Report – Stop the DSEI Arms Fair

A Tshisekedi, an activist of the migrant solidarity organisation Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants, reports on the week-long series of direct action to resist the DSEI Arms Fair in east London.

A large brown and grey banner hanging on a concrete building, with the hand-painted text 'State Sanctioned Terrorism'
A large hand-painted banner protesting the DSEI Arms Fair in the Excel exhibition centre, east London. Source: Twitter @CAATuk

DSEI Arms Fair is a week-long event that happens throughout the second week of September every two years. Buyers and sellers come together at the ExCel exhibition centre in east London, where state-of-the-art weapons are showcased to tens of thousands of attendees from around the world.

In defiance to this spectacle, activists and organisations from London and around the country set up camp by the east wing of the centre in preparation for protests that match the length of the arms fair. 

Day one saw members of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and War on Want host a ‘Dance to Disarm Israel’ event packed with performances, speakers and activities throughout the day and into the evening. I arrived in the late afternoon and there had already been arrests. The turnout was roughly 10x higher than the 10-12 pro-Israel counter-protesters, though the police did form a human wall to separate us for good measure. 

The atmosphere was electric, with continuous chanting in support of BDS, freeing Palestine and stopping the arms fair. Soon after, the artist Potent Whisper gave a moving performance condemning the arms fair, questioning what gives Britain the right to call itself ‘Great’, and expressing support for the NHS. After that, Campaigner Huda Ammori gave an enthralling speech highlighting the crimes Israel has committed to the Palestinian people with the help of the UK arming the IDF, and calling for support of BDS. This was then followed by a stunning Dabke performance by Hawiyya Dabke dance group, then a DJ set by activist, writer and one of the Stansted 15, Ben Smoke.

Later on, everyone came together to learn how to Dabke, although this was all interrupted by an incoming lorry, carrying a tank. Immediately, activists rushed to disrupt and block the carrier’s entry, however, the police wasted no time in moving people onto the kerb, blatantly using excessive force and threatening to arrest people simply for cursing. As they managed to form a wall around the vehicle, activists chanted ‘Shame on you’ in response to their protecting of a weapon that would eventually devastate families, homes and lives. 

Another lorry carrying a helicopter also drove past, a whilst protestors were thrown onto the pavement once again, a woman managed to climb onto the part carrying a helicopter, waving banners in support of Palestine and against DSEI. Despite the obvious health and safety risks, the driver of the lorry tried to jerk the protestor off to no avail and just continued its journey whilst she was still on the vehicle. It is unclear as to whether the police instructed the driver to continue, however, they didn’t stop him. 

A third vehicle carrying a covered car attempted to pass, where I was interlocked with fellow protestors on the ground in front of it. An officer falsely accused me of biting him as he tried to pry us apart, whilst another officer dragged a young woman across the concrete onto the pavement. Whilst all this happened, a young activist managed to board the back of the vehicle. This time the vehicle stayed whilst supporters surrounded it chanting in solidarity. At this point, I had volunteered to offer arrestee support with two others and left the demonstration to local police stations. 

Day 7 saw the Borders and Migration day of action take place, hosted by Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants, Campaign Against the Arms Trade and Stop the Arms Fair.

LGSMigrants support refugees and asylum seekers through fundraising and creative direct action. We protested the state sanctioned terrorism that the arms fair promotes and profits from. 

The day started with banner making and a necessary Know your Rights rights info session. Newham Anti-Raids then took the floor to host a session on migrants rights and information on helping people being targeted by immigration officials whilst also highlighting the hypocrisy of the hostile environment directed towards people who are displaced by the very weapons that are showcased at DSEI. Some drag aerobics by Dolly Trolley kept the energy levels high for the fay ahead. 

The Advocacy Academy saw a group of young activists dressed as schoolchildren host a play-in to represent the children that are killed by the weapons DSEI display. People then took to the streets to sit and block the road and cheered when a close-by lock-on was removed by police. 

Detained Voices, a group who shares the experiences of immigration detainees through testimonies, ran a workshop that highlighted the appalling practices of the Home Office, and after a content warning, shared several heart-breaking testimonies of detainees. During this, several people attempted to block the route of an incoming JCB truck, with the police very quick to respond. An emotional yet comical drag performance ended the day, followed by some chanting in spirit of the whole action – ‘no borders, no nations, stop deportations!’ 

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