This Monday 15 people are facing trial on terror-related charges for blockading a deportation charter flight last year. They face a maximum sentence of life imprisonment for their action.
The ten-hour blockade in a private parking bay at Stansted airport prevented dozens of people from being deported to Ghana and Nigeria. Many of the detainees were able to continue their legal cases and some were eventually allowed to return to their homes in the UK. The original charge of aggravated trespass for the so-called ‘Stansted 15’ was bumped up to that of endangering an airport and airport users, which carries a maximum sentence of life and was introduced into British law following the Lockerbie bombing which downed Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988 killing all 243 passengers and 16 crew.
The tradition in which the action undertaken by End Deportations (including activists from Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants and Plane Stupid) follows is one that has evolved through the demilitarisation, anti-war, environmental and anarchist/horizontalist movements in the UK over the past 30 years. But it’s also going beyond it.
Who gets to take direct action?
The intensification of institutionalised racism through political, juridical and cultural structures under successive neoliberal governments has devalued black and brown lives to the point that they have become expendable, and in ever more public ways. New slave markets, permissible mass drownings and shootings at sea and land borders, incarceration in camps and detention centres and mass deportations are the result of government decisions and anti-migrant media narratives which smooth through the harshest of policies as necessary for citizen safety.
People seeking refuge and better lives, crossing borders, taking risks, breaking out of confinement and building communities have been at the forefront of resisting this process, often invisibilised whether they are doing it in west London or west Africa. In the context of UK immigration policy, the ongoing labour and hunger strikes by detainees at Yarl’s Wood are only the most recent examples.
There is a rich history of organising, protest and direct action in black communities in the UK. This article isn’t going to go through that. Instead I want to look at the role of direct actions which garner mass media attention undertaken mainly (but by no means exclusively) by white, privileged actors. The role of the activist breaking the law in ways that are accountable has to a certain extent been protected by the state, but also by juries siding with activists and the use of international law and the necessity defence in court. The pre-planned action which occupies an arms factory, smashes war planes, shuts down an airport or occupies a power station or fracking operation receives very different treatment to forms of resistance that are more ad-hoc, street-level and which may be responding to state and racist violence directly.
High-stakes spectacular direct action has been enabled through white supremacy and the racist cultural structures that we live through. This is a fact that has been recognised and worked with by some peace movement activists undertaking solidarity work in Palestine – for example through the International Solidarity Movement of the early 2000s, where white international lives in the way of tanks, curfew orders, checkpoints and home demolitions presented a PR problem for the Israeli state which needed and continues to present itself as ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’. Likewise the fluidity and agency with which white activists can cross borders, checkpoints and green zones in areas of armed conflict was used by international peace and religious organisations to carry out ‘witnessing’ and solidarity work, with some but not all conscious that their lives were made valuable by the cheapening of black and brown ‘others’.
Can white supremacy be used against itself? Will the whiteness of the masters house be dismantled through the use of whiteness as a weapon? It shouldn’t and doesn’t lead these struggles, as centuries of history testify and, in the case of Palestine, the intifadas and Palestinian organising and sacrifice exemplify. But it’s clear that it still has a role to play.
The strategic role of solidarity activism undertaken by white activists for movements for black lives in the UK was most recently displayed with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) runway blockade at London City Airport in 2016. White activists took action organised by UKBLM to highlight UK state and corporate responsibility for climate change – a crisis overwhelmingly impacting people in the Global South but also disproportionately affecting people of colour in the UK, particularly in communities close to London City Airport where air pollution is causing early deaths and respiratory illness. Had the activists taking this action all been black, the reactions of police and security could have been lethal, as decades of police harassment and killing with impunity of people of colour have shown.
The day of #ShutDown mass action by UKBLM in August 2016 saw black and brown activists lead and take part in motorway and tram blockades in London, Nottingham and Birmingham. They shut down key arteries of capital and commerce and to interrupt social peace – a peace sustained by racism – to put black lives back on the agenda.
In court the defence’s argument was essentially to ask: ‘What is the point of free speech and the right to protest and assemble freely when nobody hears you, nobody can see you and nobody is really listening anyway?’ The argument was that radical direct action – lying on a motorway and blockading four lanes of traffic on August bank holiday – was the only way the crisis of systemic racism in the UK and crucially, the way borders enforce and perpetuate this crisis, could be rendered visible, legible and audible. Capturing mainstream media attention and using it as a platform to this end necessitated the action.
The case was lost and all defendants were sentenced for wilful obstruction of the highway. However, similarly to the End Deportations case, the prosecution initially raised the stakes to a jury trial by charging defendants with endangering road users – not a public order or protest-related offence, but one which carried a maximum sentence of eight years in prison. A bargain was offered in the commuting of the charge down to wilful obstruction if that charge – a magistrates court charge – was accepted. This was only briefly on the table before the charge settled on was wilful obstruction and not guilty pleas entered.
Fighting detention and deportations.
Whereas UKBLM chose to target Heathrow, in doing so drawing attention to the death of Jimmy Mubenga at the hands of G4S guards in 2010 plus the incarceration of up to 615 people at the nearby Harmondsworth detention centre, End Deportations went for a direct challenge to the UK border at the point of actual and violent activation: the mass deportation charter flight.
Deportation charter flights have evolved as a state tactic in part due to the bravery of deportees in resisting their own deportation, along with efforts by groups which also intersect with accompaniment, advocacy and visitation forms of activism intervening in deportations via commercial public flights. Here interventions can be made by purchasing a ticket and advocating from inside the plane for the deportee to be released, or causing enough disruption for the pilot to order the person being deported off the flight for safety reasons (but also because commercial flight operators are fined for delays). Passengers can also be influenced by way of face to face advocacy or letter distribution in airport queues informing them that someone on their flight could be being sent to their deaths and asking them to advocate for their release.
Blockades of deportation vans leaving detention centres has also been a tactic, the response to which has been for centres to put detainees in coaches many hours prior to the departure of their flight and to drive them round to prevent contact with others and to disorientate, demoralise and distress them.
When back in 2001 there was an unsuccessful attempt to surround Campsfield detention centre in Oxfordshire by the Wombles – a group inspired by Tute Bianchi in Italy who had broken into detention centres and helped people to escape – the expressed intention was to ‘liberate detainees’. Perhaps unsurprisingly, most if not all detainees the Wombles attempted to liberate were transferred to other detention centres or prisons for the duration of the four day camp and protests. The nascent Womble camp itself was surrounded by police before it could even set up, and everyone had to retreat instead to a squatted building in town far from the detention centre.
The skills and knowledge of site-taking, camp-building, blockading with arm tubes, the use of tripods and so on have come from the peace, environmental direct action, squatter, free party and traveller movements including the Greenham Common women’s peace camp and anti-roads movements, Earth First, which hybridised into Reclaim the Streets, Climate Camps and Reclaim the Power camps, and today much more. The legal border-transgressing that these activist currents have managed to achieve in terms of breaking the law can in large part be attributed to racial and to a lesser extent class privilege. Even as ‘domestic extremists’, the treatment of white and mainly middle class activists gets us on the front page of the Guardian, framed as almost quasi-victims, with a comment piece each to explain why we are ‘activists’. We are the acceptable and exceptional face of direct action.
This isn’t to say that more socially privileged activists haven’t faced incarceration, control orders, punitive bail conditions, infiltration and de-facto state rape in the case of women activists in the animal rights and environmental movements, but when you walk into a courtroom, onto a rooftop, onto a motorway, how you look and how you talk can save your life. These privileges haven’t gone unrecognised by participants in these movements, but it means (particularly in the case of the climate movement which aims to ‘change everything’) an essential dimension of collective liberation is missing.
Where there is an activist culture that gains power through an over-deterministic use of tactics which can exclude people who cannot afford to face being arrested, then the power structures and dynamics which gave rise to that activist confidence and agency in the first place can end up being reproduced. Empowering the already empowered leads to a disempowerment of the already disempowered, and it doesn’t even have to be conscious or explicit. This isn’t to dismiss these movements (which I myself have been part of and have learned from and loved) as being unaware or ineffective or lacking solidarity – it’s often the opposite. But when you look around the camp or the room or the social and you see a privileged sameness, then the collective liberation, if not the camaraderie, I think we’re aiming for still feels far out of reach.
The power of intimacy.
When it comes to its relationship to the people it is supporting, direct action is often alienated and remote. Much direct action targets infrastructure, commodities and processes which impact human life at production chain length. But by putting our bodies in the way to support another person directly we are visible to one another. The power dynamics and politics get more complex, but can also be incredibly intimate and transformational.
The End Deportations action was the first of its kind not only because the UK deportation regime has not been challenged in this way since deportation charter flights began in 2001, but also because it was intimate. Although the action can trace its history in some of the aforementioned movements, it is a departure from activism that has not been intersectional enough and that has not used its methods and agency in solidarity with anti-racist struggles to a great enough extent. It’s an action which has taken responsibility for the privilege of being able to get into an airport and shut a flight down without being shot for it in order to help keep people the state wants to expel here. It’s an action which has a collective liberation agenda and sees that borders are symptoms of violent marginalisation which is everywhere and which black and brown ‘status-less’ people experience most acutely and secretly.
I know many of the defendants and can imagine being in their shoes. When I asked one how she was dealing with the prospect of going to prison, she spoke of how prison was what the people who she had taken the action for had been living through, and were also potentially facing if deported. The separation from family, friends, freedoms – this was what she and the others had been challenging, and she showed no indignation that some of these conditions could be coming her way because she knew they were incomparable to the realities faced by many detainees. There are the individuals in stopping this charter flight, and there are the social roles they have had ascribed to them by power. This action combines their agency and awareness with the power in those social roles in order to challenge dominant power structures.
Millions of people are going to hear about the UK’s brutal, racist and barely legal deportation and immigration system through this trial. The way it plays out, who is represented, who speaks and who is inspired to act will support and contribute to growing collective liberation movements in this country and hopefully beyond.