Mobilizations against arms shows can learn from each other

CANSEC protest. Photo: Koozma J. Tarasoff

Ottawa-area activists are preparing for a mobilization against CANSEC, the largest weapons show in Canada, this coming May 29 to 30 -- as well as for next year's Divest, Disarm, and Demilitarize conference and an even larger international protest against CANSEC.

Some are looking for lessons from past protests in London, England against the biennial Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) arms fair, the largest in the world, and the preparations that are already underway to stop DSEI this coming September 10-13.

DSEI in London

Chilean peace activist Javier Gárate has observed how these protests against DSEI in London have changed over the years.

In 2005, Gárate notes that the protest involved a Critical Mass bike ride through the streets of London with loud sound systems and colourful protest signs, as well as people lying on the ground at the arms fair using tubes to lock themselves together. Fifty-seven people were arrested that year.

In 2009, there was a protest outside the Excel Centre in east London where DSEI takes place, followed by a double-decker bus ride to central London to protest in front of UKTI Defence & Security Organization, the government department that promotes arms sales. That year's protests also involved bus and bicycle tours to the corporate headquarters of companies with connections to DSEI, to name and shame them.

In 2011, activists paddled inflatable kayaks on the Thames River in an attempt to block the HMS Dauntless warship from docking outside DSEI.

By 2013, the strategy changed to stage a day of action prior to the fair to block equipment from entering the site, followed by a week of action during the fair. As Gárate highlights, "The first action was a blockade -- for hours -- of an armoured vehicle that was heading to the Excel Centre." Thirty people were arrested that year.

The protests in 2015 led to some interesting courtroom twists over the next two years.

In April 2016, Gárate wrote:

"After a week-long trial that ended on April 15, a judge from the Stratford Magistrate Court in London found me and seven co-defendants not guilty for our actions last September to shut down the [DSEI] arms fair on the basis that we were preventing a greater crime."

In a July 2017 update, Gárate added:

"In a judgment handed down today, the High Court overturned the acquittal of eight anti-militarists for disrupting the setup of the DSEI arms fair in 2015. Nevertheless, it ruled that in the interests of justice, none of the activists would be re-tried or face costs."

In September 2017, following those rulings, The Guardian reported:

"Peace activists began a week of blockades of Excel centre in Docklands last Monday [September 4] to stop weapons, vehicles and other military equipment arriving at the [DSEI] arms fair."

That's when a record 102 activists were arrested trying to shut down DSEI.

Plans are already underway for DSEI 2019.

A Facebook post from Quaker faith in action on May 13 notes, "Coming up this Saturday: a day of training and preparation for Quaker witness against the DSEI arms fair in London" will take place in Manchester in which "the afternoon will focus on nonviolent action and preparing for taking action against the DSEI arms fair."

CANSEC in Ottawa

CANSEC has been an annual arms trade show in Ottawa since 1998. It grew out of ARMX, a Government of Canada-organized military trade show that began in 1983.

There has been a sustained campaign against these weapons fairs in Ottawa since 1989 led by the Coalition to Oppose the Arms Trade (COAT).

Ottawa-area peace activist Koozma J. Tarasoff provides an enlightening and inspiring overview of these protests dating back to 2009 in this Spirit-Wrestlers blog post.

A 2010 Media Co-op article also notes that "over a hundred people gathered" for a rally that included "numerous speeches, poetry readings and energetic performances including Ottawa community activist choir Just Voices and the Raging Grannies."

In 2016 when the nonviolent direct-action group Homes Not Bombs tried to enter the EY Centre where the arms show takes place, three people were charged with trespassing.

While the EY Centre is situated near the airport, kilometres from the city's core, Ottawa Magazine reported that in 2016, "the 'War Criminals Welcoming Walk' looped through the ByWard Market, with stops at the U.S. embassy and at downtown hotels where some CANSEC dealers were supposed to be staying, before ending at the prime minister's office on Wellington Street."

In May 2017, the Ottawa Citizen reported, "Peace protesters were out at CANSEC 2017 Wednesday morning, backing up traffic in front of the EY Centre. The peaceful demonstration slowed vehicles entering the centre."

While the protests against CANSEC may not yet have reached the levels seen in London, they have been dynamic, meaningful and powerful in their witnessing of the grotesque display of weapons in a trade show format.

Building on its rich history while also diversifying, this year's protest will involve a new infusion of Extinction Rebellion Ottawa activists who also see the links between the fossil-fuel guzzling war machine and climate breakdown.

Efforts are also underway to continue to reach out to Indigenous allies by recognizing that the arms industry has been a significant force in the suppression of Indigenous peoples.

Other arms fairs in Canada

Looking at past examples of protests against arms shows may also serve to inform future protests against the Canadian Defence Security and Aerospace Exhibition (DEFSEC), the second-largest weapons show in Canada, that will take place in Halifax, Nova Scotia this coming October 1 to 3; and the Aerospace, Defence and Security Expo (ADSE) this August 8 to 9 in Abbotsford, British Columbia.

As Canada continues to export billions of dollars of arms every year, the calls to stop weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, eliminate nuclear weapons, and transition away from war production to renewable energy are growing louder and resonating even more widely.

Join the action in Ottawa on May 29 at 7 a.m. at the EY Centre -- or even earlier to leaflet hundreds of morning commuters at the bus stop at the Department of National Defence/War Department on the Mackenzie King Bridge -- and help build the movement to stop arms fairs in this country and around the world.

Brent Patterson is an activist-blogger who writes this monthly column on inspiring stories of global resistance to neoliberalism and climate change.

Photo: Koozma J. Tarasoff

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