Building Peace: blockading the arms trade in Aotearoa

Last Tuesday, the day started very early. Dozens of us were up before 5am to prepare for the day’s action against the annual Weapons Expo. This year, it was held at the WestpacTrust Stadium in Wellington.

The Expo organisers had been advised by the police that this was a more secure venue. The organisers assured the Expo delegates that there would be ‘none of the disruption’ of the past two years.

At 6:30am, groups of peace activists began arriving at the pedestrian overbridge down on Wellington’s Waterloo Quay. It is one of the most heavily trafficked, major routes into and out of the city, leading as it does to the port and ferry terminal at one end, and the CBD at the other.

We marched across the road and up the vehicle ramp which was to be the main entry point for delegates. We had many large banners with us, including that at the front with Harry Potter’s favourite “Expelleramus” spell written on it – a directive to the weapons dealers and their police protectors. We were on the ramp for 20 minutes as a skilled team of climbers got into position where they could barricade the ramp by hanging from ropes spanning the distance of the ramp. If the ropes were removed, the climbers would fall. Once the climbers were in place, most of the peace activists moved to blockade other entrances on Waterloo Quay.

We became acutely aware of the heavy trucks and speeding buses passing down the road as we set up blockades in front of two gates midway along the 700m long stretch of stadium fencing. We were on a public footpath, sitting, standing and generally settling in for a day of active non-violent blocking of weapons expo attendees.

We didn’t know much about the plans to get delegates in, but we got wind that buses had been chartered to bring them. By 8am, many more activists arrived bolstering our numbers, and allowing another set of gates to be blockaded.

When the first bus arrived, it took us by surprise. All of a sudden a swarm of police were at a smaller gate just 20 metres away. Immediately, a group of us moved to quickly block it by sitting down in front of the gate.  Police shut down the whole road – blocking traffic in both directions from kilometres away in order that they could get this bus across the oncoming traffic lanes. The bus was stuck in the middle of the road for sometime.

The bus backed up, and tried the second, larger middle gate. This is the point when many of us began to be subjected to intense police brutality and violence that continued for the remainder of the day. Police pushed people violently, picked people up and dropped them on the ground. People were sexually assaulted, women had their breasts grabbed. The blockaders were undeterred: they remained, and took up spaces occupying the road around the bus. At this stage, six people were arrested. After several hours inside the police paddy wagon, they were all released. The police, it seems, were unable to break the blockade to remove them to the police station.

This happened again and again throughout the day. At one stage, a brilliant strategist among us realised that blockading the delegates’ buses further up the road would stretch the police line much further than their resources would allow. She gathered together a crew and they took the road, using the beautiful “starfish” technique to stop the buses. Another nine people would be arbitrarily arrested before the end of the day, mostly for ‘obstructing a public way.’

The ferocity of the police surprised us. Their technique was to aggressively move in a line, sharply pushing people. When they could see someone had managed to retain their balance, the police stepped forward and pushed them again to ensure they fell over. People were picked up off the ground and thrown into oncoming traffic; they were pushed and punched in the head, with the result often being that the person behind them was smashed in the face. Several older women received significant injuries including bruised ribs and black eyes. One person’s hearing was damaged, perhaps permanently; another’s finger was broken; faces were gashed and people’s clothes ripped off.

By 3pm, we were exhausted. We had been well-fed and taken care by the amazing crew at base camp – chocolate cake, brownies, fruit, sandwiches, and even hot coffee were served up on the blockade line. It was a clear, hot day, but we were by this stage, all dehydrated and wilting in the sun.

After lots of talking and discussion, we decided we needed to ‘call it’ – our strength was waning, and we wanted to avoid further injuries. We gathered together to safely bring our climbers down and shuttle them off into waiting vehicles to avoid the clutches of the police. We briefly celebrated our success in delaying and disrupting the expo. Then we headed off to the police station to support our arrested comrades.

Direct action & the peace movement

This year’s blockade of the Weapons Expo is the third successful year of campaigning to shut it down. The movement has been growing since 2015, and the commitment and knowledge of the participants has grown exponentially.

The diversity of people and groups that are coming together show the power both of intersectional politics and of direct action. The analysis brought to this campaign is based on an understanding of the interconnected and disastrous consequences of war, capitalism and on-going colonialism. It is an embracing of strength through difference, and a rejection of all forms of oppression. This approach is grounded in the practices of genuine solidarity: we can all be accomplices in the many struggles for freedom.

The choice of a blockade and the use of non-violent direct action also makes sense. It is the right tool for the job. At a time when there is widespread support for endless wars of aggression alongside the US and Australia, direct action is the tactic most effective for creating a material change on the ground. We want to cost the military-industrial complex time and money. We don’t believe in appealing to their ‘better nature’ to do the ‘right thing.’ Capitalism doesn’t work that way; rather, it rewards the greediest and most vicious war-mongers the most.

At the same time, we want to expand and strengthen the peace movement so that the possibilities for creating meaningful change are greater. We want to connect with ever more people on issues and struggles that are mutually important, amplifying our collective power. This is the challenge for the coming year, in the lead-up to next year’s Weapons Expo.

When a day or so after the blockade we heard that the top military brass had been stuck at Parliament, unable to attend the Expo because their entry could not be guaranteed, we celebrated a little bit. We have a long journey ahead of us to destroy the military-industrial complex, but we are definitely winning.

(thanks to Mariano & others for their photos here)





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