To Do The Right Thing
Andy Johnson interviews Chris Cole: a man who takes hammers to fighter-planes.
Squall 10, Summer 1995, p. 45.
“And he will certainly render judgement among the nations and set matters straight respecting many peoples. And they will have to beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning shears. Nation will not lift up sword against nation, neither will they learn war anymore.”
Isaiah Chapter 2, verse 4
“Her Majesty’s prison service serves the public by keeping in custody those committed by the courts. Our duty is to look after them with humanity and to help them lead law-abiding and useful lives after their release.”
Notice outside British Prisons
When prison warders at Pentonville ask inmate Chris Cole why he receives so much post he replies it’s because he’s a political prisoner. He means it.
In January 1993, Chris evaded security at a British Aerospace base in Stevenage, Hertfordshire, and took a hammer to £100,000 worth of missile and military aircraft nose cones. Their design is so sensitive that a dent, applied with a hammer, is enough to render them useless. For this act of disarmament, carried out as part of the wider Swords into Ploughshares peace movement,
Chris spent six months in Bedford prison.
BAe had had enough of Chris by then. They obtained an injunction forbidding him to enter BAe property or incite others to trespass. They were right to think that a man of such principle would not be deterred by prison. But wrong to think that the campaign was made of one man and would go quiet if he were locked up.
In November last year, Chris took part in a peaceful demonstration in the car park of the same Stevenage factory. Although he did not even enter the site, BAE invoked their injunction and pushed for a prison sentence. So, in April, Chris began a six month sentence for contempt of court at Pentonville. He shares an approximately 10 by 8 feet cell with one other person, 23 hours a day. Sometimes at weekends, when staffing levels are low, he is locked up for 24 hours.
“I don’t see myself as breaking the law,” he told Squall, who visited him in Pentonville. "I’m upholding it. British Aerospace are killing people and I’m trying to stop it.”
Chris argued this in court when he was tried for the nose cone incident and won a hung jury. At the second trial, BAe wheeled in an expert on criminal law; Chris was found guilty and sentenced to eight months imprisonment. Having already served six on remand, however, he was released immediately.
“I think you have to do something when you look at the state of the world,” he says. “The main cause is militarism, which keeps the world the way it is. Britain is one of the major military nations and we have a responsibility to work against that.”
The protest last November was to mark the third anniversary of a massacre at the Santa Cruz cemetery in Dili, East Timor. The Indonesian army, who invaded their East Timor neighbour in 1975, shot 528 people dead as they protested peacefully against the occupation.
The massacre was captured on film by a British cameraman. If he had been caught with the footage he would have been killed. As it was, the film was smuggled out of the country, providing rare documentary evidence of the arbitrary genocide handed out to the East Timorese.
It is estimated that since the invasion, 200,000 people - a third of the entire population, have been killed through war-related disease - starvation and massacre.
British Aerospace first sold Hawk ground attack aircraft to Indonesia in 1978. On the same day, in 1991, that a US press report put the number of dead or “disappeared” at 5,000 in a single province of East Timor, BAe signed a co-production deal with Indonesia.
In 1993 BAe also signed a $750 million deal to supply Indonesia with 24 Hawk aircraft. Hawk ground attack aircraft have been implicated in the bombing of civilian areas in East Timor.
“British Aerospace are very bloody-minded,” says Chris, acknowledging the pun. “They keep insisting they want to be the number one arms company in the world. They are not looking at diversification. In fact, they are currently bidding for the Trident nuclear missile manufacturers, VSEL.”
A few years ago Chris, along with other activists, was invited to meet some of BAe’s directors. Chris says that after an hour or so one of the directors admitted that people who worked at BAe did have a problem with what they were doing. “But he said: ‘In our game you have to leave conscience at the door’,” recounts Chris. “That appalled me.”
After leaving school Chris began working as a junior clerk with the Catholic aid agency Cafod. He was brought up a Catholic and is still a practising Christian. It was at Cafod, he says, that he began to see the links between the arms industry and poverty in the third world.
“Before then I’d known a lot of Christians, but their Christianity was very hypocritical,” he says. “At Cafod people were acting for justice. They lived what they believed. I learnt so much there. People from third world countries would come and talk to the staff. I met people who had seen oppression. I began to see the links between militarism and how we use weapons to keep the status quo, to keep the poor poor.”
Chris left Cafod and came to the peace movement and civil disobedience. After spending some time in a Christian community, he met up with people from the Ploughshares campaign. A chance reading of an article about BAe sparked his interest in the weapons manufacturers.
“I decided it was something I should work on,” he says. “Not on my own, there was a small group of about ten of us. We started leafleting their factories up and down the country. After a while I realised that what we were doing wasn’t enough. We had to go a stage further, move from protest to resistance where, in a symbolic way, we put ourselves between the war and the victims. It was a gradual process of becoming aware of that and coming to terms with the fact that I would have to go to prison.”
Despite his conditions, Chris is sanguine about prison. He describes it as “tolerable” and himself as “a bit of an old lag”.
As well as his current sentence, and his time for turning nose cones into golf balls, he spent three days in Pentonville in 1991 for digging a grave in the grounds of the Ministry of Defence. In Chris’s case prison is certainly not having the deterring effect it was designed to do. Chris had also breached his injunction in January this year when he took part in, and wrote a briefing for, a mass trespass at the military aircraft division of BAe in Warton, Lancashire. This was the day after he and four others (the Warton four) were acquitted of “possessing items with intent to cause criminal damage” the previous February. They had been caught in possession of a can of red paint, and paintbrushes, in the vicinity of the Warton factory.
The trial had taken 11 months to come to court and collapsed because of lack of evidence. Their intended action had occurred after BAe’s injunction came into force. So when he carried out the nose cone disarmament he knew it would result in prison.
“There was no question of me doing it and then escaping,” he says. “I wanted to explain why I did it and communicate with them. I was very nervous, obviously, although there was no danger of an explosion. But I didn’t know how the security guards would react. They were fine however, they know me, they have photographs of me and the others.”
When Chris carried out this action, he did so wearing a white lab coat. On the back was written ‘BAe bomb disposal’.
“When you resist you have to contemplate the idea of going to prison,” he continues. “The laws as they stand are designed to protect the status quo. If you challenge the status quo you are going to come up against the law.”
“One of our problems is our fear of prison. That fear keeps us in line - very subtly. I don’t think it’s something we should be afraid of. It’s survivable, tolerable. There isn’t a lot to be afraid of.”
He is keen to stress, however, that he doesn’t think everybody should go to prison. He points out that he has a lot of outside support and the volume of letters he receives from well-wishers is essential for his morale.
“The letters are important,” he says. “You can’t do this on your own. But it’s something to think about.”
Chris’s inspiration, and that of the Ploughshares movement, derives from Isaiah’s prophecy concerning judgement among the nations and matters being set straight. Chris explains that Ploughshares developed in America in 1980 when anti-war activists (some of whom had protested against Vietnam) and Christians came together and studied this passage.
“They discovered that disarmament wasn’t going to come about by governments,” he explains, “that they would have to do it themselves. They went onto a base and disarmed an MX nuclear missile by smashing its nose cone.”
Since then there have been at least 50 other actions world-wide, ranging from disarming nuclear missiles to a Swedish conscript taking a hammer to his rifle. Prison sentences have ranged from three days to 18 years; all for nonviolent protests.
“Lots and lots of people have been to prison,” he says. “Particularly with Trident. So my action was part of that history, but also part of the wider anti-arms movement.”
When Chris asked the judge how long the injunction applied for, the reply was “forever”. But he says he will continue when he is released, despite the fact that any further breaches of the injunction will almost certainly result in harsher penalties.
“I fully expect the movement to grow,” he says. “Particularly if BAe buy VSEL. That will bring in a lot of Trident campaigners. My Christianity gives me a moral basis on which to act.... that all life is sacred. BAe have taken this injunction out on me, but I have a biblical injunction to act for peace. The bible says very clearly ‘Thou shalt not kill’. But through BAe and the arms race we are killing. We can’t just say the arms industry is nothing to do with us. If we stand by we are just as guilty.”
Chris will be released from this particular prison stretch on July 17th. But given the fervency of his conscience it is quite likely it won’t be his last incarceration at her majesty’s pleasure.
Ploughshares Support Network
Box X, 111 Magdelen Rd, Oxford OX4.
Stop the Hawks Deal
One World Centre, 6, Mount St,
Manchester M2 5NS
Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT)
11 Goodwin St, London N4. Tel: 0171 281 0297
Paying The War Machine - weaponry is big business for UK Plc. Squall 10, Summer 1995.
BAe Supplying Oppressive Regimes - BAe AGM targeted by Arms Trade protesters. Squall 10, Summer 1995.
Hawks And Doves - Andrea Needham writes from her prison cell on why she smashed up a Hawk aircraft with a hammer. Squall 13 - Summer 1996.
Disarming Women - The four ploughshares women recently acquitted for breaking the nose-cone of a Hawk jet fighter were but the tip of a growing movement. Neil Goodwin reviews its history and the implications of the acquittal. Squall 14 - Autumn 1996