On the first day of action against the biennial DSEI arms fair at Excel in Newham, protestors can claim some victory after blocking one of the two entrances for four hours, and causing disruption at the other gate for a couple of hours, seriously affecting the first of two get-in days before the official opening on Tuesday. There were more than a dozen arrests and some scuffles during the afternoon.
At 10am this morning, around 30 cyclists convened outside the Bank of England to take part in the traditional arms fair critical mass bike ride to the Excel Centre in Newham. Watched by a FIT team in a Range Rover, and followed by one police van, they set off at about 10.40, heading east at a leisurely pace along the Commercial Rd, led by good selection of uplifting tunes from a mobile sound system, and often taking over the whole carriageway amid light traffic on a Sunday morning.
Nearing Excel, they briefly lost their escort by doubling back and taking an off-road cycle route, but with helicopter above and police vans everywhere, this was short-lived.
After a stop for announcements and guide to the area, the mass took a ‘scenic route’ to finally arrive at the East Gate on the stroke of midday, just as people on foot poured onto the roundabout under a ‘closed for maintenance’ DLR flyover, unfurling their tents and banners.
More and more people flooded into the space, probably close to 200 in total, and under cover of one of the larger banners, three people lay down in arm locks to block one of the two entrance gates, catching police off guard.
Singers, dancers, and samba all added to create a carnival atmosphere, and soon the main road in was cordoned off by protestors using mock police yellow tape bearing the words “Warning: Arms Trade At Work – This Is Not OK”.
Around 12.30, the first of several large vehicles queued in front of this blockade, transporting two huge boats, followed later by a small tank, all aiming for a car park area which had been set aside as an “Oversize Exhibit Area”. In front of the tape were a Christian group, a die-in, and some picnickers, and at first police numbers grew, but then there was obviously some order to stand down, and after an hour or so the vehicles were helped to reverse away, and one aim of the protest, to disrupt the set-up of the arms fair was clearly achieved.
The Occupy crew set up a small kitchen and an info tent, while children played in an art area, and others played with a skipping rope among the tents.
It was clear that no vehicles were going to get into Excel via these East gates, although a few visitors decanted from their taxis and were led in behind police cordons on foot.
Meanwhile at 1pm, there were some speeches on a sound system, including some words of support from Natalie Bennet (Green Party), and from a delegation from Bahrain.
A small group had headed over to the West Gate, the only other entrance to the site. For around half an hour they succeeded in closing that gate, but after police threats of arrest, they were content to close half the gate, forcing traffic the wrong way round a small roundabout, and shouting and holding banners up as a continuous stream of vehicles entered and left by the only open route to the site.
Near 3pm, as one vehicle left, an elderly man blocked its path, and he was quickly grabbed and roughly escorted out of the way by police. Very soon after, a senior officer started to make an announcement on a megaphone. The crowd responded with a lot of noise, turning up the sound system, and whistling and shouting. I certainly couldn’t hear what was being said. It also triggered more action, and another large articulated lorry exiting the site had its path blocked by people holding up a banner.
Police moved in, snatching the banner, and other activists ran under the lorry, which started to drive on, nearly crushing them. As the driver was forced to stop by protestors running in front, shouting and banging for him to stop, he reacted with rude gestures. Fortunately, no-one was hurt, as police also eventually intervened to stop him, but then there were scuffles as police dragged people out from under the lorry, and also started pushing people without warning off the road.
One particular officer, Constable Williamson, deserves a mention, as although he was one of the larger cops, he appeared to only attack the younger smaller women amongst the crowd – not only this, but he had obviously lost his rag completely, AND his lapels were hidden by his raincoat – other officers wearing coats were showing their lapel numbers.
During the course of the scuffles, several people were arrested and led or carried off in handcuffs,
and lines of police accompanied the artic away from the area, while the samba band played on.
There were further games with slow bicycles, and an Abbey Road style use of zebra crossing, holding up a by now long line of vehicles trying to enter the Excel Centre, including diplomatic cars sporting an array of Middle Eastern flags.
Then some Newham Council officials turned up and claimed that the roundabout and pavements were private land, and with ever greater threats of arrest, the remaining protestors decided to return to the East gate, leaving just one lone woman to wave her banner at vehicles entering the compound.
Back east, police had also been imposing conditions, and the lock-on had been removed, with several arrests, including Christians who refused to end their sit-in. The roundabout was now surrounded by lines of TSG, and one gate was finally open to visiting traffic.
By 5.30, there were only about 30 people left, some hoping to stay in their tents overnight. To that end, they went round with a board claiming Section 6 squatter rights, which they showed to as many of the officers as they could.
There is a packed timeline of events planned for the rest of the week, with full details available at http://www.stopthearmsfair.org.uk/events/