Black Flag on protests against a London arms trade event in 2003.
The biannual Defence Systems & Equipment International exhibition (DSEI) took place at the ExCel Centre in London's docklands during the second week of September. The week of events against Europe's largest arms fair saw counter-conferences, vigils, film screenings, protests, direct action and blockades. Sept 11th was the penultimate day of the arms fair.
Trafalgar Square became Red Square, as anti-arms trade campaigners filled its famous fountain with fake blood, Sept 11th was also the auspicious date chosen for the DSEi / DMA Gala Dinner at the Royal Lancaster Hotel in central London. Arms dealers dined in luxury while around the world the dead were remembered.
Anti-arms protestors and peace activists showed their disgust outside the hotel throughout the evening with a noise demonstration. Diners arriving were greeted with shouts of 'How many children have you killed today?", while the surrounding streets were repeatedly blocked by cyclists and drummers. Hundreds of police, some in riot gear sealed the area off.
There was strong support from passers by, while at least one person infiltrated the hotel dressed in a ball dress. Free food was given out as people stayed late into the night making as much noise as possible, banging pots and pans.
After their gala dinner, the world's arms industry left the Lancaster Hotel under heavy police guard. They were able to leave the area via Lancaster Gate Tube Station which, closed to members of the public, was commandeered for arms dealer only transport.
The main day of protest against DSEi took place at London's Dockands on Wednesday 10th September. Activists, angry, both about the items on sale, the well-known human rights abusing countries invited, and the devastation caused by weapons, attempted to "Shut DSEi by any means possible". This was the day that bargaining at the DSEi arms fair began in earnest and general press were prohibited from entering.
Early in the morning the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) was stopped in the first of several actions with activists D-locking themselves onto trains at various stations or climbing onto the roof. This disrupted the DLR (the main means of transport for delegates to the arms fair) for much of the day. Many delegates were forced to walk to the ExCel centre due to the disruption caused by the protests. Also on the DLR, activists posed as arms dealers. On their way to the ExCel centre they announced they had arms for sale and opened their cases revealing the various sets of arms (prosthetic and dolls arms) they had to sell,
At Custom House DLR, activists in suits went to a "Meet the Delegates" action, mingling with the arms dealers on the trains. At 8am a Critical Mass [cycle protest bloc] left from the City of London to the Docklands. On their way to the ExCel Centre around a hundred cyclists blocked traffic while comedian Mark Thomas entertained the crowds. Just after 9am the International Solidarity movement visited the Israeli arms company Rafael in an attempted office occupation, later unfurling banners outside.
At 11am affinity groups converged to form mobile groups engaging in various actions, At Connaught Bridge a car partially blocked the ExCel approach road in a D-lock action while groups moved in a variety of directions, many up to Connaught roundabout and some down to the underpass, blockading traffic for several hours. Groups remained mobile; some pushing through police lines as other roads nearby were temporarily occupied or blockaded.
Meanwhile at the ExCel centre six activists infiltrated DSEi, occupying two tanks, daubing them in 'Stop Death' banners and locking on, before being removed by security.
At 4pm the Reclaim the Streets party mobilised many of the roaming affinity groups at Rathbone Market where a crowd of around 300 took to the streets soon meeting up with a critical mass bicycle group complete with sound system.
Meanwhile next to Canning Town DLR a second RTS group occupied the roundabout, as the DLR was again stopped, banners hung on top of the flyover ("Disarm DSEi"), arms delegate buses blockaded and riot police deployed. With a samba group playing, there were more arrests and scuffles as police cleared the roads, later blocking in two main groups of protestors for several hours as people tried to push through police lines.
Overall, the week's actions caused a high level of disruption to the arms fair, especially given the relatively small numbers of protestors, and extensive use of anti-terrorist stop and search powers by the police.
The DSEi protests served to highlight the police's growing use of 'anti-terrorism' measures (in particular, Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000) to intimidate, disrupt and deter people from taking part in demonstrations in the UK. On the morning of September 10th, there was widespread media coverage of the use of the anti-terror legislation against non-violent protesters at DSEi the day before.
Initially the chief of police for the London area denied any use whatever of the anti-terrorisrn legislation against protesters, but later was forced to admit that it was being used. Attempts at justifying the use of such tactics were laughable - it was said that real terrorists might use the opportunity (presumably disguised as protesters) to enter the arms fair to carry out their dastardly work.
The UK human rights organisation, Liberty announced that they were to challenge these police tactics in a high court judicial review on the 2nd of October, 2003.
The pressure became so strong that Blunkett (the home secretary) was forced to order a Scotland Yard investigation into alleged misuse of the anti-terror searches at DSEi. His statements suggested that this was the first time anti-terror search powers may have been misused, but there is substantial documentation of such police tactics being employed against protesters around 'RAF Fairford' airbase during the invasion of Iraq.
The government's use of the all-consuming terrorist ‘threat' as an excuse for increasing internal repression is rapidly losing credibility and it remains to be seen how long we will let them get away with it. For more details, visit www.liberty-human-rights.org.uk.
For an example of anti-terror law use in Spain, see page 5.