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Book review: The Hammer Blow

“Every bomb that is dropped, every bullet that is fired, has to be made somewhere. And wherever that is, it can be resisted.”

Smash EDO

For anyone involved in anti-militarist campaigning, the Seeds of Hope action has almost mythical status. Not only as an extremely radical and inspiring action; but as an example of how a jury's verdict can be decided on moral grounds on the basis of trying to prevent a greater crime. I have been running direct action trainings for a few years and I don't think there's a single one where Seeds of Hope didn't get mentioned, and its reach extends far beyond the anti-militarist movement.

The Hammer Blow, by Andrea NeedhamThe Hammer Blow, by Andrea NeedhamThe Hammer Blow tells the story of a group of women who disarmed a British Aerospace (now BAE Systems) Hawk Jet that was bound for Indonesia. Using household hammers, the women caused millions of pounds worth of damage, but after spending six months in prison awaiting trial, they were acquitted of all charges. The women argued that their action was necessary to stop the Hawk Jet being used in the violence against East Timor as there had been eyewitness accounts that British Aerospace Hawk Jets had been used to attack villages in East Timor. Indonesia had been been illegally occupying East Timor for over 20 years, and in that time had killed a third of the population. Despite gross human rights violations, the UK government continued to endorse arms sales to Indonesia.

Although I've known about this action for years, I realised as I was reading The Hammer Blow that there was a lot about it that I didn't know. I didn't realise that it being a women-led action was an active decision; or that four of the women spent six months in prison awaiting trial and then defended themselves in court. I didn't know that they had spent a year preparing for the action, spending one weekend a month meeting to plan for it. And in all the times I have talked about or referenced the action, I don't think I had ever really thought about what it must have felt like to actually go through it; and that they were facing a ten year prison sentence for doing it.

The book arrived through my post box on a Saturday morning and by Sunday I had finished it. I couldn't put it down and even found myself reading excerpts from it at a friend's lunch (and I'm not one who usually reads aloud to people!). When I did set it aside so I could sleep, I was so high on adrenaline my brain was buzzing and I had BAE-fuelled dreams. The book had me on the edge of my seat as I followed Andrea's experience of planning and carrying out the action; her time in prison and the suspense of the court case.

Andrea starts the book by talking about her process of politicisation and how she was affected by the communities she lived with in the US (the Community for Creative Nonviolence and the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker). I'm always interested in how people get involved in activism, and was sucked in by Andrea's story as she writes about her first protest and her first time getting arrested.

The book is very readable, and I was surprised at how funny some of it is. It is peppered with entertaining anecdotes, like when one of the women falls asleep during a recce (they would spend all night in a field watching the arms factory to try and spot a Hawk Jet!); or when having taken a hammer to the Hawk Jet, they spent a long time waiting to be discovered and managed to find a phone and wake up journalist John Pilger and phone their friend Angie Zelter to tell them what had happened. When Angie was eventually arrested for conspiracy, and the prison officer was so taken aback that when they asked if she was a prisoner, she said “No, I'm a prison inspector and I'm just testing out the handcuffs.”

The Hammer Blow is a fascinating insight into what some of the thoughts, feelings and logistics people go through when taking action.

The hawk jet the Seeds of Hope affinity group disarmedThe hawk jet the Seeds of Hope affinity group disarmedIt does a really important job of highlighting how important support roles are in carrying out an action. It's easy to talk about and focus on the people who are arrested on an action; but people don't always see the work that goes into to supporting it. Although three women physically took their hammers to the Hawk Jet; the action would not have been possible without the other seven women in the support group. The commitment and efforts of the women who supported the three in prison is astonishing, especially if you have grown up taking the internet for granted and the speed and ease of communication that comes with it. For example during the six months the women were awaiting trial, their support group was coordinating prison visits, and individually photocopying and posting 1,500 newsletters to the growing number of supporters.

Twenty years on, this action couldn't be more relevant. The UK government and BAE Systems continue to arm repressive regimes, with British-made weapons being used in atrocities in places like Yemen. The European Parliament has voted to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the UN has published a report and Parliament's International Development Committee has raised concerns that British weapons are breaching international humanitarian law in the conflict against Yemen and demanded a ban on arms sales. Despite evidence that civilians and civilian targets including schools, MSF hospitals and a wedding have been bombed indiscriminately, the UK government will do nothing to jeopardise its relationship with its biggest arms customer: BAE is profiting from the bombing having recently secured new sales of Typhoon fighter jets and Hawk training jets.

If the UK government refuses to do what's right, we are left with little choice but to take matters into our own hands. Andrea's book is a useful and inspiring read for anyone who wants to take action. The book does a great job of demystifiying direct action and even includes a handy list of steps to do and think about to make and action the Seeds of Hope possible.

BAE Systems continues to arm repressive regimes. If you are in the UK, find out how you can hold the company to account at its AGM on 4 May. Email action@caat.org.uk for more information.

Join the campaign to #StopArmingSaudi.

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