On 6 February, the Stansted 15 – a group of activists who locked themselves around a plane to stop a deportation flight in 2017 – were sentenced after being found guilty of terror-related offences.
For 23 months they confronted the full wrath of the Home Office and the threat of life sentences. In the face of a judge who wanted to find them guilty from the moment they stepped into court, avoiding imprisonment was a real achievement. This took a lot of work. Here are 15 things the Stansted 15 did right after stopping the charter flight.
1. They knew their rights.
From the word go, the whole group knew where they stood with the law, and what the police would try to do. Following advice of legal groups like the Green & Black Cross meant they didn’t make silly errors and laid strong foundations for the whole action.
2. They used a lawyer with protest experience.
Often the default duty solicitor in a police station doesn’t know anything about protest. But since you are entitled to choose your own solicitor, you don’t have to use them. The Stansted 15 chose Hodge Jones & Allen, who happen to be one of the top rated lawyers for protest law. Wise choice.
3. They all used the same lawyer.
Every single one of the Stansted 15 used the same lawyer. Usually in a case like this there would be many different solicitors and they would spend a lot of time negotiating with each other. Sometimes the interests of their clients would differ slightly. By all going with the same lawyer, the Stansted 15 ensured they would all be looked after without any cracks which the prosecution could exploit.
In court, barristers are the ones who do the talking, and usually each client’s different solicitor would instruct a separate barrister. Since Raj Chada of Hodge Jones & Allen was representing all 15 activists, he was able to act as a team manager and pick a range of barristers with different strengths.
4. They gave no comment.
The police often try to pressure and deceive people into incriminating themselves. They are very good at this. The Stansted 15 were right to answer ‘no comment’ to everything they were asked when being arrested, including in ‘informal chats’ on the airport tarmac, in the police van and at interview.
5. They gave a pre-prepared statement.
After (and only after) speaking to their lawyers, all of the Stansted 15 gave the police a prepared statement during their police station interview. They wanted their action to be accountable, and expected a trial. They had thought this through in advance and knew what they were going to say.
6. They asked for support.
When they were charged with terror-related offences and it became clear they were in it for the long haul, they asked for help. Huge funds were raised to support both them and the wider End Deportations campaign. Local Quakers put them up during the trial. People made sure they’d have lunch. All of this helped soften the disproportionately harsh nature of a trial designed by the state to punish them.
7. They took the publicity route.
Lawyers are usually cautious about speaking out, but it almost always helps protesters for there to be outrage in the media about their treatment. Judges are a conservative bunch and need a bit of a prod to remember that a lot of people think protest is important in our society. Taking this route was also essential for highlighting the cruelty of the government’s ‘hostile environment’ for migrants.
8. They knew what they were saying.
The defendants were given media training to make sure they were always on-message in interviews. This helped them to bridge skillfully from interview questions about how they felt during the trial into discussion of the impacts of the hostile environment.
They told the human stories of the people on the flight, talked about their fear for people’s lives, and about the chilling effect on protest and democracy the terror-related charges have had. And at every step of the way, they turned the spotlight onto the failures of the Home Office.
9. They elevated the voices of the most affected.
Even in their prepared statements given during their police interviews, the Stansted 15 drew attention to the voices of those affected by the UK’s brutal deportation policy. Every statement and interview they’ve made since has drawn on the words of groups like Detained Voices, the All African Women’s Group and the Black Women’s Rape Action Project, as well as individuals who were on the plane they stopped. It was right and effective for them to do so.
10. They moved the jury.
With the jumped-up charges against them came an elevated platform from which to speak. For 10 weeks their defence questioned every aspect of deportation policy. Despite the judge trying to frustrate them, powerful evidence was heard. There were times when many people in court – including jurors – were moved to tears.
11. They were sensible in trial.
Many people on protest-related charges don’t follow their lawyer’s advice in court. They don’t pay lip service to the oppressive and archaic courtroom rituals like standing up when the judge enters the room. Of course it’s all ridiculous, but when you’re in the dock is not the time to challenge it.
12. One defendant self-represented.
If you do not have a lawyer, you get much more leeway in court. It’s a lot of work, and you have to be switched on, but it can be very helpful when your co-defendants are represented. Mel Evans self-represented and did a brilliant job of it.
13. They stuck together.
It can’t always have been easy dealing with everything that has been thrown at the Stansted 15 over such a long period of time. But from the outside, their unity has never shown even the slightest crack. When groups on trial together become divided, everyone loses out.
14. They didn’t let judge bring them down.
Sitting in the trial, it was clear the judge wanted to find the Stansted 15 guilty from the very start of the case. Whilst he paid lip service to human rights and what their barristers said, his directions to the jury and the sentencing speech showed he failed to listen to the basic reality of what was happening. He ruled out their common-sense main defence – that they were trying to save lives, and essentially instructed the jury to find them guilty when he told them the Stansted 15 had created danger at the airport. The defendants, however, didn’t allow this to affect them, and never doubted what they had done was right.
15. They recognised their victories.
The Stansted 15 have kept things in perspective. Whilst they have been suffering acutely from the stress of this trial for so long, they recognise just how practically useful their actions have been.
On the day of the trial, a deportation flight to Jamaica was scheduled. Due to the spotlight shone on the flight by the Stansted 15, there was national outrage and news coverage of it. Two years ago when they took action, this would have been inconceivable. This is hopefully the beginning of the end for the hostile environment.
Despite their conviction, the deportation flight did not take off that night in March 2017, and at least 11 people from the flight they stopped remain in the UK. The Home Office has now acknowledged that at least two of these people were victims of trafficking. Lives were saved by the actions of the Stansted 15. And they have one of the strongest cases for appeal I have seen in a long time.