Nearly four years after we stopped a deportation charter flight at Stansted airport, and were subsequently found guilty under an act commonly reserved for terror-related offences, we – the so-called Stansted 15 – have won our appeal to overturn our convictions.
While we are relieved at the result and acknowledge the significance of our win on the right to protest, we also think that it is important to take the time to critically reflect on the impact this case has had– on our politics, our ideas of justice and the movement to dismantle borders.
These are the (non-exhaustive) lessons we’ve learnt – and want to share – having navigated four years of legal proceedings. This is an attempt to recentre the politics that underpinned our action from the very beginning.
The case brought against us by the Crown Prosecution Service was a strategic attempt to deter challenges to the UK’s violent detention and deportation practices. As the trial got underway, critics voiced their fears of the ‘chilling effect’ our conviction would have on the use of direct action in future protests. Amnesty International, which observed the trial in an official capacity, warned that our case was part of a wider trend “across Europe where acts of solidarity are criminalised in order to discourage other activists from taking action in defence of human rights.”
The success of our appeal means that the state-sanctioned attempt to deter resistance against deportation charter flights has failed. It is our hope that this will embolden others to take direct action without the fear of this legislation being used again. However, there are still important lessons to be learned from our experience, which saw the propagation of various harmful narratives and ideas – some of which we ourselves ended up playing into.
In building our defence, it was extremely important to us that we amplified the voices and experiences of people facing deportation. However, both in court, and in the media, we consistently spotlighted the ‘good’ or ‘deserving’ migrants who were due to be forced onto the plane we stopped – those we knew were survivors of trafficking, or who had succeeded in being granted leave to remain. By only telling the stories of those who had endured horrifically traumatic experiences, we lost sight of the fundamental principle that no one – no matter what they have or haven’t done or experienced – should be deported.
In fixating on those who we deemed most palatable to the jury and public – and therefore most likely to result in our acquittal – we failed to confront the reality that many people on the flight had been convicted of crimes. Because these people, many of whom were deported in the days and weeks following our action, didn’t fit neatly into our defence or public campaign, we erased them from the picture.
Another harmful idea propagated during the trial was that charging us with a terror-related offence was a misapplication of the law, or that applying it to us was somehow absurd – the implication being that there is a correct way to apply this law and a correct group of people to apply it to. This way of thinking is very dangerous as it normalises the existence and use of terror legislation when in truth these laws, and the ideas they are founded on, are racist and islamophobic – seen in the enforcement of borders, through surveillance, policing and national security.
These laws, alongside sinister government strategies like Prevent, disproportionately target and impact Muslims and people of colour, who may not have access to the level of support and legal representation needed to challenge and overturn their convictions. As activists who aren’t policed the way these communities are, we were able to play on the idea that this law was not meant for us.
A privileged position.
Unlike many people going through the legal system, we were able to utilise the class and cultural capital within our group in order to portray ourselves as ‘respectable’ ‘good people’; as (ironically) ‘upstanding citizens’ concerned with the treatment of vulnerable people. But in doing so we fed into the ‘bleeding heart’ sentiments and ‘white saviour’ narratives routinely deployed by the mainstream media. As a result, we became complicit in negating the political power and agency of people in detention, whose decades of successful resistance against deportations and detention have been catalysts for mobilisation. For example, in order to justify our action, we repeatedly made the argument that “we saved lives”, contributing to a toxic ‘hero’ narrative surrounding activists.
Time and time again, we saw the celebrity nature of our case overshadow the very issue that had driven us to take action in the first place; our faces plastered on the front pages of the Guardian celebrating our lenient sentences on the same day a deportation charter flight left to Jamaica; the overwhelming solidarity we received on social media when we won our appeal at the same time as protests erupted at Napier Barracks.
We are under no illusions that our experience of the justice system was far from the norm. High profile lawyers fascinated by the controversial nature of our case offered their services – some for free. International NGOs generously campaigned for our acquittal. Journalists and politicians, who we knew professionally and through organising, ensured that our story received favourable attention. We were able to crowdfund huge amounts of money to support ourselves over the course of the trial. And hundreds of people turned up to support us outside Chelmsford courthouse on the first and last days of our trial.
In acknowledging this, we do not mean to devalue the hospitality, love and solidarity we received from our supporters. We never imagined we would find people in Chelmsford willing to open up their homes to us (total strangers) for the duration of the trial. Rather, this is an opportunity to recognise that the overwhelming reception we received was not only unprecedented but rooted in access – access to the right networks, to resources and to support systems within and outside the UK. Most people who go through the courts, including many who were in Chelmsford courthouse at the same time as us, do so alone, and with very little support.
Ultimately, without this combination of legal expertise, public support and media attention it is unlikely that the courts would have been so willing to reverse our judgment. It is similarly inconceivable that a person without all these privileges would have been able to avoid prison.
In taking action the way we did, we willingly entered into a legal process which we believed had the potential to set a legal precedent to undermine deportation flights. We also saw the court case as a way to build the public campaign around ending deportations.
However, by looking to the judicial system to determine whether our action was right or wrong, we allowed it to dictate and moderate our politics and behaviour. Cowed by lawyers and journalists far more invested than us in upholding the logic of the courts, we diluted our convictions, imposed borders within our personal narratives and censored our motivations, leaving us unable to say with courage, truth and power what we truly believed: that absolutely no one should be deported, ever, since borders and prisons are inherently racist, having been built on legacies of colonialism and empire.
Many others across history have refused to fall into this trap. The Mangrove Nine resisted resorting to traditional legal tactics in their landmark trial and succeeded in exposing the structural racism and injustices faced by Black communities in Britain. The Nine recognised that court spaces are in fact designed to silence and disempower defendants. Knowing this, they approached the trial as a political action, guided by, and rooted in, anti-imperialism and global class struggle.
The reason the Nine were able to take such a stance was that they had a shared political vision – something that we as a group struggled to do. Faced with the threat of prison, our convictions succumbed to legal strategy so that our case became centred on our own personal injustice, rather than the injustice faced by people affected by borders every day.
Dismantling the border regime.
Fundamentally, the border regime, and the institutions that uphold it, cannot be reformed, nor can the state create a fair or just migration system because of the racialised assumptions and colonial legacies it is built upon. Thus, justice can only be reached through abolition.
Abolition can be a difficult concept to articulate and accept in mainstream media, given that, for most people, a world without borders and prisons seems impossible. However, asserting that no one should be deported or incarcerated opens up the possibility of talking about harm and whether punishment does anything to address it. Abolition means challenging the logics that underpin deporting ‘foreign national offenders’ to ensure that we are fighting for a world where everybody has the right to stay, to move, to work and to live regardless of their perceived legal status. An abolitionist practice demands bravery, it means campaigning to win the hardest arguments first, so that in doing so, we secure everyone’s access to their rights and prevent leaving anyone behind.
Our case highlighted, in more ways than one, the need to move away from the accepted notion of justice being something that is handed down from the courts. After all, how can we expect to achieve the kind of justice necessary to dismantle the border regime within a legal system that is implicated in deporting people to places where they have no connection to family or community?
Ultimately, it will be neither the state nor the courts who will vindicate our actions, but the knowledge that we are part of something much, much bigger. Our action is situated within a long history of resistance, one that has been led from the start by people who are most affected by borders. Direct action – in all its forms – from communities of care to ‘illegal’ disruption, will be what dismantles the border regime.
Here are some groups taking action against borders:
AAWG (All African Women’s Group)
Anti Raids Network
BARAC (Black Activists Rising Against Cuts)
Black Women’s Rape Action Project
CARAG (Coventry Asylum Refugee Action Group)
CAPE (Communities Against Prison Expansion)
EHID (End Heathrow Immigration Detention)
Govan Community Project
LGSM (Lesbian and Gays Support the Migrants)
Midlands Anti Expansion Network
MORE (Migrants Organising for Rights & Empowerment)
No Borders Leeds
No Borders Manchester
No Evictions Glasgow
SDS (SOAS Detainee Support)
SYMAAG (South Yorkshire Migrant Asylum Action Group)
URBC (Unis Resist Border Controls)
Unity Centre Glasgow
Ali Tamlit is a facilitator/trainer with Resist + Renew. He’s been active in Climate Justice organising with Plane Stupid.
Helen Brewer is a PhD student thinking and writing about borders, architecture and solidarity.
Laura Clayson is a hooper. She is also a climate justice organiser with a small social justice NGO.
Nick Sigsworth is a musician.