The Ecologist

Heathrow Airport. Photo: Sergio Y Adeline via Flickr (CC BY-NC).
Heathrow Airport. Photo: Sergio Y Adeline via Flickr (CC BY-NC).
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#Heathrow13: the systemic violence of climate change

Ali Tamlit

25th February 2016

Plane Stupid's Heathrow 13 escaped immediate incarceration yesterday for occupying Heathrow's northern runway last summer. But the threat of imprisonment remains firmly in place, writes Ali Tamlit, from a state determined to defend the corporations that are inflicting the systemic violence of climate change on us all. The peaceful fight for a better world must go on.

Being honest about the violence that permeates this world can then allow us to take stock of the challenge we face but also give us the strength and the courage to fight for a better world.

On the 25th of January, Judge Wright found the #Heathrow13 guilty and told us to expect prison when she delivered her sentence.

That took place yesterday. We received sentences of six weeks imprisonment, suspended for 12 months.

While we are glad to have been saved an immediate journey to prison, in no sense do we feel 'in the clear'. Any further such protests we may engage in over the next year will make us liable to automatic imprisonment.

And while the trial was ostensibly about us and our alleged offences, the real trial has been about climate change, about a third runway at Heathrow, about new runways anywhere, about the death and harm these industries cause.

Underlying all of this is violence.

Climate change is violence

The effects of climate change are already here, and the path we're on means we're heading for much worse. As a result of the 0.85C rise that has already occurred since 1880, it's estimated that 300,000 people are dying a year.

As the Earth warms, the storms get worse, the floods rise higher and the conflicts over resources worsen. More people will die as a result. Predominantly, these people are women, the poor, the marginalised, and communities of colour in the Global South who are ignored, silenced and repressed. They have been suffering various forms of violence for centuries; climate change is a mere extension of this.

People are not the only ones suffering. We are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction in the history of the earth. Biodiversity loss - the death of countless species - is in freefall. Feedback loops are locking us into more and more patterns of death: the acidification of the ocean leads to coral die off; the drying Amazon leads to fires.

This is violence.

This is not a natural disaster. This is being caused by humans, by the decisions humans are making. There are underlying causes to this, which are not complicated to understand. Our dependence on fossil fuels, on economic growth, on the accumulation of wealth for a few is pushing the whole planet over the edge.

As US union organiser, musician and poet Utah Phillips said: "the Earth is not dying, it is being killed. And those doing the killing have names and addresses." One of those doing the killing is called Heathrow Airport Limited.

States of violence

Corporations are not the only ones responsible. States play an integral role in maintaining the structures of violence through laws, policing, prisons, trade deals and a lack of any meaningful agreement on climate change. Increasingly, the state and corporations are intertwined, bound by their mutual aims of profit over all else.

During the #Heathrow13 trial, we were criticised by Judge Wright for the fact that our action would have been short lived as we knew the police would remove us from the runway. This, however, just shows the ways in which violence operates. The police, in removing us, are an active part in facilitating the violence of climate change.

They uphold a law which states that the activity of Heathrow - which even Judge Wright admitted has an "indisputable" link to climate change - is lawful, while our attempts to stop that activity, which is having disastrous effects locally and globally, is illegal. 

The law maintains the right for corporations to make money, at the expense of life around the world, and the police are part of making sure that doesn't change. Increasingly we are seeing police protecting businesses undertaking destructive work from people trying to prevent it - such as the lines of riot cops walking trucks into a fracking site at Balcombe.

Compared to protestors in Mexico, we are definitely the lucky ones

The immediate threat of prison has been lifted. But it is still hanging over us. This is yet another form of violence. In taking a stand, in fighting to prevent this process of death from continuing, we are told we are to lose our freedom. We are told that the state has the right to lock our bodies in cages, in order to make an example of us, for daring to fight back.

Though, laws are generally there to protect property and profit, this is not an inevitability of following the law, but a political decision made to deter future actions. There is a general understanding in British law that peaceful direct action is accepted as a part of the functions of democracy and the typical sentencing is usually light - either a conditional discharge or community service.

In our case, that agreement seems to have been broken and we're being threatened with imprisonment.

That said, we haven't come off too badly in comparison to others. In the UK over 1,500 people have died in police custody since 1990, many of which have been people of colour. Globally, at least 908 environmental activists were killed between 2002 and 2013, according to Global Witness, mostly in the Global South.

In Mexico, an ongoing resistance against a new airport saw "violent repression [that] resulted in two young people dead, 26 women raped by the military police, 217 people arrested, and many injured. Nine leaders of the Atenco farmers were illegally sentenced to 31 years, two for 67 years, and one for 112 years."

That we face the threat of six weeks in prison seems insignificant in comparison and we are privileged not to face greater risks.

Surrender? Or fight back?

It is important that we are honest about what is happening. That we acknowledge the way things are. That we call this what it is: violence. Violence against people, other species, and our world. But we cannot allow fear to hold us back. We can choose to respond.

As Derrick Jensen says: "When those at the top tell you that something is going to be profitable and that it will help you, it means they are going to rob you and assault you if you resist. You have two options at that point. One is to surrender. One is to fight back."

We need to fight back and this can take many forms. This needn't just mean more people taking direct actions to shut down the fossil-fuel industry - though of course we welcome that. It can be so many things.

From learning to relate to each other as humans and resolve conflicts so that we can shut down the prison system; to growing our own food, so that we don't fly it in from the other side of the world; to creating communities of meaningful work, that we don't seek connection and intimacy in drug abuse and consumerism; to changing the way we raise and educate our children, so that they learn to love themselves and each other.

Being honest about the violence that permeates this world can then allow us to take stock of the challenge we face but also give us the strength and the courage to fight for a better world.



Ali Tamlit is one of 13 protesters facing jail for blockading Heathrow airport to protest against its expansion.

This article was originally published by openDemocracy under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. This version has been updated by The Ecologist to reflect the actual sentences laid down.

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