This post was written for the March issue of the North West Justice and Peace e-bulletin. Since then the Crown has applied to state a case for an appeal to the High Court. On reflection, I realise the court process forces the narrative to take on an unduly official tone, when for me personally there were many other aspects of the protest, to do with my faith, history, current conflicts . Hearing what the Crown has to say in regard to my actions, helps me not a bit in reflecting on the subject of the protest, the arms fair and the lethal trade that means we, as tax payers and beneficiaries of say the NHS, are complicit in civilian casualties and destruction of facilities essential for life, such as fields, food factories and warehouses, fuel supplies and hospitals.
In February I was among eight members of Put Down the Sword and London Catholic Worker found not guilty of willful obstruction of the highway following our nonviolent direct action outside the Excel centre in East London, during the setting up of the DSEI arms fair.
For me, this was a dizzying turn of events, since up to now, in similar trials, no matter how sympathetic the judge, I have been found guilty. Considering eight of us did really block the highway, and at least one car really did have to turn around, it seemed miraculous that the charges were dismissed.
But the law is more complicated than a policeman just telling you you’ve prevented a vehicle from moving freely. As the trials continued, several others were found not guilty, and, at the time of writing, most further trials have been dismissed.
The Defense and Security Equipment International exhibition (DSEI), one of the largest arms fairs in the world, is a government sponsored trade exhibition. Here arms companies display not only conventional handguns, tanks and missiles, but also, most sinisterly, equipment used for creating hard borders and for policing civilian demonstrations. Leaders and military personnel attend from up to fifty countries, some of which, Pakistan, Turkey, Bahrain, are on the FCO’s own watch list. Others are currently engaged in conflict: Saudi Arabia leads the bombing campaign in Yemen, where many thousands of civilians have been killed since hostilities began and air strikes on civilian facilities have led to a humanitarian crisis.
With Nora Ziegler, Jo Frew, Chris Cole, Nick Cooper, Tom Franklin, Louis Durton, Sam Donaldson, I was involved in direct action on the No Faith In War day of protest. This was the second day in a week of protests, organised under the umbrella of Stop the Arms Fair, intended to draw attention to the depravity of profiting from war and the humanitarian costs of conflict.
The site chosen for our direct action was a dual carriageway that leads to the eastern entrance of the Excel Centre and several associated hotels, to the north of Royal Victoria Dock.
The four of us arrived by car and scrambled out onto the road, where we lay with our arms in ‘lock-on’ boxes. We were placed under arrest almost immediately, but there followed a period of about ninety minutes, while police operatives cut us out. A bit later the other four suspended themselves over the same road, using climbing equipment. Throughout the day members of Pax Christi, Anglican Pacifist Fellowship, Quakers and other groups prayed, sang, and staged a dramatic ‘wedding’ of death and the arms trade.
The intention was to transform the road from a highway carrying weapons, into a place of prayer and peace. It was to reclaim the space from the mundane business of transporting weapons for hearing the word of God. I thought of the way sites of suffering are often places for churches, such as Tyburn convent at Marble Arch.
At the time I didn’t feel all that prayerful lying in the road. Staring up at the sky hurt my eyes. I felt uncomfortable and cold, with my arm trapped inside a piece of plastic drain pipe. I dreaded being cut out and began to curse the friend who had made such a thorough job of the lock-on tube, with its layers of cement and chicken wire. It felt a bit like being at the dentist.
Several months on and it was time for us to represent ourselves in court. Only one of us four who ‘locked on’ had representation from a lawyer who reminded us it was not for the police to tell us how to protest. I had no argument with the the facts of the case, although this didn’t stop the prosecution, in her cross examination, wondering why our prayer space needed to involve ‘concrete’. I intended just to say how I felt and my motivations for taking the action I did.
I explained that as a Christian I was strongly opposed to the arms trade, and the arms fair as its most visible aspect. Any organisation that designs, makes, sells weapons intended to kill and maim is committing murder. Our government’s involvement in the arms trade is making murderers of us all. Pope Francis has spoken out repeatedly against the arms trade, for instance, saying in June 2017, ‘It is an absurd contradiction to speak of peace, to negotiate peace, and at the same time promote or permit the arms trade.’
All of us spoke in court of how our experiences had inspired our actions; Jo Frew and Nora Ziegler talked of living with asylum seekers who have fled the very conflicts that are fuelled by the arms trade. Jo Frew spoke of the fact the arms trade profits from the refugee crisis twice, once in selling arms to the countries that the refugees are fleeing from and then selling security equipment to border police and those creating ‘hard borders’. Some spoke of the ‘democratic deficit’ that means the arms fair continues to be supported despite questions in parliament, all party parliamentary groups, letters to local MPs. Even Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London has said he is opposed to the arms fair but in his current position has no power to stop it taking place.
The judge told us he would give his verdict the next week, so that weekend, being the fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time, we heard from St. Paul, [1 Corinthians 9 vv 16 – 19], ‘Do you know what my reward is? It is this: in my preaching, to be able to offer the Good News free, and not insist on the rights which the gospel gives me.’ As people asked me what I wanted to happen, what I hoped for the verdict, this seemed like a very good reminder of the reasons for our protest on No Faith in War day.
In giving his verdict, the district judge, Angus Hamilton said a protest can be ‘tiresome and inconvenient’, but this doesn’t mean it’s unreasonable. The judge said that the police hadn’t respected our rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, described by articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention. He said our action was the ‘epitome of peaceful protest.’
With the charges dismissed, I walked out of the court reinvigorated for the task ahead, that is to make sure in 2019 there is no arms fair. As many trials have been discontinued and many more groups have been found not guilty, for various different reasons, it is vital we continue to call out the arms trade for what it is, in whatever way we can.