We are all terrorists now

'Emergency' legislation used against DSEI demonstrators, reports Jeremy Butler.

In an attempt to intimidate last week’s largely peaceful protests outside the defence systems and equipment international (DSEI) arms exhibition, metropolitan police officers used the 2001 Terrorism Act to stop and search and arrest protestors. Dozens were detained. Despite initially denying it, Scotland Yard eventually admitted that its officers had indeed employed the government’s controversial anti-terror legislation. Deputy assistant commissioner Andy Trotter also confirmed that police officers had used the act to arrest two German nationals. Both were later released without charge.

Home secretary David Blunkett, the key figure behind the introduction of the draconian act, was quick to disavow any responsibility. Despite this, the human rights group Liberty have been granted the right to bring a high court action against Blunkett and metropolitan police commissioner Sir John Stevens. Liberty’s director, Shami Chakrabarti, accused Blunkett of “passing the buck” to Scotland Yard.

The DSEI exhibition, held at the Excel Centre in London’s Docklands from September 8-12, is Europe’s largest arms fair. Surrounded by an estimated 2,600 police, private security guards and MOD police officers, DSEI proudly announced that “the world’s defence suppliers and their customers”, undaunted by the protests, had met to “discuss and conduct business”. This euphemism belies the fact that the fair was the venue for companies to compete with one another to sell deadly weapons. Arms-buying delegates attended from the US, Israel, Syria, Columbia, Pakistan and Turkey, amongst others.

Despite the US-UK conquest and subsequent denial of the Iraqi people’s right to self-determination, Blair et al present themselves as champions of peace and democracy, guided by an “ethical” foreign policy. In the meantime, DSEI provided luxury accommodation for buying and selling of weapons, surveillance technology and riot control equipment to some of the world’s most anti-democratic and repressive regimes, including some that the UK has accused of endorsing or conducting terrorism, and others declared guilty of human rights abuses. The last DSEI exhibition took place two years ago, coinciding with the terrorist attacks on New York on September 11 2001.

In response to this year’s event, the protest group Disarm DSEI organised a series of marches, vigils, publicity stunts and other events in order to disrupt proceedings and focus attention on Britain’s prominent role in the international arms trade. The driving force behind Disarm DSEI were various anarchist organisations, but also involved were the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Campaign Against Arms Trade, assorted anti-war groups and the Socialist Workers Party’s ubiquitous Globalise Resistance.

The policing of the protest - according to Scotland Yard, “very patient, very sensitive and very low-key” - resulted in 144 arrests for various offences, ranging from obstruction of the highway and theft to carrying offensive weapons - and the two arrests under the Terrorism Act. The police also used the methods tried and tested against May Day protesters in 2001 by cordoning off sections of demonstrators and keeping them there for 20 to 30 minutes - a tactic which supposedly “diffuses volatile situations”, but in reality is used to demoralise those detained.

What was different this time was that the police were able to stop and search people without “reasonable suspicion”, thanks to section 44 (4) of the Terrorism Act. Although Blunkett disassociated himself from its use on this occasion, in fact he had sanctioned it in the lead-up to the anniversary of the September 11 attacks. Section 44 (4) is supposed to be used only if it is considered “expedient for the prevention of acts of terrorism”, but its employment on this occasion surely demonstrates - if there had been any doubts - that it will be wielded against much broader targets.

Its indiscriminate use against the Disarm DSEI protesters was an example of the undermining of the democratic right to protest and demonstrate, under the guise of guarding against acts of terrorism. Whether, this time, David Blunkett and the metropolitan police commissioner will be held to account in the high courts remains to be seen. But what is beyond doubt is that all such legislation will sooner or later be used against opponents deemed to pose any threat to the ruling order - not least the organisations of the working class.

Blunkett has been quick to defend previous occasions where the act was used - particularly at RAF Fairford, where coach-loads of protesters were detained by the police and prevented from protesting at the airbase from which planes were launched to conduct bombing raids against Iraq. According to Blunkett, officers had acted correctly on that occasion because protesters had carried improvised ‘weapons’. Certainly, some of those detained did intend to damage military equipment at the base (although not quite on the scale of that inflicted on the Iraqi people).

Are sabotage or even a minor destructive action examples of terrorism? They are according to the catch-all definition in the act, which states that terrorism is any action that involves “violence against a person or property”, with the intention of influencing the government or the public, and is done with the purpose of advancing “a political, religious or ideological cause”. Clearly “violence against a person or property” is open to very liberal interpretation, and practically any protest can thus be targeted.

So people who are exercising their right to protest in opposing imperialism’s wars, and the production and distribution of arms used to pursue them, face detention and arrest by the government, while that same government - in blatant disregard of the democratic will of the population - considers itself free to invade ‘rogue states’ and facilitate the selling of arms to ‘friendly’ oppressive regimes in the name of profit.

When the government unveiled its anti-terror legislation in September 2001 ministers went to great lengths to assure the public that civil liberties were not under threat. Blunkett spoke of “defending our democracy from the terrorist threat” (The Observer September 30 2001). Yet what has become clear subsequently, if it was not clear enough at the time, is that while purporting to “defend democracy” the government has in reality exploited the public’s fears about terrorism and used such fears to legitimise a systematic erosion of human rights.