An arms manufacturer was shut down for a day as the Big Ride came to Staffordshire, reports Orlando Hill
Last Monday 8 August, over 200 cyclists and supporters blockaded the main road outside the factory of UAV engines in Shenstone near Birmingham closing the factory for a day. The cyclists had cycled three days from Bristol, London, Manchester and Sheffield converging in Birmingham as part of the annual Big Ride marking the anniversary of Israel’s bombardment over Gaza in 2014. Last year, the cyclists rode from Edinburgh to London in nine days raising awareness of the plight of Palestine and raising funds for MECA, a charity which supports children’s projects in Palestine. In 2015, the Big Ride managed to close Westminster Bridge for a two-minute silence in memory of all the children killed in the bombardment.
UAV engines is a subsidiary of Israel’s largest arms manufacturer Elbit Systems. It manufactures drones, systems for military aircraft, armed remote control boats and military land vehicles. According to Dermot Macward, the organiser of the Big Ride, “it cannot be right that this trade in death is treated as business as usual. The blood of Palestinian children is surely on the hands of the British government.”
This year’s ride had the support of numerous peace organisations: Stop the War, War on Want, Palestine Solidarity Campaign, MECA, Friends of Al-Aqsa and Jews for Justice for Palestine. I am proud to have taken part in the Big Ride for the second time. I started the ride, along with about thirty other riders, from Bristol with a morning rally on 6 August. Jeremy Clarke from Bristol Stop the War reminded us in his speech that it was Hiroshima day when the world remembers the first time an atomic bomb was used against people. In Clarke’s opinion the argument that the armament industry protects jobs is the same as the one used to defend slavery 200 years ago.
Peace Handovsky from the Bristol Palestine Museum argued that “empires have always tried to build walls, but they don’t last. Building walls is not the answer. Today, you can walk along the Hadrian Wall and hardly see any of it. The Berlin Wall doesn’t exist any longer.”
There is something very symbolic about cycling and protesting against walls, occupations and sieges. The industrial production of bicycles in the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century made it possible for the first time for the working class to travel substantial distances. It gave workers independence and mobility. It changed the geography of cities. According to birth records from the 1890s, surnames that for centuries had been associated to particular rural localities began to show up in faraway places. Robert Penn in his book It’s All about the Bike (Particular Books, 2010) argues that “the greatest impact of the bicycle was in breaking down hitherto rigid class and gender barriers. There was a democracy to the bicycle that society was powerless to resist.”
The popularity of the bicycle coincided with the birth of the feminist movement. It provided an opportunity for women to wear more practical clothes. In September 1893, 16-year-old Tessie Reynolds rode from Brighton to London and back in 8.5 hours. Similar to today it wasn’t only her record breaking time that caused a national sensation, but what she was wearing: a long jacket over a pair of baggy pantaloons cropped below the knees. This was a stark contrast to the flowing dresses and petticoats worn at the time.
Taking part in the Big Ride gives the participants a glimpse of how society could and should be run. Miriam Al-Sayed and Manal Monsour were the main organisers of the Bristol ride. They did it extremely well. Decisions were taken democratically. Whether to keep to the main road or take a more scenery, but tougher, route. Whether to take a small ferry across the River Severn or keep to the road and add ten miles. More experienced riders looked after the novice riders. No one was left behind. Cyclists volunteered to mark chalk arrows along the route and stay behind at cross-roads to make sure no one got lost. Every cyclist looked after the other, and everyone arrived safely at the destination. Friendships and a strong bond of comradeship were forged.
Apart from one lone young man shouting that we were holocaust deniers during the Bristol rally at the beginning of the ride, we never encountered any sort of hostility while we cycled with our Palestine tops and flags. The loner didn’t even wait to listen to a representative of Jews for Justice for Palestine who said that “no degree of injustice suffered by one people can justify mistreatment of another people.” We were reminded of Rabbi Hillel’s words, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour. That is the whole Torah, the rest is commentary.” From Bristol to Gloucester and then to Birmingham we were met with enthusiasm, curiosity and solidarity while we cycled with “End the siege of Gaza” written on the back of our tops. We arrived in Birmingham in time for the Palestine Fun Day Festival organised by the Midlands Palestine Solidarity Campaign. We met up with the other riders who had cycled from London and Manchester. It was an afternoon of amusements, music, food and speeches on Palestine.
The following day we were greeted by a crowd of activists in front of the UAV factory where a rally was organised to protest against Britain’s involvement in the arms trade with Israel. It was the largest demonstration that UAV had seen in front of its gates. At the start Dermot Macward thanked Jeremy Corbyn for his continuous support for the Palestinian cause. At the mention of Corbyn’s name the crowd gave a loud cheer of approval. We were reminded that Jeremy Corbyn had visited Gaza and stayed in Mona El-Farra’s (director of MECA) home.
Miriam Al-Sayed and Manal Monsour gave a brilliant performance of the Queen’s We Will Rock You with the lyrics changed to “We Will Disarm Israel” accompanied by the crowd. Tom Bishop from the Manchester ride rapped his poem “There’s Nothing New About the News” criticising the black out by the media of the social movement. As Chandni Chopra said the BBC won’t report the atrocities committed by Israeli government. They are complicit. “We have to tell them. It’s in our hands. We have the responsibility. We know about the occupation.”
A representative of Birmingham Stop the War warned of further escalation of war with Hilary Clinton’s probable victory in the US presidential election. He went on to inform us that UAV builds drone engines which are exported to 25 countries including Israel who then re-exports them to over 50 countries that oppress their people. A representative of Jews for Justice for Palestine stated that “solidarity has no religion, but must have faith that justice will prevail.”
While we were doing the Big Ride to Shenstone children in Gaza were having their own ride. As Mona El-Farra said, “more than the money raised what is important is for the Palestinians is the awareness that they are not alone and forgotten.”
When the rally was over we headed to our coaches back to London, Bristol, Manchester and Sheffield with the satisfaction of having closed the UAV factory. At least for one day no weapons were not built to be used against the children of Palestine. Hopefully next year there will be another Big Ride.
Orlando was born in Brazil and was involved in the successful struggle for democracy in the late 1970s and 80s in that country. He teaches A level Economics. He is a member of the NEU, Counterfire and Stop the War.
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