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Symon Hill: My arrest for querying the King

27 January 2023

Activism is a core Christian concept Symon Hill argues


Symon Hill in 2016, addressing a protest of LGBTQI and anti-militarist campaigners in London against the prospect of a Red Arrows fly-over and an invitation to BAE Systems

Symon Hill in 2016, addressing a protest of LGBTQI and anti-militarist campaigners in London against the prospect of a Red Arrows fly-over and an invi...

AT SCHOOL, they called me a troublemaker. I questioned rules that I considered unfair. I later discovered that, if you do this sort of thing as an adult, people call you an activist.

It’s an odd word. I have known people who are keen to insist that they are not activists. But it seems to me that an activist is simply someone who acts on their beliefs.

In this sense, every Christian is — or seeks to be — an activist. Loving your neighbour is activism. Signing a petition is activism. Volunteering for a project that supports people in poverty is activism — and so is tackling the causes of poverty. Pausing to show compassion to a stranger is activism. I am pretty sure that everyone reading this is an activist.

My upbringing was no more “political” than most. My parents were not involved in political parties or organised campaigns. None the less, they encouraged me to think for myself, and, in retrospect I can see how much I learnt from my father’s healthy suspicion of authority. 

From an early age, I was convinced that all human beings are of equal value. I remember mentioning this to a friend when I was 13 or 14. “So, you think you’re equal to the Queen?” he asked me. “Yes,” I replied. It seemed obvious to me. He looked horrified.

My conviction about the value of human life was one factor that led to my later interest in the teachings of Jesus. This became more than just an interest following a personal experience of Jesus when I was 17, and my acceptance of him as my lord and saviour. The New Testament shows Jesus’s compassion for everyone he encounters, and his disruption of social hierarchies. In God’s upside-down kingdom, all are welcome and all are challenged.


THE best and most effective campaigns are not run separately from campaigners’ everyday lives. The values and faith that lead us to show compassion for others should also be our motivation to work for structural change to overcome the causes of suffering and injustice.

People who speak negatively about activism overlook the reality that we have the rights we do not because the rich and powerful handed them down to us but because our ancestors campaigned for them. Were it not for protests, strikes, and grass-roots campaigns, we would have no right to vote, no sick pay, no religious liberty, no protection from discrimination, no state benefits, and our children would be working 12-hour shifts in factories.

History repeatedly shows the power of ordinary people to bring about change. Throughout the Cold War, peace activists in the West were accused of being naïve about the dangers of the Soviet Union. But the Cold War was ended not by military might but by people in Central and Eastern Europe overthrowing their own governments, often with surprisingly little violence.

It is not enough simply to vocalise our beliefs. We have to organise effective campaigns. Despite insisting for years that activists should think about timing and effectiveness, however, I have recently been reminded of the need to speak out against injustice in the moment in which it presents itself. I pray for the confidence to do so more often.


ON THE morning of 11 September 2022, I left my church — New Road Baptist Church, Oxford — to find that several roads and pavements were closed by a procession to proclaim “Charles III” as king. I was trying to work out my route home when the proclamation began. I was quiet as words were read out about grief for Elizabeth. I would not interrupt an act of mourning. Then Charles was declared to be our “only” king and “rightful liege lord”.

If Charles is my only king, Jesus cannot be. A liege lord requires loyalty and obedience. Being told to bow down to my fellow creature, and accept him as head of state and lord, made me feel sick. It was an assault on human dignity.

I called out “Who elected him?” I was near the back of the crowd, and I doubt many people heard me. Near by, a couple of people told me to shut up. I replied that a head of state was being imposed without our consent.

Three security guards appeared, and ordered me to be quiet. When I asked on what authority they acted, they started to push me backwards. Several police officers charged in. I was handcuffed and led away, as two strangers challenged the police, insisting that I had a right to free speech even though they did not agree with me.

The police later released me. They waited three months before charging me under the Public Order Act with “threatening or abusive words or behaviour”. I had threatened nobody. I had not insulted Charles Windsor or anybody else. It was a relief when the Crown Prosecution Service dropped the charges on 5 January. They said that there was “insufficient evidence” (or, I would put it, I had committed no crime).


SINCE the arrest in September, I have been swept away by thousands of supportive messages. I am grateful also for those who have sought to engage in constructive discussion despite disagreeing with my actions.

There has been hostility, too. There were people who wrote on social media that I should be hanged for treason. Andrew Schrader, a Conservative councillor in Basildon, tweeted that I should be sent to the Tower of London. There have been messages insisting that kings are appointed by God, or that Christians should not break the law (missing the point that I did not break the law).

Often, they quote Romans 13, concerning the legitimacy of governing authorities. It is a spectacular case of not seeing the wood for the trees. The Bible is full of examples of God’s blessing people who defy authority, from the Hebrew midwives who tricked the Pharaoh to the prophet Nathan calling David a murderer to his face.

In the Roman Empire, which required people to venerate the emperor, early Christians encouraged people to worship Christ instead. Yes, Paul wrote that the authorities had a valid purpose — but he caused so much trouble for those authorities that they executed him.

Christian leaders in the next few centuries clearly did not understand Paul to mean that they could not criticise the emperor. “Is the laurel of the triumph made of leaves or of corpses?” Tertullian asked. “Is it bedewed with ointments or with the tears of wives and mothers?”

Since then, some have found it convenient to claim that God’s anointing of Saul and David applies to Christian monarchs. Many of the first people to call for monarchy’s abolition, however, were motivated by Christian faith. In 1649, in the wake of the English revolution, the Diggers insisted that God was dishonoured if people did not live as equals. “Everyone may see that he is no respecter of persons but equally loves his whole creation,” the theologian Gerard Winstanley wrote.

For me, this is the point. Yes, I object to a head of state who has not been elected. But, more than that, I object to the expectation that one human being should bow down to another and call him “Your Majesty”.

We are all, as 17th-century anti-royalists put it, fellow creatures. Let us reserve our veneration for our creator. Let us seek to treat us each other with love and respect as equals. Anything less is a denial of our value and worth as fallible and equal human beings, created in the image of God.

Symon Hill is the author of The Peace Protestors: A history of modern-day war resistance, published by Pen and Sword History at £25 (CT Bookshop £22.50); 978-1-39900-786-3.


They used hammers to strike for justice 

In an extract from his new book, Symon Hill tells the story of the Wharton women

ON A snowy January morning in 1996, three women cut through the wire fence of an arms factory in Lancashire. One of them, Andrea Needham, crawled through the hole in the fence. She had experienced panic attacks in the previous weeks, but she now felt calm and focused. The women had spent nearly a year planning for this day in meticulous detail.

The other two women, Jo Wilson and Lotta Kronlid, passed Andrea the bags they were carrying and then crawled through after her. The site belonged to BAe, the business formerly known as British Aerospace. It was one of the world’s biggest arms companies and was facing particular criticism for selling Hawk jets used by Indonesian forces to attack civilians in East Timor.

AlamyThe three women accused of causing £1 million pounds’ worth of damage to a Hawk plane at the British Aerospace military aircraft factory, at Warton, Lancashire. Left to right: Andrea Needham, Joanna Wilson, and Engla Kronlid

Despite the heavy security at BAe Warton, no one detected the arrival of Andrea, Jo, and Lotta. There was a movement sensor on the site, but it was set off so often by rabbits that the security staff tended to ignore it.

The activists walked through grass that came up past their waists. The grass was frozen and made crunching sounds as they walked, but still nobody heard them. It was only 50 yards to the hangar that they were aiming for. They used a crowbar to open a door, and went in.

There were security lights on each corner of the hangar, and a camera over one of the doors. Even now, no one raised the alarm.

The hangar contained Hawk jet ZH-955, which was due to be sent to Indonesia. The women had identified the jet and its location in advance. Their research and planning had been so thorough that for a long time afterwards it was wrongly suspected that there was someone within BAe giving them information.

Jo, Andrea, and Lotta opened the bags that they had brought with them and took out their hammers. As Andrea later recalled, “The Hawk turned out to be surprisingly fragile.” They had researched the safest and most efficient way to disarm the plane. They had divided up their roles in advance. The noise they made by hammering was deafening and they expected security guards to appear at any moment.

IT TOOK less than 20 minutes to severely damage the plane. The women put copies of a video and booklet about Indonesia and East Timor in the cockpit, hoping that they would be used in evidence if they came to trial. They hung banners on the plane reading, “Women disarming for life and justice,” and “BAe kills: swords into ploughshares.”

The three activists were part of the Ploughshares movement that had been nonviolently disarming weapons in various parts of the world since 1980. But while Andrea had once served a short prison sentence, Lotta and Jo had never even been arrested.

Lotta shouted that a vehicle was approaching the hangar. This is it, they thought. They put down their tools and sat on the steps to the cockpit, their hands open in front of them so that they could not be construed as threatening or violent. But the vehicle was not full of security guards coming to stop them. It went in a different direction.

They had prepared in advance for every imaginable eventuality, rehearsing them hundreds of times in conversations and role-plays. The one possibility for which they had not prepared was that nobody would stop them, or even find them.
They noticed a small office in the hangar with a telephone inside. They used the phone to call their friend Angie Zelter, who had planned the action with them, to update her. Lotta made an international call to her family in Sweden. Still no BAe staff arrived.


EVENTUALLY, Jo phoned a journalist, who phoned the BAe press office and asked for a comment about the fact that three women had entered their supposedly secure base and disarmed a warplane intended for Indonesia. Only then did BAe send their security guards to the hangar. They drove the women to the front gate and handed them over to the police, who immediately arrested them.

Within hours, the media were reporting that they had caused more than a million pounds’ worth of damage.

They were charged with criminal damage and burglary. Appearing before the magistrate the next day, they argued that they had committed no crime.

“I would like to invite you to drop the charges against us and ask the prosecution to investigate British Aerospace for breaches of the Genocide Act,” said Andrea. The magistrate said that she did not want “any political speeches”. Bail was refused and the campaigners were remanded in custody. They were later sent to Risley prison in Cheshire.

Angie Zelter was arrested shortly afterwards and charged with conspiracy. She too was refused bail and sent to Risley. On her arrival, a prison officer was taken aback by Angie’s smart clothes and grey hair. “Are you a prisoner?” she asked. “No, I’m a prison inspector,” replied Angie. “I’m testing out handcuffs.”

Angie, Andrea, Jo, and Lotta spent six months in prison on remand. It was not an easy time. None the less, they received letters from all over the world about what they had done. There were letters from Timorese prisoners in Indonesian jails, thanking the women for their action. “In my opinion this is the most efficient way to help stop the Indonesian people from killing our people and destroying our land,” wrote one of them.

AlamyIndonesian airforce pilots in 2014 celebrate the delivery of 16 T-50i fighters bought from Korea Aerospace Industry to replace their Hawk jets. A decommissioned Hawk can be seen behind the pilots

When the trial was set for Liverpool in July, peace campaigners and local groups worked hard to ensure that people in the city would know what was going on. Jo Wilson was an independent councillor in nearby Kirkby, one of Britain’s poorest towns. The Independent on Sunday sent reporters to the area before the trial. Most people whom they approached on the streets of Kirkby had heard about the case and the issues behind it.

They reported. Keith Hassall, chairman of a residents’ and shopkeepers’ association, said even children on the estates knew about the case, and about East Timor. When they are not arguing about sport, he said, “there’s a good chance they’ll be going on about this tiny tropical island thousands of miles away where people are being killed by the government and the army. And Britain is selling them weapons by the lorry-load. How do you explain that to your kids?”


A MATTER of days before the trial started, three church leaders in Liverpool issued a statement criticising the defendants: “We understand their motives but we cannot support their action.” They said that they opposed arms sales to Indonesia but that the women were wrong to break the law. It was a premature comment, given that the court had yet to determine whether they had broken the law.

Pat Gaffney, of Pax Christi, responded to the law-abiding clerics by comparing them to clergy who had told Martin Luther King that they supported his aims but not his methods. King’s response to them, A Letter from Birmingham Jail, is perhaps his best-known piece of writing, and has become a classic text on nonviolent direct action. Pat echoed King’s call for a “positive peace” that is the presence of justice rather than a “negative peace” that is the absence of tension.

The defendants feared that the church leaders’ letter would prejudice the jury in a city with a large number of Catholics. Fortunately, many local churches took a very different attitude at the grass roots. Several local congregations, both Catholic and Protestant, declared their support.

One Catholic priest, Arthur Fitzgerald, spent much of the trial kneeling in prayer outside the court. Andrea Needham had herself converted to Roman Catholicism a few years earlier, influenced by the anarchopacifist teachings of the Catholic Worker movement.

Supporters gathered outside the court as the trial began on Tuesday 23 July 1996. The defendants had been charged under the Criminal Damage Act 1971, which makes it an offence to damage property “without lawful excuse”. The defence barrister Vera Baird spoke about the IRA’s bombing of Manchester a few weeks earlier, which had injured about 200 people.

“Slashing a tyre is criminal damage,” she said. “But if it was on a car carrying a bomb to Manchester, then slashing it could be seen as a lawful excuse.” In the same way, the defendants argued that they were seeking to prevent genocide in East Timor.

BAe’s managers, giving evidence for the prosecution, were clearly embarrassed that they had not noticed the presence of people breaking into their factory. A BAe manager, Christopher Foster, was cross-examined by Andrea Needham, conducting her own defence. “You’re obviously greatly concerned about the damage we did to the Hawk,” Andrea said. “Do you have any concern about the damage that would be done to East Timor if the plane was delivered?”

Foster might have tried to evade the question. Instead, he simply said “No”.
Later that day, BBC Radio Liverpool reported: “A senior British Aerospace manager has admitted in court to having no concern for people who may have been killed by Hawk aircraft which have been sold to the Indonesian government.”

POLICE witnesses included Detective Sergeant Lee, who had arrested Angie Zelter. She asked him why he had not investigated the allegations that BAe Warton was aiding and abetting genocide. He said: “Somebody at the level of Detective Sergeant is not going to start investigating genocide against a company such as British Aerospace.”

After Angie Zelter pressed him on the point, Lee said: “It is not British Aerospace that is on trial here, is it?”

“But anybody would think it was,” commented the judge.

While this was technically a trial of four individuals accused of criminal damage, the number of British people aware of BAE’s sales to Indonesia must have multiplied several times over as a result of the case. On some level, however unofficially, BAe was indeed on trial. The jury were shown the video that Andrea, Jo, and Lotta had left in the Hawk jet. It gave information about East Timor and included footage of Indonesian troops killing civilians.

Lyn recalled: “The prosecution felt it was proving their guilt but of course it was explaining to the jury for the reason for their actions.” As part of the defence case, witnesses were called who had knowledge and experience of East Timor to testify about the realities on the ground.

On 30 July, the jury retired to consider their verdict. After several hours, the judge agreed to accept a majority verdict. It was a tense atmosphere as Jo, Andrea, Lotta, and Angie were called back to the court. Supporters in the public gallery were bracing themselves. The jury were quiet and did not look at the dock as they entered the courtroom.

There were seven charges against the women. When the jury foreman stood up, the clerk asked for the verdict on the first charge: “Do you find the defendant, Lotta Kronlid, guilty or not guilty on charge one of the indictment, conspiracy to damage property?”

“Not guilty,” said the foreman.

There was a gasp around the court. The clerk continued to read out the charges and ask for verdicts. The same reply came back each time: “Not guilty ” The clerk reached the seventh and final charge. Was Joanna Wilson guilty or not guilty of damaging property? “Not guilty,” said the foreman again.

Ricarda Steinbrecher, who had worked with the four women in planning the action, ran from the public gallery and out of the building to where crowds of supporters were waiting in nervous anticipation. “Not guilty!” she shouted “Not guilty on all charges!” People cheered and hugged each other. The surprised judge ordered that the defendants be released, and immediately left the court.

Edited extract from The Peace Protestors: A history of modern-day war resistance, published by Pen and Sword History at £25 (CT Bookshop £22.50); 978-1-39900-786-3.

Listen to an interview with Symon Hill on the Church Times Podcast here

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