In 2009 the Defence & Security Equipment International (DSEI) exhibition was due to hold its bi-annual arms selling jamboree in East London, opening with a conference at the Queen Elizabeth Conference centre in central London. According to its official brochure, the aim of the ‘UK Defence Conference 2009 ’ was to bring together “senior officials from the arms industry, the military and the UK government” to “explore the business opportunities” to be found in “global security threats such as climate change, major population movements, growing water scarcity, competition for energy sources and the continued rise of Islamism.” Here then, was another opportunity to confront the UK’s military-industrial complex as it gathered together at the beginning of their week-long arms spree.
So with spray can in hand I went to the conference centre just before the event and sprayed ‘build peace not war machines’ ‘stop this bloody business’ and ‘arms trade=death’ on the front entrance and poured fake blood over the steps. (See CCTV footage here). I was shortly convicted of criminal damage and fined just under £2,000. Eighteen months (and numerous court letters, bailiffs threats and visits) later it’s time to go back to court to explain my actions and why I won’t pay the fine.
As a committed Christian peace activist I’ve been researching into, speaking about, and resisting the arms industry for over twenty years now. No matter how many times I think I’ve seen it all, another corruption story, new deal, or yet another lethal technological development will come along to shock me. Over the years I have had private conversations with senior arm company executives and I’ve engaged in public debates with their PR people. I’ve written thousands of words in newsletter, magazines, briefings and on websites. I’ve spoke at countless meetings and I’ve taken part in more vigils, protests and nonviolent demonstrations that I can possibly remember. I’ve also been arrested, spied upon, injuncted and imprisoned. I have no illusions about the power that the ‘defence’ industry can wield nor the depths it will stoop to make its profit or to promote the ideology of ‘might is right’. But I continue to undertake nonviolent action against the arms dealers.
So what is the point of such a small scale piece of direct action that hardly disrupts the smooth running of the monolithic arms industry? What is the point of going through all the hassle of courts, fines, bailiffs and prison? What possible difference does it make and in what way does it help the victims of the arms industry?
For me the point of nonviolent direct action (as well as the court and prison witness that follows) is to dramatize the choice that we as a society are making. In the Christian tradition this choice is summed up in the ancient Book of Deuteronomy ‘I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live’ (Deut 30:19)
Nonviolent direct action is about trying to make visible the choices that we are making – or that are being made on our behalf – and articulating the fact that there is an alternative. A classic example of this type of confrontation would perhaps be Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her bus seat to a white man in 1955. That direct confrontation with the Power of institutional racism in a concrete situation produced a wider circumstance of choice – the Montgomery Bus Boycott – where people had to choose to side with the Power (a Power which insisted that there was no choice, this is just the way things are and always will be) or to stand against racism and on the side of equality and life.
In a similar way, the powers that be tell us that there is no choice with regard to peace and security in our world. The only realistic way to achieve peace and security, they say, is through the gun, the drone and the nuclear deterrent. “It’s the way things are and always will be ” is the cry, and I have heard it from school boys in the classroom, from CEO’s in the boardroom, and politicians in the parliamentary committee room. The powers have managed to convince us that armed force is our salvation, that in bomb we must trust. But of course, that is nonsense. As we have seen clearly over the past twenty years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan in the so-called war on terror, armed force does not bring peace to the world nor defend the widow and the orphan – in fact, just the opposite.
There is, of course, an alternative to armed violence: justice. As the prophet Isaiah said around 2,750 years ago, “Integrity will be bring peace, justice give everlasting security’ (Isa. 32:17) By tackling the root causes of injustice around the world, like the situation of Palestine for example, we can address some of the real drivers of insecurity in the world. Instead of pouring resources into more lethal ways to kill each other, we need to be addressing global inequality by devoting resources to achieving the Millennium Development Goals and helping to achieve political and economic rights for all human beings and communities. Perhaps most importantly of all, we need to be educating our fellow citizens to understand that our future security depends on global welfare and the common good rather than self-interest and national prosperity
So I return to court tomorrow with the possibly of a prison sentence to follow. Cynics will say of course that it is a waste of time. My direct action at the DSEI opening conference in 2009 did not stop the arms fair from happening nor more arms deals being made. But the lie that is ‘this is just the way things are and always will be’, the pretence that there is no alternative, was exposed. Conference delegates, arms company employees, security guards, court officials, passers-by, friends, neighbours and readers of this very article all have a choice to make: to choose to support on the one hand, the arms trade, national self-interest, militarism, injustice, violence or on the other peaceful resistance, community, justice and the common good.
Just as Rosa Parks and the bus boycott used the racist transport system to expose and challenge institutional racism let’s use London’s DSEI arms fair – which will be held once again in London this coming September – to expose the corruption, injustice and lethality of war, the arms trade and the ideology of ‘might is right’.
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