I’ve covered a lot of protests as a journalist. It’s important work especially as a lot of what’s written in the mainstream media about demos is misleading at best.
In fact, it was on an Anti-Nazi League protest in Welling in 1993 that I first realised just how much you couldn’t trust the press to report what really happened. It was the first riot I ever got caught up in, and what I witnessed firsthand was a total contradiction to the headlines the establishment media manufactured. But that’s a story for another time.
This one is about why I, and several other Canary journalists, decided to stop reporting, to leave our press cards at home and take action against the world’s biggest arms fair – Defence Security and Equipment International (DSEI).
Because sometimes reporting isn’t enough. And sometimes we have to put our bodies in the way and say enough is enough.
Festival of resistance
So on Saturday 7 September, alongside two incredible friends, I was arrested for highway obstruction. We blocked the road to the arms fair, entwining our arms and wrists with karabiners and locking ourselves together.
As part of that day, Plan C and Riseup4Rojava called for people to join the action:
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if you stand against all the horrors of capitalist modernity, with its endless exploitation and domination, and countless gendered, class-based, racial and national violences, and if you desire a free and equal life for everyone everywhere, where we collectively, directly and democratically control our everyday lives, and can develop freely in ecological balance with the world around us
Arriving in the morning, a number of people from the Kurdish solidarity movement, Plan C and the Kurdish community attempted to cross the road to the pavement where the main protest was taking place.
We walked together with flags and banners. But the cops reacted violently. They threw people on the floor and forcefully arrested one person. As this video and tweet point out, the “institutional racism” of the Metropolitan Police was on full display:
Video from @TRCdocumentary showing institutional racism from the police at @StopTheArmsFair last Sunday, treating @KurdishAssembly and allies there for @RISEUP4R0JAVA totally differently to white protesters. Retweet & shame @MetPoliceUK & @ExCelLondon #StopDSEI #RiseUp4Rojava pic.twitter.com/X7EHU7IFbU
— Plan C (@weareplanc) September 13, 2019
I was planning on protesting on Saturday, but I wasn’t necessarily planning on getting arrested – mostly because I have a completely ruptured ACL ligament in my knee from a previous protest outside the Turkish embassy when the cops threw me on the ground.
But after the cops threw me on my injured leg while I was trying to cross the road in the morning, there didn’t seem to be much point in trying to protect my injury.
So, the three of us locked together and prevented vehicles getting onto the site.
Music played. At one point someone from Peace Pledge Union read out some of the names of Yemini children killed by airstrikes made by the Saudi coalition – airstrikes that were aided and abetted by UK arms sales; airstrikes that were only possible because we live in a society that puts cold hard profit above human life.
And I thought of my friends in Amed (Diyarbakir), and all my Kurdish friends. I thought of the many brave people I’ve been so lucky to meet; people like Leyla Güven who just weeks after winning her 200-day hunger strike was on the streets, quietly facing down Turkish riot police, protesting against the removal of democratically elected mayors in Amed and other Kurdish regions of Turkey.
I thought about one of those mayors, Hülya Alökmen, who I interviewed last time I was in Amed. She told me that she doesn’t fear prison, that prison is part of the fabric of their lives. Her only concern was for her chid:
I’m familiar with prisoners and prison. I’m not afraid for myself, but I have two children and I care about them. One is 13 and one is 11.
And I thought of the countless people I’ve interviewed or spoken to there – MPs, families of prisoners, former prisoners, activists, all of whom have spoken about UK sales of weapons to Turkey and how this needs to stop. All of whom have implored people in the UK to take action, to show solidarity with the violence and repression the Turkish state inflicts on its Kurdish population.
Let’s be clear about one thing. What we did wasn’t brave. The worst we faced from our actions were some nasty bruises and several hours in a police cell. At some point, we might face a potential trial for highway obstruction – an offence so minor it might as well be a speeding ticket. And while the state might police protests with counter-terrorism cops and regard sitting in the road to stop the machines of death as an act of domestic extremism, I know we’re not going to get locked up for years for doing it.
Equally, I know my friends in Amed wouldn’t consider themselves brave. Even though I’d describe them as some of the bravest people I know.
Bravery is a strange concept. But we need to get away from this concept that these type of actions are taken by people who are some kind of ‘other’; some special breed of ‘activists’ doing something that ordinary people can’t. The women I took action with are incredibly awesome people – but we’re not special. We just know that sometimes there’s no other option other than putting our bodies in the way of what’s happening.
But action doesn’t need to involve arrest. Being able to risk arrest is a privilege. I’m not, for example, a Person of Colour. I may have faced police violence and harassment, but that’s been as a result of my politics not the colour of my skin. I’m lucky that I work somewhere where I can be openly vocal about what I’ve done, and receive total love and support. And unlike my friends in Amed, I’m not facing years banged up in a Turkish jail for my actions.
So while what we did wasn’t exceptional, it was done from a position of privilege and this always has to be acknowledged. And we also have to acknowledge the people who don’t get praised – the people doing legal support; the people who greeted us at the police station with love, smiles and beers; the people who put in hours making sure there were toilets on-site, that sound systems got to the protest, that spent months dealing with the boring little details that meant this was an effective protest.
These people work tirelessly and often don’t get the attention they deserve. But they are equally putting their bodies in the way of this vile trade – just in a different way – and if I’m honest from years of thankless organising – it’s a much harder job. Jumping in front of a truck is often much easier than six months of meticulous planning and meetings.
we must be wary of glorifying arrests and incarceration as the only valid way of engaging with a movement. A movement, particularly one seeking to change society as we know it, should not be a coterie of privileged activists who can afford the expense and time getting arrested.
But while I totally acknowledge that privilege – and I totally accept, understand and support why people can’t risk getting arrested – while writing this, I read back on some words I wrote after a DSEI action ten years ago – when my son was six. At the time, I was a single mother:
It is never enough to advocate militant politics and not play an active role. There is always a good reason for not taking risks, albeit single motherhood being a particularly good one.
My love for my six year old is more powerful than anything I have experienced. A love that brings tears to my eyes every time I try to express it. A love capable of cutting so deep, it penetrates every fibre of my being, stabbing me in the stomach like a throbbing appendix needing urgent attention.
It’s easy to find reasons not to risk arrest. Many of these reasons are utterly valid and utterly right. But I’m sharing this because this is the personal position I came to when I was a single mother of a young child and because it’s something I still stand by:
However, using this love as an excuse is a Western luxury: a Western indulgence. This love is universal, a primal feeling which transcends race and religion, class and creed. I have the luxury of being able to give in to this love, but I also feel a responsibility to mothers everywhere: a responsibility to mothers who are being bombed and battered for Western profit. The mothers whose hardship ultimately supports our decadent lifestyle through their blood, sweat and tears.
What right do I have to say fuck you to those mothers? The mothers who have just seen their beautiful toddlers blown to pieces by a British made bomb. Do I say sorry love, but I’ve got a kid now, or do I extend my solidarity to mothers everywhere? Do I evaluate the risks I am taking as being petty compared to what other mothers face on a daily basis? Do I do everything I can to fight the companies and individuals who make money selling these bombs?
DSEI has now been running for 20 years. I’ve been opposing it for 20 years. In 1999, I was arrested twice. Once for crawling under a coach full of delegates and attaching myself to the bottom of it; and once for locking myself to a train full of arms dealers.
Over the years I’ve been arrested, harassed, and assaulted. I’ve organised and taken part in actions with people who later turned out to be undercover cops and corporate spies. I’ve been pushed in the stomach while pregnant and ended up as ‘suspect A’ on a police spotter card. I’ve had cops try to remand me and one judge who’s said that “society needs a break from [my] actions”.
I’ve also had two breakdowns. I did reach the point where I ‘advocated militant politics but couldn’t play an active role’ because my body simply wouldn’t let me. Years of harassment, assaults and violent policing – not all at DSEI by any stretch of the imagination – took their toll and I missed two DSEIs as a result. But I don’t regret any of it.
In 2017, I went back. But I went back as press. I reported on events. I watched friends take action, but I kept my distance. And it’s only been in the last year that I’ve started going back to protests as an activist rather than a journalist.
So sitting in a police cell last week, I felt as empowered as I did the first time I was arrested. I can do this. We can all do this.
And when we realise this collective power – when we realise we don’t have to cooperate, when we realise we don’t have to obey – when we realise that we can literally stand on rooftops and shout ‘not in my name’, we can change the world.
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