Photo: Mark Kerrison

The Heathrow 13: the resistance against a third runway

  • February 22, 2016

Climate & Catastrophe

Last year, a group of protesters occupied a runway at Heathrow Airport. Now they might become the first climate activists to ever go to prison in the UK.

On July 13, 2015, I was one of thirteen activists to occupy the northern runway at Heathrow Airport. At around 3:45am a hole was cut in the perimeter fence. We walked over to the runway, erected a tripod, some Harris fencing and quickly locked on to each other using arm tubes, D-locks and chains.

Our occupation lasted over six hours and resulted in the cancellation of 25 flights saving hundreds of tonnes of CO² from being emitted that day. All thirteen of us were eventually removed, arrested and charged with aggravated trespass and unauthorized entry to a restricted aerodrome.

During our trial we used a so-called “necessity defense”, arguing that our actions were necessary to prevent death and serious harm. We showed that this was being caused both by the effects of climate change around the world and by the local pollution, particularly nitrous oxides, which have been found to be responsible for 31 premature deaths a year within twenty miles of the airport.

While Judge Wright admitted that a clear link exists between aviation and climate change, she found us all guilty and told us to “expect jail” at our sentencing on February 24. If we do serve a custodial sentence, we will be the first climate activists to ever go to prison in the UK.

A history of aviation resistance in the UK

For local residents in the Heathrow area there have been attempts at resisting the airport at every step. The airport was established under the false pretense of being a necessary strategic defense during World War II. It was never actually used in this way, however, but instead became a commercial airport in 1946. Local campaign group Stop Heathrow Expansion therefore uses the slogan “based on deception since its inception.” Over the years various expansion plans have been made, some have successfully been resisted, while others went ahead.

Despite this background of local resistance, it was not until the early 2000s that a broad anti-aviation campaign began to take form. With the election of Tony Blair’s Labour government in 1997 there were clear signs that there would be a national aviation expansion program. This was driven by a booming economy and a high demand for budget airline flights.

Through discussions with various local campaign groups, Airport Watch was formed in the year 2000 with the aim to bring local and global issues in to the national debate around aviation expansion. In 2003 there were government proposals for new runways at Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Birmingham and possibly two runways in Scotland.

The resistance directed against these proposals used a diversity of tactics in its campaigning, which involved local groups, national environmental groups and MPs from all political parties. Added to this, John Stewart, chair of local campaigning organization HACAN, recognized that “direct action is an important part of the mix if we are fighting to achieve radical change.”

In 2005, Plane Stupid was formed and grew into a direct action network at the 2006 Climate Camp at Drax power station. Since then it has been a persistent thorn in the side of the aviation industry, carrying out actions including an occupation of the roof of the Houses of Parliament, an activist attempting to super-glue himself to then Prime Minister Gordon Brown and runway occupations at various airports such as Aberdeen, Manchester, Southend and Stansted.

There has also been a Climate Camp at Heathrow and a long term land occupation, Grow Heathrow, that created a sustainable community project on land earmarked for a third runway.

Through this diverse set of campaigning, it seemed in 2010 as if the battle was mostly won. In a 2009 pre-election pledge David Cameron famously stated there would be no third runway at Heathrow: “no ifs, no buts”. When the Conservatives came to power in coalition with the Liberal Democrats all airport expansion plans were dropped. However, in 2012 the Airports Commission was launched, and given the task of finding where a new runway should be built in the south east. In July 2015 the commission recommended Heathrow.

Two weeks later we occupied the runway.

Why we took this action

The threat of a third runway was a significant reason for taking action and this is reflected in much of the press attention we received. If a third runway is built it will mean an extra 200,000 flights a year that will emit as much CO² as the current annual emissions of the whole of Kenya.

If we are to take climate change seriously, and if the UK is to meet its own legally binding targets under the 2008 Climate Change Act, it is clear that there can be no new runways anywhere. Aviation is already the fastest growing source of CO² in the UK and will become the biggest emitting sector by 2050, even without any expansion of capacity at major airports.

Locally, a third runway will displace thousands of people, increase noise and air pollution, which already contributes to premature death.

At the same time we are seeing the effects of climate change more and more around the world, but the impact is not felt equally. Though there are increasing examples of climate-related extreme weather in the UK, for instance the flooding in the North of England this Christmas, the people affected by such disasters are not the biggest victims of climate change.

The real affected communities are found in the Global South. They are largely poor. They are women. They are migrants. They are black and brown communities who have been suffering at the hands of colonialism for centuries. Climate change is merely an extension of this.

In fact, those suffering from CO²lonialism often are subject to multiple attacks. The First Nations peoples of so-called Canada are on the front-lines of one of the most destructive forms of oil extraction: the Alberta tar sands. Not only are they resisting this devastating form of mega-infrastructure and its associated pipelines, but they are also finding that climate change is affecting their traditional way of life as it affects their ability to access traditional foods, medicines and territories.

Similar patterns can be seen around the world, from the oil disaster zone of the Niger Delta to coal mining in Indonesia. There are also possible future threats in the name of “clean” technology, as extractive activities like lithium mining for renewable energy storage could affect indigenous groups in Argentina.

The pattern is clear: silenced and marginalized communities are still seen as a necessary sacrifice to the gods of economic growth and “progress”. This is a pattern that is a fundamental part of the intersecting systems of oppression that dominate our world: capitalism, patriarchy, colonialism, racism and hierarchy.

For this reason, it is important that the action that we took at Heathrow is seen in this appropriate context. It is not an action that aims to prevent climate change, to avoid a crisis so that business as usual can continue. Business as usual is the crisis — a crisis in which climate change is merely symptomatic of deep structural inequalities.

State repression

Since being found guilty, much of the attention surrounding our action has focused on the injustice and draconian threat of being sent to jail for our actions. Clearly, none of us would choose to go to jail; however, it is important that this case is not singled out as an “injustice” in an otherwise functional justice system.

Laws exist to protect private property and the profits of corporations. This case was not an exception — it is working exactly as it is designed to. If a climate movement is to really challenge the paradigm of economic growth, hierarchy and domination that sustains the fossil fuel industry, we can expect a lot more people to do time in prison — and worse, as we see in every radical struggle in history from the Suffragettes to the civil rights movement in the US.

Furthermore, the repression that we face so far — up to a possible three months in prison — is nothing compared to what those in the Global South face. According to Global Witness, between 2002 and 2013 at least 908 environmental activists have been killed, predominately in the Global South. Following a successful resistance against an airport in Mexico City, the people of Atenco were subjected to obscene violent repression which left two young people dead, 26 women raped by the military police, 217 people arrested, and many injured.

In relation to this we have to accept our hugely privileged position, where at worst we will face jail but also celebrate the movements before us who have won these concessions from the state. As the effects of climate change become harder and harder to ignore, instability will provide states the opportunity to increase repression in the name of security. It is vital therefore that a climate movement challenges this, not only for climate activists but also for climate refugees, of which there are predicted to be 75 million by 2035.

Offense is the best form of defense!

Despite all the repression that we face, now is not the time to sit back and lick our wounds — this is the time to fight back. The year 2016 has already been hailed as a year of escalating resistance against the fossil fuel industry, with days and weeks of action being held around the world. From Germany to Brazil, Canada to the Philippines, fossil fuel infrastructure is being targeted for mass civil disobedience.

Plane Stupid are undoubtedly going to be a part of this escalation, and aviation is being resisted in our sister struggles such as at La Zad de Notre Dame Des Landes, France, who have a call out for a mass mobilization on February 27. Here’s to the year that we build connections between our struggles across the many lines they intersect. Consider this an open invitation to join us.

Ali Tamlit

Ali Tamlit is a member of Plane Stupid and has been campaigning in the Heathrow villages for the past year and a half. Prior to this he studied international development in Lund, Sweden.

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