In 1998, I was arrested outside an arms fair. It was the first time I’d been arrested for anything and I was terrified. I’d been going to protests for a while and taking direct action at arms fairs and road protest sites. But partly through luck, I’d never had to face the reality of arrest for anything I’d done.
I don’t remember the weather (unlike my second arrest, also at an arms fair, when it was pouring with rain and I sat shivering and soaked to the bone in a police van). I don’t know why the weather is important. Maybe it’s an innately British thing.
I want to talk about arms fairs, death and destruction, and the global market in torture equipment. But somehow, the small talk still comes first. Or maybe it’s just a sense of drama, the introduction of pathetic fallacy. Storm clouds forming, mist and drizzle setting the dramatic narrative. Or just blazing sunshine and contrast. Hot and sweaty, the sun beating down on us as we made our stand.
But I don’t remember. And it’s apt. Because it wasn’t dramatic. It was a quiet refusal; it was doing the right thing and a small way of saying that I wouldn’t sit back and let the trade in torture continue in my name.
Copex used to take part every other year as part of the cycle of arms fairs that promoted weapons and torture equipment to dictators and human rights abusers from around the world. British companies making a profit from a murderous trade, despite the then Labour government’s promises of an “ethical foreign policy”.
In particular, Copex was known for promoting the sale of torture equipment to human rights abusing states. Channel 4‘s Dispatches programme did an exposé on the fair in 1995. It included graphic accounts of people tortured using electro-shock batons. Arms dealers were seen gleefully showing off the batons and explaining ways they could bypass arms control legislation. And the programme also showed that these were available at Copex.
So in 1998, I arrived at Wembley where Copex was held that year. Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) had called the protest. I went on my own and didn’t know anyone. I was painfully shy and didn’t even like talking to people I vaguely recognised from past protests. Somehow I viewed myself as non-descript; an outsider; with self-esteem so low that I didn’t believe anyone would recognise me, let alone want to talk to me.
But I was passionate and determined. I joined the march. And somewhere between the station and the conference centre, it stopped and people sat down in the road, blockading access to the site. I joined in.
After about half an hour, the police moved in. They warned people that they would be arrested if they didn’t move and began dragging away those who refused. Two police officers approached. They asked me to move; saying to me that if I didn’t I would be arrested. My mouth was so dry I wasn’t able to respond. But I sat there quietly, until they read me the caution and asked me to come with them.
I refused and large hands gripped my arms and dragged me off the road towards waiting police vans.
24 of us were taken to Wembley holding station; a strange complex built solely for the purpose of detaining large numbers of football fans. Polaroids were taken with our arresting officers, before we were locked in blue cages for an indeterminate number of hours.
Unlike pretty much every other subsequent arrest I’ve experienced, we were locked up together; around ten of us in the cage. And it gave me the chance to get to know people as they chatted. Still gripped by shyness, I didn’t speak much. But I met some incredibly inspirational women that day, who encouraged me and gave me the courage to continue with my journey.
We were charged with highway obstruction, a low-level traffic offence. It’s also what’s known as a “non-recordable” offence. In other words, even if you’re convicted, it doesn’t show up in a criminal record check. This was a bonus, as I was working in a further education college as a classroom assistant; and it meant that I knew it wouldn’t affect my work.
Around a dozen of us represented ourselves in court. Much of our legal defence was based on the Dispatches programme. We argued that we were justified in breaking the law because illegal arms sales were taking place; we broke a minor law to prevent an even bigger crime happening.
I was too scared to give evidence and wasn’t sure I could face being cross-examined by the prosecutor. But watching my co-defendants gave me the courage to know I could do it in the future. And I gave a closing speech. My hands shook and my legs felt like jelly, but I managed to keep my voice steady as I read my statement about why I’d taken part in the action.
We were found guilty. But the magistrates praised our actions and the way we’d defended ourselves. And they imposed the lowest penalty they could: an “absolute discharge“.
But the arrest, and in particular the court case, was an immensely empowering experience. I met people. I started talking to them. And I overcame so many fears. Not just fears about facing the police and the legal system, but my inability to talk to people; my fear of being rejected by ‘proper’ activists.
Never look back
We all have seminal moments in our lives. The ones where we know things will never be the same again. Often, they can be caused by horrific events and trauma. Some aren’t traumatic, but they are scary and they take you to a new place. In this case, a better and more powerful place.
And I never looked back. Getting arrested that day was one of the best things that ever happened to me. It changed my life. It gave me confidence. And it hugely changed my political engagement and the direction of my life.
19 years later, and I’ve organised and participated in hundreds of protests against the arms trade. I’ve approached stopping Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEi) – the London arms fair – with a passion bordering on the obsessive. It’s been far from easy. I made best friends with a corporate spy at Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT); befriended undercover cops; and suffered police harassment and violence that led to two breakdowns.
But I don’t look back. I have no regrets. I’m pleased I’ve dedicated so much of my life to trying to make a difference. And I love the irony that the police arresting me that day led to decades of activism.
The global arms trade
But as you may have noticed, we’ve never managed to stop the global arms trade. And it always was a bit of a big ask. Copex is no longer running, and arguably years of protests outside played a part in driving it away.
DSEi, meanwhile, began in 1999. And it’s still going. But we haven’t made life easy for them. Every year, there are mass protests; millions of pounds have been spent on policing operations; and delegates are faced with regular disruption and haranguing from protesters. We’ve held street parties; disrupted roads and trains; and people in kayaks have tried to get in the way of the warships entering the docks.
Over the years, the arms fair has changed hands numerous times. And at times, it was activist pressure that contributed to companies getting rid of the beast.
Meanwhile, activists have tried a myriad of tactics to stop the arms trade. CAAT even took the government to court to try and prevent arms sales to Saudi Arabia. It argued that the £3.3bn worth of weapons the UK sells to Saudi Arabia are being used illegally in Yemen. According to the UN, over 10,000 people have been killed as a result of the war. Vital infrastructure, including schools and hospitals, have also been targeted. There are now millions of displaced people in Yemen. And according to UNICEF, a child dies in Yemen every ten minutes from preventable causes.
But the legal action failed, with much of the evidence being held behind closed doors.
Every two years, the fair rolls into the ExCeL centre. The wagons unload tanks, boats, guns, and munitions. In 2015, arms dealers from 61 countries queued up to view the wares of 1,500 exhibitors. 14 of the countries invited, including Algeria and Bahrain, had authoritarian regimes. Four, including Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, have been listed by the UK as having human rights issues. And a further 11 countries on the list, such as Ukraine and Iraq, are currently at war.
This September, it’s back. And Stop the Arms Fair is organising a week of action to shut it down before it even starts. There are different themes on different days, and things everyone can get involved with. Even London Mayor Sadiq Khan wants to see it banned from the capital.
Khan claims he is powerless to stop it. And despite increasing pressure, the courts and the government are refusing to stop arms sales to Saudi Arabia. So it is up to us. But if enough of us get involved, we can shut down DSEi. Direct action can and does work.
And you never know, it could change your life.
– Support CAAT.
– Support Stop the Arms Fair and help to stop DSEi 2017.
Featured image the author’s own