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A Week of Action against the Death Fair

Dan Viesnik reports on the protests surrounding Europe's biggest arms fair.

The world’s largest arms bazaar returned to east London’s ExCeL exhibition centre from 13-16 September. The euphemistically-titled “Defence and Security Equipment International” (DSEi) exhibition opened its doors to dictators and merchants of death from around the world in the ultimate corporate celebration of killing.

Official invitations were, as usual, extended to such democratic and human-rights respecting nations as Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Among the products on offer were such banned items as cluster munitions and restraining shackles. Over 20 organisations, amongst them Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), Disarm DSEi, East London Against Arms Fairs (ELAAF) and various Christian organisations, came together under the umbrella of the Stop the Arms Fair coalition to take action.

Pre-DSEi actions included a kayak blockade of a warship as it came in to dock, and a silent candlelit vigil at the ExCeL centre attended by around 150 people. The opening day of the arms fair, the main day of action, saw CAAT supporters queuing outside parliament at a supermarket-style check-out with shopping baskets full of fake bombs, ammunition and tear gas canisters.

Some people went off to lobby their MPs, whilst others headed off in waves to the ExCeL centre to disrupt the arms dealers, through a series of die-ins and sit-down blockades, a Critical Mass bike ride, and spray-painting of anti-war slogans.

There was street theatre outside the offices of killer drone manufacturers General Atomics and DSEi organisers Clarion Events; a mass die-in outside the headquarters of arms giant BAE Systems; and heckling of arms dealers at a not-so-secret reception at the National Gallery.

The second day saw 15 people take part in an eight-mile peace march from Westminster to the ExCeL centre, defying a blanket ban on marches still in place in the City of London and Tower Hamlets (despite a partial lifting of the ban following a threatened legal challenge – see p3).

At ExCeL, marchers joined students who had marched from the University of East London. Activists in St Leonard’s-on-Sea, Sussex, blockaded their local General Dynamics factory. The arms dealers’ dinner on the Thursday evening, this year took place in the vicinity of ExCeL, presumably to make it less accessible to pesky protesters.

The meal was on a warship, with the amplified sound of gunfire and explosions going off in the background.

Throughout the week, Space Hijacker agents performed an elaborate “Life Neutral” hoax, offering arms manufacturers the opportunity to “offset” their victims’ deaths through sponsorship of babies, before being outed on BBC World Service radio.

On the final day, ELAAF supporters performed their traditional wreath-laying ceremony on the dockside, in memory of victims of the arms trade. The Bahranis and Saudis mingled with the death merchants and civil servants inside while they shopped for tanks and sniper rifles, but at least there were some people sparing a thought for their victims.