I am a convicted criminal. In September I was convicted of causing criminal damage to an Elbit factory (Elbit is an Israeli arms manufacturer) in Staffordshire. Here I explain how I got there.
I have been socially and politically active for as long as I can remember. I campaigned with Amnesty International at school and have been involved with social justice and environmental campaigns since university. I was a member of the Labour Party until 2000 when I left in disgust at what it was doing, but continued action in a number of campaigns including the peace movement. I joined the Green Party in about 2014.
The largest arms fair in the world
In 2015 I went to protest against the Defence and Security Equipment International or DSEI (pronounced dicey) arms fair. This is held on alternate years at the Excel Centre in Docklands in London. It claims to be the largest arms fair in the world and includes sellers from many countries including UK, USA, Turkey and Israel.
Buyers attending include serious human rights abusers including Saudi Arabia (committing war crimes in Yemen) and Bahrain using them against their own population, Turkey against Armenians and Israel in the occupied territories of Palestine.
Programme director at Amnesty International, Oliver Sprague, has testified in court to witnessing violations of UK arms export control legislation at DSEI including the advertising of torture equipment, land mines and cluster bombs. At the 2013 arms fair, two companies were ejected after Green Party MP Caroline Lucas revealed in parliament they were promoting illegal stun batons, weighted leg cuffs, and handheld projectile electric shock weapons.
‘Put your body where your beliefs are’
At each arms fair a number of groups organise protests for that day including Quakers, academics, Palestinians, and CND. I went along simply to show my opposition to the arms fair. I stood at the side of the road chatting to other protesters and occasionally chanting. After a couple of hours, I left the roadside to look at some of the stalls that protest groups had set up.
I looked up to see a young man running down the slope towards a lorry transporting a tank. He lay down in front it to prevent it getting to the arms fair.
In that moment I simply thought that if I really believed in what I was protesting about then it was not enough to simply stand on the sidelines chanting. I needed to put my body where my beliefs are. I might say that I needed to stand up for my beliefs, but this time it was a matter of lying down for my beliefs.
I ran down the slope and lay in front of the lorry and refused to move when told to by the police. After a short while I was arrested and taken to the side of the road before being taken to the police station. Even here I saw an example of police racism. Two of us were arrested, a young Bahraini man and me. He was handcuffed behind his back (which ranges from feeling uncomfortable to being outright painful) while I, as a white man, was handcuffed in front.
Facing the courts
What I now know to be unusual is that I had had no advice, support, or training before taking the action, because I simply joined an action already taking place. Groups like Extinction Rebellion (XR) and Just Stop Oil (JSO) provide excellent and thorough training before they allow people to take part. This includes non-violence training, how to interact with the police and public, what to do when being arrested and what to do at the police station.
Before being arrested the first time, I thought of being arrested and going through the courts as very scary. What I learnt is that really there is a great deal of tedium involved. I spent the night ‘in the cells’, but was welcomed on my release by the arrestee support team and breakfast. I can say that it is a huge morale boost to be met by supporters upon release from custody. There are then the several court appearances which, in my case, involved travelling from my home in York to London on three occasions. In the end, I was acquitted.
Two years later I was back trying to stop the arms fair, but this time I had planned what I was doing with others, and we blocked the access road by descending from the bridge over it.
The art of peaceful protest
Since then, I have taken part in many more protests, including several where I have been arrested, but so far I have only been convicted on one occasion.
If you do decide to take part in protest of any sort, I strongly recommend that you take some training beforehand, and be aware of your rights under the law. As part of the purpose is to get publicity it is also important to send out press releases to local papers which are always looking for interesting copy!