Detail from installation by artist Banksy, entitled Civilian Drone Strike, on display at the Arms Fair art exhibition set up in opposition to the Defence Security Equipment International 2017 (DSEI) – at Capstan House in east London. Yui Mok/Press Association. All rights reserved. This September, “one of the world’s largest arms fair”,
DSEi (Defence & Security Equipment International) took place in the ExCel
Centre in London. States with horrific records of human right abuses, violation
of international law and support for ethnic cleansing and genocide were invited
to “shop” for the latest weapons.
For many years now, activists have protested this
biennial DSEi arms fair. This year, as part of Stop the Arms Fair, a
rare coalition of campaigners, academics, faith groups, poets, musicians,
artists and supporters came together using creative and educational means to
protest the literal showcasing and selling of arms.
This productive, collaborative protest adopted a
different campaign focus on different days of the fair; each time shedding
light on a key issue such as the sale of arms to Israel or the sale of arms and
technology for use against migrants.
On Friday, September 8, academics, students and
activists came together to hold ‘Conference at the Gates: Academics against the Arms Trade’.
Workshops and activities were held around topics such as ‘The Criminalisation
of Refugees in the Mediterranean’, ‘Popular Culture and Militarism’, ‘Feminism
and Queer theory’, and ‘Radical Theory in Action through Theatre’. As part of
this conference, Demilitarise King’s
held a joint workshop alongside Unis Resist Border Controls
titled ‘Recognising and Resisting Border Surveillance and Militarisation within
British Higher Education’. I want to outline the campaign, our aims and why
we’re passionate about demilitarising higher education.
Demilitarise King’s is
a student-led campaign that was inspired by the work of both the Fossil Free
divestment campaign and the BDS campaign within the Palestine solidarity
movement. It differs in scope, however. When setting up the campaign, we wanted
to target all states and companies committing human right abuses, and we
wanted our university community to do more than divest from arms
companies. Demilitarisation would require reflecting on all aspects of
militarisation within and beyond the walls of our university.
From our various experiences as students, activists,
university community members and supporters at KCL, we came to discover that
our university’s complicity in the business of murder was not limited to its
investments in arms companies like BAE Systems, Elbit Systems, and General
Electric. Connections to the arms trade extended way beyond the millions of
pounds in investments, to sectors like research, fundraising and procurement.
We learnt that some university staff members are being paid wages by companies
like BAE Systems; and that one department was currently seeking funding from the Saudi defence ministry.
Even in the day to day running of our university, it
is clear how deeply enthralled, invested and dependant we are on the tradesmen
of war. A great number of our printers and electronics at university are
supplied by HP, an arms company supplying technology such as biometrics and ID
cards, in an expanding settler-colonial project whilst upholding a state of apartheid.
We know, from meetings with senior staff, that King’s
has already recognised and organised its investments in arms. This was no
shameful secret about how much is being spent and on what type of arms – we
quickly found out for example, that King’s is investing in specific types of
firearms, something we were unaware of. Then there were the investments of
staff pension funds, particularly USS, in landmines and cluster munitions.
Not to mention millions of pounds connecting our very university’s Defence
Department and Serco; a company known for running detention centres such as
Yarl’s Wood, where countless assaults against migrants have taken place; where
treatment of migrants, as one woman put it, was like that of animals.
Demilitarise King’s has tackled militarisation in
recruitment and careers, not only at university fairs, and in college spaces,
but in our student union spaces too. Why is it for example, that at every
freshers’ fair, the Army Corps and defence sector are the first stalls you see
upon entering? Militarisation is extended to union society events, where military
speakers who have been known to boast about the number of Arabs they have killed,
or refer to Palestinians as “ratbags” and Arabs as “the biggest failure in
the history of the human race”, were invited
and welcomed under the banner of free speech. That free speech is not however,
available to all, with students being “randomly” selected to enter some events,
and with support from the Principal himself, who in one case, suggested
informing students that ‘looked’ to have pro-Palestinian views, that they
weren’t allowed to ask questions; in one stroke undermining any argument for free
speech, encouraging racial profiling and allowing militarised voices to go
Then there are the subtler ways in which our
university links to the arms fair, for example the connection between the Church
of England and the university, and the Church House’s role in hosting arms fairs.
When In 2016, I asked at an open meeting why it was that KCL was investing in
arms companies, one response was: because “the most moral institution in the
world”, the Church of England had connections with arms companies, therefore it
was OK for us as a university to have these connections too.
I raised this issue again in a meeting with senior
staff, only to be told to remember that KCL’s connection with the Church was
not to be questioned. What if we were to tweak the case so that it was another
place of worship, like a mosque or a synagogue or a religious organisation, for
example the Muslim Council of Britain hosting arms fairs selling weapons to
places like Saudi Arabia, how justifiably outraged would everyone be?
Beyond the financial investment, recruitment and
connections, crucial to our campaign is the focus on militarisation in
discourse around campus and within our curriculums.
As a student in the War Studies Department, I’ve seen
countless examples of this. One lecturer of mine (an ex-IDF general) encouraged
our class not to call Palestinians Arabs, but to refer to them as “the
non-Jewish community” – a direct erasure of identity. A highly esteemed guest
lecturer who had served in the private sector in Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia,
when asked why he’d personally been invested in working in these three
countries, shrugged and stated it was for the money.
The issue around these cases from problematic lectures
to the curriculum and reading lists, is that most of the time these
militaristic voices are amplified, glorified and put on a pedestal. Opposing
opinions can be found at the bottom of additional readings, if they can be
found at all; and if voiced in class, they are far too often ridiculed and
silenced. The issue with a militarised voice is not its existence, but its
More frustrating than King’s’ militarisation of our
education is the hypocrisy it hides behind, something that unfortunately isn’t
unique to KCL. Whilst having connections with Serco, KCL boasts about two
“sanctuary scholarships” it has provided for refugees, though they seem to
simply have taken the place of “conflict zone scholarships” that students fought
for years ago. The 2029 Strategic Vision that
King’s has outlined is apparently about “making the world a better place”, but
how can this be the case when King’s is also investing millions in companies
that sell weapons to states like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Israel?
As our campaign group wrote in our open letter:
"If the purpose and values of King's College are to educate and promote
skills and research to make the world a better place, why does our institution
continue to invest millions of pounds in the companies which make the greatest
contribution to the displacement, murder and destruction of human lives? If
King's College is to represent itself as providing answers to 'world questions',
we must work to actually address the systemic causes of global suffering and
examine our own complicity in these practices."
We are sick and tired as people of colour in
particular, of being used as tokens for publicity and education-consumerism,
with no respect for the very values these institutions claim to embody. A
painting of Nelson Mandela hangs in the Principal’s office wall; the Archbishop
Desmond Tutu’s name is used for university rooms, his picture on the side of
the Strand Campus. Other universities like Newcastle, Sheffield and Manchester
boast about men like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X/ el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz
debating at their universities or speaking at graduation ceremonies. Why are
these names and faces used to sell education at these institutions while the
principles that they stood for continue to go ignored?
Did the University of Newcastle forget that MLK in his
speech, called the ills of society “war, poverty, and racism”,
as they continue to fuel all three ills with their investments?
And did King’s forget that Mandela claimed that the freedom of South Africans
would not be achieved without the freedom of the Palestinians? Or the
comparison that their beloved alumni Desmond Tutu made between the apartheid
that black South Africans faced and that which the Palestinians face today,
while they support the technology and arms supplied to this very same apartheid
Within the four months or so since we started our
campaign, we’ve achieved a lot. We’ve raised awareness, we’ve staged a die-in at the 2029 vision launch party,
we’ve questioned the principal on the spot, we’ve voiced student opinions on
the Socially Responsible Review Committee.
Most of our success came out of collective efforts
from political campaigning societies such as the People of Colour Association,
Action Palestine Society, Fossil Free campaign, Intersectional Feminist
society, Student Action for Refugees society, under the banner of a KCL
Anti-Racism Campaigning network.
This was crucial because the militarisation of our
university is a concern for all of the political campaigning groups
within the Anti-Racism block. Working as a collective meant that we were much
stronger, our message could be more wide-reaching, more people were involved,
and that our approach was creative, united and multifaceted. Also very
important was the fact that we took into consideration different approaches,
and elements. For example, the effect that militarisation has specifically on
people of colour was something we considered, not only in our main campaign
aims, but also in the way we campaigned – for instance the role that white
allies could take on in direct actions.
Militarisation needs to be recognised and resisted in
whatever spaces we occupy in our daily lives. A call for demilitarisation goes
hand in hand with calls for greater transparency and democracy in allegedly progressive
spaces like universities. After all, I never remember signing up or ticking
boxes stating that I agree for the university to spend my tuition fee on
killing innocent people across the world, fuelling war and apartheid,
supporting human right abuses and violating international law? Where was that in
the terms & conditions? Where was that in the "what King's offers"
During the Stop the Arms Fair, over 100 people were arrested,
some for obstructing roads, ironically because they were apparently
“endangering the safety of civilians”. Whose safety have these protesters
risked? Whose lives were the police ‘protecting’? And to return to DSEi, it’s
time to question whose defence and whose security DSEi is concerned about?
This week, court cases will be held for those arrested, and we have the opportunity to turn up and show our support.
Be warned, DSEI has already started planning for the
next arms fair in 2019 – the business of killing is one that never ends; a
world where dead bodies count as profit is one where ‘profits’ can always be
reaped. There is not even the shame of pretending that there is some concern
surrounding the selling of these weapons between these unethical states, nor is
there any active, or even passive, effort to stop war. It’s time we reflect on
the militarisation of our education, of our society as a whole, to confront our
complicity and our responsibilities, stand up, and put an end to the business of
war. Conference programme 2017.