What a difference a year makes. Where last summer London’s ExCel Arena played host to an Olympic celebration of sporting excellence under the banner of the international community during the Olympics, today it welcomes 30,000 global arms dealers and their lethal merchandise in a week-long festival of firepower under the banner ‘DSEi’ (Defence & Security Equipment International). Despite the arms fair’s presence in London all this week, however, many of the apparently unmoved participants were given food for thought when confronted at the tradesman’s East entrance by scores of peace activists on Sunday.
Though the reason for the demo was a serious one, the atmosphere generated by the protest was positive; undimmed by the often unsympathetic weather. Protest songs and chants maintained an upbeat, defiant mood, and echoed across the tarmac, into the ears of the van drivers and passengers entering or exiting the arena. It was a diverse group, uniting all sexes, ages and many ethnic backgrounds, including a vocal Bahraini contingent. Indeed, their presence was an important reminder of just how high the stakes are when arms manufacturers and their (often State) customers disregard what happens to the products of their industry: Two years after its inception, Bahrain’s own revolutionary Spring continues to be crushed under a monarchical boot, aided by the Saudi Arabian military. This same military continues to enjoy lucrative arms deals with the UK and US governments who invest so much in the wares and corporations on show at the ExCel, and who, for all their vocal championing of democracy in the Middle East, in fact seem content to reap a profit out of its suppression, when it favours their interests, the price is right and the media attention minimal or non-existent.
For a small demonstration opposed to this unethical practice, police presence seemed disproportionate: scores of vans surrounded all the key thresholds of the centre, many converging around the entrance chosen by activists to stage the protest. A solemn wall of black-uniforms and leather-bound fists juxtaposed the colourful and spirited protestors, who had every reason to feel intimidated by an encroaching, tightening police line. This sense of threat was confirmed by a contingent of the Met police officers surrounding, then forcibly removing and arresting the handful of peaceful protesters that had continued the sprawling ‘die in’ protest begun earlier in the day, up against the advanced fences of the ExCel.
Thus the arms fair itself remained behind closed doors and unwittingly oxymoronic advertisements- One Lockheed Martin banner offered a brutal image of a tank above the tagline Invest In Your Future, failing to specify the exclusive nature of this hazy, tank-filled future that presumably has no place for pro-democracy Bahranis. Advertisements like this reveal the profit motive that drives the global arms trade onwards year on year in an industry that repeatedly demonstrates scant regard for the possible situations where its produce will likely find use.
Ultimately, the Excel DSEi arms fair and its peaceful opposition highlight some of the binaries that exist in modern Western States. While a year ago it hosted the Olympic festival of sport, a model of multicultural cooperation, today London’s famous conference centre shelters over 1,300 global arms manufacturers who thrive on the sale of machinery and weaponry designed to kill other human beings. Supportive and participatory governments seek to promote their own, limited visions of democracy with the use of these arms, as current Western posturing on intervention and possible regime change via the bombing of Syria reflects. Next to this, scores of people committed to resolute defiance of this arms fair seems perhaps a more accurate representation of what democracy actually looks like. Buoyed by a successful day of vocal peace activism, the protests continue throughout this week.