How we came to make music, not war

IssueNovember 2008
Comment by Gwyn

I don’t think November is a favourite month for campaigning by any means. It is easy to feel discouraged when the days are wet, windy, cold and dark, whether you are marching in the rain, listening to speeches hoping your comrade’s umbrella doesn’t poke you in the eye, sitting down dangerously near a puddle or trying to climb a wet fence.

I recommend the musical protests favoured by East London Against The Arms Fair as more suited to the season. We are holding two this month. (From 1pm-4pm, at the ExCel Centre, on 1 and 22 November.)

The early days

ELAAF developed this form of protest almost by accident. In the early days of ELAAF we learned that two Franciscans were coming from the Netherlands to protest at ITEC, which can be described as a three-day “mini arms fair” at the ExCeLCentre which is also the venue for the biennial DSEi arms fair.

ITEC is a military training, simulation and “education” arms fair that travels round different countries. Ever since ITEC was held in the Netherlands, members of this Franciscan order have tried to visit whatever country it was held in.

We found the two Franciscan Brothers standing silently behind a barrier some distance away, too far to communicate with people going into ITEC. They had been prevented from giving out their small leaflet with the prayer of St Francis.

There were five policemen standing in a row between them and the entrance to ExCeL. The gentle Franciscans had come from the Netherlands for an obviously nonviolent, non-threatening protest and it seemed that they were going to be prevented from doing this for the whole three days.

I went to stand just outside the entrance and started giving out ELAAF and CAAT leaflets to the people going into ITEC. An ExCeL security man finally called over the police sergeant.

He said “I’ve been watching this lady. I can’t see she is doing any harm. Why don’t you compromise? You could let one person at a time give out leaflets if the rest agree to stay behind the barrier.” After consultation with senior ExCeL managers it was agreed.

After the ITEC had finished for the day, Bill, another ELAAF supporter, and I looked at the enclosure we had been allotted. If only one at a time was allowed to leaflet, the rest of us would get very bored whilst waiting our turn.

Should we just have a vigil holding posters? Hold some sort of meeting with speakers?

Bill had an idea. He and his wife both sang and played guitars for the local church. Instead of speeches we could sing peace and freedom songs. We could invite other musicians to take turns in the enclosure.

Since then we have developed musical protests all through the year. We have found people stop, listen to the music, sign our petitions, take leaflets and ask what it is about.

Some charities, organisations and even private firms have cancelled future bookings at ExCeL after learning that it is the arms fair venue.

One very good thing about November - the hot chestnut seller will be back at ExCeL.

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