No faith in War': holding up deliveries at DSEi arms fair

By Henrietta Cullinan
September 14, 2015

Last Tuesday (8 September) I and other members of the London Catholic Worker took part in a ‘No Faith in War’ day of action outside the Excel Centre, London. Faith groups Put Down the Sword, Pax Christi and Disarm Quakers were also coming together to disrupt the setting up of the DSEi, the world’s largest arms fair.

A week before, we went on a walking tour of the site, organised by CAAT, and inspected the important roundabout where deliveries of pieces of military hardware, such as tanks, helicopters and boats would be arriving, as well as everything else you need to set up an exhibition. We already had a plan to hold a mock funeral for the victims of the arms trade, but until the day came I had no idea whether the police would let us even approach the roundabout, or whether there would even be any trucks carrying recognisable military hardware.

The intention of an action like this one is to use the symbols of the church to convey the message of peace and disarmament. The idea was to claim and occupy a space in which to temporarily create and realise a peaceful and loving world at the same time as resisting nonviolently the arms trade, the approach of the lethal weapons of all sizes, the holding of the arms fair.

At the time the DSEi guest list hadn’t been released but, as we now know, amongst the regimes invited are those who use child soldiers, those that use violence against their own citizens. For me personally the aim is to resist the trade in killing. All the machines and weapons are evidence of someone’s intention to kill.

We considered ways of claiming and occupying the space, that are also symbols of the church: for instance the colours black and red, incense, placards, reading the word of God, singing hymns and then finally red paint that we were going to spread on the ground, to represent blood. We thought a bit about what kind of paint to throw, since throwing paint could be considered violent in itself. Oil paint would be too unpleasant. I thought of using vegetables like tomatoes and beetroot. In the end we used poster paint, mixing red and green for a realistic blood colour. Catholic Workers Nora Ziegler and I and John Lynes, a Quaker, who were willing to risk arrest, would throw the paint. John Lynes would only spill a small amount.

The funeral procession of small white coffin, flowers, candlesticks and placards set out at about 11am led by Fr. Martin Newell dressed in his plain dark habit, swinging the censor. We processed through the estate nearby, singing ‘Abide with me’ and ‘Amazing Grace’, handing out leaflets.

Once we arrived at the roundabout, I grew more and more nervous. I wasn’t sure about being arrested, spending the night in a stuffy cell. I found it hard to concentrate on the readings until it came to my turn. It was the story of Cain and Abel from Genesis. ‘The Lord says, ‘Listen! [..] your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!’. At that moment the funeral stopped being a ‘mock’ funeral, and became real for me. I stared at the spot of tarmac where I would throw the paint and pictured the ground opening up and the blood screaming out in pain.

I prayed for the people of Afghanistan whose country had had so much ordnance dumped all over it that life has become almost impossible. In Kabul, whole blocks are still rubble, an infrastructure smashed, high unemployment persists. That morning we heard that Cameron had justified sending drones to make the first UK ‘extra-judicial’ killing. I prayed that Cameron would have a change of heart.

Then as the prayers finished I made eye contact with my friends, we picked up the coffin and moved onto the road. Quickly, with no one to stop us, we spilled the red poster paint all over one side of the road around the coffin. The nervousness suddenly left me. I knelt and in the gleaming wet paint. Other members of the crowd soon came to join us and held hands. The other people on the protest stood in a big circle around us as we carried on singing. The event turned from an awkward piece of activism into a space of prayer just as we had wished.

The police seemed reluctant to interrupt us at that point, instead mildly asking how long was all this going on for. We said we’d stay there an hour. The members of all the other groups gathered around, took over the singing, prayed in silence, as if in a prayer relay. We had made a gathering place, with the writing on the placards, the scripture that we read, the prayers and the incense still burning in front of the child’s coffin, and its smoke spilled out sideways in the wind.

Just as I’d imagined, the symbols and the crowd made a space of peace and prayer, instead of a road for carrying lethal weapons to market. Soon a row of lorries was stuck behind us. One low loader really was carrying an armoured vehicle, with the mountings for a missile launcher on the top. This felt like a real success to me.

Creating this space was taking prayers to the point of suffering. The Excel Centre tomorrow (15 September) becomes a place of suffering as companies display weapons to envoys of regimes looking for a way to kill and maim, subjugate and oppress.

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© Henrietta Cullinan is Ekklesia administrator, a writer and peace activist.

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