If I had a hammer…

In 1996, ten women peace activists faced ten years in prison for taking hammers to Hawk jets – but were found not guilty after arguing their crime was necessary to prevent a greater one. One of the women, Andrea Needham, tells their story in this extract from her new book

April 14, 2016
10 min read


The action obviously required a great deal of discussion: where were the Hawks, what was the security like, how would we break in, what tools would we need, how much damage would we do, what would we take with us? One weekend, we met with a sympathetic lawyer who was able to answer all our many questions about legal issues: would we be likely to get bail, what were the possible charges, what were the various steps in the legal process, would the support group be at risk of conspiracy charges, what would be the best defence, should we appeal if we got a long sentence?

We talked about contingency plans, about support for the supporters, about being in prison. Lotta drew up and shared a plan for involving her Swedish activist friends. We discussed press work and made a list of difficult questions that the media might ask. We talked about prison visiting and trial support and drawing other people into the campaign. We put together a list of all the things we wanted to say in the booklet and video we would make to leave at the site of the action. We drafted press releases, planned recces, talked about fundraising, role-played police interviews.

It might not be true to say our preparation was completely exhaustive – it’s impossible to think of everything, as we discovered later, but I think we did as much as we could possibly have done in the time available. It was not a process for the fainthearted. The weekends were very intense; sometimes we’d go on until late at night, ploughing through the agenda, reluctant to stop as we knew there wouldn’t be time to reschedule whatever it was we were discussing. And although I often came home from meetings exhausted and needing several days to recover, I also had an excited feeling that something important was slowly being chiselled out.

Cutting the fence

On the day of the action, I felt very calm and focused. We’d spent nearly a year in planning, and had talked through every last detail of what we were to do, right down to the configuration in which we’d cut the fence and who would wield each tool as we broke into the hangar. I think we all needed reassurance that we could carry off this disarmament, and such detailed planning offered a sense of security; there were to be, we hoped, no surprises.

We finished the minute’s silence, gave each other a last hug, and headed for the fence. Lotta and I were carrying bolt-cutters, Jo had the Japanese peace cranes we’d made to tie on the fence as a symbol of our peaceful intentions. Lotta and I worked on cutting an arch-shaped hole in the fence, while Jo tied the peace cranes nearby, her frozen fingers struggling with the string. We were confident the fence wasn’t alarmed: Jo and I had made a small cut in it during one of our night-time recces some weeks earlier, before giving it a vigorous shake and scuttling behind a bush to watch for any reaction. Nothing had happened.

After the trial, a British Aerospace worker in an unguarded moment told us that there was in fact a movement sensor on the site but it was set off so often by rabbits that it was generally ignored. Perhaps that night the security guards were sitting in their office wondering vaguely about the three extremely large rabbits hopping around.

It seemed to take ages to cut the fence; our hands were cold and we were made clumsy by the urgency of the situation. Finally the last strand gave way. I scrambled through the hole and grabbed the bags which Lotta and Jo passed to me before squeezing through themselves. From where we had got in, it was only about 50 yards to the nearest entrance, a fire door on the corner of the building. However, we had to walk through chest-high grass, which was dry and frozen, and crunched and snapped as we passed. There was otherwise complete silence and the noise of the grass seemed incredibly loud. But there was nobody to hear us, and soon we were clambering up the bank onto the road around the hangar.

Into the hangar

The fire door was right in front of us. We planned to smash the glass, then reach through and push the exit bar from the inside. Having no idea how strong the glass would be, we’d taken no chances and come equipped (‘armed’ as the prosecutor would later put it with no sense of irony) with an enormously heavy iron bar, a weight from inside a sash window. It had been ceremoniously presented to us a few weeks earlier by Ricarda and Rowan who were replacing their windows. Not wanting it to appear to be an offensive weapon, they had carefully painted ‘Women disarming for life and justice’ on it.

There was a camera over the fire door, and security lights on each corner of the hangar. Standing there in the glare of the lights I felt very exposed and vulnerable. Surely they must have noticed us? What if we were caught now? We’d talked a great deal about what we could do to make the action a success even if we didn’t manage to disarm the Hawks. To that end, we carried with us personal statements and a video we had made to leave at the site to explain what we had come to do. We even had business cards with our names and ‘Seeds of Hope East Timor Ploughshares’ inscribed on them. Nobody would be left in any doubt as to what our intentions were.

But despite all that, I knew that I’d be desperately disappointed if we failed to hammer on the planes. And more than any personal feelings, the fact was that we were trying to prevent these Hawks from leaving for Indonesia; it was absolutely vital that we were able to carry out the action as planned. The glass smashed easily, and Lotta put her hand through the window, feeling about for the bar inside. ‘I can’t find it!’ she whispered. ‘Can you break the other panel?’ I smashed the other panel of glass. ‘I still can’t feel it,’ she said, her voice tense. ‘Let’s try the crowbars!’

In desperation, and expecting a heavy hand on our shoulders at any minute, we set to with the crowbars, but the gap between the two doors was too thin for them. Things weren’t looking good: it would be terrible to be caught now, so near and yet so far from our target. While Lotta and I wrestled with the door, Jo ran off round the corner to see if we could get in anywhere else. A couple of minutes later she was back. ‘I’ve found a way in!’ she said.

There were small doors set into the big folding metal shutters, which opened to let the planes in and out of the hangar, but in our planning we’d dismissed these as being too difficult to crack. However, Jo had almost got one open with her crowbar; a little extra pressure from Lotta and me, and the whole lock popped off. We were in.

Getting attention

After our trial for disarming the Hawk, various newspaper editorials and commentators asked why we couldn’t have just held a peaceful demonstration: why did we have to go to the extreme lengths of smashing up a plane? I found myself shouting at the newspaper: ‘We did! We did that! We did it again and again and it had no effect! Weren’t you paying attention?’ Along with thousands of people around the country, we had written letters, lobbied MPs, held vigils, talked to workers, organised public meetings, signed petitions, marched and demonstrated. But ultimately, everything we and thousands of others did to try to stop the sale was ignored. The British government insisted that they were ‘engaging’ with Indonesia about East Timor but saw no reason to stop the Hawk deal. As for British Aerospace, the Hawk sales were worth £500 million, and made a large contribution to overall profits, which after several bad years were finally rising. What possible reason could there be for them to reconsider the deal? After several years of campaigning, it was becoming increasingly clear that the deal was unlikely to be stopped by conventional means.

Hand tools for peace

Ploughshares is not an organisation; it has no formal structure, no membership, no creed, no board of directors to decree whether a particular action meets the Ploughshares criteria. If you undertake a nonviolent and accountable disarmament of a weapon, you can call it a Ploughshares action.

All actions have at their centre the use of hand tools to disarm weapons; usually this means hammers, although people have used other tools – notably sledgehammers and even pneumatic drills – on missile silo lids where hammers might have little effect.

Some might ask, why use a hammer at all? If the aim is to disarm a weapon, why not use something more powerful and effective? I like the simplicity of hammers; you don’t need any special skills or training, hammers are widely available, and what better instrument could there be to beat a sword into a ploughshare? The other issue is that we are only ordinary people; we are not trying to project ourselves as somehow superhuman, able to completely disarm a weapon with one blow. The aim for me was to do what I could do as an act of genuine disarmament, but also an act of faith, and hope that our example would inspire others to continue the disarmament where we left off.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Ploughshares for those unfamiliar with the movement is that of accountability. Despite the apparently high security of military bases and factories, many activists have shared our experience of being undetected for several hours, giving ample opportunity to escape. Why not run away, and live to disarm another weapon?

I didn’t want to escape after our action because I was clear in my own mind that – whatever the criminal justice system might think – we hadn’t committed a crime. In addition, I believe that one of the main problems in our political system is lack of accountability. The government had granted licences to sell weapons to a military dictatorship, British Aerospace could make and sell the weapons, and yet nobody would be answerable for the deaths those weapons would cause. Ploughshares sets an example and says that we should all be accountable for our actions. We are willing to face the consequences of what we have done, and we expect nothing less of governments and corporations.

In prison [awaiting trial], we received a letter from a woman who asked why we had disarmed the Hawk, what it was about Ploughshares that inspired us. In her reply, Lotta said, ‘If we want peace, we must make peace, here and now, you and me. I love the people-power and people-responsibility of Ploughshares actions, their gentleness and strength. Their putting the military or arms producers on trial, their laying ourselves vulnerable to the “justice” system – expecting a just verdict from the jury and staying there even through an unjust verdict, their challenging everyone to act.’

For me, this sums it all up; if we want peace, we must make peace, here and now, you and me.

Hammer Blow: How 10 Women Disarmed a Warplane is published by Peace News Press. To invite Andrea to speak to your group, contact hammerblow@peacenews.info

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