard Weinglass, famous for his defense of Daniel Ellsberg and the Chicago 7, stated, “This is the first important political trial of the 1980s. History teaches us at mass support for cases such as the NASSCO 3 deter their proliferation.. .It is reminiscent of conspiracy prosecutions against civil rights and anti-war leaders in the 60s and 70s. We must oppose the new attacks by government and industry on labor militants.”

I met Mark Loo and his wife Sara in the office of the Committee to Defend NASSCO Workers in east San Diego. The office is cluttered with stacks of flyers and the walls are lined with posters and newspaper clippings, reminiscent of a campaign headquarters.

In speaking with the Loos, the first thing that struck me was, in spite of the fact that they are living the eye of a storm, they remain calm, almost detached.

In the past year Mark Loo has been through a grueling ordeal; yet speaks of the events in a deliberate, unaffected manner. As he reflected on the journey which took him from the days of student activism through years of community involvement to the conflict at the NASSCO shipyard, it became apparent that he had no need for self-preoccupation or pity. He and his wife have been politically active so long, that activism has become second-nature to them.

I was also impressed by the familiarity of their story, because the social forces which affected Mark and Sara Loo helped shape the lives of an entire generation of Asian-Americans.

Organized in College

Mark Loo grew up in Manhattan, New York, the son of poor Chinese immigrants. Like many Chinese parents, the Loos pushed Mark to do well in school. Mark earned a full scholarship to a private high school where he was the only minority student. One of Mark’s first recollection of racism occurred when a teacher singled him out for harassment. Sympathetic classmates pulled him aside and explained, “Don’t worry. He’s an ex-Green Beret. He thinks he’s still in Vietnam.”

In 1968 Mark entered Amherst College on one of the school’s first minority admissions programs. In spite of the fact he was one of only six Asian students in the whole school, with the advice of some Asian professors from the University of Massachusetts, he helped organize the first Asian American studies course. He and his friends began to grapple with their identity as Asian Americans. One of the biggest influences on Mark’s life was the upsurge in the antiwar movement that was sweeping the country. In his freshman year Mark organized students to petition to cancel exams and to hold a teach-in against the war instead. Looking back on this era, his wife Sara observed, “Vietnam had particular impact on us. It was a shocking example of imperialism where Asians were being targeted.”

When Mark graduated in 1973 he made an important decision. “I was disillusioned by some of the things I saw in college. A lot of students just sat around talking about how they were going to make their first $100,000, and I knew that, whatever I did with my education, I wanted to help the community I came from.”

He responded to an ad placed by the Asian American Studies Center at UCLA and moved to the West Coast. At UCLA he worked at editing publications and met many other young Asians equally concerned with the problems of the community. Increasingly he found himself drawn to Chinatown and devoted countless hours to working with youth at the Chinatown Teenpost and organizing a food co-op.

Organized in Chinatown

During that time he met Sara Chung, a UCLA graduate who was a well-known activist in Chinatown. Her involvement included everything from founding the first childcare center, to sitting on the advisory board for the Asian Women’s Center, to publishing the Chinese Awareness newspaper.

For the next few years, Mark and Sara worked side by side in the community trying to tackle the problems and the oppression of immigrant Chinese. They found that, as the years went by and the economy sickened, one by one the programs they’d fought to establish became endangered. They witnessed federally-funded programs such as the Asian Women’s Center and Resthaven, the only mental health hospital located in Chinatown, close for lack of funding. Both began seeking explanations and comprehensive solutions for the worsening exploitation of their people.

“Band-Aids” Were Not Enough

“What I realized,” recalled Mark, “was that you could have a thousand and one agencies to deal with the problems, but they wound up being band-aids. If you really cared about your community you had to fight for fundamental changes in the structure of society. You had to fight for economic power.

“I began reading and comparing various radical newspapers to decide what organization was really fighting for revolutionary change. That’s how I found Workers Viewpoint.”

One of the other factors which influenced Mark and Sara was the growing prestige of socialist China. In 1974, Sara toured China with a delegation of Asian American activists. She recalled, “What I learned from touring China, and seeing socialism in practice, was that socialism is not a Utopia. There are many difficulties. But it was vastly superior to anything else I’d seen.”

Began Work in Industry

In 1975 Mark got a job in the construction industry, building senior citizen housing in Little Tokyo. It was his first taste of manual labor with all its trappings – low wages, speed-ups, and ineffective unions. Less than a year later he was laid off, but through affirmative action, became a pipefitter apprentice. He was confronted by deep racism in the union. “Minorities were either left sitting around the union hall or given the worst jobs. Our representation was so bad that finally the business agent got caught twice stealing our union dues.”

Mark got a job as a pipefitter at the Goodyear Tire Plant in the heart of Watts and became active in the union. “Goodyear announced they were going to close the plant down because it was unprofitable. Instead, they were opening a new plant in South Africa to take advantage of the low wages. You had guys with ten to fifteen years on the job left out in the cold.” Mark helped organize the rank and file within the union and they were successful in preventing the plant from closing down completely. But Mark was among those laid off.

NASSCO’s Deadly Working Conditions

In 1978, Mark and Sara married and moved to San Diego where he got a job as a pipefitter at NASSCO. According to Business Week, NASSCO is the most profitable shipyard in the nation, netting over $25 million last year. Yet it pays the lowest wages on the West Coast, nearly three dollars less an hour than the other shipyards. It relies heavily on government contracts, particularly from the Navy.

Mark learned quickly about the health and safety conditions at the yards. “Less than two weeks after I began working I was working underneath a ship in an area where you have to get down and crawl between the pipes. Suddenly heavy smoke began billowing through an exit and I was almost overcome before I could crawl out. Apparently, the foreman had ordered some other workers to burn the grease off the skids without checking first to see if anyone was underneath. I learned that this was a typical example of NASSCO’s safety procedures.”

A year later Mark was elected shop steward for the Machinists Union and led the fight against what he termed “NASSCO’s plantation mentality.”

“One time my partner and I were asked to work in an elevator shaft which had no overhead protection. We decided it wasn’t safe so I left to look for another job. He went into the shaft just to retrieve his tools and at that precise split second, a heavy wooden crate fell three stories and hit him. Even after that they tried to get us to return to work there.

“Another time a racist foreman singled out this black guy and fired him for drinking a Coke on the job. Everyone drinks sodas on the ships because it gets to be 140.

“They treat non-English speaking workers just about the worst. They used to even sell jobs to undocumented workers from Mexico.”

Fighting Union-Busting

In August, 1980 one of the other active shop stewards was singled out and fired for insubordination. Mark remembered, “He was on a routine safety inspection and a foreman started giving him a hard time. When he talked back, they suspended him. It was so obviously unjust that we knew that we had to do something fast. So we organized about 200 workers to go down to the ship-launching ceremony of the Cape Cod. This was the same ship where David Boyd and myself led a work stoppage because of poor ventilation. We held a peaceful demonstration to explain to all the people there what kind of conditions we work under.”

The following Monday 17 workers, including Mark were fired for participating in the demonstration. “They singled out the union militants. At least ten of those fired were union officials and some of them hadn’t even been there at the ship-launching. It was a clear case of union-busting.”

The next day, all 6,000 workers at NASSCO wildcatted to protest the firings and refused to return to work for three days. A wave of arrests and firings took place.


“During the strike I met this guy named Ramon Barton. He seemed to be an active union member and was angry about the firings. He was always suggesting ways of getting back at NASSCO by hurting property or personnel, but I thought he was just caught up in the intensity of the strike.”

As it turned out, Barton was a paid FBI informant who had his body wired with microphones to record conversations among the union activists. Tapes of these conversations were the principal evidence used to indict the NASSCO 3 for conspiracy to bomb.

“A former labor relations official from NASSCO also revealed that he had been compiling dossiers on me and the others since November, 1979. They had more than 400 pictures of us and submitted them to various law enforcement agencies.”

Surveillance was nothing new to Sara. She recalled that years earlier the Chinese Awareness newspaper staff had been infiltrated by a government agent trying to collect information on Chinese activists.

A month after the strike, on September 2 there was a gruesome turn of events. Two workers, Michael Beebe and Kenneth King, suffocated to death on the same deck where Loo and Boyd had led the work stoppage over ventilation.

“We were appalled by the way NASSCO tried to deny any responsibility in Beebe and King’s deaths. We felt we had to do something. Barton immediately approached David Boyd and Rodney Johnson and suggested that they cut off NASSCO’s power. Four days later he approached me. That was September 4.”

For the next few days, the four met to discuss the plan and even tested an explosive device in the desert.

“On September 10, I met with Johnson and Boyd and we decided that it was all a big mistake. We met with Barton on the 12th to call off the plan.” When the tapes were played in the courtroom, this portion was mysteriously missing. A professor from the University of California at San Diego testified that the crucial section of the tape had been tampered with.

“When Barton realized we wouldn’t go along with his plan, he agreed to drive out to the desert with Johnson and Boyd on the following Tuesday to dispose of the equipment. As far as I was concerned, the whole business was over.”

Arrested Without Explanation

“At 8:00 a.m. on Tuesday my doorbell rang and I looked though the keyhole, but no one was there. When I opened the door, this guy jumped out and swung the door open and tackled me. It later turned out that he was a plainclothes agent from the San Diego red squad. My wife was feeding the baby in the next room and heard the commotion. When she came in the room I was handcuffed on the floor and two FBI agents rushed in and took me away with no explanation.”

Later, Loo learned that Barton’s van had been intercepted en route to the desert an hour earlier. Barton pulled over to the side of the road as FBI agents converged on the van and arrested Boyd and Johnson.

Immediately, the press in San Diego picked up the story and the NASSCO 3 became the talk of the town. When asked what has been the reaction to the arrests, Loo said, “Despite the FBI’s attempt to paint us as terrorists, support has rolled in from all corners. Former Attorney General Ramsey Clark recently hosted a fundraiser for the NASSCO 3 and Congressman Ron Dellums has called for a congressional investigation into illegal government spying at NASSCO.”

Support From All Areas

“When I went back to the plant gates to explain to people what had happened, they were very supportive. Even people I didn’t know. They would reach into their pockets and help us out with whatever they could. People knew that our arrest was the direct result of the fight we’d been waging inside the yards.”

When Mark and Sara looked for support, they also turned to the community where they had worked for so many years. Two separate fundraisers were organized in Los Angeles by friends of the Loos from the Asian American Studies Center and Chinatown.

“I was very deeply moved,” explained Mark. “These were friends I hadn’t seen for years, but who had been instrumental in my development. Though we’d gone our separate ways, they still came to help.”

Biased Jury Selection

The trial was a media event. Supporters of the NASSCO 3 packed the courtroom everyday and held pickets, rallies and letter-writing campaigns to publicize the issue.

Mark, who had never been arrested before, was appalled at the trial proceedings. “Even the jury selection was biased. Although you’re supposed to get a jury of your peers, the prosecutor arbitrarily eliminated three potential jurors he thought might sympathize with us. One was young, one was black and one is an employee at NASSCO. We wound up with a jury of mainly older women with no experience with unions in heavy industry.”

“It was frustrating,” recalled Sara, “To sit there and watch the judge pick and choose what testimony was admissible. There was a witness who wanted to testify about the level of company spying on the union, but the judge blocked his testimony saying: it was ’irrelevant.’”

The prosecutor built his case primarily on the testimony and doctored tapes of Ramon Barton. In addition, however, he tried to convince the jury that Loo and Johnson had a “pre-disposition to violence” because they are members of the Communist Workers Party.

Green Light to Bust Unions

“The prosecution maintained that Barton’s role couldn’t be considered entrapment because he wasn’t paid by the FBI until after he instigated the bomb plot,” said Loo. “In other words, bounty hunters are free to go out, work closely with the police, entrap people and then get paid for it. That’s what’s being sanctioned here.

“It’s also giving a green light for the FBI to intervene on behalf of the company in a labor dispute. That has serious implications for every workers in this country.”

On June 5, the NASSCO 3 were found guilty on all charges. One friend of Mark offered this view of the verdict, “When the verdict was read, some of the jurors began to cry. They knew that without Barton there would have been no bomb plot. But because of the instructions the judge had given them, they felt they had no choice but to vote guilty.”

Mark and the other defendants are determined to appeal the verdict and take their fight to a higher court.

Moving Forward

Because of the preparation for the trial, Mark has not been able to work for nearly a year. His wife just gave birth to their second child and this has caused them considerable concern.

“Besides the financial problem,” said Sara, “the hardest thing about what’s happened is not knowing whether your children will have a father. It’s been almost impossible to have a normal family life.”

Over the past months, Mark and Sara have devoted most of their time to the Committee to Defend NASSCO Workers and preparing for the trial. Now Mark looks forward to finding a job, and is making plans for the appeal. He also is helping to organize a national speaking tour for the defendants. Mark summed it up. “We want people to understand that what’s happening should not intimidate them, or keep them from organizing for change. More than anything else, I’ve learned that people like Barton are the exception to the rule. Most people a genuine caring people who are doing their best in the face of tremendous difficulties.”