No jail for ‘Heathrow 13’ who held up flights
Activists who oppose the expansion of Heathrow have been spared prison sentences after disrupting flights at the airport last year. But can such action be justified in a democratic society?
At 3:30am on 13 July 2015, 13 people cut through a perimeter fence at Heathrow airport, got on to the northern runway and assembled a tripod. One, wearing a polar bear costume, climbed to the top as the others chained themselves to it — and each other.
They were demonstrating against plans to build a third runway at Heathrow, on behalf of environmentalist network Plane Stupid. ‘Building more runways would massively increase carbon emissions when we need to massively reduce them,’ said Ella Gilbert, one of those on the runway.
Twenty-two flights were cancelled and others delayed. In January, the activists were convicted of two offences. A judge said their protest had caused ‘astronomical’ costs and going to prison was ‘almost inevitable’. But yesterday, they were given only suspended sentences.
Their barrister said they believed they had acted ‘in the public interest’, in a ‘hard-fought for’ tradition of civil disobedience — deliberately breaking the law to make a political point. Environmental activists have commonly used similar tactics in recent years, amid a recent proliferation of protest in the developed world.
In 2013 protesters were arrested in Sussex for blockading a company involved in fracking. And last April, 34 anti-nuclear protesters were arrested for trying to stop workers entering the Faslane naval base, where the Trident nuclear programme is based.
In 1849, Henry Thoreau provided a philosophical justification for civil disobedience in the essay Resistance to Civil Government. ‘Anyone in a free society where the laws are unjust has an obligation to break the law,’ he wrote.
Thoreau had been to prison for refusing to pay tax, which he argued would fund the US war with Mexico and expand the slave trade. Similarly, Mahatma Gandhi, who protested against British Empire rule in South Africa and India, went to prison 11 times. Leaders of the civil rights movement in the United States, including Martin Luther King, were also repeatedly imprisoned and even ran ‘jail-ins’ as a protest tactic.
The protesters’ supporters say peaceful direct action is a legitimate way to protest. Britain’s democracy is imperfect and when ordinary people see injustice, they are morally compelled to cause inconvenience to those responsible. Proportionate action which breaks the law is often justifiable — the state does not have absolute moral authority.
Nobody agreed to this disruption, respond critics. There are plenty of opportunities to air political grievances in the UK. People can vote out governments they disagree with, take a case to court or lobby decision-makers. But it is immoral, and anarchic, to insist that society must agree with your view.
- Would you ever be prepared to break the law to make a point?
- Were the actions of the ‘Heathrow 13’ justified?
- Draw a cartoon strip, with six pictures, showing what the protesters did and what has happened to them since.
- Write a letter to the judge in the case (District Judge Deborah Wright) explaining whether you agree with her decision not to imprison the protesters.
Some People Say...
“Every law is oppressive.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- Wasn’t this an isolated incident?
- Not necessarily — Plane Stupid have carried out several similar protests at airports to highlight their opposition to airport expansion. If you are planning to take a flight at some point soon, it is possible they could disrupt your plans. But they argue that their actions are beneficial to everyone, because they are helping to highlight the problem of climate change.
- Do these protests work?
- They certainly gain publicity for the cause — this story has been in the news several times since the protest took place. Even by cancelling 22 flights, the activists will say they have reduced carbon dioxide emissions. But it is also possible that their actions could inspire a backlash from the people they disrupted — some of whom were very unhappy on 13 July.
- Twelve days before the protest, the Airports Commission produced a report recommending that a third runway be built at Heathrow.
- A sign hanging from the tripod read: ‘No ifs, no buts, no third runway’ — echoing a promise made by David Cameron in 2009.
- The judge rejected their claim that their actions were defensible as an act of necessity, which would have required them to show they prevented serious injury or death.
- Two offences
- These were aggravated trespass and being unlawfully airside.
- They were given six week sentences, suspended for 12 months. This means they will have to perform unpaid community work and abide by certain probation conditions. They will serve their sentences in prison if they break those conditions.
- For evidence of this see the graphic in the Ultraculture link in Become An Expert.
- These activists included the Green Party MP Caroline Lucas.
- Protesters refused to pay money for bail when they were arrested. This filled the prisons and often forced the authorities to release some of those inside.