On 21 October, activists invaded the former Manston Airport, in Kent, in broad daylight and occupied the roof of the WW2 control tower. Arms company Instro Precision rents the top floor for R&D and customer demonstrations, and it was seeking to expand by moving its whole operation to the airport from its current base in nearby Broadstairs. Thanet District councillors were due to vote on the planning application later the same day. Activists – who had already occupied the company’s facilities in February and July this year – were determined to stop the move and the expansion from happening.
Why? Because Instro is owned by Elbit Systems, the largest supplier of drones to Israel, meaning we can be almost certain that Elbit’s technology was used to commit likely war crimes in the massacre of Gazans by Israel in 2014. Not only that, but Elbit is also a supplier of arms to the regimes of Saudi Arabia and Turkey – both known to have supported ISIS financially or militarily. In other words, Instro-Elbit is fueling some of the worst conflicts and
facilitating some of the worst oppression in the Middle East.
Instro likes to tell the public – and its own staff – that it doesn’t ‘make drones’, only optical equipment. Well, we say that its ownership by Elbit is reason enough to target it for protests. But we also say Instro is stretching the truth to breaking point.
Its own website says it makes the LRF700 – a “targeting system” that is designed to be fitted to “UAVs”, or drones. Targeting, in Israel’s case, means getting Gazan civilians in the sights of their cowardly unmanned weapons.
Elbit’s drone targeting systems are made in Kent, its drone engines are made in Staffordshire – do all these Elbit subsidiaries have clean hands simply because none of them makes every screw and widget of the drone? Obviously not. Instro tells its staff this in the hope that they can persuade them to not examine their consciences and quit Instro in order to seek work that actually helps people rather than cutting human beings to shreds.
Previous occupations at Instro have begun under cover of darkness, but this was different. At around noon, cars pulled up at the gate, protesters leapt out, got a ladder up against the gate and began climbing over into the compound. Met by a security guard with a barking dog, three of the four made it, scaled the fire escape and occupied the roof, having to leave behind a huge banner but successfully taking and their tent (it was a wet and windy day) and pitching it on the roof. Outside the gate, two more locked on and the rest of the team hung banners and placards and spoke to the press.
The missing roof banner felt like a bit of a let-down, so a particular highlight of the day was the police and security guards later falling for a classic decoy ploy: while a distraction was created on one side of the perimeter, another protester got over the fence on the opposite side and made a dash for it, successfully delivering the banner – which could be seen for a long way – and leaving police and ‘security’ very red-faced.
An early encounter with security was less funny: on first arriving on the roof, the protesters were confronted by security head Anthony Harle. He told the activists he was an ex-soldier, had served in Afghanistan and that the killing of civilians by drones was inevitable ‘collateral damage’ in war.
The site was occupied for the rest of the working day, police were called and floodlights were hired to be shone onto the control tower. Once again there was good local media coverage in which the demonstrators’ arguments were very clearly put and not distorted.
Once again, though, no arrests were made yesterday despite the clear potential for charges of aggravated trespass. This is extraordinary, and we have to ask: why does Instro not want to press charges? What does it NOT want to emerge if there is a court case? Any activist prosecuted would take the defence that they were preventing a greater crime from being committed, and in their defence they would ask for details of Instro’s export licences to be made available. Is this what Instro is seeking to conceal? And why are the police repeatedly choosing to not press charges?
Later that evening was the crunch vote at Thanet District Council, and to our relief and joy, Instro’s application to move to Manston was turned down by councillors – a huge success. There were other issues influencing councillors – in particular, the campaign to reopen Manston as a commercial airport, a campaign which opposed Instro’s application on the grounds that it would be an obstacle to this happening.
However, there has been a sustained lobbying of councillors on the moral questions by local people, plentiful press coverage, and awareness of the murkiness and grisliness of Instro-Elbit’s activities is now part of the political and public debate in East Kent. And councillors at two meetings have cited the protests as a “security risk” if the company is allowed to move to the site.
We also know that a number of councillors responded positively and sincerely to the information given to them by local CAAT supporters over recent weeks about the nature of Instro’s business – some responding in passionate terms expressing their concerns about any business that might be facilitating oppression and war crimes. This engagement by local councillors on these issues has been a big leap forward. Before we began campaigning, companies like Instro were working quietly, unchallenged, in the shadows. Now, the campaign by local people, plentiful press coverage, and awareness of the murkiness and grisliness of Instro-Elbit’s activities is now part of the political and public debate in East Kent.
So what next? Well, there could be an appeal against the planning decision, or Instro might decide to cut its losses and look elsewhere for the site it wants. We know it is desperate to move – it has said publicly that it has lucrative new contracts that it cannot fulfill at its current site – and we will be following any such attempt to move very closely. We can promise that protesters will be dogging the company wherever it goes, and will continue to shut down its lethal business.