Smash EDO: the inside story of activists' battle against arms giant

EDO campaign

Campaigners are planning a summer of protest against the EDO arms factory in Brighton. All photos: Alec Smart

A decade of protest has seen a war of words between police and campaigners, with allegations of undercover spies and a ground-breaking legal victory for activists after a Brighton arms factory was damaged

It started out almost as a caricature of a peace protest – a handful of Brighton residents banging pots and pans outside an anonymous looking building on an industrial estate.

That was back in 2004 – and during the intervening eight years the campaign against EDO MBM/ EDO ITT, known as Smash EDO, has seen lock-ons, roof occupations, art installations, riots, the police banning of a film, the imposition of an exclusion zone around the factory, allegations that (at least one) undercover police officer infiltrated activist groups, as well as the 'decommissioning' of the factory itself during the Israeli bombardment of Gaza.

For the entirety, campaigners have maintained a weekly 'noise demo' on Wednesdays outside the factory gates. Now they're gearing up for 'the Summer of Resistance'.

But who are EDO and why this level of dedication to shutting it down? When the campaign began, EDO MBM was a subsidiary of the EDO Corporation – a US company that was a major supplier of Raytheon as well as an arms manufacturer in its own right – and Brighton was a UN Peace Messenger City.

In December 2007, EDO Corporation was bought by the US arms conglomerate, ITT, and EDO MBM became a part of ITT Integrated Structures.  Campaigners claim EDO MBM/ITT supply vital parts for the Paveway series of laser-guided bombs - which, it is alleged, were the most used guided munitions in the aerial bombardment of Iraq.

The Brighton factory, opponents say, has designed a component for the F-15, F-16, and F-35 fighter aircraft: the Field Replaceable Connector System (FRCS), an electrical connector that releases bombs or missiles. The US (through Lockheed Martin) has supplied F-15s and F-16s to Israel, where they have been used against the Palestinians, campaigners maintain. Parts for the F-35 (a plane in development as a replacement for F-16s) have been sold to Israel in 2010 but not yet delivered, activists allege. Speaking in Parliament in 2009, David Miliband said UK-supplied equipment may have been used in the Gaza conflict.

EDO in Brighton has also been accused of manufacturing components such as the Sabre bomb rack for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVS): UAVs, says activists, have been used in well documented assassinations and botched raids by the US army in Pakistan and Afghanistan (civilians and Pakistani soldiers becoming so much ‘collateral damage’).

EDO MBM/ITT have strongly defended their business and previously accused campaigners of getting their facts wrong. Managing director Paul Hills told the Brighton Argus in 2009 that campaigners had failed to acknowledge important facts about the Brighton factory.

'The extent of what we manufacture is the parts for some aircraft – the components are at the end of a very long supply chain. We make things that ensure the safe carriage and release of weapons from aircraft,' he said.

Mr Hills said: 'We supply the UK Ministry of Defence. I would, and have, stood up in court and sworn under oath that we don't supply to Israel which is one of the things Smash EDO accuse us of.'

Responding to claims that Freedom of Information requests had been turned down, Mr Hills said the company had nothing to hide but were not able to discuss what they made or where products went as it was 'a matter for their customers only.'

The company also said in the interview - one of few it has given - that it objected to being called an 'arms factory' and a 'bomb factory'. 'It’s very annoying and it’s simply not true,' Mr Hills told the Argus.

Smash EDO spokesperson Andrew Beckett told the Ecologist: 'When we started we realised that as UK-based peace activists we could do little to affect the outcome of events in Iraq once war had started, but what we could do was target the bottom line of the corporations that profited directly. In effect we would take the war back to the factory floor.'

At that time, questioned by the Brighton Argus in 2004, Dave Jones, the then MD of EDO, reportedly said that he was proud to support the US/UK war effort in Iraq. However, EDO has repeatedly denied that they knowingly supply equipment to Israel. Early on in the campaign they reportedly removed several pages from their website that advertised their supply of components to the Israeli Air Force.

Sam Johnson, a long-time Smash EDO campaigner, explains: 'In 2004 there was a blockade of the factory using a cage. We were prosecuted for aggravated trespass and in our defence said we were acting to prevent greater crimes. Also as EDO was complicit in these greater crimes they weren't 'a lawful business' and so fell outside of trespass laws. Prior to the court case in December 2004 they began to remove material from their website about the bomb rack – [the VER-2 Zero Retention Force Arming Unit] – used for the Israeli Air Force's F-16 war planes. It had previously stated that this was actively manufactured in Brighton.'

A company under siege

And why does he think the campaign has survived so long since that initial confrontation?

'The movement was born out of opposition to war in Iraq 2002-3, Lebanon 2006, Gaza 2009, the US attacks on Somalia and the current march to war in Iran. We have outlived many of anti-militarist campaigns started around the same time. We never meant to be a symbolic campaign we intended to do one simple thing: damage profits of the company,' says Sam.

'It has done that effectively. EDO workers have been confronted by local opposition every week since 2004 – there have been scores of actions, blockades, occupations, acts of sabotage and demos involving thousands of people. The atmosphere is such that EDO is under siege in the city. They have been forced to erect fences, install CCTV, security patrols and have aimed to enlist police as their own private force,he adds.

'They have incurred court costs for civil injunctions and participated in numerous cases against protesters. The decommissioners caused upwards of £180,000 damage to their production line in 2009. Some machinery was shut down for months – so in total the figure is hard to estimate. The attempts at injunctions of 2004-6 cost £1m and fell apart around their ears. Meanwhile the EDO staff team has shrunk from 160 to around 100,' the activist claims.

And where now with the campaign? 'In this country... we're in a similar position to 2003 with the public being prepared by a state discourse in the press beating the drum for war in Iran, and attempting to stave off any protest when an attack happens...components made in Brighton will be used in that war on F-16 and F-35 planes with the EDO factory, one of the places again making a profit from all the suffering to be caused. It's ever more important for the anti-military movement to be kept alive,' says Sam.

Campaigners accuse Sussex police of seeking to clamp down on protests since day one, accusing them of attempting to stop the regular noise demos with an injunction under the Protection from Harassment Act (PHA) 1997 that inadvertently thrust the campaign onto the national stage. Thanks to a judgement handed down to one of the Act’s draftees, it allowed corporations to receive the same protection under the law as individuals being stalked.

This effective re-drawing of the campaign as one of ‘stalking’ ironically provided the campaign with its first major publicity coup. 'First, it showed us that we were having an effect: an international arms company had been forced to spend thousands on lawyers simply to prevent us from standing outside the gates. We also looked like the underdogs,' said Beckett.

It was almost a year before the injunction hearings were resolved and for the whole of that time an interim injunction was in place. Crucially, injunctions under the PHA are sought in the civil courts with their lower burden of proof but create new criminal offences. Various acts, including filming outside the factory, were criminalised. Two men were remanded in custody briefly for breaches of the injunction; both court cases subsequently collapsing.

Undercover police spies

After a year of legal wrangling, and restrictions on protest, EDO MBM was forced to drop the injunction case and pay all legal costs, including a hand-out of £34,000 to those who had defended themselves rather than rely on legal aid. Losing upwards of £1m, say activists, tipped them over into loss that quarter and had a direct impact on their share price.

In response to these failed attempts at squeezing the campaign, protesters adopted a more public stance: 'We were fed up with the repression up at the factory. We decided to take our struggle into town,' said Beckett. In August 2005 around 50 people met in Brighton's main shopping square and tried to march to the Level, about a half-hour walk. 'The police response was spectacular: 150 cops, dogs, and a helicopter. The message couldn't have been clearer: you have no right to assemble without police permission.' And so began a new chapter of stand-offs with the authorities, this time over the right to demonstrate, fought not only in the streets but in the local media. Successive town centre demonstrations followed – one of which marched on the police station, forcing officers to form lines around their own headquarters. This sparked the debate in Brighton around the freedom to protest, with the local force taking the line that demonstrations had to be agreed in advance and campaigners vociferously resisting. A final town centre march in December 2006 saw 300 turn out in defiance of police warnings.

It was during this time (2004-6) that police, say campaigners, 'placed' an undercover officer into the campaign. Marco Jacobs, as he was known, was outed last year in the wake of the Mark Kennedy affair. Purporting to be a long-distance lorry driver and landscape gardener he originally infiltrated Brighton groups preparing to protest at the G8 summit in Scotland 2005, but soon became an active Smash EDO campaigner, attending demos and protesting at a conference on unmanned drones. A bluff, bloke-ish type, forty-something with a taste for strong lager and heavy metal, he clearly wasn't a stereotypical peace campaigner and according to Beckett, 'people had their suspicions from the beginning – it's not clear if Marco ever found out anything useful in Brighton, however Sussex Police’s insistence at the time that we had to negotiate with them as they "didn't know anything about our plans or intentions" is in hindsight hilarious.'

Sussex Police deny employing the officer in question.

The campaign was handed a new opportunity by Sussex Police in 2008. Brighton-based media collective, SchNEWS, produced a film entitled On the Verge charting the history of the struggle against EDO, and activists arranged a film tour around the country to raise awareness. The premiere was to be at city arthouse cinema, the Duke of York’s, in March. Last minute police intervention (a 'technical' complaint that the film did not have valid certification) forced the showing's cancellation. 'We had to move rapidly and transfer the screening to a nearby pub. The next day, the news came in that venues across the country had been visited by police and had been warned not to show the film on a variety of pretexts,' said Steve Bishop, the director.

The tour went ahead regardless, and what had been a relatively minor activist film produced on a budget of £500 became national news. 'A misguided piece of official hysteria' said the Guardian. 'As a campaign we suddenly had "the film they tried to ban",' re-called Bishop, 'and people flocked to see it'. There were more than 80 UK screenings and the film was also shown in Sydney, San Francisco, and Athens, as well as being downloaded by the thousand.

What with the new profile, the tour's original goal, to build support for the forthcoming summer '08 Carnival Against the Arms Trade, was a cake-walk. Up until then the biggest mobilisation outside the factory had consisted of 150 people. This time round a crowd of 600 had gathered on the Level, common parkland near Brighton's city centre. 'It caught us by surprise really; it certainly caught the police on the hop. Their own briefings [obtained later during court hearings] made it clear that they thought this would be a small event. In the event their policy of banning the film backfired spectacularly. This crowd wasn't to be contained – by the time we got to the road leading to factory we surged up the hill and suddenly we were struggling with the police in the car park,' said Beckett.

Over the next 18 months there were three similar nationwide mobilisations – with the largest on May 4, 2009 seeing around 1,500 take to the streets of Brighton and subsequent skirmishes with over-zealous police throughout the city. One bizarre incident saw a pink fibreglass car, a prop from a Bradford-based production of Wind in the Willows, being used as a battering ram against police lines, with the 'driver' in top hat and feather duster remaining seemingly unruffled throughout.

Overt police surveillance of those perceived to be part of the campaign's core group was stepped up say activists. John Catt, at 86, a veteran peace protester has taken his targeting very seriously, this month (Feb 2012) launching a judicial review in the High Court over his inclusion in the National domestic extremist database. Catt said: 'This attention is ludicrous... The triviality and the waste of resources put to this type of policing operation is a has to stop.'

The 'occupy' protest and trial

By far the most significant event of all in the history of the campaign and one that still resonates having defined and vindicated it – was the ‘decommissioning’. By January 16, 2009 the Israeli bombardment of Gaza had been ongoing for 15 days. UK peace activists were appalled by the carnage inflicted by massive air supremacy wielded by the Israeli state. Sharon Lock and Ewa Jasciewicz were reporting directly from the scene – as activists with the International Solidarity Movement they had better access than the majority of the world's media who were kept at arm's length and forced to film what was unfolding from hilltops inside Israel.

This spurred on one of the 'decommissioners'. Speaking of her part in the action, Ornella Saibene, said: 'What we were seeing and hearing forced us to act. A sense of peace pervaded my action on the night. I was doing work that needed to be done. I systematically destroyed what I could. In my mind I saw the images of the victims. I was destroying the mechanisms that dropped bombs on their homes, schools and hospitals'

She was one of six Bristol-based activists, some of whom had been occupying the roof of arms manufacturer, Raytheon there, who now took it upon themselves to travel to Brighton and in the words of one 'smash it [EDO factory] up to the best of my ability so that it cannot work and produce weapons...that have been provided to the Israeli army so that they can kill children'. They hooked up with three Brighton activists and within hours were inside the factory wreaking havoc with hammers.

After the police forced their way into the factory the protesters lay down on the floor and calmly waited to be arrested. Ironically they had bought themselves time by flinging a mock-up of guided missile out of a top storey window, leading to a bomb disposal team being called before the police felt it safe to proceed. The action itself was always intended to end in a trial. The decommissioners argued that what they did was not only morally necessary, but crucially that it was legal. UK law allows damage to property to prevent greater crimes. In this case they argued that international law outweighed domestic considerations.

'I told many people in Gaza about the people’s strike on EDO MBM… When I recounted this action to people, I saw an expression come over their faces that I hadn’t encountered before when talking about international solidarity. It was a kind of respect, a sense of surprised pride at a tiny move towards a levelling between the blood sacrifices and living hell of so many here, and sacrifices made by people in comparative comfort zones on the other side of the world – for them,' said Jasiewicz, a UK-Polish human rights journalist based in Gaza and eyewitness to Operation Cast Lead, who was still in Gaza at the time of the activists' break-in.

For two men, Robert Alford and Elijah James, this was the beginning of a lengthy period on remand as the trial did not proceed until March 2010. By the time it got underway the defendants pleaded not guilty to conspiracy to criminal damage, relying on the defences of necessity and the prevention of greater crimes.

Paul Hills, managing director of EDO ITT, was on the witness stand for five days revealing a wealth of information about the company and crucially conceding that the defendants could have formed the reasonable belief that his company was supplying components that enabled the war crimes taking place in Gaza. He was confronted by defence barristers with a dossier of evidence gathered by campaigners – evidence which exposed a complex network of collaboration between British, American and Israeli arms companies. The defendants were able to present  Hills with evidence showing how EDO MBM use a front company in the USA to indirectly supply components for the F-16 to Israel. Under UK law the supply of weapons components that might be used in the Occupied Territories is a crime.

Hills revealed that the company have owned the rights to the main bomb rack used on Israeli F-16s – the VER-2 – since 1998. In the end he admitted that anyone in possession of the evidence would form a reasonable belief that his company supplied weapons components to the Israeli Air Force.

It was this admission which formed the basis of the 'decommissioners'' defence; they now had evidence of a direct link between this Brighton factory and deaths and destruction in Gaza. 'This verdict occurred in a very specific set of circumstances – think of the wider context, day by day people were getting killed. There was an immediacy. It shows that direct action not only works but is sometimes the only option... – but what it doesn't mean is that anyone can just take the law into their own hands,' said Lydia Dagostino, solicitor for the defendants.

During the trial Judge Bathurst-Norman allowed eyewitnesses to the destruction in Gaza to take the stand, notably trainee midwife, Sharon Lock, who drew on her time as a volunteer in Gaza's main hospital as it came under attack with white phosphorus. She concluded by saying that those who armed the Israeli Air Force 'had the blood of children on their hands'. Caroline Lucas, newly elected MP for Brighton Pavilion spoke for the defence, crucially saying that, with regards to the factory, 'all available democratic avenues had been exhausted'.

After five weeks of evidence, the defendants had to wait 48 hrs for the jury to return unanimous 'not guilty' verdicts. Previous attempts to use 'lawful excuse' defences by activists in the campaign had foundered. 'The fact is that magistrates are far less willing to consider the idea that a local factory is really complicit in war crimes and consider the evidence irrelevant,' explains Beckett. 'It took this level of damage and a conspiracy charge carrying a potential ten year sentence, to put EDO's activities and their consequences in front of a jury.' The backlash was predictable with demands for a re-trial and the Israeli ambassador quoted as saying it was, 'not a great era of the British justice system' [sic]. However in the words of Dagostino, 'There [were] a lot of things said about the outcome of this trial but it was the jury who heard all the evidence and decided on the facts in front of them.'

The group is now planning a summer of resistance, with anti-militarists encouraged to come to the factory and express ‘outrage as creatively as you like’. A rolling programme of actions is planned starting with a MayDay protest and culminating in a Bank Holiday, June 4 mass demonstration.

While committed to nonviolence, the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) says it does support the protest against EDO.

Sussex Police say they fully support the right to protest peacefully and aim to provide a safe and secure environment for protesters. 'We always aim to keep local residents and visitors informed of how they might be affected by any protest and our job is to prevent any crime and disorder from taking place. We regularly try to engage with Smash EDO protest organisers, but in the past they have refused to discuss their intentions. Organisers and representatives of Smash EDO are always encouraged to contact Sussex Police to discuss their plans so that we can facilitate a peaceful protest.'

EDO ITT were asked for comments to include in this article but did not respond to queries.

Note: this article was updated on the 21st March to include additional links and excerpts from an interview EDO MBM/ITT's Paul Hills gave to the Brighton Argus 


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