Campaigns against arms production, and for the conversion of military industry to socially-useful purposes, go back a long way. But recently a range of local campaigns have sprung up, including Smash EDO in Brighton, Shut Down Heckler & Koch in Nottingham, Smash Raytheon in Bristol and now Target Brimar, a new campaign due to launch in Manchester on 17 October.
Smash EDO began with a blockade of the EDO MBM arms factory in Moulsecoomb, Brighton, in August 2004. One of the motivations behind the new campaign was what those involved saw as the failure of the anti-war movement to effectively challenge the British state's drive to war with Iraq. As the campaign's press spokesperson, Chloe Marsh, puts it: 'If, when millions of people were mobilised against the war across the UK, we had looked at who the companies were who were set to make a profit from the war and targeted them, our resistance could have been far more effective.'
The group's key message is: 'Every bomb that is dropped, every bullet that is fired in the name of this war of terror has to be made somewhere, and wherever it is, it can be resisted.'
Since 2004, Smash EDO has carried out a range of protests in Brighton, several on a large scale, in addition to a weekly noise protest. There have been blockades, rooftop occupations and mass street protests, as well as the production of a feature-length film (screenings of which have been subject to widespread police harassment).
The group has been highly successful in the courts, with around 30 failed prosecutions by Sussex police and a failed injunction by EDO MBM (which collapsed in February 2006). Smash EDO has also managed to embarrass the weapons company in court over its links to Israel.
During one of the failed prosecutions in December 2005 it forced managing director David Jones to admit that he had ordered references to the 'active manufacturing' by EDO MBM of a component to be removed from the company website. The 'zero retention force arming unit' is used by Israeli F-16s as part of its bomb release mechanism.
These successes, and the militancy of the Smash EDO street protests - which have sometimes become street battles - have inspired other (largely anarchist) local groups to form. Another undoubted inspiration was the acquittal of the Raytheon 9 anti-war protesters who focused their rage at the 2006 invasion of Lebanon onto computers worth an estimated £350,000 at the Derry headquarters of the US arms company. In June 2008, all of the activists were acquitted of charges of criminal damage.
While these new groups may sometimes refer to the idea of converting factories to civilian use, the main emphasis is on shutting them down. The campaign against the international customer sales office of the small-arms manufacturer Heckler & Koch uses the slogan: 'Let's make Nottingham an unwelcoming place for arms dealers!'
The strategic thinking at work in Smash EDO, and perhaps in the other groups, owes something to the long-term, sophisticated and confrontational approach of militant animal rights activism. As with the animal rights movement, the question is whether the tactics that can win particular battles contribute to larger successes, or whether they may be undermining the building of the mass base of opposition that is essential to overall victory.
Take the case of Smash EDO's May Day protests in Brighton. After a good deal of police aggression, it descended into a day of random skirmishes, instead of being a street party in the park as planned by the organisers. No doubt the cost of policing such protests adds to the pressure on the government and on the company itself, as well as enthusing the rather narrow social base of Smash EDO. However, it is hard to see how this outweighs the political costs of the day.
One Brighton resident reported in an online comment that few people they spoke to on the day understood the reasons for the protest, though: 'I found that once told, 100 per cent of shopkeepers expressed support, although few thought it would change anything.'
This observation sums up the challenge, the predicament and the potential of these new local campaigns. In 2002, a poll by the UK Working Group on Arms 2002 found that 85 per cent of people in Britain disapproved of 'the government selling arms to governments which abuse human rights' and 74 per cent disapproved strongly.
Milan Rai is co-editor of Peace News