The Decommissioners' Tale Part One: The action

IssueDecember 2010 - January 2011
Feature by Bob Nicholls

We were a group of five people who went from Bristol to Brighton, and it did become part of our case: Why did we choose this factory in Brighton? We had to prove our “genuinely-held belief” that this factory was involved in the Israeli attack on Gaza.

One part of the evidence shown to the jury was the On The Verge video about the campaign against the EDO MBM arms factory, made by Smash EDO. The action happened at the end of Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli attack on Gaza, though we didn’t know it at the time.

Prior to that, some people in Bristol had been on a roof, it was nothing to do with Gaza, on the roof of the missile manufacturers Raytheon. That was the link between us, all five of us had been involved to some extent with that protest. I got involved in the third week of the rooftop protest.

When Operation Cast Lead started, we started thinking about what we could do, and there was a snowballing effect from there. We’d been getting more and more horrible scenes coming out of Gaza, and we decided we wanted to do more. It was only three days before we travelled down to Brighton that we met, so it was quite impulsive, and these things came into the court case.

One part of our case was immediacy, you have to justify the damage to property, you have to prove, or have a “genuinely-held belief”, that damage [to someone else’s property] is in immediate danger. We went into the factory very early on Saturday morning, 17 January 2009. On Thursday, we’d travelled down to Brighton and descended upon Smash EDO campaign: “Here we are, we’re going to do it”, and we dumped ourselves on them. We didn’t even have any hammers at that point, just sleeping bags.

The prosecution asked why we didn’t go on the Tuesday evening, and we said: “It was impractical, we had to meet and talk, and sort out a van, and decide where to go.”

It was very, very impulsive, and we weren’t that prepared. Even our solicitors laughed at us and asked: “Why didn’t you take a torch? When you’re going into a factory?” In parts of the factory, we couldn’t even see where we were going. The element of not planning also meant that we just did it, and there was no chance of anyone finding out and stopping us.

We hadn’t done our legal preparation very well either, and we were very lucky we had such a good legal team, because we hadn’t really sorted out how we were going to defend ourselves in court. Which seems a bit mad, really, seeing that the maximum sentence was three to five years. There’s something to learn from that. We were just so lucky. We could have come badly unstuck. James and I did speak about prevention of a greater crime, very vaguely, on our pre-action videos, which we made just before we went into the factory.

We did a recce on Friday. I’m free to say that Chris and Simon of the Smash EDO campaign helped us and acquired a ladder and hammers.

Prior to the court case unfolding, Chris and Simon admitted being involved, which changed the case. Nine defendants definitely made us a “complex” case (you need more than six), so we got full legal aid, which was also very lucky for us.

Entry and injury

Early on Saturday morning, we got over the 12-foot-high palisade fencing. They had razor-sharp bits at the top. Ornella was coming over and she started getting frightened of falling on the ground, and she hesitated, and she didn’t let go of the fence, and she got caught on the three prongs at the top. All her body weight hanging from her left hand.

James lifted her off, but she had a very bad gash. Ornella bravely decided to keep on, she was so determined that wasn’t going to stop her. We paired up and targeted different areas in the factory, even though we didn’t really know what was where.

The police subsequently followed the trail of blood around the factory and that’s how we got a video and set of photos that followed Ornella’s blood trail all around the factory. If we’d been prepared, we would have taken our own camera in, and beamed it out to the ether, and we could have got more information. But because the police photographed where we’d been, some of the evidence did get out, in documents that weren’t used in court.

We got in, parts of the factory were dark. I was with Harvey and we had a go at some big computer machine lathes, very substantial machines. You can bash them with a lump hammer and it just bounces off because they’re so massive. So we caused a few grands’ worth of damage because we were targeting the computer control components, which they just had to replace in the end.

Quick, quick, quick

We thought we had about 10 minutes. We thought the police would be quite literally at our heels. As we got over the fence, there’s an automatic CCTV which registers movement, and the guy in the control centre sent a message to the police straight away.

We went in, spent 10 minutes downstairs in offices, damaging computers, whatever we could see. These places have a clear desk policy, so you won’t see very much. There were some subsequent photos that showed things, like part of a bomb release mechanism, but we couldn’t prove it was the type being used in Gaza.

We were dashing through, just damaging anything. You can get stuck, legally, by only doing superficial, symbolic damage. What we said in court was that we were decommissioning the factory, everything we damaged was going to slow down getting the factory going again. I was with James, and we came to a secure door stopping us going upstairs, and he did some ninja-type thing, and tore the bloody thing off.

So we shot up the stairs and our very rough plan – it was all quick, quick, can’t stop to look around, search for files, get on to computers – was to get upstairs and build a barricade, and we thought the police would be after us. We were in this room with hardly any light. We completely demolished the room. We were stumbling around and trying to get Ornella fixed up, she was shedding blood. Harvey had been trained as a nurse, and we found a first-aid kit, so he fixed her up. She was only able to hammer with one arm.

I spent a lot of my time building this barricade, it was massive. Made out of tables and desks and everything we could find. We were going to block ourselves in, and carry on smashing things up. What happened was that on the staircase on the way up, Tom found a dummy bomb, a JDAM, a long missile, made out of metal. He took it upstairs, and chucked it out the window.

The police hesitate

So when the police came scooting in, and by this point all the computers and everything had been jettisoned out the window, they came in and then they disappeared again. We didn’t know what had happened.

It wasn’t till after we were released on bail, that we found out that when the police came in, they did a risk assessment, and decided that the munition could be live, so they scooted out of the factory again and waited outside. They contacted Mr Hills, the factory manager, to get the keys to get into the factory. When he came, they prevented him coming through the police lines to his own factory because of health and safety, because “there’s a bomb”. They say the police didn’t believe him to start with when he said it wasn’t a bomb.

The wonderful thing about that dummy missile was that these places are so anonymous that, even after we’d trashed it, jurors could have thought it was just a factory, making civilian goods, but there were posters referring to military weapons, and there were police photos of this massive missile, so there was no doubt for the jury that this place was implicated in making lethal weapons. It does make a big impact on jurors, the visual side of things. It was an amazing stroke of fortune, really.

We completely decommissioned the room. We also got a couple of radios going. One of the police officers said in his statement that one of the songs he heard was I Love The Sound Of Breaking Glass, there’s a pop song, isn’t there, called that.

The police said we were cowering in a corner when they broke in. They were spraying pepper spray, because they didn’t know what they were going to encounter when they came in. We were in the corner. But we’d just run out of energy, and we didn’t have anything more to smash up at that point.

Then they arrested us.

Tintin, Robert Alford, had this white EDO coat on, and in this very serious and nervous situation told the police: “You can’t arrest me, I work here!”

Topics: Anti-war action