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Academic activism against the Arms Fair

 "We wanted to resist DSEi in a more direct way than ‘conventional’ academic practice usually permits, yet without jettisoning our academic ideas and identities."

Josefin Hedlund Alister Wedderburn
5 January 2016
Academics against the arms fair.

Academics against the arms fair.As we mourn the dead in the latest attacks in Beirut and Paris, but also in wars waged all around the world in the fight ‘against terrorism’, it seems more apt than ever to revisit the demonstrations against the world’s largest arms fair: Defence and Security Equipment International [DSEi].  This year, one of Stop The Arms Fair’s creative protests against DSEi took the form of a direct action by academics. Joining forces with activists, our ‘Conference at the Gates’ aimed to interrogate both the arms fair itself as well as the role of academics in direct political action. The question we asked was how, as academics studying war and conflict, we should respond.

DSEi revisited

Every two years, DSEi sets up shop at London’s ExCel centre, not just tolerated but also explicitly welcomed by the British government, who provide the event with both financial and personal support. This September, 32,000 arms dealers descended on East London for what TripAdvisor reviewer Ian W, giving a mark of 4 out of 5, describes as the ‘Largest display of Big Boys Toys around!’. Defence Secretary Michael Fallon rather more soberly described DSEi as ‘a truly global event… [one that] ensure[s] that the nations represented here can continue to prosper’.

DSEI is far more than a stage on which the queasy complicity between the military and commercial sectors can be harmlessly acted out, as openDemocracy has repeatedly highlighted. The deals done behind these windowless walls have potentially grave consequences, with invited delegates including representatives of countries with questionable human rights records: not only el-Sisi’s Egypt, but also Angola, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Thailand and Gulf states including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and Bahrain, amongst others. The last of these, it’s worth repeating was found to be using UK-supplied weapons against its own population as recently as 2011. It is not unique in this regard – and of course, the UK’s own military activity is far from virtuous itself. DSEi, therefore, plays an important part in enabling violence all around the world. DSEi, therefore, plays an important part in enabling violence all around the world. The question we asked was how, as academics studying war and conflict, we should respond.

Conference at the Gates - an academic direct action

As academics studying war and conflict in different ways, we wanted to resist DSEi in a more direct way than ‘conventional’ academic practice usually permits, yet without jettisoning our academic ideas and identities. In an attempt to achieve this blend, we helped organise the academic direct action, ‘Conference at the Gates’.

The aim was to take a practice familiar from our professional work – namely, the academic conference – and transplant it to an unfamiliar context, in this case a day of action against DSEI. This format was directly influenced by similar instances of academic activism at Faslane in 2007, themselves inspired by anti-militarist blockades in West Germany during the 1980s. As Kenrick and Vinthagen state of the Faslane seminar-blockades: ‘[this is] a form of resistance in which you resist by using and doing that which you defend… If you wish to defend academic inquiry and critical reflection, you have an academic seminar on the road’. Academics have participated in political struggle in a variety of ways, including – yes – theorising.

For all that academia might be associated with ivory-tower theorising, the history of academic activism is a long one. Academics have participated in political struggle in a variety of ways, including – yes – theorising, but also in direct action and organisation. Most prominent, perhaps, were the numerous ‘teach-ins’ around the time of the US intervention in Vietnam. Yet academics remain active in contemporary campaign groups both against militarism and for other political causes.

Despite this on-going tradition, however, it is also clear that the connection between academic practice and political action is not always as strong or as obvious as it could or should be. ‘Conference at the Gates’ was therefore an attempt to strengthen the bonds between the two. The day saw academics and activist groups like Bahrain Watch, Forces Watch and Campaign Against Arms Trade coming together, with many attendees bridging the activist-academic gap in their own ways.

We made attempts to engage in confrontational non-violent direct action. Although we were able to move onto the road for Professor Kim Hutchings’ keynote presentation, in so doing blockading a large armoured vehicle, a heavy police presence made more lengthy occupation extremely difficult. The road blockade quickly led to arrests of both activists and one of the conference organisers, one of several such occasions throughout the week of action. Perhaps more visibly than ever, this served to illustrate the state violence and control critiqued during the conference day.

Yet to invigorate and vitalise academic critique, to make it active and physical, was not all we aimed to achieve. We also wanted to perform academic practices in new, visible spaces, to forge new relationships of solidarity with other academics and activists, as well as to bridge the unnecessary gulf that all too often exists between the two groups. We also wanted… to bridge the unnecessary gulf that all too often exists between the two groups.

And finally, staging an academic conference in front of an arms fair allowed us to reflect upon our own positions and roles as researchers and teachers working in an increasingly militarised and neoliberalised sector. ‘Conference at the Gates’ opened up to contestation the common division between theory and practice. The hope is that fertile ground for political activism and campaigning might be found within our work as academics, not outside, in supplement to or at a distance from it.

Inspired by the energy and ideas we gained from attendees and participants at this academic direct action, we look forward to engaging in continued explorations of the effective roles academics can play in on-going political struggles, and in particular those against militarism and the arms trade.

Some of the many excellent ideas presented at the conference can be read here on openDemocracy in Tom Barns’ piece on the rise of “extremist rhetoric” and Vron Ware’s piece on “How multiculture gets militarised”. Finally, a big thank you to all the attendees and participants, and to Stop The Arms Fair, Campaign Against Arms Trade, Dr Chris Rossdale (University of Warwick) and Dr Aggie Hirst (City University London) for organising Academics against the Arms Fair.

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