Normally I tour the UK doing gigs around the country at least once or twice a year, but this was far less the case for the first two years of Covid-19, when I was mostly stuck at home in Oregon. Despite these unusual circumstances, I still found it very unnerving that it took me two years to encounter the most exciting civil disobedience movement that I’ve heard about in a very long time, which has been successfully shutting down arms factories in England, and causing serious operational problems at others.
I could spend the next several thousand words unpacking why it is that two years elapsed between the founding of the Palestine Action network and me hearing about its existence. There is much to be said about the echo chambers created by social media algorithms. And much more to be said about the priorities of those who run the BBC, the Guardian, and other news sources I consume daily, which haven’t seen fit to mention any of these obviously significant developments, unless it was on a rare day when I wasn’t paying attention to the news.
Aside from the priorities of the press and tech billionaires to keep us in the dark, the government of the UK has gone to great lengths to keep the frequently-swinging sledgehammers wielded by people smashing equipment under the banner of Palestine Action as quiet as possible. There will be court proceedings coming up in October involving a number of people and actions, but for the past two years, mostly the state has just been dropping charges.
The significance of what’s been going on is impossible to miss when you follow the details of what has been happening with these cases.
I learned about it first from the horse’s mouth, as it were. Last month at a concert I was playing in the city of Crewe, near Manchester, England. Several young folks appeared wearing very spiffy matching black t-shirts, with the words Palestine Action written in red and white. As I listened to stories that evening, I was as excited by the news as I was shocked, despite my cynicism about the media, by the lack of coverage of it.
Just to cut to the most salient aspects of the situation here: these folks used climbing gear, ropes and such to scale an Elbit Systems factory, that produces drones and other deadly weapons for the Israeli military, and they broke in through the roof. They then spent three days and nights rampaging around in there with sledgehammers, smashing equipment.
Three days and nights. For three days and nights, the police did not intervene. Perhaps because while they were smashing equipment in the arms factory, thousands of local people were occupying the streets and blocking the entrance to the place, often in the form of whole families with their family cars. Mostly people from Asian backgrounds, along with lots of others.
It was, it seems, the militancy and obvious goodness of the smashing of military equipment that was going on in there that was so inspiring to so many local people, which had them pouring out in such numbers, and staying in the streets.
Eventually the police moved in and took the trespassers and their sledgehammers into custody. They were held for fifteen hours and released, with no charges pressed. A few days later, one of the folks got a call from the police, asking if he would like to go to the station and retrieve the climbing gear, which they had used to scale the building and break into it.
The Oldham factory, and one of the London factories, were forced to close.
Damage was extensive, but perhaps far more worrying for the arms corporation was the knowledge of their vulnerability, under British law, when faced with this kind of opposition.
The British prosecutors starting dropping charges in case after case because when one of the cases did go to trial, the sledgehammer-wielding activists were acquitted.
There are many flaws in the British legal system — for some really problematic ones, look at how illegally they are detaining Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange. But when it comes to incidents like the smashing of equipment at the arms factories, what has been a challenge for the prosecutors has been the doctrine of proportionality, in these instances. I’m no legal expert, but what this is about is when what the activists are reacting to are Elbit Systems’ involvement in Israeli war crimes against Palestinians, then doing a million dollars of damage to equipment at the factory is insignificant, proportionally speaking.
There is also precedent in England (as well as in Ireland and New Zealand) of activists doing extensive damage to combat aircraft (or in the case of New Zealand, a CIA spy base) and being found not guilty, on the basis that they were actually enforcing the laws of their countries by doing what they were doing, since in each case their country’s government was breaking their own and international laws by doing what they were doing — in the UK’s case, by selling combat aircraft to Indonesia while they were bombing civilians in East Timor.
The British government is obviously capable of breaking its own laws, or changing them. It is obviously capable, as demonstrated by fairly recent history, of declaring groups of their own citizens to be subject to things like indefinite detention without charges. But to the extent that it is subject to its own laws and international covenants, there are legal quandaries involved with manufacturing and exporting deadly weapons to a country that is daily in blatant violation of international law, and using these weapons systems to commit war crimes in territories that are internationally recognized as illegally occupied — including by the UK, officially.
This sort of thing generally doesn’t get in the way of Plowshares activists engaging in identical sorts of sledgehammer-related actions in the United States from receiving long prison sentences on a regular basis, although the US is also a signatory to many of these international laws. But thus far when it comes to these sorts of acts of civil disobedience, in the UK and some other countries, international law has had a bit more sway.
For those involved or those who have managed to break through the media blackout and hear about these actions, it is an electrifying moment.
Around the UK as with so much of the rest of the world, much of the public is very critical of Israeli apartheid, and the ongoing slaughter of Palestinians by the Israeli military. Meanwhile, the governments of countries like the UK, the US, and so many others make the Israeli war crimes possible, with their military aid, trade, and political cover.
And too often, solidarity networks descend into bickering and division. Then they are attacked from so many different sides if they gain any traction, as can be seen so clearly in the recent history of the British Labor Party, which was briefly led by Jeremy Corbyn, who is a genuine critic of Israel and supporter of the Palestinian people, and was and is therefore ceaselessly denounced with fake allegations of antisemitism and terrorist sympathies.
What has become very clear in recent months across the UK is that it is not only the militant few, willing to get arrested for smashing military equipment, who are tired with more talk, and want to take real effective action now, to try to stop war crimes which are daily being committed by Israel in the West Bank and Gaza. Because unless I missed other significant developments, we have not seen thousands of people pouring into the streets in a suburb of Manchester in solidarity with Palestinians in a long time.
The logic of endless compromise that seems to be the main thing produced by what we might call the Progressive Industrial Complex is depressing, as well as ineffective. The actions taken by Palestine Action have been a tremendous source of inspiration for the people of Oldham and many other cities, as demonstrated by their presence on the streets, among other things. I’m just one of many very biased observers here who hopes this direct action will continue until victory.