UK government approved export of repressive equipment to US months after crackdown on BLM protests

  • 25 May 2021

  • UK licensed at least £420,000 worth of ‘anti-riot’ shields within months of police violence against BLM protests

  • UK-made shields were linked to police violence at the time of protests

  • UK arms export criteria bans sale of weapons for internal repression

Government statistics, compiled by Campaign Against Arms Trade for the Independent, show that the UK approved two licences allowing the sale of hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of ‘anti-riot/ballistic shields’ to the US in October 2020. 

One licence was for £420,000 worth of shields, while the other, an ‘Open Licence’ allows for the sale of an unlimited quantity of shields. There is also an extant Open Licence from 2018 for CS gas, tear gas and irritant. 

The sales were approved within days of an investigation by Sky News that revealed UK-made shields had been used by US police forces against Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests following the murder of George Floyd. The killing took place one year ago today in Minneapolis.

Last June, 166 MPs signed a letter calling on the UK to halt the sale of ‘anti-riot’ equipment to police forces in the US following widespread scenes of violence against protesters. 

According to the consolidated criteria for arms exports “The government will not grant a licence if there is a clear risk that the items might be used for internal repression.” However, this has done little to stop the sale of UK-made arms to repressive police forces around the world.

The UK government actively promotes the sale of crowd control equipment – and with it, the militarisation of policing via UK Defence and Security Exports, the UK government’s arms export promotion unit, and via multi-million pound arms fairs like the Defence and Security Equipment International.

Just three months ago, representatives from US police forces attended the Security and Policing arms fair, a secretive event at which arms, border, policing and surveillance companies gather to exhibit equipment and technologies. The fair is backed by the UK’s Home Office

Siana Bangura of Campaign Against Arms Trade said: 

One year on from the murder of George Floyd – a brutal and merciless killing that the world witnessed in broad daylight – we are still having to say Black Lives Matter. We are still having to raise our voices and call for justice for those being murdered by state-sanctioned racism. 

The violence we saw against protesters last summer was appalling. And it seems that as soon as it was out of the headlines the arms sales resumed. We know that there is a very real risk of this equipment being used for repression, because it literally already has been. By arming and supporting police forces responsible for ongoing violence, Downing Street is empowering, enabling and legitimising their abuses. 

In the end, all our struggles are connected – where there is violence and catastrophe, all roads seem to lead back to the UK government, a government which continues to approve the sale of arms to countries subject to criticisms over Human Rights abuses.

The fact that these sales to the US happened straight after the crackdown is a sign of the contempt that the government holds for democracy and anti-racism campaigners. If UK arms export controls are meant to mean anything at all then these licences must be revoked.

Police violence and racism is not new, and nor is it exclusive to the US. The UK arms dozens of violent and repressive police forces around the world, and many of the issues raised will be familiar to people here and beyond – from Colombia to Palestine. 

Despite people dropping to their knees and posting black squares on their Instagram grids in a bid to perform their solidarity, UK forces are becoming increasingly militarised and the tally of people who have died in police custody or directly following police contact continues to increase, with zero convictions and zero semblance of justice for their families.

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