CLUSTERING IN CARMARTHEN

It was September 2003, I live in rural West Wales. I was a member of BEPJ (Bro Emlyn for Peace and Justice). This is an account of some NVDA (non violent direct action).

The sun shines in Newcastle Emlyn.  I  set up Bill’s wheelchair on the pavement outside the Plaid Cymru office in the disused shop at the top end of town. This is the weekly meeting of the anti war group Bro Emlyn For Peace and Justice. I don’t know how I started taking Bill to the meetings. As his independent living personal assistant I must have told him about the group during one of our frequent political discussions as I drove him around the countryside of Dyfed. He is opposed to Tony Blair’s decision to support George W Bush in the invasion of Iraq, as am I. When he asked to come along to meetings I said I’d take him. 

” There is a BEPJ meeting this Friday at 7.30pm!” I’d said.

“Great, pick me up at 7 then.” and here we are.

As Bill manoeuvres himself into his chair the Plaid full timer turns up with the key and opens the front door for us. I move Bill to a spot with his back to the shop windows because, even though he still has some vision left, his diabetes makes direct daylight uncomfortable for him. I set out fifteen stacking chairs in a circle and sit down waiting for other group members to arrive. The office had once been a confectionery shop but it has been stripped back to bare walls and floorboards and is in need of a lick of paint and a good sweep out. The local Plaid Cymru MP holds his monthly constituency meetings here and during election times it’s a campaign office but most of the time nothing happens there aside from our meetings. The Americans and British are well into Shock and Awe and cluster bombs fall all over Iraq.  A significant percentage of these are not exploding as they hit the ground. Children and adults  get maimed and killed when they move these mini bombs. The situation is, in my view, obscene. Bill and I had discussed this situation the day before as we sat on the beach at Llansteffan and I had decided that I would suggest that BEPJ might carry out some direct action in Carmarthen to highlight the plight of everyday people in Baghdad. At seven thirty  18 of us sit in a circle reporting back on what had happened the previous week. Robert, Graham, Louis, David, Hippo, Gilly, and Celia ran the weekly stall in Newcastle Emlyn handing out leaflets and getting signatures on the Campaign Against The Arms Trade petition against the manufacture of cluster bombs. Jeremy had  set up the new website. Maggie is rehearsing a show about the whole situation in the middle east to be performed in St Dogmaels. David is building the new free peace and justice library with books donated by many of the 120 members on our mailing list. I have  set up a new course on Peace Studies with Carmarthenshire Adult Education services. We are a busy group of activists with many successful meetings and events under our belt.

After reports we move on to talk about future actions. Fiona suggests we should have a social event with a local band at the Emlyn Arms to raise funds for medical aid for families in Fallujah and this is agreed. I then make my pitch for my idea for some non-violent direct action. 

“I’ve been thinking that we might raise the profile of the issue of the growing use of cluster bombs when we have our next stall in Carmarthen. Supposing we all made some replica cluster bombs, say a dozen each, and spread them all over the streets of central Carmarthen. This might make people understand what the plight of people in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq is really like.” 

Vanessa is keen, as she always is when new ideas are introduced, “How big are they?” 

“About the same size as a can of Coca Cola.” I say. 

People are enthused, we’re in total agreement that this is a brilliant idea and that everybody will make their imitation bombs in time for the next Friday’s meeting when we will finalise arrangements for the action on the Saturday. 

Celia raises an important issue, “Might it be a good idea to let the police know what we intend to do? You know how they are, better safe than sorry.” 

It’s agreed that she will telephone the local station and let them know our plan. They’re always civil to us whenever we decide to do something and always thank us for letting them know. I take on the task of contacting the local media. The meeting finishes at 9.00 pm and I drive Bill home. He’s very animated and says that he will get his wife to help him make his bomb-lets. I’m happy that we’re going to get this issue cemented into the minds of local people in a different way to the usual leafleting strategy. 

On Monday morning I get a phone call from Celia, “Hello Harry, I’ve just come off the phone with the Dyfed police and we can’t do our action on Saturday.” 

“Why not?” 

“They say that whilst they understand our concerns about the use of cluster bombs in Iraq they would rather we didn’t carpet the streets of Carmarthen with imitation bombs because there was the slim chance that someone might put a real bomb in amongst the replicas and this could be both dangerous and extremely difficult to deal with.” 

“I see. Hmmm they do have a point. I guess we will have to think of a different way of using the artificial bombs.” 

“Maggie suggested that we might do some agitprop theatre instead, give her a ring and see what you think.” 

“OK I’ll call her later, shame we can’t do it though, still it can’t be helped I suppose. See you on Friday, Celia.”

“OK, sorry to be the bearer of bad news, byeee.” 

I ring Maggie straight away and she outlines an idea for me and her to do some improvised street theatre based on the Arms Fair in London. I’ll be Flash Harry, a cockney arms trader down from the big smoke trying to drum up trade for the latest in cluster technology and Maggie will play an American dealer looking to make a few dollars. I am up for this.

On Friday everyone turns up to the meeting with their bags of cluster bombs. They vary in sophistication. Some are very crudely done, others have been designed very well.  Everyone is disappointed when I tell them that our plans have been thwarted by the rozzers. However we come up with an idea for running a lucky dip as part of the Agitprop. We decide to use a tea chest filled with wood shavings, the imitation cluster bombs and a few real prizes of cheap trinkets from Woolworths. Enthusiasm rises high and we adjourn to the Ivy Bush pub.

Next morning we set up our stall in Guildhall Square at ten o’clock and start collecting signatures for the Campaign Against  Arms Trade petition against the International Arms Fair in London. All goes well and we get a good response. At eleven thirty Hippo and Gilly arrive at our stall. They look very pleased with themselves and Hippo says, “We’ve put our bombs out.”

It is at that point that I realise they hadn’t attended the meeting last night and so didn’t know that we we weren’t spreading bombs all over Carmarthen. 

I explain the situation and then ask, “How many did you make?”

Hippo says “ Twelve.”

“Well you’d better retrace your footsteps and bloody well collect them up and bring them here.”

They set off and we continue petitioning. Half an hour later Hippo and Gilly return with a carrier bag full of bomblets.

“Did you get them all?” I ask

“We could only find ten of them, We can’t remember where the other two are.” says Gilly.

“Oh well, I don’t suppose that will make much difference, after all, we have told the police about it, so if anyone finds one they will know what it is. Don’t worry, it will be fine.”

The afternoon is a stonking success. We collect almost 400 signatures and the street theatre is a hoot. Maggie and I draw large crowds. 

We call out to people,  “Roll up, Roll up. Free lucky dip, Win a prize,……  chance your arm,….. Find out what it’s like to take pot luck just like the people of Baghdad.”.

We do an improvised sketch about the way in which Arms Companies and Governments keep the profits rolling into all kinds of nefarious pockets. We hand out masses of leaflets against the war and at five O’clock we pack up our stuff after a wonderful day of nonviolent direct action. We all hug each other and head home, a happy bunch of anti war protesters.  

On sunday morning I get a telephone call. It’s Celia.

“We’re in big trouble. The police just called me. Hippo and Gilly’s two bombs have been found.”

“So, what’s the problem? They know the bombs aren’t real, they know they’re ours.” I say

“Apparently the staff on the switchboard changed shifts this morning. Those on duty until six o’clock this morning knew about it. The new shift didn’t.”

“So what happened?”

“At half past five an early morning street cleaner found one of Hippo’s bombs and phoned the police. They told him they knew about it and to put it in with the rest of the rubbish, which he did.”

“Yeah, then what?” I say

“At seven a.m. an office cleaner found the other one in a doorway as she was about to go to work. She phones the police and the new telephonist knows nothing about it. This has triggered a full blown crisis in Carmarthen. The police have evacuated the area, closed all the shops and are awaiting the arrival of the bomb squad to get there from Wiltshire. When they arrive they are going to carry out a controlled explosion. The police are livid. I am very worried about this.”

I reflect for a few moments and then I say “It’s not our fault, they have made a procedural cock-up. We informed them of our plans. It is a shame that Hippo and Gilly couldn’t remember where they put the two missing bombs but they are getting on a bit. It’s just one of those things. Sit tight. All will be well. If they call again give them my number, I’ll talk to them.”

“Thanks Harry, I am very scared of having anything to do with the police.”

I tell her I’m not scared and we hang up.

It’s important at this point to point out that Hippo had been online and downloaded info which showed the words printed on actual cluster bomb ordnance and his replicas looked very real indeed. He used tin cans and had printed very convincing cardboard sleeves with proper serial numbers etc in the manufacturers font style.

So it was that the Bomb squad carried out a controlled explosion on a tin of Heinz Spaghetti Hoops in the centre of Carmarthen. At our meeting on the following Friday we talked about the implications of what had happened. The police said that they accepted that they had made a faux pas. 

I say to the meeting, “We could not have planned this any better if we had tried. All week long we have been contacted by the local and regional press about the story. On Thursday Bill and I and a handful of us met a journalist and photographer from the Western Mail and had our picture taken with armfuls of bombs, Bill’s wheelchair looked stunning. They have given the story massive coverage and we have a full page centre spread in Red Pepper magazine. It is my belief that we have raised people’s consciousness about carpet bombing civilian areas with these disgusting weapons.”

I also believed that the local police got some valuable experience out of the whole event as it enabled them to test out their counter terrorism procedures.

All in all a win win situation, nobody got hurt and we raised awareness. Peace and Justice for all.

Harry Rogers, posted in the Red Bedroom, 2nd April 2021