Report from a peace protestor against the Arms Fair in London on 3rd September 2019

Report from a protestor against the Arms Fair in London on 3rd September 2019, as part of the No Faith in War Day of Action.

Why?

I believe that taking a life is wrong and so, by definition, is facilitating the means by which this is achieved. Perhaps, what really disturbed me the most was learning of incontrovertible evidence that British manufactured weapons had been/are being used in Yemen and children are dying as a result.  The Government should be deeply ashamed of its complicity in aiding this together with its duplicity in ignoring its own export ban, in my opinion.

It might have taken a long time, but the Quaker’s Peace Testimony and the call to ‘live adventurously’ offered me some way to express both my sense of a profound and grievous injustice and to demonstrate, in some small way, a solidarity with those who are suffering as the result of any war.

Where?

The Defence and Security Equipment International (D.S.E.I.) arms fair is held every other year at the Excel Centre in London. Quakers and other peace protestors have been protesting at the event for several years with the aim to block the arms traders having access to the building.

The Excel Centre London has east and west gates. The east gate is used for the bigger vehicles. It has a dual carriageway and also a minor road, serving some nearby hotels, which can be used to access the venue.  The East entrance was the focus of the action, but west ‘gaters’ probably had a harder job, being fewer in number.

My experience

I arrived at the DLR station at about 10:45 a.m. to be met and directed, by Quaker marshals, to the east gate; a short walk away.

I later learnt that action had been ongoing since about 7 a.m. and there had already been a Meeting for Worship at both gates, at 9 a.m.

About 700 people (of all faiths and none) were at the east gate and about half of these were Quakers, from all over the country and abroad. Most of the Quakers were sat or standing across the dual-carriageway.  Small tapestry squares, many crafted the day before at Friends Meeting House adorned the local vegetation. Banners and flags of all shapes and sizes, were displayed. 

Musical instruments and singing were to be heard everywhere.  I wish I had known about the new Quakers for Peace t-shirt. 

Not much occurred within my first hour of arriving, although much had already happened, so I spent the time making new friends and mingling. Then a call went up for more bodies to block the side road as lorries were trying to sneak in that way, so off I went with about 50-60 others; mostly Quakers. This road has a pedestrian crossing and it had already seen protester lock-ons  and a continuous stream of protesters repeatedly crossing it as slowly as possible.  Three large lorries arrived.   We stood in the road, we sang peace and protest songs. We were warned by a police officer of impending arrest for aggravated trespass although, maybe fortunately, I didn’t hear that.  After about 10-15 minutes the lorries turned back. That sight was a strange experience for me. I felt joy, relief and it was very emotionally draining.  Fifteen minutes of radicalism had worn me out. Note to self: need to be a fitter person to hold the presence of the Spirit.

At 2 p.m. there was a coordinated Meeting for Worship across the gates.  In my location at the side-road this involved about 50-60 people. 

Worship outside, especially in an industrial area, is something else and not something I had experienced before. 

With the frequent and noisy aircraft departures and with copies of both Quaker Faith and Practice and Advices and Queries in the road, we worshipped. 

 

Quaker worship differs from many other traditions. There is no music or hymns or central authority figure. We hold to no creed. We believe in a personal and direct relationship with an active and loving higher power. Our experiences inform us that this connection is more easily achieved sat mostly in silence. But all have the right to speak if they feel moved to so and we call that providing ministry.

Sitting in this impromptu Meeting in the side-road near the Excel Centre I could hear the planes, a gentle breeze in some nearby trees and the occasional ministry. A Friend from Edinburgh spoke of his need for action in the face of evidence of Raytheon produced weapons being used in Yemen. As they say, “that Friend spoke my mind”.

This was the point where large numbers of police moved in.  Our group was left alone. However, at 2:45 p.m. the police started to break up the larger Meeting for Worship at the main east gate entrance. 

Many felt moved by the Spirit to not move and so arrests ensued.  Over the course of the day I understand there were about 60 arrests.  

As each arrestee was carried or walked past our position, to awaiting vans, they were accompanied by a Quaker legal observer and were cheered and thanked for their powerful witness on our behalf. Interrupting an act of worship is illegal. 

Strong representations were made to the Officer in Charge and many felt that this should be reported to the Recording Clerk and to the Met Police Commissioner.

There were lighter moments too, if I may call them such. As we blocked the side road during our  worship  a fork-lift truck pulled-up, waited a small while and then beeped us. Worship continued. The driver had a conversation with a police officer.  Fortunately, or perhaps not, I don’t know the words exchanged, but needless to say the vehicle and its driver retreated, not to be seen again.  Several groups of aircrew also trundled past us with their wheeled suitcases during this time and I can only imagine their bemusement.  There was a tweet from the west gate reporting the following overheard police conversation:

Officer A.  How long do these prayers last for then?

Officer B: How long is a piece of string?

I left at about 4:50 p.m.  We succeeded in closing the gates from 7:30 a.m. until about 4:30 p.m.  Event not shut down but certainly disrupted.

My takeaways

I and all those present owe an immense debt of gratitude to all the volunteers, ranging from the direction guides and legal observers to those making sure that we had water and were OK. Not forgetting those who helped the arrestees who were released “under investigation”, having spent several hours in the cells. 

I am in awe of those parents who attended with sometimes very young children.

The palpable feeling of love, common purpose and community was inspiring. It is hard to describe the visual and spiritual impact of seeing Quaker Faith and Practice and Advices and Queries in the road. Faith and testimony in action indeed.

I hope I can encourage more people to attend the next protest against this arms fair in 2021.

The tweets ‘pacifist not passive’ and  also ‘when threatened Quakers will worship’, in relation to the police’s actions, are nuggets that best encapsulate the spirit of the day.

A foldable camping chair of some description will required for next time. I am not as young as I used to be!

 

 

Heath McAvilley of East Garston Quaker Meeting

 

 

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