Four activists from Nottingham travelled to Germany to take part in a demonstration against arms company Heckler & Koch at the company’s international HQ in March. H&K is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of small arms, and its guns are used throughout the world; from Darfur to Iraq, from Nigeria to Nepal. The company has long been opposed by peace campaigners in Germany, and since 2008 its Nottingham office has been the target of a local campaign called Shut Down H&K.
In 2009 Heckler & Koch will be 60 years old. In order to pre-empt the company’s birthday celebrations, German peace groups organised a protest with the slogan 60 Jahre Heckler & Koch: kein Grund zum Feiern (60 Years of Heckler & Koch: No Cause for Celebration). The Nottingham activists were invited to a March 7th demonstration by the peace groups RIB, ORL and DFG-VK, who also funded their journey.
In Germany, the damning case against Heckler & Koch was laid out in a lecture by the country’s leading anti-arms-trade campaigner Jürgen Grässlin. Speaking on the eve of the demonstration at a hall in the town of Rottweil, Grässlin talked about H&K’s history of arming repressive regimes. He showed the audience slides of H&K rifles in the hands of genocidal militias, and presented a pair of flip-flops he had taken from a Sudanese mass grave of people executed with H&K guns.
Then it was the turn of the Nottingham delegation to speak about their campaign and how H&K has used its UK operation to evade arms embargoes and supply guns that were used in human rights abuses in countries like Bosnia, Sudan, Ecuador and Indonesia. The German audience was genuinely shocked to hear about the tactics used by Nottinghamshire Police to suppress the campaign. The audio and transcript of the speech are available here.
Heckler & Koch’s global HQ is in the picturesque South-West German town of Oberndorf am Neckar, far from the misery inflicted by its trade. The theme of the demonstration was Maskerade des Todes (Masquerade of the Dead) signifying the estimated 1.5 million people who have been killed by H&K weapons. Some 200 demonstrators gathered at the railway station in the midday sunshine and listened to music and speeches before setting off on a march into the town centre.
Many of the marchers were dressed all in black, their faces covered by white deathmasks. Some bore crosses with the names of countries in which people have been killed with H&K weapons, while others carried signs saying “I am a soft target” – a reference to the euphemistic description of human beings in H&K’s marketing brochures. Still more marchers were dressed as soldiers, arms industry execs or bankers, and a lone clown played the funeral drum.
The marchers gathered around a cobbled square and watched as a piece of street theatre played out before them. First the board of H&K toasted their booming business with champagne and then none other than Death himself took centre stage, praising H&K – his favourite company – for sending him so many souls. The Grim Reaper personally congratulated the CEO of H&K, who offered to replace his ageing scythe with a more efficient, modern tool – a Heckler & Koch assault rifle. Death was pleased!
Next Jürgen Grässlin delivered a powerful denunciation of Heckler & Koch, listing the company’s many shameful dealings – a history that gives no cause for celebration. Finally the Nottingam delegation stepped up to speak, thanking the German campaigners for inviting them, and delivering the message that opposition to the arms trade must be as global as the arms trade itself. In an overwhelming show of solidarity, the German campaigners had an impromptu whip-round that raised €270 for the UK campaign.
The British activists were struck by the differences between this demonstration and the demos against H&K in Nottingham. First of all, the police presence was nowhere near as oppressive. There were about half a dozen German police who maintained a respectful distance, and very little police surveillance. By contrast, every Nottingham picket has been attended by numerous riot vans with at least one policeperson for every demonstrator, and constant and oppressive surveillance, despite the fact that these demonstrations have always been peaceful. The second difference is that the Heckler & Koch HQ in Oberndorf is well signposted, as opposed to the Nottingham depot, which is completely unsignposted, hidden in an unmarked warehouse as if ashamed of its business.
The demonstration was reported favourably on German TV news and in local newspapers and was filmed for a documentary about Grässlin. The collaboration between the German and British campaigns has been a boost for both, and they will continue to work together in a spirit of international solidarity against the arms trade.
The Notts Indymedia photo report has more pictures of the speeches in Rottweil (part 2) and the demo at Oberndorf (part 3 and part 4). Monthly demonstrations against Heckler & Koch in Nottingham will continue with a picket on Tuesday April 14th and a special campaign anniversary demo on Monday May 11th.