Interview: Peace crime
Sam Walton, Quaker peace activist, talks to Stephen Tomkins and Charissa King
In the early hours of 21 January, Sam Walton and the Methodist minister Dan Woodhouse broke into Warton Aerodrome, the assembly and testing facility of BAE Systems. In the name of peace and justice, they hoped to disable four Eurofighter Typhoons, which were to be shipped to Saudi Arabia for the war in Yemen. Their lawyers believe their action could have been the largest ever conspiracy to cause criminal damage, in financial terms, in UK legal history. The case comes to court in October.
Sam Walton’s other peace actions include a citizen’s arrest on Major General Ahmad Asiri for war crimes in Yemen, disrupting UK Trade and Industry’s Defence and Security symposium and running Art the Arms Fair – a campaign to make the London’s weapons exhibition more visible. His job is Peace and Disarmament Programme Manager for Quaker Peace and Social Witness, but while his activism stems from his Quaker beliefs, it is not carried out in an official capacity. As he puts it: ‘I’m not allowed to get arrested in work time.’
Reform talked to him at Friends House in London.
What lay behind your action at BAE Warton?
I saw this tweet from Human Rights Watch about in a food store in Yemen where a Paveway IV bomb blew up, and they’d found the serial number on a bit of casing that had survived by some miracle. It revealed the bomb was made in Glenrothes in Scotland, after the war had started, and sold to Saudi with the full knowledge that they were going to use it in Yemen. The Saudis are systematically destroying civilian infrastructure, literally bombing Yemen back to the Stone Age. I felt my stomach drop out, like: ‘Oh shit, I have to do something.’ I felt this really intense sense of: ‘This is why God has put me on the planet. I really don’t want to do this, but I’ve got to do something.’
Fast forward a couple months, I was marrying someone. In a Quaker wedding, you all sign the certificate and in front of me was a Methodist minister, Dan Woodhouse, who I knew from the arms fair protest. I said: ‘Dan, do you want to do some direct action against the arms trade? I’ve got a really good target.’ He said: ‘Yes.’ I said: ‘It may involve going to prison for a couple of years.’ He said: ‘Yeah, that’s fine.’ Then we signed the wedding certificate.
On 21 January at about 3.30 in the morning, using bolt cutters, we cut through the fence into BAE Warton and tried to break into the hangar where they were keeping four Eurofighter Typhoons, ready to be shipped to Saudi Arabia. We walked across this giant, floodlit, CCTV-covered taxiing area and we got to a series of doors. The first few were open. We were like ‘Wow!’ And then there was one last door, and it had an anti-jimmying lip. We jimmied that off with a crowbar and that made a series of loud bangs. We could see the nose of a typhoon four or five feet away through the glass. We had the door right off its hinges when two security guys turned up.
We put all our stuff down and did whatever they said. I said to Dan, ‘Loosen your scarf,’ which he did, and the guard sees the dog collar and goes: ‘Oh shit!’ They were really weirded out, and surprised by how polite we were. They couldn’t find the hole in the fence where we got in, so we went and showed them. Then we were taken to the police station.
I was really pleased we got into the base, because we’d sent a time-delayed press release, so it would have been embarrassing if we’d failed to get in. But Dan said: ‘I am gutted. If we’d got to a plane, we literally would have saved lives.’
Did you regret it then?
No, it was a real success. It was headline news for a whole day. We even got in The Sun, which is a first for arms trade action.
What do you expect to happen when your case comes to court?
We wanted to do probably the best part of a billion pounds worth of damage to these planes. And we were offered a caution. They want this to go away, so we’ve been charged with the very minimum they could have charged us with: two counts of criminal damage to the fence and the doors. The doors could have been said to cost £15,000, and we are being charged with £1,000 worth of damage. They’re trying to bury this. They don’t want to send a reverend to prison. Doesn’t play well. We think we’ll be found guilty, but we doubt we’ll get sent to jail. We’ve got an amazing legal team.
Frankly, we prepared to go to jail. We expected to be remanded in custody, go straight to prison for three to six months without bail, then be tried and, if we were found guilty, to end up doing two to four years. But the worst that we expect to happen is that we don’t pay our fines and go to jail for a couple of weeks, so we are totally chilled.
Do you know no fear?
Oh no no no! I really, really, don’t want to go to prison. But the reason God has put me on this earth is to do this. I really didn’t want to do that action but I absolutely had to, and I rejoice in being given that opportunity to answer my calling.
Did you feel God helped you in that situation
Absolutely. Dan hasn’t had a panic attack since he was 15, and he had a panic attack before the action. But when we were driving to the action Dan was like: ‘It’s what God wants now. Trust God. Whatever happens now is right.’ Also, that bizarre calm you get when you’re past security: You have to do it now.
What was the background to your citizen’s arrest of Ahmad Asiri?
We’ve been working with some Bahrainis at Caat [Campaign Against Arms Trade] for years. One of them told me: ‘We know where one of the major generals who is running the war in Yemen for the Saudis is going to be in London tomorrow. We’re going to protest it, we just want you to come because you’re more au fait with British protest.’ And having a white face when dealing with the police really helps. I turned up and they said: ‘It turns out if any of us do anything, they’re going to torture our families. So you’re up.’
What can you say? It’s rare to be that directly asked to be an ally, but, when you are, it’s time to do your little bit of sacrifice. As people with privilege we need to be helping people without that privilege, that are being oppressed.
I did the arrest on Major General Ahmad Asiri, and the Bahrainis filmed it and sent it out. I stayed around, told the police: ‘Thank God you’re here, this person’s a war criminal. Could you investigate it?’ Then I went to work, and it blew up. It turned out Ahmad Asiri was here because Theresa May was about make an unannounced visit to Saudi Arabia three days later. That was great because what we did completely changed the media discourse. The arrest hit the media, then was dying out; then Boris Johnson decided to apologise for it and the story went all the way to the top again. And then Theresa May went there, and the story wasn’t just: ‘Theresa May goes for this trade deal’ it was: ‘What’s she doing going to see these war criminals?’ Amazing!
You were trolled on Twitter.
Like nothing you’ve ever seen before. Which was a joy, because you can deal with homophobic abuse, and 95% of it was in Arabic. I was posting tweets about the arrest and they had huge engagement rates because 1,000 trolls were responding. For three days, if you put in ‘Yemen’ or ‘Saudi’ I was the number one guy. The trolls really helped us draw attention to the war in Yemen and British collusion with it.
You must have to weigh up the possible repercussions of your actions here for people in Bahrain.
Absolutely. After the arrest, one of the Bahrainis who helped me talk to the police officer showed me a text from his dad, which said: ‘I want you to know that tonight I am going to be picked up by the police and tortured, and I want you to know it was fucking worth it.’ That’s courage. They are so grateful that someone is standing with them. Embarrassingly grateful. They talk about me being willing to suffer, and I’m like: ‘Your country’s ruined. There’s no comparison.’ We never ask them to do anything they’re not comfortable with. And we’re doing what they are asking us to do.
What are you doing at the arms fair?
We’re supporting the peace movement to take action, and personally I’m taking two weeks off to run Art the Arms Fair. This is probably the most prestigious arms fair in the world, all the dodgy human rights dictators come here, and less than 10% of Londoners know that it even happens. Protest is actually a fairly rubbish way to talk to normal people. And so we’re running a massive art event…
This is an extract from an article that was published in the September 2017 edition of Reform