‘Life in prison? Bring it on’
Plane Stupid’s ‘Westminster Five’ say their Commons protest put Heathrow’s third runway in doubt
* Decca Aitkenhead – The Guardian – Saturday May 31 2008
“We’re in the most “ridiculous situation”, marvels Graham Thompson. “The public are saying climate change can’t be that bad, otherwise the government would do something. And the government is like, well, it is that bad, but we can’t do something because the public’s not ready for it. And the government goes to campaigners and says, you have to prepare the public so they’re ready so we can act. And we go to the public, and they say well obviously it’s not that serious because the government aren’t acting yet.
“I mean, for God’s sake,” Thompson adds, head in hands, half-laughing. “Will someone do something?”
What Thompson, and four other members of the environmental network Plane Stupid, decided to do in February was to scale the roof of the Houses of Parliament to demonstrate against the planned third runway at Heathrow airport. They still do not know if they are going to be prosecuted, or whether their protest will be remembered as a tipping point in the fate of the third runway. What they did, however, was place the anti-aviation debate firmly on the political map.
“If you go back a year, the third runway was inevitable,” he says. “Lots of people were saying it’s disastrous in terms of climate change, but it’s inevitable. Now it’s not inevitable. And we would claim some of the credit for that.”
Plane Stupid has no official leader or formal hierarchy, or media figurehead. It is a loose association of autonomous regional groups, which have staged illegal protests across the UK. Today most of its members will be demonstrating at Heathrow, alongside an anti-airport expansion coalition in which Kensington and Chelsea borough council rub shoulders with the World Wildlife Fund. This legal carnival has been coordinated by Plane Stupid member Tamsin Omond, 23. But the group’s ambitions for mass civil disobedience are deadly serious, it warns, and imminent.
The “Commons Five” have been on bail since February. But when we meet this week at a north London cafe they laugh about the bail terms, which ban them from coming within a mile of Westminster. “Was it a square mile or a radius?” says Leo Murray, 31, who is studying animation at the Royal College of Art. They have been granted an exemption: travelling through on public transport. “But what about on my bike?” Olivia Chessel, 20, asks mockingly.
Plane Stupid was founded in 2005 by Thompson, 34, Joss Garman, 33, and Richard George, 27. They had been involved in anti-war protests or May Day and Reclaim the Streets movements, before becoming convinced that climate change posed the most urgent threat. But none of the existing environment NGOs at the time were targeting aviations’ contribution to that change.
Plane Stupid’s first action was to disrupt a London conference of industry heads, letting off helium balloons tied to rape alarms In 2006, it blockaded the runway at East Midlands airport for 4 hours. In 2007, a high court injunction barred Murray and anyone else who “aids, abets or incites direct action against Heathrow in concert with Plane Stupid” from the climate camp at the airport. Last autumn, its activists handcuffed themselves to the terminal at Manchester, gate-crashed a Commons select committee meeting on airport expansion, and shut travel agencies along the route of a climate change march.
More than audacity, what captured people’s attention was the smart articulacy of young activists who confounded the eco-warrior stereotype. “That’s far from accidental,” Murray says. “We just recognise that it’s extremely counter-productive to play into people’s stereotypes. I mean, I only own a suit for when I’m on TV or in court. Some people in the activist movement were certainly suspicious of … how prepared we are to play the game … At this stage, direct action is mostly a tool of PR.”
Notwithstanding this media-friendly pragmatism, the network’s philosophy appears to be guided by anarchist principle. “We’re much more of a disorganisation than an organisation,” George says, adding that a condition of membership is a willingness “to get nicked”.
Each group in the network meets every week or two to plan actions, and every member’s opinion is accorded equal value. Despite the recent infiltration of the London group by an Armani jeans-wearing mole, meetings remain open and all decisions must be reached “by consensus”. Meetings, Omond concedes wryly, seldom tend to be brief.
But in operational terms, the organisation sounds practically corporate.
“You do a risk analysis on any idea before embarking on anything,” says Murray. “We look through the laws, and the possible outcomes, and the cost benefit. We do R&D all the time, and some ideas turn out not to be viable, or not likely to give enough bang for our buck. For example, the parliament action, in terms of coverage, would clearly have been worth a custodial [sentence].”
The one golden rule of every action is to target the aviation industry, not its customers. “I fully appreciate that at the moment, for an ordinary person making choices on their personal circumstances, which is exactly what you would expect people to do, flying from London to Edinburgh makes sense, because of gross distortions in the travel market,” Murray says. Urging anyone to alter his or her “consumption behaviour” is a total waste of time, he continues. “We need to change the conditions of choice – not individuals’ minds about things.”
What Plane Stupid are campaigning for is the removal of that choice – by the closure of all short-haul flight routes. But what about long-haul flights? These would be acceptable, only if they were “necessary”. But who would be the judge of that? “We’re not policy wonks,” says Murray. “But we’re calling for some kind of demand constraint.”
It seems clear that what they are calling for is prohibitive long-haul airfares. But when pressed on the “equitability” of this solution – the rich would be able to continue flying, the poor wouldn’t – they keep retreating behind the same disclaimer: “We are not a thinktank.”
Given their critique of consumer power and alternative theory of empowerment suggest serious and radical political engagement, this seems a rather disingenuous fudge. Thompson’s justification: “For us, there is a problem with making unnecessary enemies.” In other words, they pick their fights carefully.
“I can say you have to limit emissions by this amount, otherwise your grandkids are going to be dead,” he says. “If you have a different way of limiting it to the way I’d limit it, let’s talk about it.”
The striking feature of these activists is their politically aware upbringing. Murray’s first memory is of the Greenham Common protests; Chessel remembers the CND marches; Omond was raised a Christian and now works as a church administrator. These are the sort of morally principled, highly motivated young adults politicians today dream of. Why have they committed themselves to a single interest?
“In a situation where you need massive, urgent systemic change, we don’t really have the system to achieve it,” says Thompson. “Electorally, everyone is fighting over the middle ground. So the mere fact that you’re not a moderate means you can’t be listened to. That means anybody who had the answer to climate change would automatically be excluded from the debate. This is why you can’t just think, if I vote for the greenest party at the election, I’ll have done what I needed to.”
“From the individual’s point of view,” Murray says, “direct action makes perfect sense. It’s a rational, proportionate, responsible thing to do.”
“And it’s incredibly powerful,” Thompson adds. “If you look at the number of people who marched against Iraq, if you’d had 1% of that number taking direct action, they could have physically stopped the war. With 10,000 people sitting in the road at strategic points, you can bring the country to a halt.”
Is that the long-term ambition for Plane Stupid? “I don’t want to have to get to that point … [but] if that’s what we’ll have to do then that’s what we’ll do.”
Plane Stupid is not the first cause to attract politically conscious activists who distrust party politics. But the urgency of climate change does seem to have overridden all the usual fatal distractions and disappointments, thus far, at least. The group’s campaign, acknowledges Omond, “doesn’t yet have an iconic site but Heathrow is begging to be it … Like a black woman sitting on a white person’s bus. Civil disobedience is going to be the next big political wave.”
Before Copenhagen, where the next major global climate conference will be held in late 2009, Ormond predicts there will be a place, at least in England, “where people of all different creeds are saying we’re here, taking a form of direct political action”. Is there an action they are not prepared to risk? “The reality of direct action is being prepared to put yourself on the line, and we need real casualties,” Omond says. “If it’s life imprisonment for going airside, if that’s the penalty our society deems acceptable for someone protesting against a contributor to climate crisis … then bring on life imprisonment.”