Learning from the Heathrow 13: Reflections on struggle, repression and prison

heathrow1

This is an article by Free to Fight, a collective of anarchist organisers based in England who have experienced the impacts of repression first hand. We have served lengthy prison and suspended prison sentences for our involvement in animal liberation campaigning and continue to organise support for friends and comrades still experiencing state repression today.

We want to express our full solidarity with and support for the Heathrow13. Being prosecuted and facing prison is a harrowing and personal experience that affects everyone differently. Our thoughts are with the defendants and we hope they’re able to begin recovering from this intense and worrying time. This article is not directed at them as individuals, it is aimed at wider social justice movements. We don’t claim to have all the answers, but we would like to add our thoughts to the mainstream discourse circulating around this case.

As many of you will have seen yesterday was the sentencing of the ‘Heathrow13’; thirteen climate change activists that took part in a lock-on on a runway at Heathrow Airport, stopping flights for a number of hours, in protest at the proposed building of a new runway at the airport.

We were delighted to know that these 13 people weren’t subjected to the trauma of prison yesterday and can remain free to fight on the outside, be with their loved ones and continue to raise important issues about aviation and climate injustice. This article is intended to ask critical questions about repression, power, privilege and prison and how we respond to these complex challenges.

Repression has, and will, effect every social movement in history, all over the world. We humbly want to contribute our experiences to the conversation. The animal liberation movement, particularly anti-vivisection campaigning, has unquestionably received the greatest state repression of any left wing political struggle in the UK in recent years. Dozens of organisers have experienced long prison sentences, harsh bail and licence conditions and intimidation, as well as harassment and surveillance by the police, infiltrators and corporate interests.

The movement has been crushed by repression and is still struggling to rebuild itself from the damage that has been caused. In looking at our response to this repression, we can see that our biggest mistakes were our narrow political understanding, failure to anticipate and withstand legal repercussions and the lack of importance we placed on solidarity and personal support. The animal liberation movement was demonised in the media and did not have the power or privilege to contest the political commentary engineering our downfall. With multiple comrades imprisoned, and those on the outside terrified and unsupported, huge lessons were learnt about what to do and what not to do in responding to repression.

We’d like to share our insights in the hopes that the lessons we’ve learned can help organisers from all anti-oppression movements to be better prepared for facing repression.

Repression is more than prison

After running a necessity defence against the charge of Aggravated Trespass, the Heathrow 13 were found guilty and told to expect immediate custodial sentences. The defendants have received an incredible outpouring of support from the environmental movement, green campaigners, local residents and high profile individuals.

At their sentencing yesterday they were each given 6 weeks in prison suspended for 1 year, along with varying lengths of community service. This means that they will not be going to jail for now, but if they’re convicted of another offence within the 1 year period, they’ll automatically serve the 6 weeks in prison, along with any punishment for the new offence. Although it was great to hear that the Heathrow13 weren’t jailed yesterday, seeing suspended sentences being celebrated demonstrates that we need to work on our political understanding and awareness of the different forms of repression.

With one of our collective being just over half way through a two year suspended prison sentence, we know that this is not a victory of justice or a happy end to the personal struggle of being prosecuted. Instead of doing a few weeks or months inside, suspended sentences can be used to punish and control people for a much longer period. For something like aggravated trespass, which has a maximum sentence of 3 months, people can face restrictions and the ongoing threat and worry of being imprisoned for years – often without the movement and personal support that political prisoners receive while inside.

As with time spent on bail, defendants can be isolated from their movements, forgotten by their comrades and left with the seemingly endless worry of a prison sentence hanging over them. We like to make martyrs of our prisoners, but fail to know how to support people through the more tedious and drawn out forms of repression.

These less news worthy forms of punishment can also have a greater deterrent effect on social movements. Seeing people receive a few weeks in prison, amidst outpourings of support and outrage from the public and fellow campaigners can mobilise us into action and drive us to want to resist this acute injustice. But seeing our comrades disappear from activism for months, withdrawn, worried and isolated, ignored by the media and the movement at large doesn’t provide the same motivation. We have to remember repression is more than just prison, it’s all the tools in the toolkit that are used to prevent social movements from achieving their goals, and it has inevitable political, practical, social and emotional impacts on us all.

Privilege, Power and the Prison Industrial Complex

This sentencing has been celebrated as a victory and show of common sense from the justice system. The rhetoric around this case has said that these are moral, professional and qualified people who don’t deserve to go to prison for their actions. Guardian articles share their portraits, highlight their backgrounds and indicate their higher education achievements. For most people going to prison, they are unable to use this kind of privilege to their advantage. Even in political cases, those from working class backgrounds are unable to share letters from Barristers, or Head teachers at Private Schools, they are not able to use the discourse of the concerned middle class citizen, and as such are subject to harsher sentencing than even some of their co-defendants in the same cases. We have to acknowledge the consequences of this approach and how it might affect the next people on the stand and those that can’t play this card.

The second worldview which flickers around facebook is that somehow the British justice system is fair and integral to its’ fairness is our right to protest. Therefore it would be an outrage if peaceful protesters were imprisoned as no environmental activists have ever been sent to prison for non-violent protests. It feeds this idea that we have moved on from disproportionate punishment of political campaigners – the state’s harsh treatment of dissidents like the suffragettes has been consigned to history. This discourse is untrue and shows a dangerous lack of awareness of the history of political struggle and continuing repression of social movements. As well as the harmful disconnect between ‘political’ and ‘normal’ people when it comes to struggling against dominant forces.

The British Justice system is a racist, sexist, violent institution and the frontline of warfare against working class communities. We were inspired to see banners at court linking climate change to colonialism, and read inspiring articles written by the defendants that talk about the impacts of climate change on people in the Global South. Working class solidarity is needed in the UK, where we have the most privatised prison system in Europe, where people are being locked up for profit, where every single day thousands of people are harmed by the prison industrial complex. Violence, beatings, self-harm, drug abuse, rape and sexual assault, suicide and just the simple brutality of being caged are all endemic in our prison system. Prison is inherently violent, and it’s the tool of a violent state that serves the capitalists who are the real ones profiting from aviation and environmental destruction.

We are relieved that the Heathrow13 do not have to enter those prison gates, but we cannot forget the 85,636 people that are there, mostly for being poor. We have to dismantle the discourse of deserving and undeserving and challenge entire systems of interlinked oppression if we are to truly achieve radical change.

State Violence & the inevitability of Repression

Unfortunately, as the animal liberation movement has seen, if a group becomes effective in challenging the interests of the state, increasing repression is inevitable. When SHAC (Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty) campaigners were close to driving HLS (Huntingdon Life Sciences), Europe’s largest animal testing laboratory, into closure, the pharmaceutical industry told the UK government that they must step in, or they would move their business abroad. Not wanting to suffer this economic loss, the UK government introduced new laws (SOCPA 145 and 146) and began reinterpreting pre-existing laws (‘conspiracy to blackmail’ and the use of injunctions) to use against anti-vivisection campaigners. With the biggest police operation in UK history being organised against SHAC, dozens of people were arrested and sent to prison, with unprecedented long sentences of up to 11 years. You can read more about the impact and repression of SHAC on the blog SHAC Made History.

The targeting of SHAC may be a perfect example of an effective grassroots campaign being shut down by the state, but it’s just one in the ongoing state silencing of anyone who poses a threat to the economy or their power.

Finally, we don’t have the word count left to go into the ‘violent/non-violent’ debate. However we’d suggest people read Peter Gelderloos’ text on How Non Violence Protects the State.

For the Heathrow 13, we are sure that there will be tears of relief and deep breaths, as well as thoughts of what to do next now the haunting feeling of prison is lifted (for now at least).

Now is the time to escalate not only our struggles for social and environmental justice, but to place these struggles in the bigger context of confronting capitalism, the state and its prison society. It is also the time to escalate our solidarity for all our comrades that are behind bars or experiencing repression in different ways all over the world.

Until All Are Free!
Free to Fight Collective, February 2016

3 responses to “Learning from the Heathrow 13: Reflections on struggle, repression and prison

  1. Pingback: Early April round-up: work, prison, and other struggles | Cautiously pessimistic

  2. Pingback: “From shambles to farce”: CPS jokers get “a slap in the face” | Cautiously pessimistic

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s