For over 20 years Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI), the largest arms fair in the world, has blighted east London. Protests have raged, even London Mayor Sadiq Khan has publicly opposed the event, but nothing seems to stop the Excel centre being taken over by groups like Raytheon and Lockheed Martin to sell guns and bombs to countries like Saudi Arabia and Israel.
First things first: with all due respect to the incredible work pacifists have done for the peace movement, I am not a pacifist. Sadly, until we abolish capitalism, people will alway need way to fight back against oppressors and occupiers.
But DSEI is far more than a supermarket for weapons: it is the beating heart of Britain’s military industrial complex, part of the fading Empire’s current co-ordinating role in Western imperialism. DSEI is state aligned — its chair is the Navy’s Rear Admiral Simon Williams, who via UK Defence and Security Exports, a government body, invites delegations from 61 nations, territories and bodies, including delegations from Australia, NATO, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and Japan.
DSEI allows the British government to host a co-ordination of weapons technology with its imperialist allies, bringing in weaponry developed by companies such as BAE Systems, General Dynamics and Northrop Grumman.
Six of the nations invited to DSEI, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Colombia, Egypt, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, are on the Foreign Office’s own “human rights priority” list — nations of “particular concern” over breaches of human rights — unless of course they want to spend millions on Britain and the US’s latest military tech, then apparently there are no particular concerns.
Generating millions for a billion-dollar industry, opposition has been ignored by those willing to be bought off. Except for one small group of workers needed for the fair: live events crew.
Crew, perhaps best understood as stage hands or roadies, are deeply opposed to DSEI and have run an informal boycott of the event for a few years via their networks — ostracising those companies that are willing to provide staff and making sure all crew know what DSEI is and to avoid it.
As the live events industry has been getting increasingly organised and politicised recently, with new branches in the Bectu union founded in the last few years, it was unsurprising that we also decided to increase our opposition to DSEI. When the desperate texts came in looking for crew for the event from cowboy firms, we decided that instead of ignoring them, some of us would sign up — and sting both DSEI and the sleazy outfits willing to work for them.
Although DSEI is a high-security event with airport-style checks and a visible presence of Ministry of Defence (MoD) police officers, for us, gaining entry was a relatively easy feat. Due to server issues, the online registration form for vetting workers was down, meaning that we managed to avoid any background checks.
Once we received our lanyards and headed into the massive 100,000m2 convention centre, disorganisation ensued when we were left unsupervised for roughly two hours with a handy map of the event. During this time, we had free rein of DSEI, allowing us to scout out spots to stage the protest.
Wandering about on the main floor we were in awe by the size of some of the weapons. It felt like walking into a Bond villain’s lair — we were surrounded by tanks, helicopters, firearms and even an enormous drone carrying a two-metre long missile.
The biggest issue we faced with was finding phone signal inside the building, as we needed to upload the footage immediately in case police confiscated our phones. It appeared that signal blockers had been installed in some areas of the event — only the main foyer had a good connection. Luckily for us, besides the foyer was the stall for Lockheed Martin — the world’s largest arms producer.
Soldiers in full regalia and pin-stripe suited arms dealers from around the world hovered around Lockheed Martin’s stall. The location seemed perfect. When the time was right, my comrades set off smoke grenades and gave a speech while I filmed from the foyer.
As soon as the speech had finished and the grenades had ran out of smoke we dispersed, with me carrying everyone’s personal belongings, expecting a mass arrest.
Then disaster almost struck: the footage hadn’t uploaded. I peeled off as my comrades made their escape and headed back inside until — bingo — I found the building’s WiFi. No sooner had I got the footage out, the MoD police were upon me.
Detained and brought back to the foyer for all to peer at, they began searching me just as an army marching band came through the entrance. For my first arrest, this was rather surreal. Unable to think of what crime I, the cameraman, had committed, they charged me with theft for carrying my comrades wallets. True police work.
As I waited for my van to the cells an MoD officer told me that the rest of the 28 crew members from the events company I was working for had been stood down for security reasons — the police had essentially helped enforce the boycott of DSEI.
Under arrest for eight hours in total, I was taken to Fresh Water custody base near Barking. Although it was the first time I’ve been arrested in my life, I was relatively calm with the situation. Having prepacked a book, my time in the cell was quite relaxing. I saw a solicitor and gave a “no comment” interview, but the charges were so obviously vexatious, by the time I was released they’d been dropped. I still had plenty of time to join my accomplices and large group of YCLers who had been on the demo outside, all waiting for me in a nearby pub.
There have been a few misconceptions and bad takes about the action, not least from the amazing Daily Mail article that went to press as I was locked up. First off, we are not full-time activists who got into the building through some kind of ruse, the jobs came to us because this is what we do for a living — normally music gigs and festival builds. It’s important to stress this because what we are saying is that all workers should consider sabotaging any anti-people, anti-worker jobs they are offered.
However we also get that, even in the gig economy, people are afraid of being blacklisted and effectively sacked from their industry — in our case, the fly-by-night company that employed us doesn’t even register in the wider events world, so we don’t care. Most others in live events seem pretty supportive of our actions too — no-one likes an arms fair.
Someone else called the action “purely symbolic,” — well, yes and no. The smoke didn’t lead to the entire event to be evacuated as the building is just ridiculously big, but it did lead to major problems, with all crew pulled off the job in case more of them were sleeper cells. It will have done financial and career damage to people who are willing to work for DSEI — in fact we know it did — and maybe they will think twice in future.
Regardless, even if you are doing something very direct, it’s always good to have a nice powerful symbol — like an office invasion in support of a strike: it helps people notice and understand the struggle. Don’t be afraid of being symbolic!
In a brilliant example of woke-washing, the boss who booked us texted us after the action and — I guess responding to the fact we were left wing — asked why we were trying to ruin a black-owned business! If he is reading this, we hope the point is a bit clearer as to why we didn’t want to help imperialism bomb millions of black and brown people. We will never be intimidated from taking action by bosses using cheap identity politics.
In combination with the decent showing by the comrades on the streets outside arms fair, this action has proven that the YCL is in a stronger position than it has been for decades. Just as access to one of the most hated events in Britain fell into our lap, with our growing membership of young workers, increasingly we are going find ourselves in the right place at the right time to take action — hopefully the protests inside and outside DSEI in 2021 will have inspired people to do just that.
Nathan Czapnik, is Editor of Challange Magazine, a live events crew worker, and a member of YCL’s London district