Abby McFlynn and Jonny Gordon-Farleigh
“Clearly somebody doesn’t want to hear the story about the Heathrow Campaign,” said John Stewart, someone who has been described as the most effective activist in the UK, as he retold his seven-hour detainment and interrogation by FBI, secret service and immigration officers at New York’s JFK Airport. However, there were communities all across North America who did want to hear about the victory of the ‘No Third Runway’ campaign at Heathrow Airport, and decided to invite John and Plane Stupid activist Dan Glass to visit their communities that are being affected by the expansion of the aviation industry.
Even with a file full of support from MPs, MSPs, congressmen, senators, human rights lawyers and scientists, Dan didn’t even get as far as New York because of the “incident”. “Which one?” “You know which one! The superglue.” At the Belfast passport office a CIA agent took him aside to a Hummer with deck chairs, and when he finally made it to his interview, he was asked “Dan, I hear you want to superglue yourself to Sarah Palin?”. This suggestive question concluded any chance of Dan traveling into the United States, and now with both John and Dan barred from the country, the Aviation Justice Tour went ahead thanks to Skype, and the ‘Let John and Dan in’ petition maximized publicity for the tour.
A Tour for Environmental Justice
We are often told about the apathy within communities facing the aviation industry and airport expansion, John explained, but this is a myth. The reality is that these communities lack the resources and political capital necessary to viably challenge the aviation industry. This is why we so often see flight paths put directly over places with large minority populations, he said, and why the global south is worse hit by climate change even though it has contributed to it least. This kind of environmental racism is one of the key issues that the Aviation Justice Tour set out to amplify and address.
The success of Plane Stupid’s anti-aviation campaigns has been the realisation that climate activism cannot ignore environmental racism. John makes this point well: “If you are poor and you are black and live under a flight path, you have far fewer choices such as moving away.” His example of this in London is “the difference between people living in Richmond, a very wealthy area and under a flight path, and people living in Newham, a low-income area, near the City of London airport. The difference in campaigning is that the people in Richmond know how to work the system – they have the time, the energy, the resources and their jobs are not threatened – whereas in Newham they have neither the political or social capital behind them.” It is clear that different groups are not equally affected by the aviation industry.
The strength of the campaign, and something that interested the communities they spoke to in North America, was the fact it was not single topic. Dan said one of the things he found inspiring during the Heathrow campaign was that “various groups did not only challenge it on economic, climate or noise grounds but also on equality grounds, using equality impact assessments.” This meant they combined climate change with civil liberty campaigns and started conversations about equality that questioned why these industries disproportionately affected minority and indigenous groups.
By the end of the tour Dan and John had met with people to discuss the process of coalition building and had shared direct action tactics that were successful for Plane Stupid. The American communities were especially interested in how Plane Stupid brought various interest groups together, “activists who were primarily concerned about climate change and residents who were primarily concerned about noise”, to form a coalition that gained victory over BAA and blocked airport expansion during a conservative government.
‘Unity of purpose, diversity of tactics.’
The Plane Stupid coalition was formed at the first Climate Camp to campaign against the proposed third runway at Heathrow Airport that would have resulted in the destruction of the village of Sipson and an increase in CO2 emissions that would be the same as the whole country of Kenya. It was a convergence of a diverse group of communities, opposition groups and direct action activists, each bringing different issues and tactics to the table. The challenge to find a way to build a community of shared interest without sacrificing anyone’s agenda was critical to the campaign.
“There is a danger when direct action is separate from community campaigning,” John says. “It can be easily marginalized” and the activists acknowledged that their power to stop the seemingly irresistible advancement of the aviation industry was with the support of the threatened community. In this regard, Plane Stupid made it a priority for residents and activists to get to know one another and respect each other’s agendas by organising direct action workshops and “Adopt a Resident”, where Bingo was played to pair activists with local residents. This initiative extended to activists moving into houses that were due for destruction if their campaign failed to stop the airport expansion.
This helped to change the face of activism and the authorities – both BAA and the government – could no longer easily distinguish between activists and residents. Dan said this made it impossible for the authorities to divide the anti-aviation activists from the local residents whose community was at risk. They could no longer point and say “this is what a resident does and looks like, this is what an activist does and looks like. They did not know what had hit them when they saw old ladies preparing for direct action training and these seemingly extreme Plane Stupid activists having tea in the basement of an old lady’s house that was due for demolition.”
This practice was expressed in the campaign’s slogan “Unity of purpose, diversity of tactics”, which was created to accommodate the various groups who were against the third runway at Heathrow. This diversity became a key contributor to the strength of their anti-aviation campaign and empowered them to defeat two powerhouses – BAA backed by the government.
The Changing Face of Activism
There has been a definite shift in the tactics of direct actions in the past decade with the rise of “creative resistance”: flash mobs, street theatre and political humour. This is not to say that creative resistance was completely absent from the last generation of activists but an adoption of a more humourous and less combative approach has been used to diffuse tense situations, and has also significantly changed the relationships between protesters, the police, the press and the public. John recounts an example of staged protest when “Plane Stupid activists went onto the House of Commons. It was quite an aggressive act. Beforehand, they planned what they should wear and decided to dress like the sons and daughters of Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail readers. It worked to such an extent that the five activists were featured in a sympathetic article in the Daily Mail, all looking very smart!”
This thinking has been central to Plane Stupid and politeness and civility has replaced the self-righteous indignation of the ‘60s generation. The successful campaign against the third runway has now become a great example of modest people doing immodest things and has contributed to a significant change in public perception. Many in oppositional groups have long complained of the unsympathetic characterisations in the mainstream media, and while they are mostly right, it must be said there have also been some very unsympathetic characters amongst activist groups. The understanding that there are people who would normally support a protest but are alienated by certain tactics, has been used to great effect by Plane Stupid.
“I think this whole idea of humour and street theatre — particularly if it’s got an edge to it,” John said, “is a way in which you can flatten the authorities, because the edge is there, but at the same time not flatten people at home. So you maintain the support of people at home, which sometimes can’t be done if direct action is more ‘in your face.’” By retaining creativity and politeness, activists “can actually gain a lot of sympathy amongst the public”. John points out that successful actions often come down to the message being sent to the public. Not only to gain their support, but if the government sees the public responding positively to an action, or at least tacitly supporting a particular position, then it is much harder for the authorities to condemn it and deal with it forcefully. Dan’s superglue “incident” is a good example of this: When he superglued himself to the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown, “he did not say ‘We’re going to get you bastards,’ but ‘excuse me Prime Minister, can you please not move because I am glued to your jacket’.”
Another aspect of Plane Stupid’s campaigning has been the importance of inter-generational involvement in their protests and direct actions. Explaining how a flash mob at Heathrow airport began to turn “lary” when police began pushing people around, Dan said, “I’ll never forget when this man who must have been about 80 years old said very calmly and humbly to one of the young police officers ‘Don’t you dare continue acting in that manner, I pay your wages don’t you know?’” This had an effect that would have been far less powerful coming from a protestor who was the same age as the officer.
Young people have also played a prominent part in Plane Stupid’s protests. At an action at Stansted Airport in December 2008, there were approximately 70 young protestors on the runway who were standing for intergenerational justice. “There was no one over the age of 21 and so I was not allowed to go on the action because I’m passed it!” Dan told me. Every protestor had ‘Just Do Something!’ on the back of their high-visibility jackets and the reason for this, he explained, was because “as young people all they’ve heard is talk, talk, talk and nowhere near enough action. The Government say they care about climate change but they are actually contributing to it more everyday”.
Aviation Justice Successes
Despite being barred from being physically present on the tour, both John and Dan felt the tour surpassed their expectations. “Firstly, we brought hope to people. We showed that ordinary people can win against the odds,” John said. “Second, it might result in a radical network of aviation activists, bringing together local communities and climate change and direct action activists. And third, it showed the power of the new media to link activists.”
The most inspiring moment? “What has developed between affected communities and the way in which they have started to share strategy,” Dan said. “The communities directly affected by expansion at Toronto and Chicago airports, for example, have started to send each other messages of support, sharing facts about the International Council of Aviation and all of the big bodies that are lying to both of them. They are sharing the methods they have used – noise monitors, participatory video activism, and community-led air quality buckets.” This shows how communities are becoming far more self-reliant and not waiting for the local council to provide equipment which Dan says “takes a few years and when it does come the equipment is inadequate”. These communities are not looking to aviation officials to check air quality or to monitor noise pollution but are renting equipment and carrying out the tests for themselves. It is inspiring and encouraging to see these instances of self-determination.
Although the tour has ended it is only the start of what should be a sustained response to the expansion of the global aviation industry. They’ve left something in place for each person to be a part of and created a network for sharing direct action strategies and coalition tactics, and also a whole new crop of community activists better prepared to tackle their own issues and injustices.
The true success of Plane Stupid, after the climate science and the victories, is to show that a sustainable lifestyle is not the sacrifice it is supposed to be but tremendously enjoyable.
Jonny Gordon-Farleigh is the editor of Stir
Abby McFlynn is the producer of Stir