Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Protesting Canadian Contributions to War

I suspect that if I still lived in southern Ontario, I would have been at this...

BURLINGTON, ONTARIO, NOVEMBER 20, 2006 -- The power of persistent nonviolence disarmed what promised to be a heavy-handed police response today during a peaceful protest at the Wescam subsidiary of Canada's #1 war manufacturer, L-3 Communications. Today's protest brought out almost 60 people from London, Kitchener-Waterloo, Hamilton, Belleville, Burlington, Durham, Oakville, and Toronto. By day's end, 11 individuals seeking a dialogue with company executives on transforming their business to
civilian-only production were arrested for trespassing, and are to appear in court December 19.

Located in Burlington, Ontario, Wescam makes targetting equipment for some of the world's deadliest weapons systems, most notably the Predator, the unmanned aerial vehicle that shoots "fire and forget" Hellfire missiles into schools, weddings, markets, and other civilian areas in Iraq and Afghanistan, causing ceaseless bloodshed and misery. According to many on-the-ground reports, three weeks ago a Hellfire shot from a Predator drone resulted in the murder of some 80 schoolkids under the age of 15 in a Pakistani school. Wescam also produces "border control" technology that decreases the likelihood that refugees will safely find asylum.

The focus of a four-year campaign of nonviolent witness, education, and resistance, Wescam and its parent, L-3, represent a one-stop shopping centre for the many nefarious components of the "war on terror": ever deadlier weapons systems, the supply of private contractors to carry out brutal acts of inhumanity, the provision of "border control" technology that prevents refugees from finding asylum, and the outfitting of police forces with the tools of repression.

It appeared in the days leading up to the gathering that Wescam's goal was to shut down further resistance to their weapons production. Through Halton police, they informed Homes not Bombs members that the company was under orders from their New York offices not to speak with any of us. But one goal of nonviolent direct action is to organize acts of consciousness-raising and resistance to bring to the table an opponent who refuses to negotiate. Hence, our return to Wescam on this day, with the possibility of paying a heavier price than we have in the past.

As demonstrators attended a prep gathering at a local church prior to the demo this morning, a Halton police sergeant entered the building. He calmly told those gathered that he and his officers were merely independent parties who would not be taking sides - indeed, he promised to nail ANY party for infractions of the law. The sergeant went on to tell us that a blue line had been painted across the vast grassy expanse near the Wescam vehicular entrance, and that anyone crossing that line and refusing to leave would be faced with "serious criminal charges" and release conditions prohibiting participation in ANY protests. The sergeant also informed us that Wescam was considering launching a lawsuit against us to "recover" the costs of extra private security they felt was necessary to deal with three (count 'em, three) small demonstrations and a number of one-person vigils in the past year.

Noting the officer's statement about charging ANYONE who ran afoul of the law, Burlington's Gail Lorimer handed the sergeant a 15-page "citizen's inspection certificate" outlining some 22 separate legal violations committed by Wescam through it's war production and association with subsidiaries implicated in torture and murder of detainees. However, no arrests of Wescam executives were made today.

While the sergeant's message of threat and more threat was clearly intended to cast a pall over the gathering, we instead reiterated our purpose in going to Wescam, the context of war crimes and complicity in serious human rights abuses that frames our concerns around L-3 Communications, and the obligations that are placed upon us as global citizens by the Nuremberg Principles.

Our arrival at Wescam was met with the presence of much muscle: almost two dozen burly security guards dressed in black, standing on the grassy grounds and on the Wescam rooftop, surveillance cameras, and some 15 Halton officers and other security-related individuals.

But it was almost as if those folks, with all their promise of menacing physicality and criminal sanction, were not even there as we decamped at the foot of Wescam's property, placing in the ground the grave markers with the names of hundreds of people killed in Afghanistan and Iraq by the likes of Wescam technology. Songs were sung, and a team with huge papier mache "peace vaccine" syringes went up and down the grounds, offering inoculations against militarism, which is, after all, a preventable disease. Wescam executives may have thought the group were "mooning" them as many bent over to receive a healthy dose of the peace vaccine.

Before crossing the Wescam "blue line" (that line in the grass akin perhaps to George Bush, Sr.'s line in the sand?) the group heard from David Milne of Belleville, who had been to Iraq three times as part of his work with Christian Peacemaker Teams. David spoke eloquently about the violence he had seen, of being outside of Abu Ghraib prison trying to help detainees and their families, and of the sheer inhumanity of military violence. "I'm here as a witness to their suffering and I'm here to tell Canadians that we are contributing to the misery of other people through companies like this," he said. Like five others, he was dressed in an orange jumpsuit and a black hood, much like those who have been detained throughout the so-called war on terror. He carried a sign around his neck that read "Sami Abbas Al Rawi, Tortured by L-3 Titan." Mr. Al Rawi is one of the plaintiffs in a class action suit against L-3 subsidiary Titan, whose private contract interrogators are alleged to have committed acts of torture and summary execution in Baghdad.

For Milne, the journey he has made from Iraq to Wescam is a direct one that makes perfect sense: to stop the horrors halfway around the world, he, along with the others, must come and make witness where those horrors start.

As a group seeking dialogue with company executives prepared to head up the driveway and into the wall of police and private security, a number of individuals lined up at the sound system, and there began a two-hour reading out of names of those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan -- civilians, soldiers, anyone killed in these wars. It was an emotionally-charged reading both for those who read out the names and ages of those killed, and for a number of security, who also appeared moved at the devastating numbers of names read out -- a mere fraction of those whose lives have been taken.

Unlike the protests at Wescam last May, during which dialogue-seekers were able to make the long journey to the front door of the corporation, we were stopped today close to the roadway and told we could not walk by. We had to leave the property or face criminal charges. Lorimer, perhaps the best known of the group to police and security for her persistent series of vigils at the company entrance, ignored the demand that she leave the property and continued weaving her way through the police lines, eventually to be stopped and hauled away to a police cruiser.

A number of individuals bobbed and weaved their way through the police and security, and were eventually nabbed and placed under arrest. One person, clutching the citizen's inspection certificate and holding up the name of a 5-year-old child killed in Iraq by aerial bombardment, was told he would be charged with assault for trying to walk around a police officer. Most were forced to sit in front of the line of police and refuse to move until they got a meeting with Wescam executives. One by one they were picked up, placed under arrest, and put in the back of police cars.

Throughout the two-hour protest, the atmosphere was calm, determined, sombre, yet hopeful. The police, security, and some Wescam employees on hand for the action were forced to see and hear the names and symbols of what Wescam war technology represents. Five minutes of those names and symbols is one thing; two hours is quite another, and our refusal in equal parts to neither give in to fear nor to allow ourselves to view the police and Wescam as an enemy seemed to change the atmosphere dramatically. The harsh language of heavy charges slowly gave way to smiles and an almost cordial atmosphere; by the time most were arrested, we weren't even frisked, just placed in patrol cars while we awaited our charges.

It felt like the power of transformative nonviolence in action as the day went on. The rigid roles that we are assigned and expected to play in society tended to melt away as we recognized our common humanity. And while there is no question that police were not independent, siding clearly with Wescam, we also recognized that some of them were not terribly comfortable with that role. Maybe they were thinking for the first time about what is getting built at this massive facility. Some of us noted with irony that the police computers in each car are made by L-3 Communications, putting the Halton police, as a client of the corporation, in a potentially awkward conflict of interest situation!

The police seemed unprepared for the determination of the group, and had many discussions about how to handle post-arrest logistics. They had failed to order a police wagon, and so were stuck: they could not take us to the station, for that would leave no Halton police "guarding" the area, so we had to sit for a good 30 minutes in the cramped back seats of cruisers that provide no room for one's legs. All during this time we too could hear the names being read out over the sound system, and numerous officers asked their detainees about the names: why they were being called out, who they were.

Police also seemed concerned about the media presence, as those in custody heard numerous queries from police radio dispatch about how many reporters were there.

One police officer turned on her radio and, in one of those magical moments of art meeting life, she punched up a country music station that was in the middle of a Dixie Chicks song. In Taking the Long Way, lead singer Natalie Maines sings, in relation to the uproar she and her fellow group members faced when criticizing George Bush and the war against Iraq, "Well I fought with a stranger and I met myself/ I opened my mouth and I heard myself/ It can get pretty lonely when you show yourself/ Guess I could have made it easier on myself/ But I/ I could never follow."

We discuss our involvement in the group Country Music Fans Against War -- which welcomed the Dixie Chicks during the Toronto Film Festival premiere of their new film Shut up and Sing -- as well as other country lyrics that speak to the very themes that brought us to Wescam on this day. We also recalled the price the Dixie Chicks paid for speaking up in terms of lost airplay and death threats.

But in the end, the price we paid for our resistance was a very small one. Only another hour in custody, this time in a police wagon which eventually did show up, and then release not to loneliness but to our friends and fellow resisters, still reading out those names. As we left, we waved to police and private security. To our delight, many of the private security were smiling, flashing peace signs back at us.

Meanwhile, the company eventually did break its silence, but only to issue an email statement to reporters: "We respect the rights of all individuals for legal, peaceful protest. The safety of our employees is our most important priority and we will take every necessary step to ensure their security and well-being."

While we share the company's concerns about safety and well-being (the numerous letters to them pledging our nonviolent intentions, and our subsequent peaceful actions, are certainly clear enough), we hope that L-3 and L-3 Wescam will also make a top priority the safety, security, and well-being of the human beings who are the targets of their deadly wares. One way to extend that concern beyond the scope of their employees to everyone else in the world is to enter into dialogue on transforming their war business to civilian-only work. And so the campaign continues.

Those arrested today were Gail Lorimer (Burlington), Mike Smith (Hamilton), Dan Hilton (London), Barney Barningham (Durham), Maggie Panter, Dave Marshall, Jean Leahy, Paul York, and Matthew Behrens (Toronto), Kirsten Romaine (Etobicoke), and David Milne (Belleville). Leahy was released without charges; the remainder of the group will be in court on December 19 to set a date for trial, expected sometime in early 2007.

Thanks to all who spent many hours travelling to the protest!

(report from Matthew Behrens of Homes not Bombs)


Scott said...

How interesting...at 4:07 pm this afternoon, someone accessed this page from an IP address registered to Wescam.

Hi there! Stop making weapons, please!

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Scott said...

The deleted comment above was advertising spam.