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Unjust Punishment: Will 13 Climate Activists Face Jail Time For Heathrow Protest?

Unjust Punishment: Will 13 Climate Activists Face Jail Time For Heathrow Protest?
Tue, 2/23/2016 - by Steve Rushton

“Aviation is the fastest growing source of emissions in the UK. It cannot be de-carbonized," Mel Strickland, a climate activist with the Plane Stupid network, told Occupy.com. "Heathrow is the world’s largest airport and the second biggest U.K. source of carbon emissions. We need to stop the government’s plans to build a third runway to stop climate change.”

Strickland and 12 other climate activists, known as the #Heathrow13, cut through the security fence at London's Heathrow Airport on July 13, 2015, and occupied one of the airport's runways for six hours. This week, they will find out if they face jail time for their action.

At last summer's protest, the group held a banner that read: “No ifs, no buts, no third runway,” quoting an election pledge made by David Cameron in 2009, before he became Prime Minister. The runway action came less than two weeks after the UK government announced it would break its promise and expand the airport's infrastructure.

To occupy the runway, Plane Stupid activists built a pyramid in the shape of an iceberg using a combination of fence and scaffolding. Nine of the activists were D-locked inside, and three were free to move around in order to give interviews and promote the action through social media. One activist symbolically sat on top of the iceberg dressed as a polar bear. As authorities cut the protesters out and cleared the runway, dozens of flights were cancelled.

Now, Strickland and the other activists face the prospect of becoming the first U.K. climate protesters to be jailed. In court last month, they pleaded not guilty to charges of aggravated trespass and going airside without lawful authority. But they argued their action was legally necessary to challenge the airport's contribution to life-threatening climatic changes. With the airport expansion plans, Britain projects it will more than double the number of passenger flights into and out of the U.K. – from 219 million in 2011 to 445 million in 2050, causing a spike in carbon emissions.

Currently, aviation is not counted within the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change framework. Yet the air sector’s projected growth alone could mean that the U.K. would fail to lower levels of emissions enough to stop runaway climate disaster.

In UK courts, the lawful necessity argument enables people to break the law if it is done to prevent more serious offenses. It has been successfully used in numerous activist cases in the past – for instance, when people occupied a coal power station in an effort to slow climate change, and when others criminally damaged weapons that were destined to be sold to regimes and likely become a source of human rights abuses.

The Heathrow 13 asserted that another airport runway will not only lead to climate disaster, but will kill even more people in the area through air pollution. It has been calculated that a third runway would triple early deaths related to Heathrow air pollution from 50 to 150 each year.

Nevertheless, Judge Deborah Wright rejected the defense claims and found the activists guilty. She told them to prepare for prison immediately when they return for sentencing on Wednesday, February 24. Her reasoning included that they were disrupting the legal activity of the airport, and that none of the defendants could name anyone specifically threatened by climate change or air pollution.

Speaking to the 25 cancelled flights that day, the judge said the protesters disrupted the plans and schedules of thousands of people – a sentiment that many feel is wildly out of touch with reality, since climate change threatens everyone on the planet. From the unprecedented wildfires in Tasmania to the increasing frequency of storms hitting the UK, few any longer doubt that clear climate change is happening across around the globe – and that as temperatures continue to rise, it is only likely to get worse, particularly in the global South which bears the least responsibility for causing the crisis.

The activist Strickland, who works as a lawyer for a healthcare charity, believes the British legal system often reflects little more than the powerful interests of the 1% – even when the planet is at stake. “To create change it is necessary to take a strategic approach to using the law. Campaigning court cases can be really effective, but you need to understand how the law works and that you will not get justice 99 times of 100,” she said.

“The legal system has often been used to repress people. For instance, at various times in history, women were property, vast amounts of the global population were legal slaves, disabled people had their rights removed, and there are many concurrent examples. The legal system is not neutral nor on our side, but you can use it to show unjust the system is,” she added.

The anti-austerity group UK Uncut has garnered attention for pointing out that the Heathrow 13 will go to jail for the costs they incurred through their protest – but no bankers have gone to jail for the immeasurably larger costs their financial crimes had on society.

The defense has also asserted that the airport action was necessary since all other democratic measures to block Heathrow's expansion were ignored. The government not only broke its election pledge, but also a High Court decision in 2010, which ruled that another runway would contravene already existing commitments to tackle climate change. Back then, Conservative leader David Cameron said, “There is no case for it on environmental grounds, there is no strong business case for it."

The campaign against expansion has been strongly supported by Labour Parliamentarian John McDonnell. But the judge ruled McDonnell could not give evidence to the court about the depth of public opposition against Heathrow's expansion. McDonnell is also now the opposition Chancellor, a key figure helping to shift the Labour Party so that it pushes economic policies that pose a greater challenge to the 1%.

McDonnell’s demonstrated his commitment to preventing the airport's expansion in 2009, when New Labour refused to give MPs a vote on the issue, but he took direct action in Parliament and moved the ceremonial Mace – a silver-gilt, jewel encrusted club that sits in place to represent that the Parliament is formally in session.

Strickland, who now awaits jail time with the others, said direct action is vital to create change. “Any campaign for radical change needs a direct action element," she said. "You need to disrupt the status-quo, escalate the pressure – especially when they are destroying our lives and even the basis of life on this planet, as they are doing by promoting climate change.”

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