Last September, when the biannual DSEi arms fair came to East London, I took part in a blockade of the ExCeL centre the day before the exhibition opened, hoping to stop the unloading of weaponry for display and sale.
Along with others in the blockade, I was arrested, and charged with obstruction of the highway. When my case came to court, I had to decide whether to plead guilty or not.
It might seem obvious that I would plead guilty. After all, I was lying in the road in a concrete arm tube! I was definitely obstructing the highway at the time of my arrest, and had been for some hours at that point. Case closed, surely?
The point of DSEi is not only to promote, but to actually facilitate the sale of weapons to government forces, many of whom are actively using these weapons and weapons systems to oppress mass movements for democracy and freedom.
I did have another option: to plead ‘not guilty’ on the basis that I strongly believed that by my actions I was preventing harm to all the people who would be on the receiving end of weapons traded at DSEi.
Against my conviction (pun intended!) that my actions were justified, I had to weigh up the capacity required to follow through a potentially protracted court process over the winter, and the risk that if I was found guilty at the end, I might face a heavier penalty than if I had pleaded guilty.
On the other hand, going to trial would have provided a new opportunity to expose in public the issues I was raising with my protest.
In addition, by pleading not guilty I could continue to resist the arms trade through resisting the notion that it is wrong to stop it. Whereas by pleading guilty I seemed to be giving up the resistance, not seeing through what I had begun.
I also struggled with the implication that by pleading guilty I was admitting that I had done wrong, when I clearly believe that I haven’t. As the campaigners appearing in court in late February say: ‘Where is the wrong? – Is it in stopping the trading of weapons, or in facilitating war?’
Yes, by the terms of the state, I was guilty as charged. But, although I had trespassed on the law, I felt I had acted justly to uphold a greater law against the harming of others.
For me, this dilemma illustrated the gap, the yawning chasm, that so often opens up between ‘the law’ and ‘justice’.
I wanted to get my case over with, but I also wanted to make clear that I still felt proud of the action I had taken, and convinced of its rightness.
When it came to it, I did plead guilty, and I addressed the court to say: Yes, I am indeed guilty, of acting in solidarity with activists facing repression in other countries, and ‘of believing that surely at this point in human evolution we can find another way to deal with conflict and to live together, and I’m guilty of hoping that at some point soon, we will’.
It was a deeply and surprisingly empowering experience. The legal system is designed to intimidate; it operates on the basis of the false notion that human emotion has no place in decision-making, and it seeks to silence those of us who would speak for ourselves.
By bringing the fierce and gentle emotions of solidarity, passion and a belief in peace into the courtroom, I felt I had claimed back some of the territory of power – as I had on the ground outside the ExCeL centre.