However, until recently, I hadn’t been aware that we (well, the UK Government, in all its wiseness), happily invite questionable regimes to the party to broker weapons deals. This year, five regimes which are currently engaged in conflict – Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Ukraine, Turkey and Pakistan – are among the invitees, plus Israel. Yes, that’s the same Saudi Arabia which will happily drop bombs on Yemen, while denying her own citizens many basic freedoms. The UK has sold Saudi Arabia £3.6bn worth of arms since the air strikes against Yemen began. Nice work, defence secretary Sir Michael Fallon; makes me proud to be British.
Of course, Boris as mayor (and now, god help us, Foreign Secretary) was and still is all in favour of jolly arms fair bants if it means securing British jobs for people working at BAE Systems and the like, and keeps the sales of British weaponry, er, ‘healthy’. So much soHis Mayor of London successor, Sadiq Khan, says he wants to stop it happening in London but “can’t”. Fair enough, it’s not like he’s someone with any sort of pow… Oh, hang on.
So, that just leaves us, a committed, large, vocal, diverse and creative group of people, trying to #StopDSEI. And we’re up against the boys in blue, whose commitment to defending the rights of multi-national companies to facilitate mass murder, masquerading as good business for UK plc, is deeply impressive.
And behind the Met (paid for by the taxpayer, of course) is, essentially, the neo-liberal political order (government, media, ‘common sense’) that says this kind of thing – nation states selling weapons to other nation states in order for nation states to defend themselves and attack one another in pursuit of power or resources – is normal, just the way it is, baby. If you wanna stay ahead and tooled up, you gotta keep buyin’.
I hear that as part of the Festival of Resistance protests in the days leading up to the event – aimed at disrupting the setup and highlighting the Excel Centre and Clarion Events’ near-criminal role in staging it – there will be a bike block, Bikes Not Bombs, so happily I join in.
We cycle from a meeting point near Tower Bridge to the site in nowhere Docklands; an enjoyable ride snaking through the worst excesses of Canary Wharf and onto the lands served only by the DLR and private limos. Clearly, organiser think that if it happens on London’s fringes people won’t notice (you could never imagine this happening at London Olympia, for example).
As we move, we grow, from around 30 or 40 bikes (complete with killer soundsystem), to at least 60 or 70 by the time we get to one of the Excel service gates. Due to a railway bridge with lots of steps getting in the way, we take a slight detour that takes us past City Airport and also temporarily allows us to shake off our police escort as we go through a pedestrianised housing development (police cars not allowed, ET style!)
No matter, there are plenty more of them waiting for us when we get to the service gate roundabout. From here, we ride merrily around the roundabout for a good 30 minutes or so, soundsystem blaring (Sound of da Police, obvs) as more and more police turn up, including some of the heavy mob. They gradually move in and try and stop us from blocking vehicles getting in and out.
A guy dressed as Charlie Chaplin silently, stealthily attaches himself to the underside of a white van. Police officers ask us to stop blocking the highway, stop riding the wrong way on a highway, or just stop being annoying (get yer story straight!) One guy gets arrested for doing nothing more than wearing his cycle lock around his body, like many cyclists do.
The mostly good-natured, and fully peaceful, standoff lasts for about 90 minutes, during which time few vehicles come in or out and many give up and turn away. The operation has been a success, despite the 2 or 3 arrests. Meanwhile, flyers about the arms fair are handed out to plenty of tourists and passers-by who watch the goings on with baffled amusement.
At some point it’s decided that our energies and efforts might be welcome on another access gate blockade, near the Camp (some people have been here for days), so most of us cycle on. The Camp is amazing – there’s hot drinks and vegan food, info stalls, face painting, colourful signs, and hundreds of people – mostly having a carnival in the middle of a dual carriageway, with one unfortunate truck (and driver) stuck in the thick of it and not going anywhere.
The police tactics are unclear. There are a lot of them around, but with so many people – including a bunch of quakers (pacifist to the core, so great to have on protests like this), they seem reluctant to move in. Instead, there’s a choir, a band, speakers, rappers. A proper street party, basically.
When a bunch of people sit down right in front of the truck, police give them a ‘final warning’ but then – nothing. They actually withdraw. They obviously don’t have the stomach for mass arrests. In fact, the situation stays pretty stable for at least a couple of hours, before I decide to head off around 4pm.
I don’t know what happens next, but if the ultimate aim of the action is to disrupt the set-up, bring disrepute on Excel London, and to highlight the arms fair for what it is, then, in all respects, and despite more than 100 arrests over the week, it has to be deemed a success.
Londoners can’t just stand by and let this kind of event take place in our tolerant, peaceful (but once bomb-ravaged) city without dissent and civil disobedience.
I later have an exchange with a guy on Instagram who argues that all the action has done is put honest traders (carpenters, etc) out of work for the weekend. To which I respond, an honest carpenter wouldn’t help set up an arms fair (what would Jesus do?!?) and, actually, we’ve heard that the disruption has forced Excel to pay staff overtime rates to get the setup done on time.
A useful way to spend a Saturday? Definitely. Did it achieve anything? Definitely. Would I do it again? Definitely. And hopefully with thousands more peace-loving Londoners next time.
It’s important we keep the pressure on. Tell Excel London what you think of them staging events like this.
Clarion Events, meanwhile, also runs other events like The Baby Show – why not tell them what you think about its parent company also running arms fairs around the world!
And of course the people who got arrested need help. Find out more here.