New protest laws won’t deter us from resisting one of the world’s largest arms fairs

Image is of a banner at DSEI 2019 saying "the world is over-armed and peace is under-funded" with cops standing in front of it.
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Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI), one of the world’s largest arms fairs, returns to the ExCeL Centre in East London this September. Since it started in 1999 DSEI has always seen repressive policing, with the Met Police showing clearly that their duty is to protect arms dealers, not facilitate protest.

DSEI is personal to me. I’ve protested against this horrific fair since 1999. 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. On top of all that I’ve had cops try to remand me, and one judge that say that “society needs a break from [my] actions”.

But the big difference for the protests in 2023 is the new Public Order Act. The government and the cops will be hoping this new draconian legislation deters people from taking action against this marketplace in death and destruction. The bad news – or good news if you’re on the right side of history – is that it won’t make the slightest difference. After all, if repressive policing deterred us, we’d have given up years ago.


Taking place every two years – supported by the UK government, and organised by Clarion Events – DSEI is a massive event for arms dealers. One of its primary functions is to allow arms companies to network with representatives from some of the world’s most repressive regimes. Companies will encourage delegates from human-rights-abusing nations such as Bahrain, Qatar, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia to buy the latest weapons to suppress their own populations and/or to wage war against others.

There is no pretense. DSEI exists to connect buyers and sellers. It exists to make deals that will devastate people’s lives. Its own website states that:

Featuring over 2,800 defence and security suppliers – including major prime manufacturers plus more than 230 new exhibitors. DSEI is the premier hybrid event of its kind and is crucial in bringing governments, the armed forces and the wider industry together.

This year, there’s even an app to help make these connections. Meet Me aims to be:

Read on...

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the networking tool within DSEI Connect that enables buyers and suppliers to book online and in-person meetings at DSEI 2023. Users can plan meetings before, during, and after DSEI, maximising their networking opportunities.

Or, as Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) puts it:

This is where those who profit from war, repression and injustice do business.

And this is where we can stop them.

War: good capitalist business

War is good capitalist business, and the war in Ukraine is no exception. BAE Systems, the UK’s biggest arms dealer, has seen its share price rocket since Russia’s invasion.

However, one thing is certain: peace is not achieved through increasing the profits of arms dealers. Arms dealers have zero interest in peace. Peaceful resolution to conflict does not benefit their shareholders.

Not only is war good capitalist business in terms of weapons sales, arms companies are now also finding a way to profit twice from the wars they perpetuate.

It is the big names amongst arms companies – such as Thales, Leonardo, AirBus, and BAE Systems – that are also providing the tech to maintain and develop our increasingly militarised borders. Bomb people’s homelands, force them to flee, and then make a killing out of the tech used to repress the same people when they try to seek sanctuary. Even by capitalist standards, it’s utterly sickening.

A history of repression

Protesting at DSEI has never been easy. I’ve recently found old notebooks recording previous policing operations. For over two decades, I’ve documented police abuses and written similar lines. For all the new legislation, and for all the new anti-protest rhetoric, the attitude from the cops was the same: protest, particularly effective protest, will not be tolerated.

Stop and search has always been used as a tool of repression at DSEI. In 2001, it was a blanket Section (S) 60 – the power for cops to stop and search anyone, even if they had no suspicion a crime may have been committed. Without a trace of irony, the police used the stop and search power for serious violence to target those protesting against serious violence.

The same old story

In 2003, it was the S44 terrorism power: a power that protesters later took to court to challenge its lawfulness, and won. Regardless of the name of the power, the reason for its use was clear: to harass and deter protest.

In 2003, I was six months pregnant. Numerous cops from the infamous Forward Intelligence Teams were always outside our meeting places. After one meeting, the police followed me on a bus and in a cab, until 2am. On another day, while acting as a legal observer, they threatened me with arrest and deliberately pushed me in the stomach. By the end of the week, my friends begged me not to go to any more protests.

Racism has, sadly unsurprisingly, also played a role in the policing of DSEI. Days organised by marginalised communities, particularly Palestinian and Kurdish communities, have always seen more repressive policing. On the Stop Arming Turkey day in 2019, for example, the police violently attacked the Kurdish-led protest, making arbitrary arrests, and throwing others on the floor. The difference in policing from other days was painfully clear to anyone who witnessed it.

DSEI and spycops

Spycops have also repeatedly targeted DSEI. For example, notorious undercover cop Jason Bishop helped organise the protests between 2001 and 2005, and became close friends with many of us involved in mobilising for the events.

In 2007, another now-exposed spycop Rob Harrison (who had a sexual relationship with an activist) was arrested alongside several of us who ran into ExCeL’s car park. Charges were later dropped. However, according to an Undercover Policing Inquiry document, the “perceived mismanagement of this arrest” was used as a reason to close down the Special Demonstration Squad.

However, this history of repression hasn’t meant that we’ve stopped fighting back or ever considered not protesting. 2023 is unlikely to be any different. We’ll be there because the deals made at DSEI will devastate people’s lives. As I wrote when my child was small:

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 2023: get involved!

Stop the Arms Fair (STAF) is organising this year’s protests. Actions start on 4 September targeting the setting up of the fair, and will run for two weeks. This will include protests while the fair is taking place between 12-15 September. Like other years, there will be specific themes for different days. Events so far include a Palestine Solidarity Campaign vigil on 5 September, a No Faith in War Day on 7 September, and a Migration Day on 12 September.

More events will be announced soon – so follow STAF to keep up-to-date with what’s happening.

Despite previous repression, and despite this government’s attacks on our right to demonstrate, it’s important to remember that protest is still legal and we must exercise that right. Green and Black Cross is a legal support group for activists. Volunteers attend protests to make sure cops aren’t violating people’s rights. It’s doing several online Know Your Rights trainings in the run-up to DSEI. Meanwhile, the Network for Police Monitoring (NetPol) and STAF are hosting an in-person training on 31 August at the Old Spotted Dog in East London – so book a place and get clued up.

The climate of repression is dire. However, it’s nothing compared with the repression people face if they try to take to the streets in the countries that the UK is courting arms deals with. We owe it to these people, and we owe it to ourselves, not to be intimidated.

See you on the streets!

The author is media coordinator at CAAT (Campaign Against Arms Trade)

Featured image via Emily Apple

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  • Show Comments
    1. Is it true that “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is a definition of insanity”? Either way, it is clear that decades of tiny protests by CAAT and other well-intentioned groups which are composed mostly of well-off students (who likely go on to forget they ever took part) and retirees and are almost unknown to the public have made not the slightest difference to the UK arms trade. I’m sure it feels satisfying to have completed yet another protest, but what will have been achieved, given that DSEI 2023 will happen regardless and the arms deals will be completed as if CAAT and STAF don’t exist?

      A complete rethink is needed.

      1. You’re right that these protests are, comparable to the scale of the arms fair, absolutely tiny and are incredibly unlikely to stop the fair itself. But what is your suggestion for an alternative? There could be action from trade unions (against the law, as there are restrictions that would stop that from legally happening), there could be organisation amongst much larger institutions like within universities that so often prop up the arms industry, there could be more militant actions. Who would support it? Is there really a basis of support to challenge the state’s defense industry? The problem is obviously way bigger than what a protest could ever achieve (like basically every problem that faces us), but that doesn’t mean it is absolutely useless or worth total cynicism. And not all attendees are well off students or retirees – there are also diasporas from different regions where these weapons are implemented, there are every day working people, etc. But yes – it is limited. So how can it be better? 🙂

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