The Stansted 15: A lesson in action and solidarity

Campaigners outside Chelmsford Crown Court.

Following the sentencing of the Stansted 15, Bill MacKeith, father of May MacKeith, one of the defendants, offers this reflection. See also the earlier SR posting following the convictions in December here.

At 6pm on 11th December 2018, barely 24 hours after 15 people* were convicted of endangering the safe operation of Stansted airport when in March 2017 they stopped a deportation flight to West Africa, 1,000 people demonstrated noisily outside the Home Office in London’s Victoria district in their support.

In response to the verdict, Shami Chakrabarti, Labour’s shadow attorney general, said: ‘What a sad International Human Rights day, when non-violent protesters are prosecuted for defending the Refugee Convention, and are treated like terrorists. Labour in government will
review the statute book to better guarantee the right to peaceful dissent.’

Bill MacKeith addressing the crowd on 6th February.

Two months later, on 6th February, sentencing day, hundreds of people spoke, sang, rapped and danced in their support outside Chelmsford Crown Court. The energy was something to experience. Instead of some at least of the defendants being taken off to prison, as expected, Judge Morgan imposed 9 months suspended prison sentences and 250 hours community service on three, 100 hours community service on 11, and a 20-day rehabilitation order on one defendant.

Two days later, on BBC 1 TV’s Politics Live programme, in a discussion with Stansted 15 defendant Ruth Potts, the panel including Spectator magazine’s Katy Ball referred with approval to the actions of suffragists and abolitionists as they discussed the role of law-breakers in the fight in the winning of civil rights (37 minutes 37 seconds into the programme here.) h

None of this could have happened a year ago. Coming after the scandal of the treatment of the Windrush generation, the saga of the action of the Stansted 15, the government’s response, and the growing support for the 15, has made a real difference to the political landscape. A hugely greater number of people are now aware of the Home Office’s secretive and brutal deportation charter flights.

A powerful action

The action by the Stansted 15 stopped in its tracks a key part of the policy of the most brutal ministry in government. In so doing, it opened the way to further such effective actions, and further concrete real challenges to the often secretive and unreported workings of the hostile environment.

The effectiveness of the action lay in the trust between the participants based on a shared history of political actions, on meticulous preparation and bold execution, on press and media planning, and the transparently unselfish nature of this action of solidarity.

The words and experiences of people who were being or have been deported were constantly foregrounded by the 15 in speeches and interviews.

Perhaps most important, the action brought together three powerful threads of resistance to government policy in different fields: End Deportations itself; Plane Stupid, which opposes airport expansion and whose members are involved in climate protection actions for example against open cast mining; and Gays and Lesbians Support the
Migrants. Each of these has its own support base, which partly explains the numbers who turned out in support of the Stansted 15. This is truly a model to imitate.

Lesbians and Gay Men support the migrants speaking outside the court

A close tie-up between climate change activism and the Stansted 15 resulted from several defendants’ longstanding involvement in the climate
action movement. The Stansted 15 supported the Frack-Free Four before and during their imprisonment, and one of the Four was there on the 10th December to address the crowd outside Chelmsford Crown Court on his release.

Dodging and weaving by the state

Originally the 15 were charged with aggravated trespass. In July 2017, four months later, the charge was added of seriously endangering the safe operation of an airport, under the 1990 Aviation and Maritime Security Act. This was a political decision by the Attorney General and possibly by the Prime Minister, a former Home Secretary and enforcer of the ‘hostile environment’. They clearly felt a deterrent was required.

In the trial, the judge refused to examine the appropriateness of the decision to prosecute under this anti-terror legislation. However, it can fairly be said that the government’s decision has backfired.

The judge instructed the jury to ignore all the evidence given by the defendants about their motives for carrying out the action. This amounted to an instruction to convict. But when it came to sentencing, the judge was quite clear that he did take the motives of the defendants into account and that therefore he was not handing down any custodial sentences.

The Titan Airways deportation flight that took off from Birmingham International as the sentences were being handed down on 6 February was surely a further shot by the government in the to-and-fro of this battle.

A definite victory

The fact that the judge felt unable to impose prison sentences is a victory. The defendants lodged an appeal against the verdicts on 6th January. That is clearly the next stage in this struggle. (Meanwhile, the chief prosecuting lawyer Mr Badenoch, following
the non-custodial sentences, stated that the original charges of aggravated trespass lodged against the 15 in Chelmsford Magistrates Court remain on the books. It is agreed that issue cannot be raised until after the appeal has been heard.)

Richard Rogers of the Frack Free Four brings solidarity

It is worth recording that in the time between the verdict and the sentencing, organisations participating in the March 2017 action did not back off. They organised a World Without Borders launch event at Westminster University on 20th January, and a whole week of anti-deportation events around the sentencing. And Lesbians and Gays Support
the Migrants carried out one of their signature ad-busting actions when they inserted placed dozens of A1 size posters in London bus stop advert frames, supporting the 15, calling for the end of deportations and closure of Yarl’s Wood detention centre.

International attempts to criminalise solidarity with

The attempt by state authorities to criminalise actions in solidarity with migrants is an international one, and the Stansted 15 trial needs to be seen in that context. The Institute of Race Relations reported that up to 6 December last year, at least 89 humanitarian volunteers and anti-deportation activists had been placed under criminal investigation or prosecuted so far in 2018. The most recent example was the Briançon 7, who in November received suspended prison sentences for assisting undocumented refugees across the Italian/French border in alpine country.

‘Change makers’

The Stansted 15 are truly ‘change makers’ as Raj Chada, Partner from Hodge Jones & Allen, who represented all 15 of the defendants, called them in his mitigation plea on 6th February.

There are lessons in this milestone action for all of us, as we fight to link up climate change actions with struggles for migrant rights, with workers’ struggles, and struggles for homes and decent services.

‘Thank you Stansted 15 for shining a light in the darkness of our hostile environment’ : –  placard outside Chelmsford Crown Court, 6 February 2019

* Helen Brewer, Lyndsay Burtonshaw, Nathan Clack, Laura Clayson, Mel Evans, Joseph McGahan, Benjamin Smoke, Jyotsna Ram, Nicholas Sigsworth, Alistair Tamlit, Edward Thacker, Emma Hughes, May MacKeith, Ruth Potts and Melanie Strickland 

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1 Comment on The Stansted 15: A lesson in action and solidarity

  1. Catherine Davidson // 16th February 2019 at 10:43 am // Reply

    A moving account of this story; I believe all 15 will go on to be vindicated – not just by history but by the courts in their appeal. They have bravely drawn attention to an evil policy, and hopefully attracted more support for an end to the hostile environment. Thank you for writing with insight about the way groups can come together to support each other.

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