Lessons of “Heathrow Pause”

Submitted by AWL on 2 October, 2019 - 12:32 Author: Mike Zubrowski

Attempts were made to fly toy drones in Heathrow’s “restricted zone” from Friday 13 September for most of a week.

This action, “Heathrow Pause”, was part of a protest against climate change, by a split from Extinction Rebellion (XR).

Measured by its stated aims and objectives, the action was not particularly successful. There was some publicity for the plans in advance, but very little media coverage over the week of the action itself. No planes were grounded, which was part of the aim, as an end towards media coverage.

The activists’ stated aim of forcing the state to send them to prison — potentially for several years — had questionable “success”. Most charges were “conspiracy to commit public nuisance”, rather than anything more severe.

The most severe consequences faced will probably be due to breach of bail conditions, as some were instructed to not go within five miles of any airport.

Many activists involved, associated, or suspected to be associated with “Heathrow Pause” were pre-emptively arrested in home raids, and charged with this conspiracy sentence. That was an affront to civil liberties. One activist suffered a serious dog bite, at home, during pre-emptive arrest, and was denied access to medical attention for over 26 hours. A journalist was arrested simply for filming.

After being charged with conspiracy, many of the activists went ahead anyway, hoping that achieving breach of bail may reward them with longer incarceration.

It seems that some such as Roger Hallam — one of XR’s key theoreticians — may have managed that. Typically, people who the courts have good reason to believe will breach bail conditions are remanded in custody until their court date.

The activists’ narrative, following XR’s, is around the necessity of self-sacrifice and prison, given the gravity of the threat and the “failure” of other protest methods. Yet they complain of the difficulty in getting the police to arrest them, and say being in prison is “fine” and “not… a big deal”.

An activist in XR told me that those involved in “Heathrow Pause” — which includes much of the leadership of XR — had repeatedly raised the suggestion within XR, and been rebuffed. It sounds as if this debate disrupted much of XR’s functioning and even alienated activists. In the end it was organised independently. Both sides went to distances to distinguish Heathrow Pause from XR, while maintaining roughly the same politics.

While we support a moratorium on airport expansion, Solidarity 515 was right to be critical of this attempt to short-cut the necessary struggle through bold actions by a small number of individuals (bit.ly/HP-plan). We are glad they do not face long prison sentences, and can continue to pursue climate activism with relative freedom.

Is it correct that their tactics are proved necessary because of the failure of other tactics?

Looking back at the anti-globalisation protests of two decades ago, the climate camps of one decade ago, and the smaller “non-violent direct action” protests bubbling along the whole time, we can draw useful lessons on the limitations of the narrow and particular tactics that XR and Heathrow Pause pursue. We support most of these movements, aiming to push them further to radical class-struggle environmentalism.

Class-struggle environmentalism clearly hasn’t stopped climate change, yet, either.

That is not because the best possible attempt has been made, and failed, but because it hasn’t. The historical weakness of labour movement, internationally, over the time period where climate-change has been a widely recognised problem; and the influence of conservative politics in the labour movement partly explain this.

We aim to transform the workers’ movement from bottom-to-top, infusing it with radical environmental politics, to make bold class-struggle to stop climate change. There are historic examples we look to, but there are also openings today. The climate strikes have kindled the beginnings of workplace environmentalism in some places, and can in more.

The radical environmental policies just passed at Labour conference provide another springboard for socialist environmentalism.

New XR action from October

“To Governments of the World, we declared a Climate and Ecological Emergency. You did not do enough.

“To everybody else, rebel.”

Thus begins Extinction Rebellion’s (XR’s) call to action for two weeks from 7 October, internationally. They aim to “peacefully occupy the centres of power”, to place pressure on governments until adequate action is taken. Actions are planned all across the world — at least 60 cities, to date.

Beyond “truth, action and real democracy” they are demanding that “each of the Government departments to outline their actionable plans for responding to the Climate and Ecological Emergency.”

In London they will be protesting at twelve sites around Westminster (see bit.ly/XR-map for a map). Through nonviolent mass actions they hope to maximise disruption, and it seems that for this one, according to some call-outs at least, mass arrests are only a secondary aim, contributing to this end. Some of the protests will be less “arrestable” than others.

The first weekend after the rebellion, the weekend of 12-13 October, XR will hold actions around the UK, and every weekend thereafter.

Socialist activists will and should go to support these protests, and raise the class-struggle socialist environmentalist politics that can stop climate change.

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