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The Times' report of the women's acquittal and Andrea's hammer.

The Times’ report of the women’s acquittal and Andrea’s hammer.

Hammer blow against genocide

Local resident, mother and peace and environmental campaigner, Andrea Needham, is putting the finishing touches to her book, The Hammer Blow. Coming up on 29 January 2016 is the 20th anniversary of the action, in which four women disarmed a Hawk warplane bound for Indonesia, to stop it being used in illegally-occupied East Timor. After six months in prison awaiting trial, they were acquitted of all charges. HOT’s Zelly Restorick reports.

Andrea Needham is someone who shows calm, consistent, single-minded determination in the goals she sets for herself; caring, thoughtful, intelligent, she’s someone who takes action to create the world she would like future generations to inherit. Personally, she is a woman for whom I have a lot of admiration. A year or so ago, I wrote about one of her achievements, when she worked as part of the team who developed an energy efficient plan for a local school, involving solar panels, an energy-saving boiler and lighting. This time I’m finding out more about a more risky past achievement, involving a hammer and a Hawk warplane.

(Please find details of Peace News’ Kickstarter campaign to publish The Hammer Blow at the end of this article.)

Andrea Needham with her hammer.

Andrea Needham with her hammer.

What motivated you to take this action – to disarm the Hawk warplane?

I had been campaigning against the sale of Hawks to Indonesia for several years. Indonesia had been illegally occupying East Timor for over 20 years, and in that time had killed a third of the population (Noam Chomsky describes the genocide in East Timor as ‘one of the greatest bloodlettings in modern history compared to total population’). Hawks from an earlier deal had been seen attacking villages in the mountains of East Timor – and it was obvious that these ones would be used for the same purpose. I was simply outraged that my government was selling weapons to a genocidal dictatorship and making ridiculous – and insulting – excuses such as that Indonesia had a right to self-defence… and that British Aerospace was making enormous profits out of the suffering and death of people on the other side of the world.

In the three years or so before we disarmed the Hawk, I had done everything in my power – as had thousands of other people – to stop the deal by other means. I had written over 50 letters to British Aerospace, to the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence, the Department of Trade and Industry, my MP. I had taken part in marches and rallies, signed petitions, organised peace camps, spoken out at British Aerospace AGMs, leafleted workers, held public meetings, carried out acts of peaceful resistance. Nothing had worked and the planes were about to be delivered to Indonesia. What else could we do other than try to disarm them ourselves?

Do you feel it made a difference? How?

I think it was extremely important in the overall campaign for East Timor, although our action didn’t stop the Hawk deal – the deal was continued, even after Labour came to power in 1997 with its so-called ‘ethical foreign policy’. It did a huge amount to raise awareness of the situation, and many people found out for the first time that Britain was supporting genocide.

Our action should be seen as just part of a huge international solidarity campaign, with people all over the world – particularly in Australia, Portugal, the US, Britain and Indonesia – taking action in solidarity with the people of East Timor.

In 1992, the Indonesian foreign minister, Ali Alatas, referred to East Timor as “a pebble in the shoe”: irritating, but not a huge problem. Later, he said that in the final years before independence, East Timor had become “veritable boulder” for Indonesia: that is, the situation was no longer tenable – and Indonesia granted a referendum on independence in 1999.

I think the continued resistance of the Timorese people, combined with the huge international solidarity, had the effect of turning the pebble into a boulder, and our action was a part of that transformation.

Do you feel non-violent protest can change things?

Absolutely. As above, I think it can play a crucial role in moving issues forward, in shifting the terms of debate. More mainstream methods of campaigning are important, but perhaps easier for governments to ignore than sustained, determined, non-violent action. There are so many instances throughout history where non-violent protest has changed political situations: the campaign for women’s suffrage, the civil rights movement in the USA, the anti-apartheid movement, the Indian independence campaign.

There are other cases where the evidence shows (the Vietnam war, Tony Blair’s decision to go to war in Iraq) that popular protest, whilst it didn’t stop the wars, had a big restraining impact on governments. The US and Britain, for example, were restrained in what they could do in Iraq, because they were aware of the huge protest movement at home. After the huge road protests of the 1990s, the incoming Labour government cancelled 300 road schemes. (I could go on!)

The Hawk warplane

The Hawk warplane.

What motivates – has motivated you – to be such an active campaigner?

A deep concern for justice and for the environment….that sounds a bit cliched! I suppose some degree of anger (I think anger can be a good thing if it’s directed properly, into constructive campaigning rather than simply raging – it certainly motivates me) about decisions made by the wealthy few for the benefit of the wealthy few, with the most appalling effects on the most vulnerable in society and on the environment.

And a belief that things could be so much better if decisions were taken with people and the environment uppermost in mind. A concern for future generations: I wonder what kind of world my daughter, age 11, and others of her generation will be living in when they’re my age, if we don’t act very radically, and very fast, to tackle some of the problems facing us at the moment.

Were you brought up in a campaigning family?

No, not at all. We didn’t discuss politics as a family and I didn’t think about it at all, even when I left home and went to college; I was pretty apolitical even though it was the time of the miners’ strikes and Greenham. What few opinions I did have I probably got from my grandfather’s Daily Mail.

When I was 21, I went to the USA, initially just for a short visit, but I ended up staying nearly three years. I was living and working with homeless people in Washington DC and was absolutely shocked by what I saw there. I had never seen poverty (I grew up in a middle-class family in rural Suffolk) outside of news reports about African famines, and suddenly here I was, in the capital of one of the richest countries in the world and just a few blocks from the White House, surrounded by people who had absolutely nothing more than the clothes they stood up in. There was no welfare to speak of, no health care, no homes, nothing.

It caused me to really question my whole view of the world: how have we created a world with such disparity of wealth, where people like this can just be thrown away?

The communities I lived in (the Community for Creative Nonviolence and the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker) were also very involved in non-violent direct action around issues of justice, particularly housing and war. At first I was in awe of people who went out and got arrested, but after a while I realised they were just ordinary people – just like me. I first got arrested for blockading Pennsylvania Avenue in 1988, in protest against housing cuts and by the time I came back to England in 1990, campaigning was so much part of my life that I couldn’t imagine ever not doing it.

The cockpit screen

The cockpit screen.

It’s hard not to look at the situation we’re facing in terms of climate change and not feel pretty desperate. I’ve just read Naomi Klein’s incredible book, This Changes Everything, which exposes the real problem at the bottom of it all: free market capitalism, where corporations are free to do whatever they want in pursuit of profit.

Governments like to pretend this is something we can all sort out: we can switch off lights or cycle instead of driving, reuse our plastic bags and compost our kitchen waste. They pretend that technofixes – electric cars, better solar panels – are the way forward, rather than admitting that the whole system is toxic. It’s a way for governments to avoid taking responsibility for the mess they have created by deregulating everything and presenting any constraints on unsustainable growth as some kind of abuse of the freedom to become immensely rich at other people’s expense.

You are very aware of climate change and environmental issues. What do you see as the best way forward for humanity on this planet?

We need to wake up, fast, and see that the whole system needs changing – and that it’ll have to be changed by us, from the bottom up, because there’s no way those in power are going to change. Most are well aware that they are driving the world towards catastrophic climate change, but their need to appease the god of capitalism outweighs their concerns for the planet.

Klein’s book is utterly shocking, but also shows that there is a way forward; we have to ditch the free market economics and reclaim democracy for the people, not for a tiny, wealthy elite. She shows how people around the world are acting against climate change and for democracy, against powerful elites and for a world which is not just livable, but actually better for everyone. Whether change can happen in time remains to be seen, but in the face of the most serious environmental disaster the planet has ever confronted, how can we not try?

One of the banners the activists hung on the Hawk warplane

One of the banners the activists hung on the Hawk warplane.

What would your message be to HOT readers?

That we can make a difference. We can’t necessarily measure the impact of what we do, but it’s important to believe that we can change things, we can have a better world. At the moment, with five more years of a Tory government ahead of us, with welfare cuts which are having profoundly damaging effects on the most vulnerable, with Amber Rudd doing everything she can to advance climate change, with public services under threat, I struggle to feel positive about the world. But trying to change things is perhaps my coping mechanism: I don’t want to crawl into a corner and think I can’t do anything, and let them get away with what they’re doing. There are more of us than there are of them, and now, perhaps more than at any other point in history, we have to stand up and be counted.

What would you call yourself? An independent peace campaigner? Environmental advocate?

Hm , that’s an interesting question. Nowadays I campaign almost exclusively on environmental, rather than peace, issues (that is to say, actively campaign: I would certainly support peace events, just wouldn’t be organising them). So if you’re talking about how I would describe myself now, I’d say environmental activist. Then, probably peace activist. I like ‘activist’ rather than ‘campaigner’ or ‘advocate’. Or perhaps simply ‘human’!

One of the banners the activists hung on the Hawk warplane

One of the banners the activists hung on the Hawk warplane.

“The Seeds of Hope action was one of the most imaginative and successful direct actions in modern-day Britain. Andrea Needham was part of that action, and her eagerly awaited book is now here. Read it and learn how to change the world.” John Pilger

“The heroic actions of this small, but determined, group of women is told brilliantly in Andrea Needham’s fascinating account. Anyone interested in social change, or campaigning for peace, should read this book and take inspiration from the brave actions of these amazing women.” Caroline Lucas, Green MP for Brighton Pavilion

The Hammer Blow by Andrea Needham

The Hammer Blow by Andrea Needham (draft cover design by Erica Smith).

The Kickstarter Campaign

A message from the Peace News team: Please support – and help to publicise – our Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign to enable us to publish The Hammer Blow, the first inside account of the Seeds of Hope East Timor Ploughshares action in 1996.

Andrea’s book describes the year-long preparation, the action itself, prison and trial, making an important contribution to peace movement history.
Although the Seeds of Hope action took place almost twenty years ago, it is still relevant today. Britain is the world’s second largest weapons dealer, selling arms to countries embroiled in conflicts and guilty of terrible human rights abuses. As refugees pour out of war zones in the Middle East, Britain’s response is to offer sanctuary to a very few, whilst continuing to see that area of the world as a key market for arms deals.

Campaigners in every area – the arms trade, the environment, human rights – need to be prepared to stand up and hold the government to account. The Seeds of Hope action showed how a small group of committed women were prepared to do just that, despite the risks to themselves. The Hammer Blow aims to inspire new generations of activists, and to show that, even when the cards appear stacked against us, we can still win.

In order to raise funds to print the book, Peace News and Andrea Needham have launched a Kickstarter campaign and would love you to help by making a pledge and/ or forwarding this email, and spreading the message through social media. The deadline for backing this project is 28 October 2015.

Posted 14:09 Wednesday, Oct 14, 2015 In: Campaigns

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