Arms trade and human cost of war in Sudan

Many thanks to Salih for speaking at our event The Human Cost of War on 19th July.  You can read Salih’s reflections below, based on his experience of war in Sudan. While on the day we focused on human stories, for this post Salih felt it important to give us some context to the violence in Sudan. The video of our speakers is also available.

Country profile

Named the republic of Sudan after the independence from the British colonial rule in 1956 is in Northeast of the African continent (Horn of Africa Region). Boarders the Central African Republic to the Southwest, Chad to the West, Egypt to the North, Eritrea to the Northeast, Ethiopia to the Southeast, Libya to the Northeast, South Sudan to the South and the Red Sea to the East. It has population of forty million people and occupies an area of 728,215 square miles (use to make Africa’s largest country until the secession of South Sudan in 2011). The Capital city is Khartoum located in the centre of the country where the blue and White Nile Rivers joint and create the great Nile River running down North stream to its Mediterranean estuary in Egypt.

Political history and previous conflicts

Due to failure in nation-state building, rule of law and multicultural governance, the country never experiences sustainable peace and political stability since the independence in 1956, when it descended into a series of violent Intra-state conflicts. the first war broke out in the south of the country in 1955 just a couples of months before the Independence Day. The south Sudanese (dominantly native African Christian and atheist groups) rejected their annexation to the North (mainly Muslim Arabs descendants’) which dominate the new national state and control the natural resources with the aims to deculturize and assimilate the native African Sudanese into state adopted Arab-Islamic traditions to consolidate grip of power and hegemony. This war alone, has cost more than 1.5 million lives, millions other injured and internally/externally displaced civilians. Eventually, this war ended through a political settlement in 2004 which guaranteed the right to self-determination for the South Sudanese.

In 2011 through a popular referendum, the South Sudanese overwhelmingly opted for independence and secession from the motherland however, new violent civil conflicts emerged in other parts of the country including Darfur region which, experienced a brutal and ferocious response by the Sudanese national army backed by allies the notorious Arabs militias (Janjaweed). Allegations of heinous atrocities: genocide, ethnic cleansing and war crimes perpetrated by the Sudanese army and the Janjaweed militias against the black Darfurian civilian population prompted an international investigation by the United Nation International Criminal Court ICC in The Hauge/The Netherlands. Eventually, an arrest warrant against by then sitting president Al-Bashir and other state officials was issued by the ICC but not executed to the day due to lack of cooperation by the current Sudanese government.

Current active violent conflict

In April 2019, the notorious regime of president AL-Bashir was toppled after months of peaceful popular protest, strikes and civil disobedient raising expectation of the Sudanese people for transition to civilian democratic that would profoundly resolve historical grievances, injustice and remove root-causes of conflicts through a transitional justice and national reconciliation processes.

transitional power sharing arrangement between civilian and military leaders was agreed to stir the country and prepare for a general election in three years period. soon nevertheless, became clear that there is a serious security threat and impediment to the entire political transition process as the Janjaweed militia transformed itself into a powerful paramilitary (Rapid Support forces RSF) that rivalling the legitimate national army with political ambitions, economics influence and strong external relations with some regional and global powers such as Russia which has vital interests in Sudan and uses the Janjaweed militia as a proxy to materialize these interests. Russia has secured the flow of weapons and military supplies to the Janjaweed militia through Wagner Group PMC in return for free access to gold sources in different parts of the country.

The situation of having two separate military powers in one country has created political and economic fragility and volatility as the power-struggle between the two for the control of the Sudanese state institutions and the national wealth intensified by; military built-up by both sides, coupled by divisive political polarization and mobilization among various Sudanese communities increasing the likelihood of violent conflict.

On the morning of April 15th 2023, the rhetorical rivalry between the national army and RSF forces took a different violent course when clashes of airstrikes, artillery and gunfire were reported throughout the country. however, the intense fighting concentrated within the Capital city and Darfur region to the west. All regional and international mediation efforts to stop the fighting failed so far as the war still waging on claiming thousands of innocent lives, destroying infrastructures, impeding provision of basic social services, and threatening to spill over beyond to the neighbouring countries.

The impact on civilian population

Unequivocally, the impact of the war in Sudan so far is colossal on all aspects of the country. Images and videos from news outlet and social media reflect the level of damage and destruction to vital public infrastructures, state buildings and private properties. These material cost of war nonetheless, are possible to be repaired and rebuild when the war ends. the human cost however, is likely to affect generations to come. As the reports on 25th July 2023 suggest, between 5,000 and 7,000 civilians were killed and 10,000 to 15,000 others injured as a result of the fighting between the two forces. Furthermore, reports from June 2023 estimate more than 3.5 million civilian Sudanese have been internally displaced while 1.5 million others fled to neighbouring countries and became refuges.

Reports have indicated that civilians of all ages are experiencing various human rights abuses, including sexual assault and gender-based violence, as well as looting and shortages of food, water, healthcare, including reproductive healthcare, fuel and other basic goods and services, and collapse in communication channels. Densely populated residential areas of Khartoum, Bahri, Omdurman and towns in Darfur and North Kordofan are facing electricity cuts, a lack of healthcare and basic services, while running out of food, water, and medicines. Some infrastructure and services, including 11 hospitals that have been attacked, have collapsed. A shelter for girls with disabilities in Khartoum was shelled leading to the death of a girl and injuring another. A shelter for older women in Khartoum was reportedly also damaged.

Arms trade fuelling violent conflicts in Sudan

The proliferation of arms and ammunition in Sudan may originally, a legacy of the cold-war era and spill over from conflicts in the region. Various Sudanese governments however, played crucial roles in arming non-state militant groups in the country fuelling a cycle of violent intrastate conflicts and political unrests as in the case of South Sudan, southern regions of Blue Nile, south Kordofan and Darfur region.

In July 2004, in response to the global outcry over the humanitarian crisis being caused by the violent in Darfur, the United Nation Security Council adopted Resolution 1556. The resolution established a ban on the sale of arms to non-governmental groups and individuals, including the Janjaweed militia. The resolution moreover called on the Sudanese government meet its obligation of disarming Janjaweed militia. Nevertheless, Resolution 1556 fell short to include other government backed militia. United Nation Resolution 1591 in 2004 however, extended the ban of arms sale to include the Sudanese national security forces. Since the illegal flow of arms continued despite the previous two resolutions on arms embargo, comprehensive arms embargo Resolution 1945 in 2010 was therefore adopted by all member states of the Security Council with only China abstaining.

According to HART 2015 report on the arms trade in Sudan, Sudan is one of the heavily armed countries in the world as the accessibility of small arms and light weapons (SALW) has been a cause of regional and global concern as it instigates and escalate violent conflicts and instability. China and Russia are evidently; are the main suppliers of arms to Sudan in return oil and gold.

Reflections on the Human Cost of War from Anna Stavrianakis

Many thanks to Anna for speaking at our event The Human Cost of War on 19th July.  You can read Anna’s reflections below, based on her research and teaching about war and the arms trade at the University of Sussex .  The video of our speakers is also available.

Thank you Robin and Quaker Roots for the invitation. And thank you Burhan, Salih and Sukaina for sharing your experiences of war.

I would like to make three points about the UK arms trade and its role in war: first, what drives the UK arms trade; second, the limits of export controls; and third, the importance of direct action.

What drives the UK arms trade

What drives the UK arms trade is a combination of state geopolitical interest plus the close relationship between the state and arms industry. By that, I mean the deep commitment across the British government and establishment – across both Conservatives and Labour – that Britain should try to remain a great power and have the military might to be one. This is combined with the deep, entrenched relationship between the state and arms companies. The arms industry’s interests are represented within the state: there is a government body dedicated to promoting arms exports. Called UK Defence and Security Exports (note that they don’t call them arms!), this body provides support to companies to advertise at arms fairs like DSEI: they offer help with government-to-government relationships, bilateral meetings, VIP programmes, presentations on what the weapons can do.

And beyond this immediate support for companies to hawk their wares, the preparation for war is paid for by taxpayers. BAE Systems, the UK’s largest arms company, routinely portrayed to us as contributing to jobs and the economy, pays less than 15% of its own research and development. The rest is paid by the state. So the costs are socialised – but the profits are privatised. And the arms industry is increasingly owned by major asset managers and investment funds, whose returns flow to wealthy individuals, pension funds, and foundations. At the time of a cost of living crisis, if the plight of our darker skinned friends doesn’t move us, the hit on our pockets just might.

The limits of export controls

The second thing I’d like to share is about the limits of UK arms export controls. On paper, the controls are clear that the government will not allow arms exports where there is a clear risk they might be used in a serious violation of international humanitarian law. But we have seen direct evidence of the misuse of UK-supplied weapons. To give you an example from my home town, Brighton: a fragment of a guidance system for a bomb, with the markings of the EDO factory up the road, was found at the site of an airstrike on a factory in Sanaa, Yemen. The UN Panel of Experts concluded it could only have been dropped by the Saudi led coalition and that it was a likely violation of international law.

But it’s more than simply a case of the controls not being worth the paper they are written on. The government – again, whether Conservative or Labour – makes great play of its controls. They use them to justify and legitimise British involvement in the arms trade. Ask the government pretty much any question you like about its arms exports, and the answer you will always get is that the UK has one of the most robust arms export control regimes in the world. That’s why Campaign Against Arms Trade took the government to court about its arms exports to Saudi Arabia – three times. The first time, the High Court found in the government’s favour, on the grounds that government policy was legally rational. That doesn’t mean it was a good policy, but that it was rational in narrow legal terms. The second time around, when CAAT appealed, the government was found to have not even tried to conduct a meaningful risk assessment of the past use of weapons and told it had to stop issuing licences to Saudi Arabia. The government amended some other licences to ensure that companies could carry on transferring weapons under licences that had previously been grated; and conducted a whitewash internal review saying that any violations were isolated incidents, and couldn’t be said to constitute a pattern. So CAAT took them to court again. The decision was released last month – disappointingly, although perhaps not surprisingly, it found in favour of the government. Again, the decision was on the narrow grounds of legal rationality.

The importance of direct action

Which takes me to my final point: the necessity and urgency for direct action against the arms trade. We are far beyond the point of saying, we should write to our MP; you should join a campaign group (although these are, of course, good things to do!). NGOs and specialists have been trying to engage with MPs, officials, those who have the power to change things from within, for years, trying to hold them to their commitments. The strength of the controls, such as they are, is largely down to NGOs in the British arms transfer control community. We cannot rely on the law to protect the right – the law protects the powerful. And the government is committed to exporting weapons when it deems it in its interest, regardless of the consequences. This runs alongside an increasingly racist and violent orientation towards migrants, asylum seekers and refugees – the latter often being the very people who are displaced by the wars facilitated by UK- supplied weapons.

To my mind, the significance of direct action is solidarity – not sympathy. The public outpouring of support for Ukrainians fleeing war has been both wonderful and troubling. When faced with people widely understood by white Britain to be “like us” and feeling from a familiar foe, Russia, people get it. But where has that widespread support been for Syrians, whose war couldn’t have been conducted without Russian support, and for Sudanese and for Yemenis? In this country, racially minoritized people experiencing and escaping conflict are portrayed either as terrorists, who need to be punished; or as interchangeable, often starving, poor brown and black people, often children, who deserve sympathy at best. Too rarely are they portrayed as political agents and actors with whom we could act in solidarity. The UK is caught up in crises over Brexit, the cost of living, Tory drama: it is not obvious that there is a social force of solidarity. It is up to us to show otherwise.

Text delivered at Quaker Roots event, ‘The Human Cost of War,’ 19 July 2023

Anna Stavrianakis, University of Sussex, A.Stavrianakis@sussex.ac.uk

Burhan’s Story

Many thanks to Burhan for speaking at our event The Human Cost of War on 19th July.  You can read Burhan’s testimony about her experience of war below, the video of our speakers is also available.

I come from the north of Syria, from the ancient city of Aleppo—the place where I was born, grew up, and lived until 2014. It was a simple life, revolving around friends, family, school, and eventually university. Everything seemed ordinary until the day we decided to demand our rightful freedom of speech and the control of Syria’s resources. We wanted to expose those who were stealing from the Syrian people.

“We want freedom, justice, and a new way of life!”

The year 2011 marked the start of the revolution in Syria. I took to the streets with peaceful protests, calling for the very essence of freedom because we were tired of being silenced and having no say in how our country should be governed. The regime of Assad had tight control over everything, treating Syria like their personal possession instead of governing for the people. We chanted with all our might, “We want freedom, justice, and a new way of life!” Little did we know the consequences that awaited us.

When I was in one of the peaceful protests, holding nothing but my empty hands, the Assad regime militias started shooting at us with live bullets. The sound of gunfire shocked me, and I couldn’t believe they would resort to such violence against their own people. In that moment, my sister grabbed my arm, panic in her eyes, and urged, “We have to go, now!”

But the most horrifying day was when the regime brought a missile truck just outside our house. It was around 9 am and I was in my room, and suddenly, a deafening sound filled the air, followed by white dust surrounding our house. I was terrified, thinking our house would collapse from the bombing. Tears streamed down my face, and I feared for my life. When the dust cleared out we saw the missile truck from the window. The truck stayed there for two long hours, firing eight missiles, each one claiming innocent lives just a couple of kilometres away. The memory of that day will never fade from my mind.

Another haunting experience was witnessing the first Russian Sukhoi plane flying low and then unleashing a monstrous sound, while releasing a missile striking another part of the city, followed by a dark smoke. I knew then that innocent lives were being targeted, and I couldn’t help but feel helpless and afraid for my fellow Syrians.

More and more memories come back while I am typing this—I survived 2 sniper shots, I crossed the deadliest path Karaj Al Hajez, and I lost my dad. I can’t talk about all these memories without thinking, why weapons? Why did we invent them? Why are we still using and developing them?

“Our unity became our shield against the horrors we faced every day.”

Amidst the chaos, we found strength in each other. My community—friends, family, my husband, and fellow activists—became a source of support and hope during the darkest hours. Our unity became our shield against the horrors we faced every day.

As the years passed, the weight of the conflict grew heavier, and the need to protect my loved ones pushed me to make a hard decision—to leave Aleppo behind. Leaving felt like leaving a piece of my soul in those ancient streets, but it was the only way to ensure safety and a chance at a better life for my family.

Leaving Syria didn’t mean forgetting. It didn’t mean giving up on the dream of a free and peaceful homeland. Instead, it made me a stronger advocate for peace, justice, and human rights. My experiences in Aleppo became a driving force to share our stories, to let the world know about the suffering and resilience of the Syrian people.

“I will keep fighting for peace and belonging.”

In a new land, I found kindred spirits who understood the pain and struggles of displacement. We became a family bound by the desire for a world without violence and oppression. My story became a voice for those who couldn’t speak, a plea for understanding and compassion.

Here in the UK, the faces around me are kind, and the people welcoming, but a part of me will always feel like a visitor—an eternal wanderer in search of a place to belong. The fleeting smiles and genuine hospitality remind me that humanity’s compassion knows no borders, but there’s a profound longing to be embraced by the familiarity of my own homeland.

I long to walk the streets where my father and I once walked, to breathe in the essence of my past and feel memories that have been preserved in the corners of my mind. The thought of never again seeing these roads, brings aches to my heart. I miss the sight of buildings that hold stories from my childhood—the places I visited and schools I went to. Which I can only revisit in my memories. While I seek to build new memories in a foreign land, I hold the memories from my homeland close to my heart.

Through it all, as I navigate the complexities of life in a foreign land, I carry with me the resilience of my people, the history of Aleppo, and the determination to go ahead despite the challenges.

Though I may never fully know the feeling of settlement in my life, I will keep fighting for peace and belonging.

No Faith in War: Thursday 7th September

Live adventurously. When choices arise, do you take the way that offers the fullest opportunity for the use of your gifts in the service of God and the community? Let your life speak. When decisions have to be made, are you ready to join with others in seeking clearness, asking for God’s guidance and offering counsel to one another?

Advices and queries 27

Quaker Roots are calling on Friends to Witness at the ‘No Faith in War Day’ on Thursday 7th September. In order to be impactful and supportive we are asking Friends to let your life speak, for yourself, God and for those who are silenced due to the Arms Trade.

The day will be multifaith (insh’allah), where Friends and other religions will hold space to Witness before the opening of the DSEI Arms Fair on Tuesday 12th. We will endeavour to make it as accessible as we can. Quaker Roots, along with QPSW (Quaker Peace & Social Witness) and STAF (Stop the Arms Fair) are in the process of organising toilets, a food stall and a pastoral care tent. If you are aware of any other needs you may have please let us know.

For the day to be successful we need Friends, and lots of them. Friends to offer help, Friends to offer practicalities, Friends to join us in organising, Eldering, holding activities (banner making, songs, etc.). If you have an interest in helping out with one of these areas already, it would be great to hear from you, via our ‘get-involved’ page, or on hello@quaker-roots.org.uk (you’re not committing to anything at this stage.)

There will be more details to follow, and other things Quaker Roots are planning; it’s fine if you’ve got questions or need more time before knowing how you might want to join in.

For those who missed our Know Your Rights training, we will be holding another for Quakers nearer the time, and Green & Black Cross (GBC) have two public sessions in May. The GBC website is also a great resource to understand protest law, what our rights are, and basic steps we can take to keep each other safe.

Preparing for Action at DSEI – open meetings each month.

All are welcome to our regular open meetings to hear more about our plans, ask questions and see how you’d like to get involved. See our events page for upcoming dates.

Know Your Rights: Useful Info

Our wonderful facilitators took us through our rights in relation to protest at a recent session, and offer these links to further information and support:

You can find legal resources provided by Green and Black Cross (GBC) at the GBC Website.

If you are interested in reading more on common charges, you can find these on the GBC website.

Here is our Guide to the changes brought in by the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022

Information on injunctions: https://greenandblackcross.org/guides/injunctions/

The Network for Police Monitoring has lots of useful information and resources on their website: https://netpol.org/.

Link to Bustcards (for all regions): https://greenandblackcross.org/bustcard.

Stop and Search

Here is a link to a stop-and-search ‘Know Your Rights’ card. It is also recommended to print these off and hand them out at protests. Please encourage protesters to read them: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1wCFYm59GJvKDn3c4bdZ3wVLgitfG1AaK/view?usp=drivesdk.

The app and website ‘Y-Stop’ has information on your rights around stop-and-search, as well as a space for you to record searches, challenge the police, and make complaints. It’s a good idea to download Y-Stop if you have a smartphone: https://y-stop.org/.

5 key messages:

  • UNDER WHAT POWER?
  • NO COMMENT!
  • NO CAUTION!
  • NO DUTY SOLICITOR!
  • NO PERSONAL DETAILS!

Criminal Record

See if your job requires an enhanced DBS check: http://hub.unlock.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/A-Z-of-specific-job-roles-and-eligibility-for-criminal-record-check.pdf.

Unlock Website info about criminal records: https://unlock.org.uk/topic/about-criminal-records/

Immigration

Informed dissent has some really good info: https://informeddissent.info/arrestandimmigrationstatus.

The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) have answers to commonly asked questions, and also have a free helpline (020 7553 7470).

Mental Health

Activist Trauma Support has useful resources on trauma, burnout & sustainable activism (archived resource): https://www.activist-trauma.net/

https://www.activist-trauma.net/assets/files/ats_a5_flyer_dec16_rightway.pdf

https://www.activist-trauma.net/assets/files/burnout_new_flyer_rightway.pdf

ASSIST Trauma Support has further information and resources on trauma:  http://assisttraumacare.org.uk.

Preparing for Action at DSEI and beyond

Take-aways from the Quaker Roots Open Meeting on February 22nd 2023

Quaker Roots held an open meeting to discuss ideas and concerns for action against the DSEI Arms Fair. This is a wee snippet of what came out of that meeting:

  • The Meeting for Worship outside DSEI Arms Fair is powerful and needs to happen again.
  • It is important to take action while the Arms Fair is happening and during the set-up week (No Faith in War day).
  • Taking part in a Merchants of Death tour through London.
  • Using singing as part of protest.
  • Working with other faith groups.
  • Linking with Friends who can’t attend in person, through social media perhaps?
  • Creating a clear schedule for day of action, so Friends know what is happening.
  • Having a mic available, so Friends can hear Ministry.
  • Having a variety of actions for people to do during the day.
  • Filming the whole event.
  • Friends hosting local TEDx talks about the importance for peace.
  • Friends gaining full information about legal rights and recent changes in protest law.
  • London Friends providing accommodation and food for travelling Friends.
  • We want to have a large presence of Friends.
  • Clear information and messaging for Friends to have at hand, leaflets etc.
  • Creating links between migrations, environment and conflict.
  • Have placards available for Friends to just pick up.

We also decided that it is important to have continuing open meetings, and Friends are invited to contribute and come with ideas. The next meeting will have time set aside to talk about how Friends can contribute further to make sure ideas happen.

The next Preparing for Action meeting will be held on 22nd March 2023 on zoom.

Poem: No Faith in War

by Sue Hampton, from her latest book ‘Rebelling for Life’ 2021 pub: TSL Publications.

No Faith in War

A poem written in a police cell after my arrest at Stop the Arms Fair DSEI 3/9/2019 

7 a.m.

My view is different now:

an open skyful, grubby white,

a flight path, torn with roaring.

I may be lying

on the road to hell.

Top left, the concrete’s dark, unyielding.

Right, leaves shift and shudder high.

Seagulls loop on the wind.

Magpies jut like chimneys from a roof.

And when I close my eyes, the darkness

is a scarlet weave.

I cross my legs to still the shaking.

Constrained by pain, my body’s resisting,

my hand caught tight around the lock

I hooked inside the tube

through a case that says Calvin Klein.

From the hotel, cars free to slide away

are low on my radar as cats.

Beside me leaves scud scratchy, close and wild.

Bound together in love, the three of us don’t talk.

The kit keeps us apart,

held in Quaker silence,

in hope, patience, conviction,

in the PEACE stitched vivid on a cloth without an altar.

9 a.m.

My scalp and shoulders are pillowed now.

Under a banner linking legs on tarmac

and a scarf from a skip,

I’m lifted.

Around us, small but focused, a Meeting’s gathered.

I have no needs to meet

but smiles, a little conversation,

my father’s hand reaching down with the rest

to hold on.

And an end to this,

but not yet.

In Yemen roads are bloodied and skies

rain merchandise from merchandise.

We’re stopping the Arms Fair.

No weapons pass.

Plush and vast, the showroom space awaits unfilled

and this road is to Emmaus.

We did it.

Grandma did it.

11 a.m.

I’m shielded under pressure.

A shower sparks firework red around my boots.

The cutters burn,

the air’s industrial.

The team in black crouch, sweat and struggle,

pass surgical tools for this theatre.

It’s tough, all of it,

their challenge, ours.

As an observer starts to cry,

I smile so Leslie knows I’m not afraid.

My fingers, trapped, arthritic, curl stiff at the core.

The drill rattles hard.

Heat circles my hand until I’m free,

escorted to the van.

My legs fold and sway

but I hear the cheers.

Handcuffed, I smile and make a peace sign

through closing doors.

Trying to be salt and light: interacting with the police at protests

Please note, this article was written before the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police officers in the USA, and the necessary conversations and protests about police brutality and structural racism both in that country and elsewhere that have followed. As the Quaker Roots core group we recognise that we have more to learn about these issues, our own complicity and ignorance, and that we need to reflect on our own structures and behaviours.  We hope that you will engage with this process too, and  have added some related links in the ‘Further reading’ section.

Before and after the Roots action last September we had questions from a number of Quakers about what our action consensus says about police engagement (the action consensus was a set of guidelines on how to approach our actions as part of the No Faith in War day, and can be found here). The part that seemed to give rise to the most questions was why we asked those engaged in the action not to hold ‘extended conversations with police officers’.

There are lots of different reasons why this was our approach, and we thought it would be helpful to explain them. We want to be transparent, and also to move forward conversations at a local level about this issue. We hope this is an opportunity for education and development for Quakers as activists.

The reasons for our approach include: taking the same approach as other groups across the whole week of action, making sure the protest space we create is open to all who want to participate, avoiding being party to information-gathering and inadvertently assisting in surveillance, and recognising the bigger picture within which all interactions with the police take place. Finally, we say something of what we think a ‘Quaker’ response to the police could be.

This article was written by Hannah, a Roots activist, with input from the Quaker Roots core group. This is quite a lengthy document, because it is an exploration of lots of issues, rather than a statement.

Being consistent with groups we’re taking action with

Firstly, we took the approach we did partly to be in line with other groups taking action as part of the Stop the Arms Fair week of action. This was in part a matter of consistency, so that people attending actions over the week were asked to uphold a similar approach to protest e.g. acting nonviolently, over the whole week of action. Importantly, it is also an acknowledgement that we were not ‘going it alone’. Roots working alone in this context would be almost impossible to imagine: we set the network up in order to take action initially against the Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) arms fair, as part of the long-established and experienced Stop the Arms Fair coalition. We were acting to support them, not be independent of them.

Furthermore, part of recognising that we are taking action within a network of groups is recognising who those groups are, and what we can learn from them and – maybe someday – teach. Across the whole week of action, groups taking part come from a wide range of communities and issue-campaigns, so they are much more diverse than Quaker communities in this country tend to be. This means we have things to learn from them.

A man looks at the camera as his arms and legs are carried by different police offices
An activist is carried away by police officers following arrest at the No Faith in War day, 2019, whilst a legal observer looks on and takes notes

Keeping the space safe for all, including those who fear the police

Next, we want and need the movements that we are part of (whether that be the peace movement, the climate justice movement, or economic and social justice struggles) to be diverse and to especially give space to and empower leadership from  those who are ‘at the sharp end’ of these injustices. If they do not, these movements will be counterproductive. In order to do this we need to prioritise the relationships of people in the movement. We want to live out allyship by using protest spaces to speak and make connections with those who are part of the movement, rather than with the police. That’s our priority.

Everyone should remember that your own view of the police as an institution and as individual officers is shaped by your own personal privilege and status (a topic very live within Britain Yearly Meeting at the moment). This topic has a number of different facets. For example, whilst middle class, white people might feel fine having a friendly conversation with a police officer, people of colour, people with insecure immigration statuses, trans people and others, have sometimes had very negative experiences of the police, or may be more anxious since they know that they are more likely to suffer police brutality, or are disproportionately targeted e.g. by stop and searches. When those who feel comfortable engaging with police (because of their privilege) do so, it can make members of marginalised groups feel less safe and less welcome in those spaces. This is particularly ironic, given that black and brown people are more likely to face the violent consequences of weapons sales, both in the UK and worldwide. If we act in ways that deter people who are more likely to be affected by the very thing we’re protesting against from joining resistance struggles, this should give us pause and make us question and reassess our behaviour. Take the experience of the Wretched of the Earth in the 2015 March for Climate, Justice and Jobs as a sobering example: as they put it, the way they were treated on the day of the demonstration indicated a ‘colonial mentality’ which echoed the ‘history of conquest, genocide, and slavery’ at the ‘foundation of our modern economic system – the very system responsible for the global disaster that is climate change’. We do not want to recreate the militarist, racist mentalities that we protest against.

As a white, middle-class, cisgendered person I know instinctively that I still often see individual police officers as people who might help me in difficult situations. This is despite having witnessed huge numbers of negative experiences that people have had with police officers (and having had them myself), especially on protests, and despite hearing about decades of historic abuses against the LGBTQ* community of which I am part. This trust is very deeply ingrained in many people of my status and background. And it is not the same for everyone: quite the reverse.

‘Racist policing happened at last year’s DSEI as it happened at previous ones. If you can ignore this and expect to be treated well, that’s a luxury.’

There are real and recent experiences of different groups being differently policed at DSEI, and we do not believe this is coincidental. Repeatedly, we have observed and heard of smaller groups, or groups with more black and brown activists, being policed more heavily than the larger, older and whiter groups – which are also those that usually attend faith actions, including Quaker ones (I am by no means saying the No Faith in War day does not have people of colour participating – it did and has done at every one I’ve attended). Racist policing happened at last year’s DSEI as it happened at previous ones. If you can ignore this and expect to be treated well, that’s a luxury. I heard numerous accounts from Quakers saying that they felt the police treated them well (either at the day of action or during arrest later). That’s fine, but please do not extrapolate this experience out to everyone who was at the DSEI protests over the week, because it was not a universal experience.

Choices of protest tactics can also make some groups feel more excluded. Extinction Rebellion groups have been criticised, for example, for the emphasis on arrest as an aim. As Athian Akec, UK Youth Parliament member for Camden put it in his article When I look at Extinction Rebellion, all I see is white faces. That has to change ‘One friend of mine was stop-and-searched by the police 12 times last year. When I told him that the Extinction Rebellion protesters were purposefully getting themselves arrested, he rolled his eyes in sheer irritation. “That’s not an option for black people,” he said, adding that if he was arrested, the police would undoubtedly treat him differently, and his future career prospects might also be destroyed. The tactic of deliberately seeking arrest has further alienated disenfranchised communities like mine who, across generations, have had bad experiences with the police.”’ This fact informs Roots actions now and will in the future.

Affecting the police’s view of other groups, by comparison

Moreover, it’s inevitable that groups of activists will be compared to each other and that that comparison – be it conscious or unconscious – may be used to impose different kinds of police response. This is especially true when, as in the Stop the Arms Fair week of action, consecutive action days are being led by different struggles/campaigns e.g. stop arming Israel, no border, climate emergency, no faith in war, etc., and when other distinct groups, e.g. Kurdish community groups, also attend together. When a large group of predominantly (though not exclusively) white, older, middle-class-looking people – like Quakers – (who might generally expect to have neutral or positive encounters with the police) have ‘friendly’ conversations with police officers, it makes those who may want a more distant relationship (because they have had generally worse experiences of policing in their communities) look actively uncooperative by comparison. These differences can also serve to reinforce police biases. Both of these factors can result in groups that are less cooperative being confronted by a more defensive/aggressive style of policing.

I have noticed this in other contexts, where Quakers come to look like the ‘acceptable’ face of protesting, and others by comparison look threatening, merely for doing something other than what looks to outsiders like a load of people being quiet i.e. a meeting for worship. When a group of us were regularly protesting a fossil fuel company’s sponsorship of the British Museum by holding meetings for worship in the atrium a few years back, a manager once said “We like it when the Quakers come, you’re very easy to manage”. Maybe that’s OK in some ways, but it’s not very fair when other groups who try to be even slightly more interventionist end up looking confrontational by comparison, and are treated worse as a result – as if protesters should be expected to be completely docile, and Quakers are model examples of this.

A diverse range of people usually take action as part of the DSEI week of action, much more so than other movements that some of us have been involved in. We’ve had the opportunity to hear feedback from previous occasions, which is important since a lot of those people’s life experiences are not well represented within Quaker activist circles, so we have a lot to learn, and we really want to listen and respond to what they tell us.

Avoiding facilitating information-gathering and surveillance

Furthermore, during interactions with the police at protests, many of us will have had bad experiences of surveillance and information-gathering. What might look like small talk can be used to gather information on yourself and your fellow protesters: information which might have very serious consequences, for example being used in evidence against someone in court, or to commence deportation proceedings if their immigration status is not secure (have a look at a video about the role of police liaison officers from NetPol). Such information can also be used to prevent planned actions from taking place, because of police interference.

Police liaison officers are specially trained to do this information-gathering work in a ‘friendly’ way, so it’s quite easy to let things slip once they have gained your confidence. And it’s a really horrible feeling when you realise you’ve inadvertently shared something you do not have permission to share, or something which might incriminate someone else or put them at risk, or mean an action has less chance of success. Sometimes better (as a Roots activist from Scotland put it) to “keep schtum”?

The bigger picture

Finally, I am always aware when I am speaking to someone in a police uniform that this is never just an interaction between two people. It may be  that as well, but ultimately police personnel are part of a system of security and control; a system that is willing to brutalise people in order to defend existing power structures. At protests, they are present to report on and gather intelligence from every interaction. They very rarely share their personal beliefs, but are performing a task that they have been given, and one that if they refuse to do, they will face reprimand, and perhaps even lose their job. They are also, at DSEI, not who we are at a demonstration to engage with and primarily to challenge – that is in this case the arms industry (companies, government involvement, etc). This of course involves the police (there are some great resources about police militarisation springing up), but we are there to stop DSEI, not focus on the police.

A Quakerly approach to police officers?

We understand that this approach to the police may differ from the approach some Quakers have taken in the past in other actions, and might feel strange and new. This has been the case for some in the Roots core group, too. 

As Quakers, we acknowledge and are called to answer that of God in everyone (members of the police, arms dealers, protesters: everyone), and theologically and experientially, we recognise that anyone may be transformed by the Spirit at any time (I am cheekily reminded of the Seize the Day song P.C. 365, in which a constable who’d been policing the Faslane 365 protests changed ‘sides’ and decided to join the blockade right at the end…Sadly, though not surprisingly, this was a fictional account). However, this transformation does not necessarily happen only when we use words to persuade people i.e. don’t think that because you are not trying to talk a police officer round to what we’re doing, they’re not able to be affected by Quaker witness. I think that the Spirit can do things with and without us, through us and unbeknown to us. People can and do leave police forces because of what they see inside of the institution, and perhaps the treatment of social justice protesters contributes to this. We’ll still do what we do: singing songs, blocking roads, holding meetings for worship, standing our ground, trying to live the kingdom… and this can still have an impact on those witnessing it – police officers and others. I’ve never felt that in those moments, it was my powers of spoken persuasion that were going to be the most significant thing. Actions can speak louder than words.

‘….the Spirit can do things with and without us, through us and unbeknown to us.’

I know that many Quakers choose to respond individually to police officers specifically because they do not want to recognise or bow to the kind of dehumanising effect that uniforms can have. I’ve heard a lot of Quakers want to reject that, and go out of their way to see the unique individual ‘behind the uniform’. I want to acknowledge that impulse, but also to remind Friends that the ability to do that – to want to trust, take a risk, and respect and be courteous and warm to someone who has the ability to detain you which might mean your livelihood and long-term liberty is at risk, is a luxury which many do not have. I value the kind of ‘live as you want the world to be’ approach which in this circumstance would see everyone, whoever they are, as a human worthy of a conversation. Indeed, our action consensus opens: ‘We understand that throughout our action we will encounter many different people, including staff from the ExCeL centre, police officers, security guards, truck drivers, members of the public. We will recognise the humanity of all those we encounter, approaching them with dignity and respect.’  But I want that instinct to be understood in the context of power relations as they are in the world we live in. In this context, I believe that being called to be both salt and light (Matthew 5:13-16) means being allies to those protesting with us and those who suffer through the arms trade first and foremost, and being light to all present, but without endangering those who we work alongside, which friendly relations with police officers present can do. 

Hand drawn images with accompanying texts: 'knowing your legal rights, trust in your buddy or affinity group, discernment from your Quaker commnuity, solidarity with people directly affected by the arms trade', with the words 'Things in your head and heart' underneath
A page from the ‘Things to bring to DSEI’ zine

These are some of the reasons our action consensus reads as it does, and we hope you can respect the approach, even if it differs from the approach you have taken in the past. All of this should be looked at in the context of a broader discussion around power and privilege, within Quakers and in our wider society. As a reminder, Roots are committed to nonviolence and do not advocate for violence towards police officers, or anyone else. What we were, and are, advocating, is for an understanding of how structural violence and inequality affects protests, and the people on them.

Hannah Brock Womack, on behalf of the Quaker Roots core group

Further reading

If you’re interested in finding out more about policing and/or protest (or in general), here are some places you could start:

Our financial resources

Here at Roots of Resistance we are incredibly grateful for the support of Friends who have gotten involved in various ways since we started, and especially as we took action against the DSEI arms fair last September.

Many people have offered their skills or spaces, volunteering their time and resources to make our network come to life. Roots is people-powered, but it also requires some money to make things happen, and some of the support we’ve been given is financial, through individuals, meetings and trust funds. Without this support, a lot of what we’ve been able to do wouldn’t have happened.

In the interests of transparency and accountability, we’re sharing an update of our finances.

Since we opened a bank account in April 2019, we have received the following income:

  • From individuals: £428
  • From Quaker meetings: £624
  • From Quaker trust funds: £2500

Of that, we have thus far spent:

  • £1374 enabling Friends to attend Roots of Resistance trainings, organising meetings, the action in September at the arms fair itself, and the debrief day afterwards. This was mostly spent on travel, but also on childcare for some trainings
  • £489 on equipment for the action on 3rd September
  • £129 on online support for our meeting (mostly in a subscription for Zoom, which we held meetings and online trainings on, many of which were recorded for use after the event)

We therefore still have c. £1350 in our account. We are incredibly grateful for the support from Friends, and will continue to use the money not yet spent in resisting the arms trade through actions in the future.