Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Fighting the arms trade with non-violence

As I write this, news is just coming in from the West Midlands area of England about an important, but rather under-the-radar trial that has been taking place for the past two days. Last year, five activists blockaded the main entrance to the Excel Docklands in London during the biennial Defence Security Equipment International (DSEI) arms fair. The activists are all Christians (one of them a minister), and they acted completely non-violently at all times, simply kneeling down in prayer and singing hymns. Meanwhile, inside the DSEI, hundreds of companies were competing to sell weapons, explosives, armoured vehicles and more to the many government representatives who attend. The difference between the two groups couldn’t be more clear, and yet it was the activists who came off worse in this particular battle between non-violence and the state – they were arrested and charged with aggravated trespass.
Today, they have been declared ‘not guilty’ by the judge at Stafford magistrates court. Admittedly, they appear to have only been let free on a technicality – police instructions for them to leave were not clear or detailed enough, so they couldn’t have been expected to fully comply – but this is still a victory of sorts. The activists were allowed to put forward their argument about the legitimacy of their tactics in a court of law, and the police – as ever – appear either duplicitous or foolish. At NRGLab and the Ana Shell Fund we applaud the five for standing up for their beliefs and risking up to three months in jail to make their point.
But what really stands out about this trial is the double standards and hypocrisy of justice in supposedly ‘free and fair’ countries like the UK. One of the defendants’ arguments hinged around an interesting side event at the 2013 DSEI, in which two companies were expelled from the convention. They were expelled because they were promoting the sale of weapons which are illegal under British law. The French company Magforce International and the Chinese firm Tianjin Myway were kicked out of DSEI for selling electric shock projectiles, stun batons, and weighted leg cuffs. DSEI only took action after the Green Member of Parliament Caroline Lucas raised a question in the British parliament about rumours that these companies were selling such items at the fair.
Yet despite the illegal actions of the two companies, and the relaxed initial response of DSEI, nobody involved with the arms fair was charged with anything. The crimes of those companies that peddle stun batons and shock missiles seems far greater than that of five calm and studious people kneeling down in the road outside, and yet it is only the latter who feel the force of the state and its police come down on them. Even now, as mentioned above, they are only free because of a technicality. If the police had been better at their jobs, the peaceful activists might well be in jail this evening while Magforce and Myway continue to go about their business – a business which is based on oppression and violence against the disenfranchised and poor.
The priorities of the state are clear – and this is not just the British state, although that happens to be where this story is set. If you try to defend the helpless, those who have nothing, those whose homes are being destroyed by missiles, whose lives are being taken by guns, and whose freedom is being undermined through weighted leg cuffs and the like, you are potentially a criminal. If you contribute to that very situation – if you make the leg cuffs, the missiles, the guns, the weapons of torture – you’re fine, free to carry on as you please, as long as you keep bringing in the profit for the politicians and shareholders. Non-violent protestors are dangerous, while companies whose entire business model is built on violence are upstanding citizens. This backwards ideology is at the very heart of our globalized, neoliberal culture today, and we should all be working like those five activists to stand against it.
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