I’ve been demonstrating against the bi-annual arms fair in the borough of Newham every two years since 2010, principally because it’s too easy to hurt someone with a weapon. Also, I value life and believe there are better ways to resolve conflict. I understand weapons may be useful in defence but the UK’s ‘defence’ policy is largely imperial, aggressive and linked to capitalist exploitation for resources. No-one is here trying to attack us and we only make that more likely by destroying the cultural fabric and infrastructure of other peoples’ lands, not to mention lives lost and maimed.
The ‘hostile environment’ tells us everything we need to know about the character of the British political class. Create a problem then decline anything beyond token gestures at accountability for the chaos caused.
On a walking tour of the anonymous London offices which sell weapons to militarise borders, enable displacement, detain asylum seekers in deportation centres and supply bombs and drones to terrorise people in their own homes, it occurs to me; these armaments fall from darkened glass facades in London where royal dinners promote and secure contracts worth 10s of billions of pounds with the rationale ‘if we (in the UK) don’t sell weapons, someone else will’. As if that is somehow better than contributing to peaceful resolution.
The cognitive dissonance required by weapons manufacturers who claim “weapons equal peace” does not translate to the real world. “I carry a knife so other people won’t be hurt” is no defence for knife crime.
The exception made for this political morality; justifying one set of rules, against another everyone else is expected to live by, suggests our moral conscience lies with people ‘who know better than we do’. A patronising detraction of personal responsibility assumed by archaic class structures within the UK.
I had been assaulted by a police officer in 2015, had taken legal observer training to return in 2017 and went on ‘rights training’ in 2019 where I discovered most routine prosecutions at the event fall under Public Order Act Section 14; ‘serious damage to property’ – ‘disruption to community’ – and ‘risk of violence’. Was I missing something?
Demonstrators are prosecuted for exactly the actions they aim to prevent.
In addition to knowing my rights, I thought I’d be safer if I went with a friend. Unknown to me she had chalk in her bag and had written “murderers” & “arms dealers this way” on the pavement before I knew what was happening. Within 2 minutes, a police van with 10 officers had us separated up against a wall, detained on charges of criminal damage. I had done nothing and refused to give my name. They said a witness had seen me with chalk in my hand, a blatant lie. As a microcosm of the intimidation and threat many people face daily as a result of the global arms trade, this experience was humiliating and unjust.
In UK law, writing with chalk on the pavement is ‘criminal damage’ while dropping a bomb from a blue sky on a stranger’s home or kicking their door in and dragging their family away is ‘humanitarian intervention’. The police who detain us say they’re ‘upholding the law’ –‘the law’ causes a lot of suffering for many people, and has loopholes which ensure arms trading continues despite clear UK and International agreements which prohibit exports.
Hard-line policies which criminalise engaged participation in the UK must be challenged but my issue here is not with the police. If the legal system protected the vulnerable, the police could spend time holding real criminals to account, detaining people who cause real criminal damage. Mostly these people are in Whitehall deciding who to harm next on our behalf. But the laws they created allow them to behave differently to everyone else.
Under the current legal framework, my friend risks deportation if she breaks the law. She’s required to demonstrate ‘good character’, to be obedient, compliant and unmoved by the suffering of others. If good character is so important, why do we have a lying, misogynist cheat as prime minister? Why do we have oppressive laws which criminalise the displaced and treat them so unkindly? Why do we treat the people who benefit least, the worst? The law aims to prevent her acting out of conscience. She says it feels like blackmail.
If demonstrating good character were a serious requirement of British citizenship, surely taking a stand against violent oppression would fast-track her application.
When we finally arrive at the site, policing is heavy. It’s not a friendly environment, it’s intense. They want us to be scared and give up. They want to effectively disrupt the protest. We’re kettled out for a while by high fences. Then contained within three lines of fencing which enable tanks and ammunitions to pass. Demonstrators are seriously outnumbered by police running in squads and military formations. The police say they’re there to facilitate the protest however they’re actually there, to make sure arms are sold by weapons dealers. Peaceful protestors are pushed and shoved, it’s violent. This isn’t a friendly day out. 60 Quakers are arrested without large enough numbers to protect them, demonstrators are easily removed. The small numbers have always saddened me.
Where is everyone? Why do more people not care? Maybe they don’t know it’s happening? or, they don’t want to be involved? When you’re comfortable, are you oblivious? Do gaps in education leave us unaware of the capacity for violence from the state? Have we been so successfully & intentionally fatigued we lack energy to care about injustice?
People think they’re free but maybe they’re not. Perhaps true freedom is demonstrated in concern for the freedom of others.
Being in compliance with the dominant capitalist ideology, being uncritical of it, is in essence a wilful resignation for bribes. For people to say they care when they care only for their own is a limited agenda of concern.
When you position yourself with humanity and stop identifying with the empty aspirations of consumer culture; when you look around you and take in the appalling injustice, and act on it, perhaps then you have a chance of developing good character.
Events are planned at the DSEI Arms Fair in London’s Docklands Excel from September 6-16 2021. For more information please visit Stop the Arms Fair website.