After the arms fair: a Quaker reflects on conscience, arrest and privilege

Bradford Quaker Rosie Horsley joined a day of faith-led action outside one of the world's biggest arms fairs. Here she shares what happened next.

rosie horsley
Rosie, pictured, was one of 48 peaceful demonstrators arrested on the No Faith in War day of action. Photo: Suki Ferguson/BYM

I have shouted in the streets – against the Iraq war, nuclear arms, the English Defence League (EDL), Monsanto and climate chaos – but my deepest conscience became loudest on the day I sat silently in the road outside an arms fair.

For a year and a half before September 2019, rumblings about Roots of Resistance slowly pulsed in the Quakersphere. Roots of Resistance are a network of Quakers, voluntarily organising to stop the biennial Defence and Security Equipment International Fair (DSEI). Their work was happening in my periphery, my quite distant periphery, I am ashamed to say. A year and a half is a mighty long time away.

Though this small yet determined group of organisers were setting the stage for a Quaker show of resistance to the arms trade, for me this only came into focus a week or two before the allotted day of action. When I did nonchalantly rock up in London, where the arms fair was set to happen, I found my place within a spiritual circle that was diligently cushioned by the organisational powers of the Roots of Resistance team.

Songs and bustcards

I joined them at the action briefing, held the day before the action. Quakers from around Britain came as groups and individuals to mould together as one. For me the ability to form this kind of collective hive is a gift of Quakers. That's not to say there aren't some disgruntled strong-minded bees who need a wee bit more cajoling into place – we are perfectly imperfect.

Together we learned songs from revolutions and protests gone by, and held stillness in preparation of what was to come. 'Don't forget your bustcard!' was a constant cry. 'Well,' I thought, 'I don't need one of those.' I had made a conscious choice not to get arrested, so there was no need to know solicitors' numbers or what to say at police stations.

That was still true up until the point a police liaison officer shouted a warning to those of us in the road and my conscience made me put my bag on my back and clip it tight. Luckily earlier I had slipped one of those bustcards into my pocket after all.

But I'm going ahead of myself. When I alighted from the rail transport outside the arms fair venue, ExCel London, I quickly found myself on the end of a Catholic procession. We slowly made our way through to the silent gathering of Quakers who stood 300-strong in the road to the venue, placards aloft and peaceful faces resolute. I learned that the roads had been held since early in the morning by strong collective action. A small number of purposeful folk are mighty: the hard work of Roots of Resistance had brought the collective passion of many.

Throughout the day, worships of many faiths occurred and intermingled. The crowd swelled to more than 500. The second Quaker meeting for worship brimmed with impassioned song and ministry.

'Move off the road'

My thoughts were guided by those people who couldn't be with us in that road. The people who had been murdered, injured, traumatised and displaced from their homes and lives because of the weapons industry. The industry that was trying to set up a show home just a few meters away, to display their wares like toys for the wealthy, without consciousness or care of who was going to be on the sharp end of the machines.

So, when I heard 'move off the road', I fastened my bag tight and sat, waiting. Though, I felt I took very little part in the immovable predicament I found myself in. There was such stillness, such peace that the loud voice of my faith, conscience and the collective power that felt like it resonated through all of us glued me fast to the tarmac. 'Dear friend, dear friend…' the song on our breath bound us all with strength to be where we needed to be.

Being lifted off that road by the officers felt like a journey in itself. I was moving from a place of spiritual strength and unity, to a slow walk into a harsh individualistic world. This was brutal. The power of my conviction ran in droplets down my face, which the officers mistook as fear. The police asked questions, and I answered uncertainly. I was quickly informed by them that 'we are not the enemy'.

Later I contemplated the officer's words, playing my lost response back in my head. 'No you are not the enemy, merely a vessel for those who hold the stacks of money, and so you are nothing to me'.

Police relations and privilege

The police station was easier, in some regards. I had emerged from the grasp of the Light and was able to be me, as much as a person can ever be truly themselves in a brightly tiled white box. With this, I felt strongly the physical presence of privilege. There were moments of uncertainty and feelings of trepidation when asking for what I needed – but overwhelmingly I felt a sense of entitlement. I felt able to speak abruptly to the officers who were disrespecting me. I felt able to ask for endless cups of water, and to look past the power dynamics at play and into the eyes of the officers. I felt peace, on the most part, in my cell.

This I am sure is not everyone's experience. A holding cell is a disorientating and isolated place which would easily be made worse if a person felt unsafe or forgotten. Being released six hours later into the warm embrace of people I knew and people I didn't, made me very aware of why, many centuries ago, Quakers became known as Friends.

The protests raged on for more than a week outside the ExCel centre. Incredible people aligned their bodies with their convictions. Does it all make a difference? Well, only time will tell. I do know for certain that this experience has changed me, and the way I want to protest. Bring on the gentle anger.

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Watch the Roots of Resistance video of the No Faith in War day here: