The aim of the action day, part of a wider week of activities around the world, is to highlight the madness of airport expansion at a time when all the available, credible science is not just telling us, but yelling at us: stop extracting and burning fossil fuels!
Yep, a third runway at Heathrow will probably be given the green light this year, as part of this government’s deluded attempts to ‘keep Britain competitive’ and help transform us into a ‘global powerhouse’ post-Brexit (by importing and exporting more stuff to ever further flung destinations).
Oh, and to cater for the growing demand in leisure flights by
frequent binge flyers here in the UK, and the swelling global middle class. Because it’s everyone’s right to fly as far and as often as they like, regardless of the harm done to others.
And the ‘others’ are primarily poor people in the Global South; those being hit hardest by climate change (already), who have never been on a plane, and their countries contributed almost nothing to global carbon emissions.
This is why the burning of fossil fuels by planes full of (relatively) rich (mostly) white people is a ‘race’ issue, and a global inequality/justice issue, in the broadest sense: one group of people’s behaviour and activity is negatively and unfairly affecting another group’s very livelihoods. A point seemingly too complex to be understood by most blinkered, ill-considered commentary and coverage of the recent Black Lives Matter protest at City Airport. Like this.
And for all those, like the Daily Fail, hysterically screaming, BUT THEY WERE ALL WHITE, that was the whole point you numpties, if the activists on that runway had all been people of colour they’d have been treated way worse by the police – even risking injury or death – called terrorists by muck-rakers like the Daily Mail, and given stiffer sentences by the courts.
The activists used their (yes, middle class) white privilege to take action. And the worst that the DM could throw at them after was that some are a bit posh maybe, one’s into organic farming, another into ‘lesbian theatre’, while two – shock, horror – live on a houseboat. (A point made brilliantly by Josie Long in her amazing show, Something Better.)
To be clear, neither Black Lives Matter or Reclaim the Power is advocating “shutting down aviation” or closing down airports. Or saying that only white people fly. Duuh.
They’re saying this: let’s halt expansion, develop the alternatives to air travel, and change our habits (and they’re habits, not rights), so the businessman who flies 8 times a year reduces this to 2, the city-breakers cut back from 4 a year to 1, and so on. Let’s produce more of our own food and stuff in general. Let’s not reward frequent fliers, let’s chastise them. Above all, let’s question our god-given ‘right’ to fly and realise that all of our actions have consequences. Let’s even consider carbon quotas for individuals. Why not?
In an even broader sense, the living standards and cheap goods and services we’ve come to expect come at a price: the exploitation of those poorer and with fewer rights than we enjoy, in the Primark sweatshops or making the latest iPhone. There’s a reason that pair of jeans is so cheap. To a greater or lesser degree, we’re all complicit.
But anyway, you know all this already, right? Back to the action…
It’s raining on Saturday morning so I cycle from New Cross to Paddington (with a very quick stop to see the Serpentine Pavilion before it’s dismantled for another year), and then I train it from Paddington to West Drayton. From here it’s a short ride to Grow Heathrow, the appointed meeting place.
I’ve heard about GH before, but never visited, so it’s pretty great that we get to see what goes on here. Quite a lot by the looks of things. There are people living in tree-houses and caravans, communal living areas, wood-sheds, vegetable gardens, compost heaps, a bike workshop – everything you need to live, basically. Yep, there’s even wifi.
We don red boiler suits, have a bit of a briefing and then, around 1pm, set off. There’s at least 100 of us on bikes, and another group of about the same number who are on foot and targeting Terminal 2 checkin area – their plan is for a peaceful ‘die-in’, as well as songs and poems.
Our plan (it later becomes clear) is to cycle towards the terminal buildings and if at all possible shut down the main access road for a while. We’ll also visit Harmondsworth Detention Centre to express solidarity and support for the ‘inmates’ at the largest detention centre in Europe (capacity: 615).
Right from the get-go, we’re accompanied by a police van, and a “police liason” vehicle. One police van quickly becomes four, but they’re happy enough for the ride to go ahead, and their presence helps us close both lanes of the dual carriageway as we ride… very slowly! With our red boiler suits and array of flags, we’re pretty eye-catching, and there are a lot of car hoots and incredulous looks from passers-by.
At the detention centre we stop to unfurl some banners, a speaker from the SOAS Solidarity with Refugees and Displaced People group talks, and we yell ‘Shut it down’, ‘No countries, no borders’, along with some way more creative chants which I’ve forgotten now. There’s no telling if anyone inside, behind the triple glazing, hears us – above the din of the jets taking off every minute or so and the police helicopter circling us overhead – but it’s worth a try all the same. It’s important to make the connections between what goes on at Heathrow, climate change, the growing number of climate refugees – just a taste of what’s to come if we carry on as we are.
From here it’s on to the Terminal buildings, but the police are one step ahead, and have blocked the access routes to the main roundabout we’re targeting. Although there’s more of us than there are them, no decision is taken to cycle through their roadblock of plastic cones, so instead we just cycle around another roundabout or two and cause a few traffic jams for a while. It’s fun, but I’m not sure exactly what it’s achieving, other than annoying people for a few minutes. We also unfurl banners over the motorway below.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with inconveniencing people – by their very nature street and bike protests will inconvenience a few people for a short amount of time – but it should be justified by a legitimate and useful action or activity. And I’m not sure how useful this particular action was, in terms of impact. Shutting down the main access road would have been much more ‘noteworthy’ and maybe we should have just gone for it.
From here we cycle on to Sipson, a village still living under the threat of being flattened. A local resident talks to us about why the protest matters and why airport expansion is both a hyper-local and global issue. If it’s not their village, it will be someone else’s, while the temperature continues to rise.
In this village, we stage a die-in, lying down on the tarmac to symbolise the death of a village, and the thousands of deaths already being caused my climate change. To that I’d also add, the death of species and ecosystems as climate chaos causes havoc in the natural world – already so terribly affected by human activities.
As we lie there, it starts to rain, heavily, but I feel strangely calm and peaceful on the tarmac. You should definitely try it (a die-in) some time, it’s such a powerful visual motif, especially when you’re all dressed in red. We get up off the ground, leaving lots of ‘rain-angels’, and as the dark clouds race away, the sky is filled with sunshine and a rainbow.
Although symbolic to do it in Sipson, my feeling here is that the die-in would have been more effective had more people seen it; somewhere nearer the airport or perhaps near a road bridge on the dual carriageway, to get good photos from above and to bring traffic to a halt. In this case, stopping the traffic for a symbolic die-in would be totally justified and reasonable – just like those we do in central London are.
From here, there’s talk of splitting off into smaller groups and perhaps one final action that may carry a greater risk of arrest. I’m up for it, but for one reason or another, it never quite happens. Instead, we’re led down a path around the back of another detention centre. Unfortunately it’s a footpath and there’s one of those awkward kissing gates, which means we all have to get our bikes lifted over it – including the bike sound systems and the bike with the amazing rolling tea-urn attached to it. How they got that over without any spillage I don’t know…
Finally, we reconvene at Grow Heathrow to hear first how the activity inside Terminal 2 went (really well!), and then from speakers involved in similar activities and struggles around the world, including Mexico and the ZAD in France.
It’s an inspiring end to a positive, peaceful day of protest. It’s great to be around people who share the same concerns about climate change and want to try and do something about it, however pointless it may seem.
I go home tired but happy to have taken part. And then spend the evening checking all the coverage – Huffington Post, Reuters, ITV and the BBC have all covered it, with a lot of airtime and column inches for the cause. A massive success in other words.
Huge respect to Reclaim the Power for organising (especially to Sheila, who must surely be skating on thin ice by being involved in protests so close to the airport), and everyone who got involved. I know these things aren’t easy to organise and the comments above are meant constructively.