Not being part of a criminal fraternity, it is a strange thing to see one’s friends sitting in court behind a glass fronted dock, but there this week nevertheless they were – four of them in front of a judge at Willesden Magistrates Court.
When you’re used to seeing someone across the dinner table you can’t quite get use to being separated from them by two layers of glass, a raft of legal officials and unidentifiable men in suits. To whom, or what category they belonged, I was not sure.
My friends too it should be said are not members of a criminal fraternity either. They are behind glass because they have pleaded not guilty to a charge of aggravated trespass and entering a security-restricted area of an aerodrome. Not an everyday crime.
In fact, they and 9 other people, also on trial with them, blockaded a runway at Heathrow Airport in July 2015. They don’t deny they did it, but claim their actions were necessary to stop people dying from the effects of air pollution and climate change. And this is their legal defense – that they took direct action to save lives.
It is the counsel for the prosecutions job to unpick this reasoning and portray the defendants not as lifesavers but merely as protestors, who, not being able to get their own way through legal avenues, decided to take the law into their own hands and break it. The action was not intended to save lives but instead to create publicity.
In making his case the counsel for the prosecution also hopes to reinforce a caricature of protestor as spoilt, undemocratic and self-interested; and perhaps most seriously in the context of a court of law, of beings that hold the law in contempt. He would like the judge to believe (there is no jury in this case) that my friends think the law is something that applies to other people.
It is up to the defendants to rebut these claims and hold their ground. I saw five of them do that on Tuesday. One by one they took the stand, and gave their evidence with various degrees of alacrity and skill. It is easy to be tripped by an artful prosecutor, asking the same questions of each defendant.
Very easy also to sound like you’re repeating the same line your co-defendant just used. “I did this to stop planes to prevent emissions to save lives”, sounded rather unfelt after several forced repetitions, brought on by trip hazards laid out by the defense.
“You must have known that you weren’t going to be on the runway for very long, did you really think this action would save lives?”, “did you know anyone personally who might have been saved as a result of your actions?”, “was anyone in immediate danger…where was the necessity to act?”, “why did you wait until July 2015 to take these actions?”, “were you tweeting during the protest, this was a protest?”, “this event was planned, was it not?”, “wouldn’t you have saved more lives shutting down a motorway?”, and so on and so forth.
All these questions are to fix the prosecution to the points of law, but also to establish the difference between a protest and a direct action, one that would save people’s lives.
In the course of answering these questions the defendants are able to establish in a legal context what drove them to take the action they did – a long term interest in the environment and detailed knowledge of the effects of climate change, the exhaustion of all available legal avenues to challenge the third runway, the failure of the Prime Minister’s promise ‘no if’s, no butt’s, no third runway’, and finally the publication of the pro third runway report from the commission David Cameron set up, presumably to give him the necessary political leverage to renege on his promise. It makes you wonder what some politicians wont do to go back on their word.
The protest happened a few days after the report was published, and although the defendants admitted that the planning began before publication the report was the final trigger for action, having as one defendant Melanie Strickland said “gone through all the legitimate processes.”
Of course this is going to be a very hard case for my friends to win. Any student of direct action history can point to numerous technically illegal acts which later went on to become accepted within the law: the right for women to vote, the right to love someone of the same sex, the right to strike. As Melanie Strickland put it correctly, “protest beyond the law is essential for democracy”. Without this kind of protest we would probably be where we were in 1832, or worse.
But history also tells us that most of these past direct actions led to prosecutions, jail terms, loss of livelihoods, legal bankruptcies in some case (the Suffragettes refusal to pay taxes towards a government that did not afford them the vote cost some families dearly), physical and psychological harm (think Alan Turing, Oscar Wilde), deaths (of Chartists at Peterloo for example) and sometimes martyrdom (Emily Wilding Davison).
My friends now face the possibility of a prison sentence. If they go to prison they will be regarded by many of those of us who work in the environmental movement as political prisoners. As such they should be supported and heralded as the vanguard of a political movement that needs to further challenge the legal system to think differently about climate protests and the causal link between carbon emissions and real harm.
But what if they won. Imagine for a minute what a legal victory would mean? Direct actions interrupting business as usual would have a legitimacy not previously imagined. Politicians and government’s could be legally held to account for their inaction in a court of law. International climate agreements would suddenly become binding and legally enforceable by domestic courts.
We would all begin to bare legal responsibility for the harm we, however unwittingly, cause to those people who are likely to lose their lives as a result of climate change. Are we ready for a legal precedent that justifies direct action that hinders people’s normal way of living and the rights of businesses to operate within the law? No, but when are we ever ready for the change that needs to happen.
Having that kind of legal connection to other people, would change society for ever. It feels like the kind of step-change we really need to make if the transition to a low carbon economy is to become an emotional and psychological success story. People would have to say, ‘right, this is really happening’, I have to make a change.
The analogy of the smoking ban came up in defense. Smokers smoking in a crowded bar in the pre-ban days could not know the people they might kill or cause injury to, or what percentage of their death they could be held responsible for. But this didn’t matter, because the cumulative effects of many people smoking, not the individual effects of each smoker, was the important thing. Now people can be tried for flouting the ban, in the full knowledge that their actions would increase the chances of someone else getting cancer.
As the court heard, 31 people die as a result of air pollution around Heathrow every year. The science does not yet exist that can say how many deaths will be caused by the emission of each ton of carbon. It is very difficult for the defendants to demonstrate that they stopped enough planes to save a life (just over 20). But we know that the cumulative effect of carbon emissions globally will cause floods and consequential loss of life and livelihoods in low lying and low carbon emitting countries like Bangladesh. What you might call passive soaking.
The passive soakers of this world should have some form of legal redress and perhaps the English legal system should lead by example and help those, who by ill-luck of geography and history find themselves on the receiving end of our bad habits.
When asked whose lives they were thinking about saving when they made the incursion on to Heathrow’s tarmac, several of the defendants said they were thinking of local residents and people of the global south. When District Judge Deborah Wright makes her final decision, and announces it this coming Monday, I will be hoping that she has both these groups on her mind too.
Copyright Allan Shepherd, but please repost elsewhere if you are a climate friendly not-for-profit campaign group or charity and wish to support the Heathrow 13. For more details of the trial go to http://www.planestupid.com