‘Christians found NOT GUILTY following DSEI protest’

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.

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‘Christians found NOT GUILTY following DSEI protest’

Dirty Protest

Thoughts on the work ethic and the arms trade

During the week before the DSEI arms fair, protests take place on the service road into the back of the Excel Centre, by London’s Royal Victoria Dock. Lumbering up the road, along with the low loaders carrying vehicles and boats, armoured, camouflaged, tied down with net, boats, along with the white vans of caterers, fitters, cleaners, carpet layers, is one huge elephant. That is capital and the work ethic that supports it.

The arms trade is harmful many times over. It makes conflict more likely in areas of the developing world where there is already tension. Poor countries are persuaded to spend millions on weaponry rather than on infrastructure for their own people. Its industry manufactures war and bloodshed.

Being a capitalist enterprise just like any other, the arms trade, and the industry that supports it, causes damage to the climate. It is a wasteful use of natural resources. It poisons the atmosphere and water supplies and lakes and natural habitats. It hoards the technological expertise amongst its employees that could be used in other creative sustaining ways and prevents progress in other areas.

But also, being a capitalist enterprise like any other, the arms industry depends on our wonderfully strong work ethic. In his book S.O.S. Alternatives to Capitalism, Richard Swift points us to William Morris, one of the first socialists to oppose the ecological decay of capitalism and the society based on ‘useless toil’.

He also directs us to Lafargue’s, The right to be lazy. Written in the nineteenth century, by Marx’s son-in-law, this is a satire aimed at the bourgeouisie, who counted work as a religious virtue and the path to salvation. Industrialists encouraged country people away from their ‘hearths’ into the towns, to the severe detriment of the workers’ and their families’ health. Once in the factory they had no time to tend their vegetable plots, which led to malnutrition, or else had to travel long distances to work, leaving no time to look after themselves and their children.

Lafargue describes conditions for factory workers in Alsace, who worked twelve hour days to produce stockings, which they themselves had no use for, and could never afford. The factory owner then had to find new markets for his products, leading to colonialist expansion. Seen in the context of the arms trade this is particularly apt. The arms companies make something far worse than useless; the only product of an arms company is bloodshed and terror. The arms trade constantly must find new markets so the factory can stay open, so the employees can travel to their full time jobs. It must keep the factories open, otherwise there’d be a riot. The employees of the factory must be kept busy. The devil makes work for idle hands.

This discussion often gets glossed over at protests. Disgruntled passersby shout, ‘get a job’, not realising how ironic this is in the circumstances. MPs inevitably do all they can to protect jobs in their own constituency, for their own sake if nothing else. It would be impossible to tell someone to give up their job, when there is a dearth of manufacturing jobs, and when income is tied to work, but also while the work ethic is so a fundamental to our culture. As Kathy Weeks shows in The problem of work, the work ethic extends far beyond the means of survival. Work defines us socially, intellectually, by class, even by race and gender. Where the work ethic is strong, the system of favours, long hours culture, fellowship, the ritual of office parties and outings, work itself becomes morally right. We’ve all experienced jobs where we have complied with dubious practices, and not until afterwards realized that our desire to maintain a positive attitude triumphed over our own integrity.

The work ethic even extends into our children’s education, (teenagers trained to be ‘work ready’) our leisure and holidays. Who hasn’t thought of conveyor belts when we step onto a plane or ferry. But above all the work ethic spreads into our homes. Someone has to be cleaning, whether this is the same person who goes out to work, a partner or someone paid to do it. However you look at modern employment, it relies on carers, cleaners, cooks, mothers, those who care for the elderly, the very young, the sick, the destitute.

Weeks suggests that the discussion around wages for housework, while unhelpful and unsuccessful in the seventies, was a useful way of seeing how our lives are monetised, which parts of a mother’s work is work, that could be paid labour, and which is love. She quotes Federici,

“For our aim is to be priceless, to price ourselves out of the market, for housework and factory work and office work to be ‘uneconomic.’ ”

Or to put it in terms of the Gospel story we are all busy being Martha, but Martha herself has power in the work she does to resist. (Luke 10: 38 – 42)

Arms work depends on housework. An employee of the arms industry, and therefore all of us, works a full day, picks up her children, keeps her house clean, and even does voluntary work at weekends. So I propose a dirty protest! Or even more drastic, a care work protest. Or even a birth work protest. Just when we thought housework was something that stays in the privacy of our own homes, we could refuse housework and smash the arms trade.

Recently in a horrible twist, cleaning products themselves have become a weapon. Not far from Giuseppe Conlon House, two young men on a scooter carried out 5 acid attacks in a single evening. In the discussions in the media afterwards, the pundits questioned the use of strong chemicals in household cleaning.

Swift, R. S.O.S. Alternatives to Capitalism, New Internationalist, Oxford 2016

Weeks, K, The problem with work, Duke University Press, London 2011

Lafargue, P. The right to be lazy, edited and introduced by Bernard Marszalek, AK Press, Chicago 2011

This article was first published in the London Catholic Worker newsletter

Dirty Protest

Human rights action at royal horse show: part I

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‘UK: Stop supporting Bahrain’s tyrant’

On Saturday 13th May I, and three others, carried two five metre banners saying ‘UK stop supporting Bahrain’s tyrant’ into the Royal Windsor Horse Show. At the agreed time, when the prizes were to be given out after a show jumping event, the CSI5* Kingdom of Bahrain Stakes for The King’s Cup, we climbed over the crowd barriers and shook out the two banners, in plain sight of the royal box and the spectators.

A few weeks earlier I met with a handful of other volunteer activists. Together we looked up information on human rights abuses in Bahrain and the hypocracy of a situation in which our own monarch entertains and is entertained by King Hamad at the Royal Windsor Horse Show.

I had my own reasons for taking part in the action. The UK exports to Saudi Arabia are worth £3.5 billion and Bahrain is part of the Saudi led intervention in Yemen, where war crimes are being perpetrated against the Houthis and millions are suffering from severe food insecurity, famine. The UK targets Bahrain for arms exports, despite its repressive regime and violent response to protests and opposition. At the horse show, many of the events are sponsored by the Kingdom of Bahrain; the Bahraini flag is flying from the hospitality suites and plastered all the round the main arena and the fences. It turns out the King of Bahrain loves horses and so does his son, Prince Nasser. The instruction on the back of our tickets, not to display any political slogans, started to seem highly contradictory.

I was  uncertain about doing this action; I wasn’t sure I knew enough about the victims of Bahrain’s repressive regime. The usual qualms sprung into my head: wrong time, exhausting, not my story. But, I reasoned, there was ‘no skin off my nose’.

The Royal Windsor Horse Show is full of shops that sell everything for the pony mad, from fancy snaffles to ear protectors. The clothes shops were strong on Harris tweed micro shorts and Harris tweed ponchos. The Landrover Discovery promotion offered rides up a steep slope in their latest model.

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Harris tweed micro shorts for sale at the Royal Windsor Horse Show

As expected, show jumping is thrilling to watch but this quickly becomes stressful. When the small Arab horses jumped over the fences, they seemed to spring off the ground like harrier jump jets. From our vantage point in front row seats, I saw that before each fence the horse was wild eyed, under stress, not concentrating, being reined in strongly by the rider and then let go at the last minute. Sometimes the horse would dig its hooves into the ground. The crowd would give a soft moan and an appreciative gasp as if they were on the horses side all long.

On the day, five of us, one pair for each banner and a fifth with a camera, met up at Paddington station. At the same time other activists were going to stand with a banner outside the VIP entrance. We kept up the motivation by sending ourselves photos and articles about King Hamad as we were waiting.

Seated as close to the front as possible, I was mentally rehearsing how I was going to clamber over the crowd barrier. We watched the DAKS Pony Club mounted games, where teenagers on ponies hurtled backwards and forwards with sticks, trying to grab rolled up socks. Very popular, at least with press photographers, was the Shetland Pony Grand National, where eight year olds raced tiny ponies round a track to a real steeple race commentary. By this time the stand was full; people kept asking if they could squeeze past us. Kids, couples with babies, families and pony mad little girls, spread across the bleachers.

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Bahraini colours all over the arena

Shortly after lunch, workmen put out a third row of barriers. Security guards in plain clothes arrived and prowled up and down, looking at their phones and peering at the crowd. It was time for the  Kingdom of Bahrain Stakes for The King’s Cup. We anxiously watched the royal box for sign of movement, but no one vaguely royal or Bahraini looking came down. I wishes I’d brought binoculars. Instead there were groups of security guards in dark suits and sunglasses, right up at the back of the grandstand.

I put the banner on my lap. The plain clothes guys paid no attention to me or my partner. Prince Nasser appeared for the prize giving. The six contestants rode their horses into the ring to receive their prizes. Ok Now! I grasped the vertical rail and pulled myself up. Unfurled the banner. ‘Wrong way round!’ We quickly walked round each other and held it up. I pulled as tightly as I could. There were cries of hey! from the crowd, but the commentator never missed a beat. Then almost immediately I felt someone tugging hard. The Bahraini security guys were shouting in Arabic. I let go. Soon some regular security quards, heavy white men in blue blazers, came and started prodding us to walk towards the side. But there was no way out! Finally we were led out through the members enclosure. Through the shops. To the on-site police station.

Two of us didn’t have to give details to the police at all. We were led out through the gates and told never to come back. We made it down the road to the first pub on the left.

Continued

 

Human rights action at royal horse show: part I