The 24th anniversary of the Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI), one of the world’s largest arms fairs, took place in September 2023.
DSEI takes place every two years – so that’s 14 DSEIs where we’ve essentially failed to shut down the fair. This DSEI was also the smallest mobilisation we’ve possibly ever seen – making it a good time to reflect on what we’ve achieved and what our resistance could look like moving forward.
Protests against DSEI have taken many forms. For probably the first half of its existence, our resistance was focused on the days of the fair itself – and preventing delegates from reaching the arms fair. In the days when actions at global summits were at their peak, there was a real push from anarchist anti-militarists to move DSEI away from being a purely peace movement issue and put DSEI on the map as an event in the anti-capitalist calendar. In the last ten years, resistance has focussed on the set-up of the arms fair and stopping equipment from getting to the fair in the first place.
Both tactics have seen results over the years. However, like anything, if we repeat the same tactic too many times, the state quickly learns how to tackle it. This year, while the protests were small, so was the traffic going onto the site. After all, it would be a very stupid event planner who didn’t factor in the fact that pesky campaigners like stopping traffic and climbing onto tanks.
DSEI 2023 also took place in a new climate of intolerance for protest, which undoubtedly affected our numbers and actions. The combination of new legislation, people with ongoing court cases, and the continuing inability of people to present defences in court meant fewer people were willing to risk arrest. But we also need to accept the new legislation’s chilling impact.
But while small, the fortnight of resistance was good. There were excellent workshops encompassing the many intersections of struggles the arms trade brings together. And the Tuesday migrant justice protest got up close and personal with the arms dealers themselves. The stunned look of – mostly men – in suits, as we shouted “shame” right in their faces, was cathartic but also impactful. These people deal in death and destruction; their profit margins rely on perpetuating global misery. Generally, this work is carried out from plush offices, where they can hide from facing the reality of their work. At DSEI, they can’t do this.
Unfortunately, while our protests were small, business was booming at the ExCeL centre. DSEI 2023 was the biggest ever iteration of this death jamboree. One DSEI exec even admitted that war was good for business – and the arms trade is using the war in Ukraine to reinvent itself as a bastion of global security in a new, dangerous world. And while shouting at arms dealers is good, it’s clear that the arms trade won the battle this time.
All this means that moving forward, there are a lot of questions about what our resistance should look like both to DSEI and the arms trade in general. Palestine Action has shown the effectiveness of a targeted campaign – and the various ‘underground’ actions taking place are both an inevitable response to state crackdowns on our right to protest and a good reminder that we don’t need to seek arrest to take part in effective action.
And where we’ve been successful against DSEI is when we’ve run these kinds of sustained campaigns. Original owners Spearhead and Reed were forced to sell the business after targeted campaigns, using a diversity of tactics, at their offices and events. But Clarion, which now runs DSEI, has had an easy time and happily runs incongruous events such as the Baby Show with barely a whisper of opposition.
The question for campaigners is whether we have the energy or desire to run such a campaign. After all, there are other arms fairs and many arms companies that we could also target – so where is the best place for our energy? Where are we likely to have the most impact? Where are the chinks we can smash through and have some wins? What does the new legislative climate mean for the future of anti-arms trade campaigning? How do we make the arms trade relevant for a new generation of campaigners? These strategic conversations need to take place to ensure our resistance is as strong as it can be against this abhorrent trade.
But if we’re serious about shutting down DSEI, one thing is clear – the protests against the fair itself need to be the icing on the cake. This mobilisation is the culmination of strategic, sustained campaigning and movement building. Because as much as shouting at arms dealers is good, we should be aiming to stop them from doing their deals in the first place.
~ Emily Apple
This article first appeared in the Winter 2023-4 issue of Freedom Anarchist Journal
Emily is a member of media project The Canary, which in 2022 forced out its directors and became a workers’ co-op.