There may have been hundreds of police officers in the vicinity, but none of them knew what to do about the abseiling Christians.
It’s not something you see every day, and on that particular day there were four of them. They were hanging from a bridge, and suspended just low enough to block the road beneath. A crowd of us joined to cheer them on as they unrolled banners calling on Theresa May and her colleagues to stop supporting arms dealers and end their support for dictatorships and human rights abusers around the world.
This was just one of the many colourful and unexpected protests that took place outside the ExCel Centre that week. There were also Dabka dancers, remote control Daleks, hip-hop performers and everything in-between. Thousands of campaigners and activists united for seven days of inspiring resistance and direct action, putting our props and bodies on the line.
Despite the often festive atmosphere, in one way, none of us really wanted to be there. We weren’t there for the good of our health. We were there to stop the hundreds of vans that were queuing up outside the venue to try to bring in military equipment for the setup of Defence & Security Equipment International 2017 (DSEI), one of the biggest arms fairs in the world.
Over 100 people were arrested by heavy-handed police officers that week, but the blockades certainly caused problems for the organisers. Contractor after contractor told us that they were being paid far more money than usual to work around the clock because of delays.
Arms dealers of the world descend on London
It’s obvious why there were so many vans: they had a lot of equipment to move. In total, over 1600 companies were in attendance, including all of the biggest arms companies in the world. DSEI is a massive opportunity for them to showcase all of their deadly wares to state militaries and police forces from all around the world.
Among them were companies like BAE Systems and Raytheon, which have produced the fighter jets and bombs being used in the ongoing Saudi-led bombardment of Yemen. The war in Yemen has seen over 10,000 people killed, and millions displaced.
For two and a half years now, the people of Yemen have endured a terrible civil war and an aerial bombing campaign that has destroyed schools, hospitals and homes all over the country. It’s a bombing campaign that has been armed and supported every step of the way by the UK.
Needless to say, the Saudi military was among those in attendance. They were joined by a roll call of despots, human rights abusing dictatorships and repressive regimes, including political and military delegations from United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Philippines, Bahrain, Egypt, Thailand and Algeria – all of which have very poor human rights records.
While there, military and state actors accused of human rights abuses will have been able to buy all kinds of weapons ranging from rifles and small arms to fighter jets, naval vessels and tanks. These don’t just provide military support for the buyer, they also send a clear message of political support. In buying UK support, they are also buying silence from the upper echelons of UK government in the face of abuses and atrocities.
The attendees and companies were all welcomed by civil servants and greeted by government ministers. In total, 12 ministers attended DSEI, with five providing keynote speeches over its duration. With this scale of government support and complicity it was clear we had to take action. Events like DSEI couldn’t function without the full support of Whitehall and Downing Street.
Joining the issues together and building the movement
DSEI is not just an issue for anti-arms trade campaigners. It is a focal point for so many other campaigns and issues. The same companies that profit from war and destruction are also profiting from humanitarian crises and the inhumane treatment of refugees and migrants.
Militarised borders kill tens of thousands of people every year, and criminalise many more. That is why we worked together with anti-borders and anti-racism activists in calling for an end to the cycle of repression and violence and for the free movement of people, not weapons.
The pertinence of the issue was brought home by the performance of ‘We Are Here Because You Are There’, a powerful piece of street theatre by our friends from the All African Women’s Group.
The play took activists through the asylum process, the discrimination and difficulties women often face from when they arrive in the UK and claim asylum, including detention, and how they are treated by Home Office officials, their lawyers and Immigration Judges.
They were joined by speakers who shared their stories about the devastating effects of militarised borders and racist immigration policies that demonise whole populations and punish vulnerable communities.
It was made all the more compelling because it was performed in the road, right outside the setup of an event attended by the same companies that are directly profiting from the pain and stress of militarised borders.
These shows of solidarity are not just important from a movement-building perspective, they are crucial to how we organise. Our movement is one that needs to encompass the voices of all of those on the front-line of oppression and those who are suffering directly at the hands of the arms trade and militarism.
Building a better and more peaceful alternative
Those taking action were acting on behalf of many more who couldn’t be there. All of the polling suggests that the overwhelming majority of the UK opposes arms exports to repressive regimes. One poll, taken in the lead-up to DSEI found that 76% of UK adults oppose the promotion of military exports to human rights abusers, with only 6% supporting them.
The scale of opposition is far greater, and far broader, than the levels of support for any political party. That is why we worked to forge strong links with those who have never been politically active before, and strived to build communities that bring people together.
One way we did this was by ensuring that we reached out to local people, many of whom were shocked to discover that 30,000 arms company reps were setting up on their doorstep. The show of support from the community was incredible: with local businesses and people joining the protests and bringing food for Occupy protesters who were camping by the road for the week.
Another vital outlet for us was Art the Arms Fair (ATAF), a unique five day long art exhibition that was taking place in Poplar, only three train stops away from the Excel Centre.
ATAF consisted of over 130 works of art, ranging from the smallest paintings and postcards to a massive half-scale replica of a Tomahawk missile. These were complemented by evenings of poetry, comedy and live music.
ATAF showcased thoughtful, powerful and provocative work made by people from all sorts of backgrounds: ranging from sketches bythose who were sat at the side of the road during the DSEI week of action, right through to ‘Civilian Drone Strike’, an exclusive new piece by Banksy that was auctioned to raise an amazing £102,500 for CAAT.
The protests this year were the biggest yet, and set an extremely high bar, but there’s still more that we can do next time.
The funds raised by the Banksy piece will be invaluable in ensuring that we can provide even more resources, and mobilise even more people against the next DSEI. War, conflict and repression are all fuelled by DSEI: if we are to build a better and more peaceful world then we need to shut it down for good.
Jess Poyner is a spokesperson for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). You can follow CAAT on @CAATuk.
Image: Revolt Design
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