The first day at the Stansted 15 anti-deportation activists’ trial

I’ve never really been much of a morning person. Like many others I presume, when I go to sleep needing to be up early I always have an irrational fear that I’ll oversleep the alarm, even though I end up waking up ten minutes before it’s set to go off. Things were no different on Monday morning at ten to six, as I opened my eyes in a slightly startled state. After a summer of record-breaking heat followed by a month of rain, the temperature had seemingly plummeted overnight. I stayed curled up under the covers, dreading the chill that I could feel outside, and snoozed for close to an hour. I wanted to just stay there and go back to sleep, and then I remembered where I needed to be. So I crawled out of bed, slipped into the first clothes I could find and headed over to my friend Nora’s place by foot, my hands in my hoodie pockets from the morning cold. As I walked up the hill I saw her and her brother Sam standing in front of the house. Nora reversed the small white Fiat out of the driveway, we got inside and I opened up the navigation on my phone. The destination was the small town of Chelmsford in Essex, about 30 miles from where we were in Haringey. More specifically, Chelmsford Crown Court, where 15 men and women were about to stand trial for the crime of obstructing a charter deportation flight headed for West Africa. They are facing a potential maximum sentence of life in prison.

The action had taken place at Stansted Airport, not far from Chelmsford in March 2017, for which the defendants have been dubbed the ‘Stansted 15’. The activists, who are members of the groups End Deportations, Plane Stupid and Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants, lay on the tarmac and chained themselves onto the flight for more than ten hours while the airport was brought to a standstill and the flight was ultimately canceled, and they were all arrested. They are now facing charges of endangering the airport security, as well as terror-related charges for carrying expanding foam, which is inflammable, to lock themselves onto the plane. The people on the flight, some of whom were personal acquaintances of the activists according to End Deportations spokesperson Luke de Noronha, included a lesbian woman who was threatened by her ex-husband in Nigeria, and a man whose family had been killed by Boko Haram. Their safety and security would most certainly be under direct threat if the flight were to arrive at its destination.

Jonathan Bartley speaks at the rally

As we got out of the car in a Chelmsford parking lot, October decided to announce itself with a full-force blast of icy wind. Summer was definitely over now. Nora had brought two placards and some food, which we took with us to the court nearby, where a small crowd had already gathered. The rally started just as we arrived, led by veteran activist Ewa Jasiewicz. Everyone was wearing at least one item of bright pink in solidarity with the activists. I clearly hadn’t received the memo, otherwise, my hot pink tie would have certainly been on display. Ms. Jasiewicz announced the various speakers, among whom were Jonathan Bartley, the co-leader of the Green Party, Tim Gee from Amnesty International, who will observe the whole trial, the mother of one of the defendants, as well as many representatives from various activist and advocacy groups, as the crowd grew in size. At one point, in true Essex fashion, a car sped past in a blur, a man leaning out of its window yelling, “Go home, black people!” When the 15 arrived in a double-decker bus, everyone cheered. They got off the bus, had some pictures taken on the steps outside the adjacent police station, and as they eventually made their way into the courthouse, everyone sang protest songs and the cheering got even louder.

In the wake of the Windrush scandal which hit headlines earlier this year, the British government’s immigration policy has come under increased public scrutiny, in particular the “hostile environment policy”, which was implemented by the Tory-Lib Dem coalition’s Home Office with the Immigration Act of 2014. It was introduced initially with the intent of deterring migrants from entering the UK, however, this has been shown to not work time and time again. In practical terms, this meant the introduction of mandatory ID checks for landlords, employers, NHS and others, high fines for non-compliance, as well as a sharp increase in fees for naturalisation and leave to remain applications. Infamously, in 2013, they rolled out the “Go Home Vans”, carrying large billboards captioned “In the UK illegally? Go home or face arrest” on British streets. As a result of this policy, leaked documents revealed, the government had been carrying out wrongful detainments and deportations en masse for many years. This had particularly affected members of the Windrush Generation, those who came from the former Caribbean colonies soon after the Second World War, many of whom have been legal residents for almost their entire lives in Britain but didn’t have the right documents to prove it. The leaks included a memo sent to Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, detailing targets for the enforced removal of migrants. As they always seem to in the face of a scandal, the Conservatives simply threw Rudd under the bus (or the plane if you like), and she was forced to resign from her office. However, even though Rudd is as cretinous a Tory as they come and has no place near any government, it’s important to remember that it was, in fact, our Dear Leader Theresa May who was the head of the Home Office in David Cameron’s first cabinet, and that it was she who spearheaded most of these immigration reforms.

12,321 people were forcibly removed from the UK in 2017 alone, of whom 1,664 were by mass deportation flights like the one stopped in Stansted. As if to cheapen the affair even further, the entire process is outsourced to third-party contractors such as Mitie, who provide security guards under a contract worth an estimated £525 million and Titan Airways, who operate the charter flights, in a race-to-the-bottom cost-cutting and deregulating exercise. In October 2010, 46-year-old Jimmy Mabenga died from a cardiac arrest after being restrained by G4S security guards. The three security guards charged for manslaughter were later all acquitted. In February of this year, when a coach headed for a deportation flight caught fire, the security guards handcuffed the detainees before leading them to safety. Those who were on that plane in Stansted, and on every other plane like it, are victims of a cruel policy designed with the sole purpose of demeaning and dehumanising people who are often already on the margins of society in order to appease the base xenophobic tendencies of an electorate who have been told repeatedly for decades to blame the disenfranchisement they suffer from capitalism on anything but capitalism.

After the 15 went inside, there was some more music, at which point the three of us headed up to the high street for a coffee. We snacked on some bread, cheese and bananas and took the opportunity to soak up some sunlight. By the time we got back to the courthouse, the group had mostly scattered, some also savouring their vitamin D intake on the other side of the narrow street. Nora is a long-time activist and a member of the London Catholic Worker, a Christian anarchist group, and has been involved in the End Deportations campaign for some time already, so was already familiar with many of the people there. The mood was a mixture of optimism and solidarity for the 15, as well as genuine concern, made all the more real after the verdict on the Frack Free Four case just the week before.

In late September, Richard Liozou, Richard Roberts, Simon Roscoe Blevins and Julian Brock were sentenced to a total of 59 months in prison for environmental activism. The men had climbed atop lorries transporting fracking equipment to a site near Blackpool in Lancashire, and stayed there for three days, as other protesters passed them food, water and clothes, in July last year. Now it shouldn’t have to be restated in 2018 that fracking is an immensely stupid and dangerous idea. Not only is shale gas a highly energy inefficient and polluting fossil fuel, but the process of hydraulic fracturing required to extract it is also tremendously unstable and runs the risk of causing irreparable damage to the environment with soil and water contamination and even earthquakes. The energy company Cuadrilla who are running the site in Lancashire have been met with ardent protest not just from environmental activists but also from the nearby residents who feel rightfully worried about the damage done to their local environment. And yet, these activists were charged with obstruction of the motorway and sentenced to prison for daring to stand up to this insanity.

The Stansted court case originally started on the 22nd of March this year. However, on the second day of the trial, the judge dismissed the jury and adjourned the trial due to reasons which could not be disclosed or reported, and the case was postponed to start on the 1st of October. I first met Nick, one of the 15, at a friend’s birthday in Somerset only a few days after that. It was clear that the case was weighing heavily on his mind. It’s not hard to see why. After having a potential life sentence for ludicrous terrorism charges hanging over your head, and then to have the entire process be seemingly unnecessarily drawn out, that might be enough to break many people. However, when I saw him outside the courthouse, he, like the rest of the activists, had a smile on his face, and even if he was nervous, he didn’t let it show. Like with the hostile environment policy, it would seem that the British government is running its own campaign of psychological terrorism on individuals, designed to break their spirit and deter them from challenging the injustices and violations of basic rights which are inextricable from the status quo.

The crowd awaits the 15 across the street

By the time it approached midday, the rally had reconvened to roughly its original size across the street from the entrance to the courthouse, awaiting the 15 as they broke for lunch. They were greeted with a great roar as they made their exit. I stood and cheered too because like everyone else there, I believe that it was with enormous courage that these men and women risked sacrificing so much to stand up for the basic human dignities which are denied to far too many among us, and that in due course they will undoubtedly be proven to be on the right side of history. And it is also important for them to know, while they are going through the tedious and difficult process of this trial, that there are many of us who stand with them, many who also couldn’t be there at the protest but feel the same way, and that regardless of the outcome, there are those who take inspiration from them and will carry on fighting for the same things. We got news at the rally that locals and activists had successfully occupied the Cuadrilla site in Lancashire again.

No victory has ever been won in the fight for social justice and equality through mere civilised discourse. Liberties we take for granted today, like the weekend, like sick pay, like universal suffrage, have have only ever been won through direct action, and through its brutal suppression by state violence. While the de facto setting of alienation in life under capitalism discourages people from collectivising and challenging systems of power, heroes like the Stansted 15 and the Frack Free Four remind us of those sacrifices that need to be made, but also that solidarity is not only possible, but vital in trying to bring about a better world.

We drove back into London by the early afternoon. Maybe mornings aren’t so bad after all.

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North London Bengali, writing about politics, culture, football and climate

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