In response to the genocide unfolding in Gaza, some activists have set out to target weapons manufacturers like Elbit Systems and Raytheon. Palestine Action has permanently shut down two of Elbit’s UK locations; in the United States, a similar campaign is underway to target Elbit facilities around the country. As these campaigns gain momentum, it may be instructive to look to previous such efforts for inspiration and ideas.
Two decades ago in the UK, a campaign known as Smash EDO set out to shut down an arms factory in Brighton. Over the course of a years-long struggle, they experimented with a range of strategies. In one case, activists broke into the facility and did hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of damage to it—and then were declared innocent by a jury at trial. Here, we review that movement from its inception to its high point in 2010.
The Smash EDO Campaign
What started in 2004 as a dozen people banging pots and pans outside a local arms manufacturer mushroomed into the largest and most dynamic anti-militarist campaign in the United Kingdom. Over the following years, activists from Smash EDO maintained relentless pressure on the factory while surviving repeated attempts to suppress the movement. In 2009, they mobilized thousands for the May Day Carnival against War and Greed.
“Every bomb that is dropped, every bullet that is fired in the name of this war of terror has to be made somewhere… and wherever that is, it can be resisted.”
–Smash EDO, March 2004
“A crowd of 600, largely clad in red, many masked, surges uphill towards police lines, throwing crash barriers aside and using a sound system to batter their way through. Soon they’re inside the arms factory compound, and the windows start going in…”
–participant in the Smash EDO Carnival Against the Arms Trade, June 2008
Smash EDO was an anonymous, non-hierarchical, fluid campaign: as much a slogan as an organization. This amorphous nature, coupled with an complete rejection of negotiations with the authorities, made it very difficult to repress.
The goal was almost absurdly narrow—the closure of one weapons component factory in one town. But in the course of pursuing it, the campaign incorporated a diversity of tactics and approaches—from leafleting to lockdowns, from installation art to rioting—and sowing the seeds for a real challenge to the war machine.
Smash EDO never publicly identified itself as an anarchist campaign and never nailed its colors to any particular political mast. It was often compared—not least by the police and the weapons dealers themselves—to targeted animal rights campaigns such as Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC). In contrast to those campaigns, however, participants took great pains to keep a low profile, albeit with mixed results. There were organizing meetings for major actions, but the left hand did not always know what the right hand was doing—a person who had devoted years to the campaign might still find out about an action from Indymedia.
Other campaigns generally depend on a public organizing group that starts with a firm idea of what they’re going to do and how they’re going to do it. SHAC’s assault on the share price of Huntingdon Life Sciences by any means necessary, including the deliberate cultivation of bad press, was extremely successful at first. They achieved some phenomenal results—but by the time we began our campaign against EDO, the state was passing new laws and taking advantage of the focus on one target to isolate and immobilize SHAC activists.
By contrast, unable to rely on the level of militancy common among animal rights activists, the Smash EDO campaign had to be more flexible. It took years for the animal rights movement to build up critical mass, starting from the struggle over live exports in the early 1990s. Half a decade later, SHAC’s predecessor, Save the Hillgrove Cats, could call monthly demonstrations in which thousands descended on a single cat farm near Oxford, pushing the policing costs into the millions. For reasons explained below, this was not an option for our campaign.
But who the hell was EDO and why was it necessary to smash them?
When the campaign began, EDO MBM was a subsidiary of the EDO Corporation—a United States company that was a major supplier of Raytheon as well as an arms manufacturer in its own right. In December 2007, EDO Corporation was purchased by the US arms conglomerate ITT. EDO MBM/ITT supplied vital parts for the Paveway series of laser-guided bombs, which were the most used guided munitions in the aerial bombardment of Iraq. They also designed a component for the bombing systems of F-15, F-16, and F-35 fighter aircraft; the US supplied some of these to Israel, where they were used against Palestinians. The Brighton factory also manufactured components for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVS), which were used in assassinations and raids by the US army in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Questioned by the local paper in 2004, David Jones, then the managing director of EDO, said that he was proud to support the war effort in Iraq. However, EDO repeatedly denied that they knowingly supplied equipment to Israel.
Finding out what EDO did was not always easy; research was an integral component of the campaign. After David Jones’ press statement fueled public anger, EDO refused to make public statements and removed pages from their website advertising that their weaponry was used by the Israeli air force. Several directors resigned after being forced to give evidence in court about what the company produced.
ITT Corporation is one of the most powerful transnational companies in the world. During the Second World War, it owned 25% of Germany’s Focke-Wulf, builder of fighter aircraft for the Nazis, and ITT subsidiaries made cash payments to SS leader Heinrich Himmler. ITT memos and declassified CIA documents suggest that ITT attempted to fund Salvador Allende’s opponents in Chile and helped prepare the military coup that occurred there in 1973. In response, the Weather Underground and others bombed ITT offices in New York, Rome, Zurich, and London. EDO’s factory in Brighton was only one part of this powerful corporation.
The Anti-War Movement in the UK
In 2003, the UK saw the largest anti-war movement in its history. On February 15, 2003, over a million people took to the streets to protest the relentless march towards the invasion of Iraq. Many were angry at the ease with which Britain had been signed on as a willing lieutenant in what was widely seen as blatant US imperialism. Across the country, large numbers of people who’d never taken a political stance got involved in the movement. The left, used to the muted response to previous wars of aggression in Afghanistan and Kosovo, was taken by surprise by this.
But the public mood was characterized by disapproval rather than resistance. The left-liberal classes that formed the mass of the movement were reluctant to take direct action, instead accepting the tone set by the biggest anti-war group, the Stop the War Coalition. For reasons too tedious to go into here but depressingly familiar to anyone who has worked with organizations dominated by Trotskyite vanguardist parties, this coalition opted to rely on predictable marches in London. Even after these (admittedly enormous) demonstrations failed to alter the plans for war, the Stop the War Coalition continued to repeat them with diminishing returns. The demonstration against the war in Afghanistan on October 24, 2009 brought out a mere 10,000 people.
Others took steps to resist the oncoming conflict more directly. Gloucestershire’s Fairford airbase was a launching pad for US stealth bombers and one of many parts of the UK that was effectively US sovereign territory. The mobilizations there drew participants intent on more forceful resistance; however, the state was able to muster thousands of police to keep them under control. In one instance, two men managed to enter the airfield and came within yards of damaging aircraft before they were caught. They were acquitted by a jury in 2007, demonstrating how anti-war sentiment pervaded the country.
Brighton is a seaside resort on the south coast of the UK with a radical reputation and a faint whiff of patchouli in the air. It was one of a handful of UK towns where anti-war activism wasn’t the sole preserve of the Stop the War Coalition. Instead, a coalition evolved under the name Sussex Action for Peace, involving everyone from the Quakers and trade unionists to the anarchists and the just plain awkward. A non-critical atmosphere developed, opening space for a diversity of tactics: everything from “Pancakes for Peace” to fence-cutting at Fairford Airbase.
“For months, we had been preparing, organizing, arguing about how to take to the streets and show our anger once the bombing started in Baghdad. We made flags and called samba bands, we leafleted at colleges and to schoolchildren, we held meetings with over a hundred people and fended off bizarre suggestions for a workers’ and soldiers’ soviet. We talked about tactics and dug out our gas masks. But for all our planning, the day itself was a triumph of creativity and motivation from the people of Brighton.
“On the day the bombing started, a group of us hiked up to the local school expecting to stand outside the gates encouraging a few to brave the anger of their teachers. Instead, when we got there, hundreds of children streamed past and took over the main roads laughing and running into town, stopping traffic and hurling eggs at banks. All day, the streets stopped in the city. A group took on the symbols of capitalism, bringing down the American flag outside the American Express building and tearing it up.
“When the time for the mass assembly came, the ‘organizing collective’ gathered their flags and headed to the town center. However, a mass of 5000 people filled the streets, overflowing into the side roads. No one was leading this crowd anywhere; it had a chaotic dynamism. The band started and people swarmed through the city shutting down business as usual, anger palpable in the air.
“A group headed for the town hall with a ‘donated’ key card for entry. The plan was to occupy the town hall and start a ‘people’s council’ to plan future actions and resistance. When the crowd surged towards the doors, shoving the police and their pepper spray aside, high feelings took over and destruction and property damage followed. One man got into the debating chamber balcony and danced high above the crowd shouting ‘No blood for oil!’ It felt like a shout from the city of Brighton at those who were taking us to war against our will.”
–Brighton “Stop the City—Stop the War” participant, March 2003
Of course, the initial invasion was accomplished within weeks. Soon, UK forces were committed to the occupation of Iraq and the momentum behind the anti-war movement was starting to fade.
“We wanted to draw attention to the fact that this war was not an act of irrational aggression carried out by a particularly stupid president but something planned for, and for some corporations a real money-maker. In effect, we wanted to take the war back to the factory floor. We couldn’t directly affect the course of the conflict in Iraq, but we could target the spear-carriers.”
–Smash EDO, 2004
The discovery that one of those spear-carriers was EDO MBM, a company situated on a small industrial estate just a mile and a half from the city center, led to the formation of a new group. This was largely composed of the anarchist and direct-action-oriented wing of the rapidly shrinking Sussex Action for Peace.
“Our aim at the time was to take the fury at a war happening a thousand miles away and point out how the causes of that war were wrapped up in our everyday lives. The decision to target one factory has been controversial; we have been accused of diverting attention away from the real target, i.e., the government. Although EDO now has around 150 employees, they are a relatively minor link in the weapons supply chain. But we know this is how the arms trade functions. Weapons are not stand-alone devices; modern warfare is based on a series of weapons systems. The supply chain involves hundreds of small component manufacturers and EDO’s manufacture of bomb release mechanisms makes them vital accomplices in the mass aerial bombardments used by the powerful to cow uncooperative populations. It’s better to gain a small victory like this than suffer a series of magnificent defeats.”
–Smash EDO, 2004
We’ll Be Here until You’re Not
Actions kicked off in May 2004 with a rooftop occupation of the factory coordinated with a lockdown blocking access to the whole industrial estate. Regular and irregular noise demonstrations soon greeted the workers.
“Noise demos at the time consisted of a few people making noise outside the factory gates. We’d bang pots and pans, shout through megaphones, or slam the metal crash barrier that runs along the grass opposite the factory: anything to let the workers and their managers know what we thought of their business. At this stage , we didn’t know how much the workforce knew about what EDO’s products were used for.”
–Smash EDO activist
The noise demos continued as the regular backbeat of the campaign, occurring at least once a week.
The first year saw a lot of nighttime sabotage, with the undefended factory coming under regular attack. Windows were smashed, doors superglued, paint bombs thrown. The cooling fan systems in the rear of the factory sustained £45,000 damage in one assault. The factory’s managing directors awoke to find their neighborhoods plastered with fliers accusing them of complicity in civilian deaths. More humorously, both horseshit and quick-drying concrete were dumped at the entrance. Nobody ever claimed responsibility for these actions, nor was anyone ever arrested; sporadic “pixie” actions like these continued for years. Eventually, the factory was fenced off with twenty-four-hour security, razor wire, and CCTV.
Various groups, including the local Quakers, organized vigils outside the factory. Others, dressed in white overalls and masks and calling themselves the “Blix Block,” attempted to march into the factory to conduct a citizens’ weapons inspection.
Injunction and Crackdown
The stakes were raised in March 2005 with a combined effort from Sussex Police and EDO MBM to shut down protests outside the factory by means of an injunction under the Protection from Harassment Act. Under this act, which was originally designed to protect individuals from stalkers, companies were able to secure tailor-made injunctions on the basis of very little evidence, enabling police to make arrests for things that would not normally be crimes. In this case, they tried to limit protests outside the factory to two and a half hours a week, in groups of no more than ten people with no noise amplification.
Prior to this, such injunctions had only been aimed at animal right campaigners, notably the SHAC campaign. The process in these cases allowed the companies to use evidence of illegal activity—some genuine, some concocted—to place limits on legal activity such as gathering for demonstrations, waving placards, or using megaphones. Subsequent court cases revealed that the police had drafted the terms of the injunction, supplied intelligence to company lawyers, and manufactured arrests to provide sufficient evidence to shut down the protests.
“This demonstrated clearly that it was the police’s intention to shut down the public face of the campaign. Isolated illegal activity they feel they can deal with—but they’re frightened of movements that can function both above and underground.”
This attempt at repression showed how the War on Terror involved attacks on civil liberties at home alongside warfare abroad. Compulsory ID cards were introduced, as well as new laws clamping down on protest and dissent: for example, by an amendment to the Public Order Act, the number of people required to constitute an illegal gathering was reduced to two. But this backdrop of repression, along with the unpopularity of the war, enabled the campaign against EDO to gather publicity and public support. A central press number complete with a ready-to-go press spokesperson helped the campaign to compete with both the police and the corporation in the local media.
Ironically, the injunction provided the campaign with its first major publicity boost.
“First, it showed us that we were having an effect: an international arms company had been forced to spend thousands on lawyers simply to prevent us from standing outside the gates. We also looked like the underdogs.”
A demonstration dubbed “THE BIG ONE,” called May 2005 in the wake of the first injunction hearing, drew a hundred and fifty outside the factory. Fighting broke out as police moved to arrest an eighty-year-old man named John Catt. Eight people were arrested, targeted for being suspected organizers.
After a year of legal wrangling, EDO MBM was forced to drop the injunction case and pay all the legal costs, including a handout of £34,000 to those who had defended themselves. It’s estimated that the whole case cost them upwards of £1 million, tipping them over into a loss that quarter and directly impacting their share price.
During the court case, an interim injunction prevented filming at the factory and enabled EDO’s hired goons to intimidate demonstrators. Two campaigners were briefly remanded in Lewes prison. Despite this, the noise demonstrations and other actions continued.
“The decision was made to take our struggle into town. We were fed up with being pushed around up at the factory.”
On August 13, 2005, around fifty people met in Brighton’s main shopping precinct1 and tried to march to the Level, about a half-hour walk.
“The police response was spectacular: 150 cops, dogs, and a helicopter. The message couldn’t have been clearer: you have no right to assemble without police permission.”
Thus began a standoff with the authorities over the right to demonstrate, fought not only in the streets but in the local media as well. Successive town center demonstrations—one of which marched on the police station, forcing officers to form lines around their own headquarters—became enough of a headache for the police that harassment at the factory itself decreased.
Smash EDO, the Media, and the Law
Can a small group of activists survive and get their message out without using the corporate media? Although huge advances had recently been made in alternative media, and Smash EDO was able to rely on coverage in Brighton’s SchNEWS as well as Indymedia, the fact remained that the vast majority of people got their news—and hence formed their opinions—from the mainstream press.
For the first nine months of the campaign, no one put out a press release at all. Like most of the anarchist movement, we regarded the press as part of the enemy. It was assumed that local press in particular would automatically parrot the police and corporate line.
“We knew that the press requires the names of spokespersons and that they would be depicted as organizers and leaders—that’s just how it works.”
But ignoring the media can be a dangerous gamble. A government-coordinated media onslaught against the animal rights movement had already led to their effective isolation as a political force. The equation “animal rights = extremism” was repeated whenever the subject came up, especially in left/liberal papers.
The state’s strategy, with the police “anti-extremism” task force planting stories in the media, was to isolate groups from the mainstream, then attack them with specially-crafted legislation. For example, demonstrations that would be legal in any other context could earn you a prison sentence if they were carried out against an “animal research establishment” as defined in the Serious Organized Crime and Police Act 2005. Sean Kirtley, whose conviction was later quashed, spent sixteen months in jail simply for organizing demonstrations and updating a website for the STOP SEQUANI campaign. Mainstream civil rights groups did nothing to protest this crackdown.
The SHAC strategy was to use the press as a tool with which to inspire fear in their targets. At one national animal rights gathering, the press were only invited into one workshop—a self-defense class; footage of activists learning how to poke out people’s eyes was duly broadcast. They paid for this outlaw image later. Meanwhile, campaigners against genetically modified crops were able to carry out “decontaminations” destroying crops worth tens of thousands of pounds, hitting the same pharmaceutical companies as the animal rights campaigners but without receiving the same level of repression. The crucial difference was that public opinion was more hostile to the forced introduction of GM foods.
The injunction forced the campaign’s hand, in terms of dealing with the media and the legal system. At that point, there were perhaps twenty people involved in various aspects of the campaign. The injunction named fourteen individuals—basically everyone who had been arrested at the factory. It was clear that if the factory got the interim injunction they wanted, then the noise demonstrations that served as the public face of the campaign would be shut down.
“We didn’t have huge numbers of militants to defy the injunction, the preferred option; neither was it practical to abandon the noise demos and rely on clandestine activity. If we wanted the campaign to continue, we were going to have to fight on the enemy’s terrain.”
The injunction cemented and centralized the campaign in unexpected ways. It was clear that a collective response was necessary—and a collective voice. The injunction, framed to deal with a centralized campaign like SHAC, referred to the defendants as Smash EDO, and the campaign took on that name. Bearing in mind that there was no Smash EDO party line, how were we to write a press release or frame a defense? Who could speak for the campaign? Andrew Beckett was appointed spokesperson, to avoid the trap of promoting individuals as “organizers.” One man had already found that a description of himself as an organizer, which had appeared in the local news source Argus, was being used against him in court.
We were criticized in the insurrectionist publication 325 for relying on “mainstream” arguments in propaganda and in press releases:
“The language used to ‘justify’ the decommissioning of EDO offers a legitimate face of the law to the general public. However, this face is misleading, this façade implies that there is a society worth reasoning with, that democratic legitimacy itself will bring about social change and ‘justice,’ that adhering to some laws while others are manipulated by the State will gain a [sic] eventual positive outcome. This is in compliance with State-imposed hierarchies that exist within a capitalist framework and it is flawed and foolishly misguided.”
It is true that success in those terms can come at a price. For example, as a group, we didn’t care whether the war in Iraq was technically illegal or not. If the US/UK alliance had succeeded in conducting a legal war by securing a UN resolution, we would still have opposed the attacks. But in our press releases and propaganda, we referred to “this illegal and immoral war.” Was that a cheap shot or common-sense PR?
Likewise, our efforts to produce lowest-common-denominator propaganda, in hopes of pushing what had been a broad anti-war consensus towards direct action, were criticized both in and outside the group as mawkish. Images of injured children can be arresting, but they can also reinforce the idea that the primary evil of war is the death of the “innocent.” The killing of conscripted Iraqi militiamen is just as tragic, but we didn’t put them on fliers.
Yet in order to appeal to an imagined Joe Public, it became necessary to go along with certain preconceptions. It’s all very well to believe, as some of us did, that EDO/ITT’s business would not have been possible if homo sapiens had not built patriarchal militarism on the foundation of an inherently oppressive system of symbolic thought—but it’s not easy to cram that into a two-minute radio interview. Sound bites are antithetical to political sophistication, but we needed to win the argument. “EDO kills kids for cash” was crude but effective tabloid sloganeering.
To win the legal battles, it was even more important to appear “mainstream,” at least in court. We had to fight the injunction case on grounds of civil liberties and human rights. For anarchists, this involved a degree of ideological contortion. The prospect of fighting the case on the grounds that atrocities were being committed in Iraq was ruled out by the judge early on, following an intervention by the Attorney General.
“We actually wanted to shut this factory down—we hadn’t physically attacked workers and management as the company alleged, but they were right in saying that we wanted to go beyond protest to action.”
To win the case, we had to take the “freedom to protest” angle. “Freedom of expression is a right jealously guarded in English law”—these were the words of Judge Gross after the first phase of the injunction trial. This phrase was emphasized dramatically in subsequent press releases declaring victory. Given that what had happened was actually a massive restriction of our rights—we were allowed to demonstrate when we liked, but were confined to a narrow strip of grass across the road from the factory—we ran the risk of looking as if we accepted the court’s jurisdiction. But a decision had to be made whether we wanted to proclaim a “victory” or a “defeat”—shades of grey don’t work in the media.
We also had to appeal to the general public in order to resist the crackdown on our town center demonstrations. Once again we fell back on the language of rights. In a letter to the local paper, Andrew Beckett argued that we had the “right to march peacefully through our town.” In that sentence alone, we circumscribed our action, asserting “peaceful” aims for everyone who might come to the demonstration without consulting them. And why should we have more right to march through “our” town than any other?
Yet arguably, it was a success: the struggle between the campaign and the police was framed in terms that didn’t require an extensive background in leftist theory, and the next demonstration, in December, drew 400 people. It was “peaceful,” and we won the battle of public opinion over whether or not we should negotiate with the police. But we had run the risk of painting ourselves into a corner. If the authorities had stood back at this point and allowed us free rein, what would we have done? We had ended up in the position of being anarchists defending liberalism.
Court in the Act
Once the campaign got going, the court cases came thick and fast. Different defendants chose to represent themselves in different ways. Some undertook “accountable” actions such as lockdowns in order to present a “war crimes” defense, arguing that they acted illegally “to prevent a greater crime.” This strategy implied that the court was a neutral arena, which it was not.
Despite this, activists scored an impressive set of victories in the courts. Chris Bluemel was acquitted after admitting to punching a policeman in the face during the Carnival Against the Arms Trade, for example. However, it’s worth considering how class privileges may have facilitated some of these victories. Chris, a music teacher, was able to call on his headmaster as a character witness; to prove his good faith and legitimacy, the latter mentioned that he had cancelled a meeting with a shadow government2 minister to attend court. This appeal to middle-class solidarity worked, but other defendants did not have such credentials.
Lebanon and Palestine
As US and UK forces settled into the slog of occupation, attention shifted away from the air power used in the initial invasion. But EDO’s equipment was still in use—for example, in the assault on Fallujah, and again in Somalia.
The Israeli air force was the next to embark on a major air strike campaign, using equipment supplied by US and UK arms companies including EDO. In summer 2006, war erupted in Lebanon and over a thousand civilians were killed in a matter of weeks. From the beginning, the Smash EDO campaign had overlapped with the International Solidarity Movement in occupied Palestine.
“We were determined to show that the UK government and domestic arms suppliers were directly profiting from this war. We had to show solidarity with the Palestinian people.”
Two men scaled the roof of the factory and unfurled a banner: “16 children killed in Qana Lebanon, EDO profits from murder.” A few weeks later, activists chained to concrete blocks blocked the entrances, forcing EDO employees to break into their own factory.
Following its early successes turning repression to advantage, the campaign received a new opportunity from Sussex Police. Local media collective SchNEWs produced a film entitled On the Verge charting the history of the struggle against EDO, and activists arranged a nationwide tour to raise awareness. The premiere was to be at Brighton’s art-house cinema, the Duke of York’s, on March 16, 2008.
Last-minute police intervention forced the cancellation of the film. The cinema was warned that violent activists might try to gain entry. The screening was hastily relocated to a nearby pub. The next day, the news came in that venues across the country had been visited by police and warned not to show the film on a variety of pretexts.
The tour went ahead regardless, and what had been a relatively minor activist film produced on a budget of less than £500 became national news. “A misguided piece of official hysteria,” read the headline in The Guardian, the well-known left-liberal daily paper. Suddenly, the campaign had “the film they tried to ban,” and people flocked to see it. Over eighty screenings occurred in the UK. The film was also shown in Sydney, San Francisco, and Athens, and thousands downloaded it.
All this gave the campaign a national profile. The goal of the tour had been to build support for the forthcoming Carnival Against the Arms Trade—a strategic effort to move beyond the confines of affirming the right to rally and march. Up to then, the largest EDO demonstration had consisted of a few hundred people.
On the Wednesday afternoon designated for the Carnival, over 800 turned up. Many had traveled from around the country, having heard about Smash EDO thanks to the attempted suppression of On the Verge.
The Carnival Against the Arms Trade
The crowd that turned up at the Carnival Against the Arms Trade was not a passive group of spectators. The police had planned to confine people in a control pen down the road from the factory, but the pen was dismantled as the crowd pushed through police lines and then, gloriously, into the factory compound. As the windows started to go in and the managing director’s SUV was trashed, the police responded with a baton charge and managed to clear the parking lot via a liberal use of pepper spray and dogs. The factory remained closed for the day.
It’s important to understand that at the time of this event, the UK activist movement had largely abandoned street confrontation as a consequence of successful police repression. After the successes of June 18, 1999, when large parts of London’s financial center were wrecked during the Carnival against Capitalism, police had devoted tremendous resources to cracking down on anarchic street gatherings. For many, this was their first experience of taking on the police and winning.
The next major demonstration, dubbed “Shut ITT” in reference to the fact that the company had recently changed hands, was attended by four different police forces. Despite this, the crowd of 400 charged the police lines at the base of Home Farm Road, and a large number headed up into the woods behind the factory. The back of the factory was paint-bombed as police and protestors engaged in running skirmishes in the trees.
Spokesperson Andrew Beckett reported,
“We didn’t let the police control events. We went where we wanted, when we wanted. All the police from four counties weren’t able to stop us making our stand against EDO/ITT.”
On January 17, 2009—the last day of Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli attack on Gaza3—six activists broke into the arms manufacturers’ factory armed with hammers, determined to carry out a “citizens’ decommissioning” of the facility. They barricaded themselves inside and wreaked havoc for over an hour, causing up to £500,000 of damage before being arrested.
The trial, scheduled for May 2010, focused attention on UK and US complicity in the continued repression of the Palestinian people. Before entering the factory, Elijah Smith, one of the “decommissioners,” explained his motivations: “I don’t feel I’m going to do anything illegal tonight, but I’m going to go into an arms factory and smash it up to the best of my ability so that it cannot actually work or produce munitions… [which] have been provided to the Israeli army so that they can kill children.” He remained in jail for a year and a half awaiting trial.
May Day, May Day!
The campaign’s next mobilization, on May Day 2009, was its largest yet. Thousands of leaflets had been distributed across the UK. Just a month earlier, London had hosted the G20 summit. As expected, protests around the summit had been brutalized by police and contained through “kettling,” in which lines of police surround and block a crowd from all sides. However, this time the police had murdered an innocent bystander, Ian Tomlinson. The authorities initially denied that officers had had any contact with him, then falsely claimed that they had been under a hail of bottles as they tried to resuscitate him. Days later, footage arrived at The Guardian that showed Metropolitan Police subjecting Tomlinson to a vicious and unprovoked attack. Suddenly, police behavior at demonstrations was under unprecedented public scrutiny.
Historically, May Day is a day of resistance to capitalism and this time, Smash EDO material was more explicit about the links between finance and the arms trade.
“This was really our most ambitious effort to date. We published an anti-militarist list of targets around town, showing how Barclays, McDonald’s, and the like were investors in ITT.”
By now, there were about thirty activists in Brighton working on the campaign and a network of supporters around the country. A larger group of activists was able to seize and hold a squatted church in town as a convergence space.4
“We also organized first aid, and arrestee and trauma support. It’s vital for people to know that if they get nicked or injured the support is there.”
Following the lessons of earlier demonstrations, organizers decided not to publish the route or even the starting point of the May Day street party. Instead, demonstrators obtained updates by calling an information number or tuning to a pirate radio station set up for the day.
On May 1, over 1000 people turned out for the street party, creating a bizarre militant carnival atmosphere. A masked mob clad in black and red and armed with a dancing dragon made its way through town. As the mass marched through the town center, the army recruitment center was paint-bombed and a banner appeared high above Barclays, a major investor in the arms trade. Things came to a head as participants clashed with mounted police outside a McDonald’s, also an investor in ITT. The day ended with running skirmishes through the streets.
After May Day, the noise demonstrations and other direct actions continued. Smash EDO appealed for activists to take action against Barclays Bank, the New York Stock Exchange market maker for ITT. On the first day of action, there were seven different pickets across England and Wales; Barclays Bank ATMs were glued shut in Brighton, and a six-foot-high anti-arms-trade message appeared above a Barclays branch in Cambridge.
How Did the SMASH EDO Campaign Sustain Momentum?
Some people stuck with the campaign from its inception on; others left, then returned. It was a relatively open movement; the weekly noise demonstrations offered a way to get involved and meet others. Gaining visibility made it easier to build numbers.
The movement against the Iraq war faded in terms of street marches, but there remained a mood of skepticism around British involvement in Afghanistan. Public opinion also hardened against Israeli use of air power.
Perhaps there was a danger in fixating on big spectaculars such as May Day at the expense of local and national outreach. As the campaign engaged in more radical actions, the police started a PR counter-offensive. Within the liberal framework of the “right to protest” that we had adopted in the media, we were stuck for an answer. Our inalienable right to smash windows didn’t quite ring true.
“When people first started taking action against the factory, we were a bit of an ideological puzzle. The anarchist direct action mob seemed to file us under ‘ineffectual peaceniks,’ while the peace movement didn’t like our advocacy of a diversity of tactics rather than pacifism. The idea of taking on a single cog in the machine was borrowed from the UK’s high-profile animal rights campaigns, but it was combined with some of the old Reclaim the Streets carnival magic.”
“By concentrating on this one facility, we’ve managed to raise debate in the mainstream while maintaining a radical stance. Attacking a part of the system that is morally indefensible, we point out the rot than runs through the whole core. Time and again, the police have been forced to make public their role as boot boys for the corporations.”
“Victory is important to us… we’re going to shut this factory down. Since we started, they’ve already closed their smaller facility in Fishersgate and the number of employees has shrunk. But the development of an anti-militarist network around the country is equally important, rescuing the peace movement from obsolete, symbolic, and ineffective tactics. The Target Brimar campaign in Manchester and the Stop H&K protests in Nottingham are both welcome examples of this new mood of militancy.”
“There have been debates over whether what’s really needed is a victory over this one factory, which would ultimately give a whole movement something to celebrate, or the development of a network. That’s turned into a bit of a false dichotomy. The radicalization of the anti-war movement is what gives us the best chance of shutting down the factory.”
“It’s really what’s needed to revitalize the whole anti-war movement: a network of local but mobile anti-war groups that plug away week after week in their part of the country, against their arms factory, military facility, or whatever, but are able to rely on support from like-minded individuals and campaigns around the country. We’re not asking anyone to follow our model—what we’ve done has come out of specific set of circumstances. Our advice to anyone would be to stay flexible and seize opportunities when they appear.”
The Fight Continues
On January 18, 2010, over three hundred black-clad protesters descended on the EDO/ITT factory to commemorate the previous year’s bombing of Gaza. Meeting at Wild Park, the crowd carried symbolic coffins and a banner with a thousand handprints representing those who died during Israel’s twenty-two-day assault. Most of the participants were fully masked up.
The demonstration marched to the junction of Home Farm Road, where the factory was situated, and split into two groups. Hundreds broke through police lines to pour up the hill into the woods behind EDO/ITT; another bloc remained at the intersection, blocking access to Home Farm Road, to read out some of the names of the people killed in Gaza. The first bloc of protesters made it to the rear of the factory, where some people breached the fence into the industrial estate.
After word circulated that the factory had been closed for the rest of the day, protesters proceeded to central Brighton, managing to outflank several police cordons. Around one hundred people tried to go on to Barclays Bank, but got kettled as riot police and horses flooded into North Laine.
In July 2010, Elijah Smith and the other “decommissioners” who had inflicted up to £500,000 of damage on the facility in 2009 were all found not guilty. In court, they had demonstrated that by supplying weapons to the Israeli air force, the factory was implicated in violations of international law.
Regular demonstrations against the factory continued with a mobilization in October 2010, though police repression increased steadily, in the form of infiltration as well as arrests. The ITT Corporation Board of Directors eventually approved a plan to split the company, but the factory remained in use. In 2019, it came to light that it was implicated in a Saudi attack on a civilian target in Yemen. A new protest movement got underway to against the facility, building on the achievements of Smash EDO.
The Smash EDO campaign didn’t conclude with a clear-cut victory, but it struck several blows against EDO and against the arms industry in general, legitimizing direct action for a wide swath of the population. Such efforts are part of building a long-term struggle against militarism and expanding the scope of what participants can undertake together. Today, it offers us examples of how an anti-war movement can employ a broad tactical repertoire against a specific target. It should be instructive for those seeking to stop the genocide in Gaza and other manifestations of nationalist militarism around the world.
To convey a sense of scale for North American readers, this would probably fit into a single Wal-Mart. ↩
In the UK, “shadow government” simply refers to the party not currently in power—in this case, the Conservatives. ↩
To convey the asymmetrical character of this “conflict,” we’ll confine ourselves to reporting the number of casualties: Palestinian deaths numbered between 1166 and 1440, depending on whether you believe the killers or the mourners, while everyone agrees that 13 Israelis lost their lives—four of them killed by friendly fire. ↩
The building had been empty for some years. UK squatting law dictates that property possession cases are referred to a civil court, although cops regularly carry out illegal evictions. ↩