Dismantling DSEI: How do you stop one of the world's biggest arms fairs?


Sarah Reader

Defence Security Equipment International (DSEI) is one of the world's biggest arms fairs and has taken place in East London since 2001. It brings together military buyers and delegations from governments propagating war and repressing their populations, together with the weapons manufacturers who fuel conflict and insecurity. DSEI takes place in secret, behind heavily protected security fences and police lines - designed to allow arms dealers to trade their wares unhindered by transparency or public protest - and subsidised by the UK taxpayer

This September saw the most widespread protests, media coverage and parliamentary interest in the arms fair since the peak of activism against it in 2003. On the day DSEI opened its doors, there had already been six consecutive days of blockades disrupting its set up, with each day focusing on a different issue and was organised by different groups. This week of action before the fair brought together a wide range of people from faith activists to environmentalists, to academics and musicians. The London transport system was subvertised with spoof ads on the Underground and on bus stops which were seen by thousands of commuters, and even the famous street artist Banksy got involved in campaigning against the fair. Over 10,000 people signed a petition in less than a week calling on David Cameron to 'welcome refugees, not arms dealers', and articles appeared in the news about the repressive regimes that had been invited to the fair.

Disrupting the set up

It was the first time that a week of action was called for the week before the fair opened. The idea behind this decision was that the most effective way of actually trying to stop the fair going ahead is to stop it being set up in the first place. This is also a case in which direct action in its purest form can have a big impact: by putting our bodies in the way of vehicles destined for the fair we are a powerful threat to the existence of the fair.

Two years ago the big day of action was called for a few days before DSEI was due to open, and it was really successful! Both road entrances to the ExCeL Centre were blockaded for over four hours, with traffic unable to enter the site. It was incredibly empowering to take the road and reclaim the ExCeL Centre as a space of effective resistance. The ExCeL Centre is an inaccessible and intimidating place and is

surrounded by a big security fence during the fair. It's quite far from central London and because it isn't a thoroughfare for passers-by, it's quite a daunting place to protest. But while it feels like a vast giant, it has weaknesses: there are only two access roads, both of which can be blocked with quite small numbers of people. Apart from the warships sailing in the docks and helicopters landing by air, everything arriving for the arms fair has to get in by these two roads. Suddenly disrupting the set up to the point that it becomes difficult for DSEI to go ahead feels like a real possibility.

Taking action the week before DSEI opened also increased the amount of media coverage and public exposure that the arms fair got.For example, newspapers were already reporting on the controversies of the arms fair before it had taken place (the underground ads got especially good coverage). This meant people knew more about the issues and were able to convince their MPs to take part in a parliamentary debate on arms sales and human rights, and thousands more people shared news and photos from the protests on social media.

During the week of DSEI itself, actions targeted the ExCeL Centre where DSEI takes place; local arms companies around the country; the government department that promotes weapons sales, and the Cutty Sark museum which hosted a BAE Systems dinner. MPs debated the impact of arms sales on human rights in parliament and an activist managed to get inside the fair.

Obviously there are lots of reasons for the renewed interest in the arms fair, such as the current political context; and the fact that instead of welcoming refugees, the UK government hosted the very people fuelling and profiting from the current refugee crisis. But the levels of protest and awareness were in large part a result of years of conscious movement building by the Stop the Arms Fair coalition, and a strategy for shutting down the fair


In fighting something as powerful and pervasive as the military-industrial complex, it can be hard to know where to start; to feel like you're having an impact, and to visualise an end to it. Although shutting DSEI won't in itself put an end to the arms trade, it will go some way to delegitimising it and making it harder for the UK government to support it in the same way. DSEI is a focal point for the global arms trade and gives us a tangible target on our doorstep. The depravity of the arms industry is laid bare as dictators are courted and human rights abusing regimes are brought together with companies supplying weapons. The hypocrisy of the UK government and its talk of supporting human rights and democracy is exposed by, for example, inviting Saudi Arabia to shop for weapons while it plans to execute a young man for protesting against its oppressive regime when he was just 17 years old.

There is a precedent for shutting down arms fairs. In 2008, the Australian equivalent of DSEI was cancelled after activists threatened to re-stage the huge peace protests which scuppered arms fairs in Australia in 1991 and1986. And just last year, activists followed an arms fair to Cardiff which they had succeeded in kicking out of Bristol in 2013, and another doesn't seem to have been planned.

So how do we do it?

With the Australian arms fair, Kevin Foley, then Acting Premier of South Australia, cited “security concerns” because of “feral” activists that threatened the fair, as well as the projected costs of policing and overwhelming public opposition. Arms fairs ultimately are a commercial venture, and if the political and economic costs of holding them are shown to outweigh the potential profits, they become a lot less attractive for the organisers. So since the Stop the Arms Fair coalition started in 2011, the aim has been to build a credible threat of direct action and public opposition to DSEI.

Building the movement

DSEI has faced protests since it started, but in 2011 the different groups campaigning against it decided to come together and form the Stop the Arms Fair coalition. Agreeing to disagree on tactics has enabled groups with different identities and ways of working to come together.

For the past four years, the coalition has focused on building relationships with new groups through mutual solidarity and joint organising. A big part of this has been making links with communities impacted by conflict, and bridging the gap between the UK's support for the arms trade and DSEI, and the repression that it results in. Campaign Against Arms Trade published research showing how the equipment on display at DSEI is fuelling repression around the world, such as vehicles used in Afghanistan and Bastion Patsas vehicles sold to Chad. A page on Turkey shows how the Turkish arms companies and international companies supplying the weapons being used against the Kurds were on display at DSEI. The Kurdish community in London held a protest during DSEI against the violence of the Turkish state and the UK's complicity in it. Some of the most powerful moments during the DSEI protests this year were hearing first-hand accounts of the impact of weapons by Bahraini, Mexican and Somalian activists, while blockading a piece of military equipment that was destined for the arms fair.

As well as making links with international groups based in the UK, we have been working with groups in other countries. In 2013, at the arms fair in Seoul, South Korean activists mimicked a lot of the actions that happened at DSEI to show the arms dealers that “we are everywhere”. This year, activists from Belgium and France took part in the DSEI protests and next week I am going to South Korea for an international gathering during their arms fair.

As well as being global, the arms trade cuts across different issues and this was a key part of the week of action against DSEI. Each day was given a different 'theme' ‐ such as arms sales to Israel, and the militarisation of education‐ which was a way of highlighting the intersection of the arms trade with other issues and resulted in new groups taking action. What followed was a barrage of creative action by different groups and a demonstration of the diversity of opposition to the arms trade.

Although DSEI still went ahead this year, escalating the level of direct action and disrupting the set up of the fair to the point of stopping it in future feels like a real possibility. Rather than waiting for 2017 to start organising, it starts now.

Overview of the week of action

Monday: Stop Arming Israel

Palestinian solidarity groups kick-started the week of action by setting up a 'Pavilion of Shame' which spoofed the official Israeli pavilion which would be displaying 'battle-tested' weapons. It was set up alongside a 'Pavilion of Remembrance', which celebrated Palestinian culture and marked the victims of drone attacks. The day took an exciting turn when an armoured vehicle was spotted approaching the ExCeL Centre. People quickly ran into the road and stood in front of the vehicle, setting up a blockade with a 'Stop Arming Israel' banner. A few activists climbed onto the vehicle, and read out testimonies by people in Gaza who had experienced first-hand the impact of Israeli weapons. Activists kept the blockade going for several hours, including by carrying out a Dabkeh dance workshop in the road.

Occupy Democracy activists set up a camp which they sustained for the next two weeks, carrying out lots of clever and daring guerilla actions.

Tuesday: No Faith in War

At 10am on Tuesday morning, a line of HGV lorries was backed up along the main access road to the ExCeL Centre. After reading a ‘Litany of Resistance’, a group of people dashed into the road, and stopped vehicles for several hours. The day brought together several faith groups including Put Down the Sword, the Quakers, Catholic Workers, Student Christian Movement, Pax Christi who carried out acts of worship (while blocking traffic!). They said prayers, sung hymns and held a Quaker meeting. At one point, 'blood' was spilled in the road while activists held a funeral for the victims of the arms trade.

Wednesday: Wind not Weapons

The third day of action highlighted the link between military spending and climate change. While 130 civil servants in the Business Department are dedicated to promoting arms exports, only 1 is employed to do the same for offshore wind.

Activists blocked incoming traffic with a line of wind turbines, while Global Justice Now and Fuel Poverty action held a workshop on energy democracy. Later that day, a group of cheeky activists managed to get inside the ExCeL Centre. They unfurled a Stop the Arms Fair banner in front of a green howitzer that has been supplied to the Saudi Arabian National Guard, Indonesia, Thailand, and used in Mali, Lebanon and Afghanistan.

Meanwhile in Parliament, Caroline Lucas asked a Prime Minister’s Question:

The ongoing harrowing refugee crisis is fuelled by conflict, which in turn is powered in part by the global arms trade. The UK has supplied weapons being used in many areas from which people are now fleeing– including Yemen and Libya. So in the week that London will once again host the world’s largest arms fair, isn’t it time the UK recognised the link between arms sales and the terrible tragedy we are seeing unfolding around us?

Thursday: Welfare not Warfare

The focus of Thursday's day of action was an academic conference on the militarisation of education and global security issues, held outside the fair. While government funding is drained from universities, the arms trade and the military are moving in. The lines between academia and protest were blurred when the first keynote speaker Kim Hutchings started her presentation and people took the road to disrupt the delivery of an armoured vehicle. The entire academic conference was then moved down the road, and Kim’s presentation on “war and moral stupidity” continued alongside the blockade! The day continued with more insightful and moving talks, workshops and musical performances in the sunshine, opening up a unique space for sharing ideas and building relationships.

Friday: Freedom of movement for people, not weapons

Friday brought people together to show solidarity with refugees and to explore the links between the arms trade, migration and institutional racism. In the wake of the current crisis in Calais, it's unacceptable that instead of welcoming refugees, the UK government is welcoming arms dealers – the very people who are fuelling and profiting from the crisis.

The day began with the delivery of a petition to Downing Street which was signed by over 10,000 people in less than a week, calling on the government to “welcome refugees, not arms dealers”. Outside the Excel Centre, messages from those who had signed the petition were read out. The crowd that gathered also heard inspiring talks from a range of speakers including the All African Women’s Group, Green Party Leader Natalie Bennett, a live phone call from migrant groups in Calais, and a rousing speech from Black Dissidents.

Inspired by what they heard, activists in the crowd decided it was time to take action. Fittingly, they set up an ‘alternative border force’ as UK customs had obviously done a terrible job of preventing weaponry and dangerous items from entering London.

Big day of action

After a week of disrupting the set-up of the fair, Saturday was no different. Hundreds of people came from across the country for another effective and creative day of action. A critical mass bike ride secured the Western entrance to the ExCeL Centre; while a team of Belgain activists used arm tubes to lock on in at the Easter gate. The day was filled with music; food provided by the Nottingham based Veggies food coop, and speeches by communities who have been impacted by conflict. We heard first-hand accounts on the links between companies exhibiting at DSEI and oppressive governments in Mexico, Bahrain, Egypt and Turkey. There was also a Buddhist meditation flashmob, another Quaker meeting for worship and a musical protest by East London Against Arms Fairs.

The blockade continued late into the afternoon and it took the police over an hour using industrial machinery to get the activists out of their lock-ons.

From the ExCeL Centre to Parliament, to the London Underground and the Cutty Sark.

Resistance to the arms fair continued after a week of disrupting the set-up with more creative protests, a debate in Parliament and subvertisement of the London transport system.

The day before DSEI opened, grim reapers blockaded the Western entrance of the ExCeL Centre, with one grim reaper hopping the 12ft security fence into the ExCeL Centre. CAAT organised an action calling on the government to welcome refugees, not arms dealers with twenty body bags lined up in front of the steps that arms dealers would be using. That morning, 300 spoof ads appeared on the Underground and took over bus stops throughout London. The day was rounded off with a blockade of the Cutty Sark, which was hosting BAE Systems' official dinner which was attended by several military delegations.

Over the next four days of the arms fair, several actions took place from interacting with arms dealers on the Docklands Light Railway; to disrupting the boat show by Kurdish activists; leafleting the hotels where arms dealers were staying and the silent vigil organised by faith groups.

Ann Clwd MP hosted a debate on arms sales and human rights, which included powerful speeches holding the government to account for the devastating impact of its support for the arms trade, and had more MPs in attendance than were able to speak. Thank you to everyone who emailed their MP about attending: many MPs were there as a direct result of constituents contacting them.

"It would seem that if a repressive regime has the money, a blind eye can be turned to human rights abuses ... It is time for change—fundamental change. The UK Government need to change their policies and practices, and end their military sales to despotic regimes"
- Ann Clwyd MP


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