DSEI Arms Fair, London
On the day the two twin towers of the World Trade Centre collapsed in New York, activists were targeting a massive arms fair in London Docklands. Andy Robertson sent in this dispatch from the middle of the action.
11th September 2001
Canning Town was the setting. One of the most deprived places in the UK, home to a multi-cultural population and the third highest vote for the BNP in the country. This was the area chosen to host the Defence Systems and Equipment International (DSEI) Arms Fair where arms, warships and other so called 'defence' hardware were placed on come-buy-me display at the Excel Centre, Royal Victoria Docks. Countries from all over the world including ones with well known abuses of human rights were invited including Saudi Arabia, China and Nigeria. According to the UN Human Development Report, world governments spend £719 billion a year on the arms trade, 14 times more than is needed to eradicate absolute poverty from the world.
Press coverage of the event had been almost non-existent until police raided two squats in the Borough area of south London on the Friday. Four arrests were made on charges of 'a conspiracy to cause violent disorder'. Their mobile phones were retained, possibly for downloading the phonebook numbers and then they were released on bail pending further enquiries.
So with tensions raised by police who'd spread their standard line of "expected violent demonstrations" (Evening Standard), I arrived at about 11am and made my way down to Silvertown Road to have a look around. On my way I bumped into some friends. Approximately thirty minutes passed and already large numbers of police vans were in action, as protesters of a Pink & Silver nature gathered a little further up the road and were being cordoned off by police. This tactic of containment was used at Mayday and is effectively a Section 60 without the search.
As our numbers gathered where we stood, it was our turn to have police attention as four vans made their way ten yards from us and blocked off a road. We and a samba band made our way up an available space as an encircled larger group of protesters slowly followed. At this time we were now prevented from joining the main group, so we took a quick meeting and decided to go through the housing estates. Music playing, we handed out leaflets and flyers to the community as they came out to watch our group of twenty. Initially, our journey went unnoticed by the police, as we checked our road maps to see how to get across to the Excel centre. Eventually we were escorted by about five or six coppers as our mini-procession took us past a primary school on their lunch break. The kids came running up to the railings and screamed, jumped, cheered and danced, a stark comparison to the faces of the policemen.
Diverting, we picked up the pace and started to run through a maze of paths to out-manoeuvre the police and found ourselves on another main road, Regent Lane. Here the police were forming a line across the road as we ran to try and get past before it was complete. Now, children at a secondary school, also on lunch but allowed out, came running down the road with us cheering. This confused the police as they were unable to have a go at the children and so we were left alone. However, fearing being blocked, we moved quickly through a park as police tried to grab us but our running shoes took us away from them. We now had some local youngsters with us who asked us what it was all about and must of decided it was a good cause as they helped us through the streets to the Custom House DLR station, whilst having a go at the cops at the same time.
We nearly made it onto a ramp, which could of taken us onto the station where delegates were standing but the good old boys in blue stopped us. Just! Local kids, samba band, Pink & Silver made up our group of about forty and we stood outside a Hotel which, to my surprise, was the one where the DSEI delegates were staying. Banners were raised as delegates tried to make their way to the hotel. As they attempted to enter the hotel some of us managed to block the door until physically forced away. Despite assistance from the police, our resistance to the delegates coming out of the train station was enough to make the cops turn the delegates away. Eggs were handed out for launching at the arms-traders and their assistants but I had too much in my hand and placed it in my pocket, where inevitably it got squashed. Woops!
We heard at this stage the news of the World Trade Centre being attacked and then the Pentagon. The facts were bitty when coming through but when it became confirmed the discussions began. The general feeling was one of 'WOW, this is big', alongside the realisation that many innocent people had been killed. However everyone on the protest was fully aware of the US foreign policy and there was a sense of 'well they've been causing terror around the world for a long time and now it's on their own doorstep'.
We knew immediately our protests against the arms trade, of which the US plays a massive part, were a) very relevant and b) would be wiped out in terms of news coverage. This didn't deter us from attempting to prevent further atrocities in the future, so some stayed put at the hotel whilst others, including myself, made their way up to the next station Royal Victoria DLR. Here we acted confused as to which way we wanted to go, and then boarded the train back towards Custom House station. We shared the train with DSEI delegates and told them exactly what we thought of their 'jobs', to which they looked nervous and had no reply. Both Police and station management were on the train, as we were moved onto the platform one of them told us we were 'undesirables' and had to leave, pushing one of the female activists. Angry, she scolded him before an officer stood in front of him and told him "You're not police, you can't touch her". We were then thrown out and stood back at the hotel where we started and remained there, keeping the pressure on the delegates until about 6.30pm.
News came back about section 60 being used at Canning Town with aggressive policing, with some of my friends trapped, but, all in all, the day was if nothing else, interesting. I learnt many aspects to protesting from this, including the fact that small affinity groups can cause lots of problems for the police due to the speed at which decisions are made, the speed of movement and the less police attention they draw. The involvement in the community made the demonstration more difficult to police, especially with kids looking on. Mass protests at present are constantly being corralled by the police using the section 60 technique. Perhaps, then, instead of one large mass, a lot of small groups may provide a different possibility, at least until the police section 60 'coralling and detention' tactic is proved to be illegal in forthcoming court cases.
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