Published by Matt Harbage on 3rd November 2020

Leadership in Protest

“If my name remains among the sponsors of the Catholic Peace Fellowship, it is because I believe that this dedicated group is sincerely striving to spread the teachings of the Gospel and of the Church on war, peace, and the brotherhood of man. However, my sponsorship does not imply automatic approval of any and every move made by this group, still less of individual actions on the part of its members acting on their own responsibility…”

Thomas Merton
No Faith in War Day @ DSEI 2019. Photo (C) CAAT, CC BY-SA 2.0

What does it mean to be a leader in the context of a protest movement against the arms trade? Such movements – like movements against climate change, racism or fighting for rights – are usually by their nature a collection of coalitions, networks, grassroot groups and affinity groups. Each have their own ways of understanding power, decision making, hierarchy (and indeed, often a strong aversion to any such organisational structure). It may be helpful for some readers to define that last group: by affinity groups in particular I’m thinking of small groups of about 4-5 people who are acting as one unit in undertaking a particular action – often nonviolent direct action (NVDA) which is specific to a particular location/time. Such groups, and many grassroot groups, often come and go; as the individuals who make them up complete their specific action or the group is fragile and due to time and other commitments disband or recombine with other parties under a new name or remit.

For over 10 years I’ve been part of the campaign against the arms trade. Over that time I’ve been part of different coalitions, networks and grassroots groups myself – not least because of living in different places around the UK (typical of my generation). I’ve seen different organizational approaches and more recently, I’ve taken on some kind of leadership.

The Defence & Security Equipment International (DSEI) arms fair is one of the biggest in the world and comes to the London Docklands every two years. Paid for largely by the UK taxpayer, it gathers arms dealers from across the world to promote their lethal products to countries which include Bahrain, Israel, and Saudi Arabia – countries also on the Foreign and Common Wealth Office’s list of countries of human rights concern.

No Faith in War Day @ DSEI 2019. Photo (C) CAAT, CC BY-SA 2.0

Such an arms fair brings a range of activists together: from those with a specific geopolitical justice interest such as BIRD (Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy), to local London community groups who are concerned about the message such a weapons bonanza has in areas struggling with knife and gun crime. Others have a more religiously or ethically motivated rationale: either as supporters of human rights (such as Amnesty International members), or being against the capitalist framework for the industry, or being against lethal force entirely.

In 2019 I was one of the leaders in the DSEI protests, as part of a week of action, specifically the “No Faith in War” day which brought together religious groups from across faith traditions to the Dockland’s ExCeL site. On an organisational level, the group Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) provided infrastructure support for the whole week of action, with the Hari Krishnas providing a canteen, which allowed other groups to create and lead creative acts of resistance.

A key role for any leader in such a context is to encourage and enable the coming together of diverse groups who are able to “share the space” and agree a basic set of principles to create a safe space for all. Many of these principles were developed through experience gained by the Stop the Arms Fair (STAF) coalition, of which almost every group involved in the week of action were a part. For the faith groups which ended up getting involved, the principles of nonviolence, tolerance, respect for individual choice to engage (or not engage) in each service, liturgy, symbolic drama etc. was very natural.

No Faith in War Day @ DSEI 2019. Photo (C) CAAT, CC BY-SA 2.0

For my part, ‘cold calling’ likely religious groups and fielding queries of interest, natural questions tended to emerge including what other groups are taking part, and what are they going to be doing. These questions can come from a place of excitement and synergy; as groups don’t want to unnecessarily replicate other actions (although having a blend of choirs and more than one wreath laying is to be encouraged). They can also come from a place of suspicion and concern: after all, although united against the arms trade, the coming together of different political, geographical, religious and cultural groups can lead to very real tensions.

A few helpful phrases from the campaigning world come to mind. “Nothing about us without us” – that is, proper discussion about different groups and their actions during the week of action should always be done through speaking directly with the groups concerned. “Diversity is our strength” which applies equally to tactics of engagement, the types of people involved and the range of groups. This also implies a desire to be aware of excluding marginal voices as well as engaging them fully.

An outlook which I repeatedly saw helping to unite both faith groups and secular groups is implicitly captured by the quotation from Thomas Merton above (a monk famous for his anti-nuclear weapons and anti-Vietnam war stances). He wrote it after some controversial nonviolent direct action against the Vietnam war was done by members of the USA based Catholic Peace Fellowship. It captures the beautiful balance between unity and diversity: We may not agree with every other group in the coalition (vision/values), and we might disagree with a particular affinity group’s actions such as blocking a road or causing criminal damage. And yet, we stand together, because there is a belief in the whole as a group “is sincerely striving to spread the teachings of the Gospel and of the Church on war, peace, and the brotherhood [sic] of man” – or however each group perhaps understands their overlapping vision.

No Faith in War Day @ DSEI 2019. Photo (C) CAAT, CC BY-SA 2.0

In dialoguing with different religious groups and secular campaigning groups, learning to speak their particular dialect takes time; and such learning helps to smooth out miscommunications and dealing with real disagreements about protest tactics. The joy though is incredible, when you see anarchists chanting “Don’t nick rev!” (that is, “don’t arrest the priest” – a symbol of hierarchy and patriarchy!) or when Christians, atheists and Muslims stand in silence together in an act of solidarity and reflection (prayer).

Far from protests being terribly organised groups of hippies, there is strength in the coming together of diverse groups around injustices: the process of coming together itself being an invitation to learn from our neighbours, as much as the action as a symbol of hope communicating that a better world is possible. Indeed, as a Christian I can say I have seen signs of the Kingdom.

CAAT picketing against Arms Trade funded conferences at Church House Westminster.
Photo (C) CAAT, CC BY-SA 2.0



  1. David Sims
    25th November 2020 - 12:08 pm

    Thanks, Matt, a very interesting piece. The fear of being associated with other’s ideas and values, of being judged alongside those we collaborate, is deep-seated, isn’t it? We (=I) fall into the narcissitic approach that we learned in the school playground of ‘who do I want to be seen with?’ while losing focus on the more valuable ‘who do want to work with?’

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