A street view of DSEI 2019

Tanya Jiang writes on the what happened at the front line of this year’s clash between weapon-mongers trying to flog their murderous devices to State killers, and the hundreds of people who put their bodies on the line to stop it from happening.

Friday was the last day of the Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) 2019, the world’s largest arms fair. DSEI is a horrific and flagrant display of our global oppressors’ brutal strength. A place where the shadiest suited corporate and civic criminals make deals for the deadly weapons used in the acts of violence against the world’s marginalised, from the everyday repression of surveillance to the most heinous and bloody massacres.

The arms fair comes to London every two years, and every time, committed people of conscience try to stop it. Well, this time they didn’t quite do so, but it was not for lack of trying. From Monday September 2nd until Friday the 13th, protestors resisted arms fair preparations, aiming to disrupt the set-up and delay the huge logistical operation.

These people are right to put their bodies on the line (road) for this cause. Not only is the arms fair a grotesquerie of weaponry, it is also a who’s who of the emissaries of despotic and human rights abusing regimes. The UK government is directly involved in facilitating the arms fair, and invited delegations from 68 governments, many of which are outrageous even by the UK government’s own standards. There were invited delegations from eight countries on the UK’s euphemistically named “human rights priority countries” including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Colombia.

And, for the first time, Israel is on the invite list. This might not have made a material difference, as no doubt Israeli Ministry of Defense personnel have attended in the past and this year, as in previous DSEIs, Israel had a “national pavilion” inside at which arms companies marketed “battle tested” weapons fine-tuned through the devastation of Palestinian lives — the Israeli arms industry makes no secret that it benefits from violence. But the UK saw fit to roll out the red carpet, despite a UN Commision of Inquiry finding, just a few months prior, that Israeli forces had committed “war crimes, or crimes against humanity” in mowing down civilians, including journalists, medics and children, at the border wall in Gaza during the Great March of Return Protests last year.

By its own standards, the UK should not be trading arms with many of the states present. Its own policies on arms exports, if applied, would prohibit the sale of arms when there is a risk that they would be used for abuse of human rights and violations of international law. Campaign Against Arms Trade proved in the courts in June that the UK was violating it’s arms export controls by selling arms to Saudi Arabia. Though of course we knew that such trade in arms was wrong regardless of the law, and know that by implication that the UK is more than just complicit in the slaughter of Yemenis, but an active participant in this now long and brutal war. This is not an aberration, but part of a long history of proof that the UK has been central to the most destructive violence for centuries.

A long history of dishonour

We must not believe liberal myths that the UK is essentially good but straying from the path, that it’s simply not ideal our government is associating with bad kids on the playground by trading arms with “undemocratic” other “regimes”. Simon Jenkins writes of the arms fair in the Guardian that “Britain no longer has the capacity to impose peace or democracy on the world”, and “What it does have is the opportunity to set an example in its own democratic behaviour.” I hope that you will join me in laughter and despair at the assumptions contained within these sentences.

What we are seeing across the world and particularly in the global South is a continuation of colonial violence perpetrated by the British State. From Empire, to partition, to the sale of arms used to annihilate the people of Yemen, the seat of power has had a heavy hand in the greatest crimes in history. Now the global extractive economy that fuels climate violence by plundering resources from the global South is enforced by militarised repression in places like Colombia and Brazil, where indigenous and Afro-descendent Human Rights Defenders face extreme violence for protecting their lands and livelihoods against mining companies that are registered here in London. (People partaking in climate activism such as next week’s strike would do well to internalise these facts.)

So it’s really not at all shocking to see lines of police forming to protecting the passage of lorries carrying gigantic tanks emblazoned with the Union Jack. These bastards were created as an institution to protect British economic class interests at home and in the colonies, and inevitably that is what they continue to do so. At least 116 people were arrested throughout the course of this year’s main “week of action” (September 2nd-8th), but in doing so activists created, at many points, significant delays the arms fair’s preparation, with incredible lock-on contraptions including one embedded in the exhaust of a van, to chants of “Who protects the arms dealers? Police protect the arms dealers!”

In 2017, Stop the Arms Fair resistance supposedly cost UK police over £1million, and an estimation based on the scale of both the protests and the repression here would suggest it cost them even more this year — this would have been a good end in itself, wasting police resources and keeping them off the streets causing violence to black and brown and working class folks. However, recognising police violence at home and the London Met’s intended role in the neo-colonial narrative makes it all the more problematic that again and again, white “peace activist” type protestors were happily nattering with the coppers all week long. These people needed reminding that just one month before these protests started, and at the very same site, the steps of the Excel Centre, the Met police killed a Black man named Jason Lennon — this was just one, horrific, event in the cycle of state violence that starts with the slave trade and is glorified in the arms fair. The same system of state violence that UK colonialism is responsible for circles across space and time, notably in the police brutality and violence in Brazil that disproportionately targets young black people in the favelas, and that use these same weapons marketed on our doorstep.

DSEI is in reality a fair that celebrates Britain’s role in the subordination of underclasses globally.

Tanya Jiang


Pic: Tank in London, DSEI 2019, courtesy of the Rainbow Collective