Our action sparks a debate

Our action in December has sparked a debate on the anarchist website, Rabble:

A debate: fighting to win

Back in December an article was posted on this site called “Antimilitarists target Barclays”, about an action where “Barclays Bank in Brighton was forced to briefly close to the public on one of the busiest shopping days before Christmas by people locking themselves to the doors of the branch”. This was announced as part of “a campaign to force Barclays Bank to stop dealing with arms trade shares.”

This article prompted a debate which we are publishing below. There are two articles. First, one called “Fighting to Win”, which raises concerns with the action. Then a response called In defence of the radical anti-militarist movement.


Fighting to Win

by a bit of a rabble from London

We have a lot of respect for the anti-militarist comrades in Brighton and elsewhere
who have been slogging away for years, spurred by great love and great rage against
the mass-murdering arms industry and military machine.

But we have concerns about this action. We think it raises some important issues that need discussing.

On the one hand, the aim of the campaign is much too big. Anti-militarists in the UK
have no way near the strength to force Barclays to stop dealing arms shares. Certainly it would take a lot more than getting a bank branch here and there to close its doors for a few minutes.

On the other hand, the aim seems too small. Is the problem with Barclays just that it invests in the arms trade? And what about all the other banks? And what about all the rest of the rotten system they’re enmeshed in?

We also have concerns about the tactic of locking yourself to a building, then waiting for the police to arrest you.

Yes, “lock-ons” can sometimes achieve real results. For example, they have stopped deportation flights and squat evictions, or been used alongside other tactics in strong actions against roads, pipelines, nuclear trains, etc. But they do carry costs. For one thing, they involve arrest, imprisonment however temporary, giving up fingerprints and DNA, all the tedium of bail and court cases, legal meetings, criminal records, raising money for fines and court costs, etc. Of course, there may well be times when these costs are worth paying.

Another is that, in our experience, “lock-ons” and other forms of so-called “non violent direct action” tactics have a tendency to create experts. Because they have tedious consequences, a lot of people are not going to get involved. Those who do, develop specialised skills, from making “lock-on” devices to navigating the intricacies of protest law. With the best of intentions, it’s hard to avoid creating a caste of professionalised ‘activists’.

Another issue is that these kinds of action can actually reinforce our passivity, carry a message that action means lying down and waiting.

breaking fixed habits

In the 1990s and 2000s, in the UK and elsewhere, an activist sub-culture developed in which single issue campaigns (focusing on particular industries, companies, etc.), “non violent direct action” tactics, and cliques of expert “activists”,  were very much to the fore. This sub-culture is now all but dead. We celebrate its demise. Friends, we can be so much more than that.

To be clear: we are not saying that single issue campaigns, e.g., targeting a bank or company or whatever, are never a good thing. We are not saying that particular tactics, lock-ons or whatever, are always bad. Nor do we want to set up new fetishes to take their place.

Our concern is that, for those of us who grew up with or passed through that activist subculture, certain models have become fixed habits. We need to challenge and break them.

Otherwise, the danger is that we fall back on them not because they work, or bring us joy. But because, yes, we care, we hate the vicious murdering soul-sapping system, and we have to do something, anything, and these are the things we’ve learnt to do. So we write an angry call-out, go on a demo, shout “stop x”, “smash y”, smash a window, block a door, go to court, etc. etc., and at least we’re doing something. But doing what, exactly?

a question

We certainly don’t have all the answers.

We have a starting point. What we want: anarchy. By which we mean: to live as free as possible, creating spaces and relationships of affinity and solidarity, and fighting all forms of oppression and domination.

And, flowing from this desire, we have a basic question: will an action increase our power to live freely, and weaken the power of our enemies, those who seek to oppress us?

Will it make us stronger, more committed and resourceful as individuals, and help grow and strengthen our affinities and alliances? Is it something that might spread, inspire, be copied and improved on by others? Will it loosen the system’s control over our lives, help make cracks and spaces where we can thrive?

We don’t want to get stuck in more fixed patterns. We can look to other times and places for ideas. But we need to pay attention to where we are, here and now. And experiment.

some examples

Just as an example, as we said, we’re not arguing against all campaigns that are focused on strategic targets. Here are just a few examples we’ve thought about recently:

** The battle for the Can Vies social centre in Barcelona

** The struggles in France for the “Zones to Defend” (ZADs)

** The “No TAV” struggle to defend the Susa valley in Italy against the high speed
train construction

** Nearby in Torino, the struggle against evictions (similarly in many other cities
in Europe)

What makes these campaigns powerful? On the one hand, they’re not too big: they are able to win immediate victories. It may seem obvious, but victories are very good for morale, they help movements grow.

At the same time, these campaigns resonate far beyond the immediate issues: they have become rallying calls for movements that threaten the system altogether. Maybe we can even say: they are the seeds of revolution.

Another thing: they are highly confrontational. They are revolts that break the power of property, law, police, and taboos against turning violence back on our masters. And so break the boundaries of our passivity and fear.

Another thing: they have become meeting points, forging new alliances and affinities, e.g., bringing together anarchists and neighbours who have very different ideas and loyalties.

Another thing: they are not just soul-sapping moral campaigns AGAINST particular evils (that nasty summit, that evil factory or laboratory, that wicked bank, that dirty motorway or train). They are also struggles FOR the new worlds and cultures we are making. The NO TAV struggle is fighting against the train line and for the Susa Valley. The ZADs are taking and defending territories, and making spreading spaces of anarchy. Neighbourhoods in Barcelona or Athens or other cities are fighting against invasions (of cops, developers, tourist business, etc.), but also for the communities that are growing there.

The examples we give here are from other European countries. Sure, they have stronger anarchist movements and other social movements. But even here, we think, it should be possible to identify campaigns that have this kind of potential.


Palestinian children throw stones at Isr

In defence of the radical anti-militarist movement

by some anarchist anti-militarists from Brighton.

In the article called ‘Fighting to Win’, a debate was opened over the effectiveness of some tactics used by anti-militarist activists and of the targets of some of the campaigns we engage in.

This response seeks to explain some of the motivations of anti-militarist activists, to defend our movement and hopefully to persuade some of you to join us on the streets.

A constant war of terror

Our involvement in the radical anti war movement began with a group of politicians from around the world launching what they called the ‘War on Terror’. The phrase was a piece of political rhetoric that justified imperialist invasions and the killing of millions as well as the securitisation and militarisation of society on a global level.

We were tired of marches that achieved nothing and of strategies that did not challenge the imperialist war machine. We could see that the arms trade was one way that capitalists profited from the endless wars that were erupting around us. Corporations involved in the manufacture and marketing of weapons were lobbying for, and, in some cases, writing the policies which were being enacted by governments. We decided that one way to be effective was to target the arms trade. We penned the slogan ‘Every bomb that is dropped and every bullet that is fired has to be made somewhere, and wherever that is it can be resisted’.

At the same time, we felt love and rage for the people whose lives were being destroyed by war. Some within the movement travelled to Iraq, Afghanistan or Palestine in order to strengthen our solidarity. We sought ways to show effective solidarity with people facing occupation and war. These efforts to build solidarity have been most effective in the case of Palestine. Many of the recent anti-militarist actions in the UK have been in answer to the Palestinian call for a boycott of Israeli apartheid, colonisation and militarism.

The ‘War on Terror’ is, of course, still being waged, although its face has been changed by an increase in the use of unpiloted drones to wage covert wars. The uprisings in the Middle-East and North Africa, and the ensuing counter revolutions, war and turmoil that were fuelled by both Western and Middle-Eastern imperialisms have created new devastating wars and pose challenges to those wishing to stand in solidarity.

Fighting for ourselves

The authors of ‘Fighting to Win’ highlight particular campaigns in Europe that they see as effective and argue that they are not just “soul-sapping moral campaigns AGAINST particular evils (that nasty summit, that evil factory or laboratory, that wicked bank, that dirty motorway or train). They are also struggles FOR the new worlds and cultures we are making.”

We wholeheartedly support the campaigns they mention, but we would like to defend our own campaigns too.

In fighting against militarism we are not just AGAINST the arms dealers, we are struggling in solidarity with those under attack or under military occupation. That solidarity and that need is as immediate as the need to defend the Susa Valley, or to stop a deportation or eviction.

We are also defending our dreams of living in a world where we are not catalogued by corporate technologies, surrounded by CCTV, placed under surveillance, filmed by drones overhead, attacked by police wielding so-called ‘less-lethal’ weaponry. All of these technologies have been tested on our friends living under occupation, before being marketed by companies that quote politicians speaking of an increased ‘security threat’.

A movement with teeth

The authors of ‘Fighting to win’ argue that “It may seem obvious, but victories are very good for morale, they help movements grow.” Again, we wholeheartedly agree.

Anti-militarists in the UK have had many successes over the past years: the campaign against the EDO arms factory has cost the company millions of pounds over the last decade. Several actions have affected the factory’s ability, albeit temporarily, to continue manufacturing weapons.

In Derry, two break-ins at Raytheon in 2006 and 2009, together with a concerted campaign, caused the company to close its factory, complaining that the Irish government wasn’t able to adequately protect it. The activists arrested for the break-ins were found not guilty by a jury after arguing that they were acting to prevent war crimes. Another group of activists were acquitted after a similar break in and sabotage action at EDO which caused hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of damage and stopped the factory from functioning for over a month.

Anti-militarists have acted on calls from occupied Palestine to launch global campaigns against Carmel Agrexco, Ahava and Sodastream; all companies that profit from exploiting stolen land and the labour of occupied Palestinians. In the UK, campaigns were waged against Ahava’s flagship cosmetics company in Covent Garden, Agrexco’s depot in Middlesex and Sodastream’s first UK store in Brighton. In 2010 Ahava’s only retail outfit in the UK was shut down. In 2011, Agrexco, which had been Israel’s national exporter of agricultural goods, was liquidated. In 2013, Sodastream closed its Brighton store and promised to close its factory in the West Bank. These campaigns have helped to build trust and understanding between occupied Palestinians and the growing global solidarity movement. They are just a few of the many victories achieved by the global boycott movement.

On a more local level, in Brighton anti-militarist campaigns have provided a space where people can come together, become radicalised, realise their own power and (at least when we’re at our best) form effective communities of resistance in solidarity against militarism but also, more importantly, with each other.

We also think that it is not just actions which directly affect corporate profits that have power. It is important to provide counter arguments to the rhetoric of never-ending war, to give voice to the people living at the battlegrounds of colonial expansion and capitalist repression. To show the power of solidarity, even in the face of borders and sieges.

Target Barclays

‘Fighting to win’ deals specifically with a lock-on at a Barclays Branch in Brighton. It took place as part of the Target Barclays campaign that anti-militarists have been calling for since 2008.

The authors argue that “On the one hand, the aim of the campaign is much too big. Anti-militarists in the UK have no way near the strength to force Barclays to stop dealing arms shares.”

We beg to differ:

In 2008 Barclays was the largest global investor in the arms trade, holding huge arms trade shares through its Barclays Global Investors (BGI) arm. Anti-militarists launched a campaign aimed at persuading it to drop its arms trade investments. Campaigners held pickets, demonstrations, occupations and banner drops across the UK while some people sabotaged Barclays ATMs. A mass action was held in the City of London to coincide with the DSEi arms fair. At the same time mainstream NGOs criticised the bank’s arms trade holdings. In response, the bank sold off BGI and issued a statement proclaiming that Barclays was no longer an investor in the arms trade.

However, the bank still holds a considerable (although much smaller) amount of shares in the arms trade through its Barclays Stock Brokers scheme and to hedge against investments. These include holdings in Elbit, an Israeli arms company which manufactures the drones which have killed thousands in Gaza. Elbit are marketing their equipment as battle-tested and are part of a partnership supplying the new British drone.

During the Israeli attack on Gaza this summer, answering calls for solidarity from Palestinians, anti-militarists held occupations and pickets of Barclays branches on high streets all over the country. There have been two blockades of bank branches and, during one day of action, 14 simultaneous occupations and demonstrations were held.

We believe that we can force Barclays to divest its investments in Elbit, as well as its others arms trade holdings. Barclays is vulnerable, as it is a high street bank that relies on maintaining good a public image. The bank has a presence in every city in the UK, making it easy for people to take action wherever they are.

Barclays and HSBC are currently the only high street banks with significant arms trade investments.

‘Fighting to win’ goes on: “On the other hand, the aim seems too small. Is the problem with Barclays just that it invests in the arms trade? And what about all the other banks? And what about all the rest of the rotten system they’re enmeshed in?”

We want to see an end to this rotten system too. However, as anarchists and anti-capitalists we often join and support struggles with specific goals that we think are worth achieving but which will not, on their own, threaten the whole system. Whether these are struggles against environmental destruction, for solidarity in the workplace or against the arms trade they can win important victories and provide spaces to meet new allies and develop new networks.

The campaign against Barclays is part of a global campaign against Elbit, called for by Palestinians living beneath Elbit’s drones. It is part of a campaign to ensure that Elbit cannot continue to reap profits from the slaughter of people in Gaza, cannot carry on exchanging the wounds inflicted on the bodies of Palestinians for a place in the global arms export market. Part of that strategy is a call for divestment from Elbit. The Target Barclays campaign hopes to do not only that but to force Barclays to divest the rest of its arms trade shares too.

Using a full tool-box of tactics

‘Fighting to win’ argues against the tactic of locking on to, or blockading, buildings, as anti-militarists in Brighton did in December 2014, briefly shutting a Barclays Bank branch on one of the busiest banking days before Christmas. It was hoped that the action would close the bank for longer – blockades often do – but in this instance the police managed to remove the activist more quickly than we would have liked.

The authors of ‘Fighting to win’ describe the blockade using the term ‘Non-Violent Direct Action’. We find this a strange term to use as it defines the action by whether or not it was violent. We think that the most important questions to ask is if an action is effective and whether its the right thing to do.

The anti-militarist movement uses a broad range of tactics. From pickets, occupations and mass demonstrations, to blockades aimed at shutting down buildings; to actions aimed at disrupting the work of the arms trade through noise or sabotage or arson (as was the case at BAE in Filton last year in the run up to the NATO summit); to break-ins, calls for boycott and demands for divestment of shares.

In the case of some of these tactics those involved decide to take a course of action which will inevitably result in them being arrested. This was the case for those who broke into the arms factories in Derry and Brighton to destroy the production line, it is also the case for those who lock-on to buildings in order to close them down. The people who take these actions decide that arrest is a price worth paying for the positive effects of the action.

In other cases anti-militarists engage in demonstrations, occupations or acts of sabotage against the war machine with the intention of evading arrest. This was the case with the action against BAE in Filton and many of the acts of sabotage against EDO, Barclays and Raytheon.

‘Fighting to win’ makes the argument that using tactics where arrest is inevitable “have a tendency to create experts. Because they have tedious consequences, a lot of people are not going to get involved. Those who do, develop specialised skills, from making ‘lock-on’ devices to navigating the intricacies of protest law. With the best of intentions, it’s hard to avoid becoming a caste of professionalised ‘activists’.

We would argue that all tactics require a degree of expertise. Acts of anonymous night-time sabotage require skill to evade capture and to maintain security. They also run the risk of arrest and all of its tedious consequences. They too risk the development of closed activist subcultures. The question we need to ask ourselves is what tactic is best suited to our needs at any given time.

Lock-ons have formed an important part of successful campaigns. For example, the Agrexco and Ahava campaigns were made far more effective by the expensive closures of company premises caused by constant lock-ons. They were part of a diverse range of tactics successfully used by campaigners against the companies.

We agree that tactics like lock-ons should not be used in isolation. And we agree that they have sometimes been fetishised by some activist subcultures as the way to ‘do activism’. We need to take advantage of every tactic available to us and carefully weigh up which one is the most suitable. We also need to take into consideration what actions we have the capacity and ability to carry out at any given moment. Some people may find some types of action more stressful or risky than others and choose their tactics accordingly.

Fighting to win

We believe that we are fighting to win and that the struggles we are involved in are worth fighting. Right now, we hope that people will come together to support the campaigns against Elbit and Barclays and against the DSEi arms fair to be held in Docklands in 2015. A new coalition has come together to resist against the fair and we would encourage our friends to join us in resisting it.

We also hope that we are able to follow the example of the movement in solidarity with Palestinians struggling against Israeli apartheid. We hope that we can also build lasting solidarity with other people living on the world’s battlegrounds and resisting against military oppression. For example, we believe that right now there is an opportunity to build solidarity with Kurdish people struggling in Rojava and against Turkish repression in North Kurdistan. We hope that you will join us in dreaming, and struggling for, a better world than the world of F-16s, tanks, drones, borders and CCTV in which we live.