Protests and arrests at arms fairs in Belgium and New Zealand


The European Defence Agency’s 2018 Annual Conference in Brussels was devoted to unmanned and autonomous systems, a subject high on the European decision makers’ agendas.

As part of the ongoing I Stop the Arms Trade campaign, the Belgian group Vredesactie (Peace Action) organized nonviolent direct actions at the conference. While dozens demonstrated outside on opening day, November 29, nineteen European citizens entered the conference hall with the delegates. When they continued to protest, police roughly evicted and arrested them. They were held for seven hours and had their identities registered before being released.
“The arms industry is received with open arms today, while the doors remain closed to European citizens. Whose security are they talking about then?”, one of the protesters asked.
One week later, two activists entered an arms lobby event and took the stage, preempting the scheduled event. While one held a banner proclaiming “No EU money for arms dealers”, the other addressed the assembled war merchants, bureaucrats and politicians. She reminded them of the thousands already killed by war and 85,000 children dead from starvation in Yemen, a war and famine fueled by weapons made by Raytheon, one of the conference underwriters. As the man with the banner was led away into custody, she persisted, condemning the influence of war suppliers on defense policy before she, too, was led away from the podium and escorted out of the building. Both were briefly held for identity checks and told not to come back.
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Peace activists in New Zealand have their country’s arms industry on the run. A few years of solid community organizing, public education, skill-building and persistent nonviolent direct action drove the industry’s annual expo out of Auckland in 2016, and then out of Wellington’s Westpac Stadium last year. The movement followed it this year to Palmerston North, between the two larger cities on the North Island.

When the move to Palmerston North was announced after the Wellington city government bowed to public pressure and pulled their 20 years of support, Peace Action Manawatū was organized in that area by local activists. They began building community alliances and organizing a Week of Peace activities that concluded with two days of direct action to shut down the New Zealand Defense Industry Association event, which took place October 31 and November 1.

The group successfully challenged the city council to discuss its own ethical venue policy for city-owned properties, and to consider if arms expos are consistent with Palmerston North’s reputation as a Peace City. It was exposed that the mayor had agreed to host the event without any council input, and that he also sought to hide his communications with event organizers by directing them to contact him only by telephone.

From this and the Auckland and Wellington experiences, organizers knew that, “Peace is not just about saying we don’t like war and killing. It is about taking direct and effective action to stop those who profit from waging war. That is what our work to stop the Weapons Expo is all about: we want a movement big enough and strong enough to shut down this Expo, because those in power are not going to do it for us.”

The tactics of choice for countering the event were nonviolent direct actions that sought to delay, disrupt and otherwise deny entry to delegates seeking to attend the conference. On day one, fences and gates of a temporary roadblock that illegally closed access to nearby businesses were torn down by protesters and laid across the road. This was followed by rolling blockades of delegate buses and occupations at entry gates. These blockades delayed the start of the conference by about three hours. Police arrested eight people on charges of obstruction or disorder, and two for assault. The eight were released with a warning, and one of those charged with assault took the option of diversion from prosecution when she came to court a few days later.

After the morning blockades, hundreds of people joined a vibrant march with giant puppets and painted faces from the city square to the venue. The march was arranged as a space safe for refugees, families and more vulnerable protesters. That Halloween afternoon, a Witches and Warlocks party for kids included their own march around the venue.