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The Stansted 15 and the terror of law

The Stansted 15, who peacefully blocked a mass deportation flight in March 2017, were convicted on Monday under the Aviation and Maritime Security Act. They face up to life in prison and await sentencing in February. Luke de Noronha and Tanzil Chowdhury reflect on their conviction and its profound significance for all of us. 

Luke de Noronha, Tanzil Chowdhury12 December 2018

The Stansted 15 and the terror of law

Locating the conviction

When the MP for Aberdeen-South, Frank Dobson, expressed anxieties about what the Aviation and Maritime Security Bill might mean for the ability to engage in industrial action, it’s unlikely that he or any other parliamentarian anticipated that the law would be used to convict 15 peaceful protesters who blocked the takeoff of a deportation charter flight nearly thirty years later. Introduced in the wake of the Lockerbie disaster, the Act sought to suppress ‘Unlawful Acts of Violence at Airports Serving International Civil Aviation’, and its use in this case has been both unfamiliar and effective (at least for now).

The facts of the Stansted 15 case are well rehearsed, but it is the prosecution, rather than the form of political action, which have been strikingly inventive. Back in July 2015, another group of activists occupied a runway at Heathrow. Over a year later, protestors disrupted the runway at London City airport, and in a later case that received notable media coverage, 49 Plane Stupid activists occupied the runway at Stansted for over three hours. All the defendants in each of these factually similar cases were, without exception, charged with and convicted of aggravated trespass and given non-custodial sentences.

Why the CPS felt the Stansted 15 warranted ‘special treatment’ – especially given that they were nowhere near the runway, and remained in the loading bay – remains to be seen. But we should recognise that their peaceful grounding of a deportation charter flight effectively made visible the extent of UK border violence, thus challenging the exclusionary and expulsive logic of immigration control at a time of great national unease.

In the trial, the prosecution argued that the protestors had posed a grave risk to the safety of the airport and its passengers. The breach of airport security, the involvement of the police, the subsequent closure of the runway, and the alleged fear felt by the pilot were the key elements of the prosecutor’s case.

Is the charge terror-related?

The CPS have stated that this was ‘not a terrorist charge’. By that they mean that the Aviation and Maritime Security Act is separate to the terrorism acts, particularly those implemented since 2000 under the War on Terror. These latter forms of counter terror legislation do have several important and unique features. They apportion broad and invasive powers to government ministers while flouting principles of due process and other fundamental rights. Many counter terror offences can also be characterised by their anticipatory nature. Criticising ‘British Values’, discussing eco-activism, or mispronouncing cucumber as ‘cooker bomb’ have all been considered signs of vulnerability to radicalisation under the Counter Terrorism and Security Act 2015 (which legislates the controversial PREVENT policy).

But parliamentary debates on the Aviation and Maritime Security Act contradict the CPS’s claims that this was not ‘a terrorist charge’. The Act itself was introduced explicitly to deal with acts of serious terrorism at airports, in direct response to the Lockerbie disaster. This explains why this offence carries the maximum sentence of life imprisonment. To all intents and purposes, therefore, the Stansted 15 have been convicted of terror offences.

Of course, an important distinction between the Stansted 15 and those charged under more recent Terrorism Acts is the ways in which contemporary counter terror law trades on the racialised figure of the ‘Muslim’. Counter terror laws mobilise racialised tropes on ‘Muslim extremists’, which then license the wholesale removal of rights. Importantly, this is comparable with the racialisation of migrants to justify their illegalisation and deportation. Both ‘terror suspects’ and ‘migrants’ can be subject to arbitrary detention without charge, and both are constructed as racialised outsiders who should be denied citizenship rights and expelled from the body politic. Indeed, through the increased use of citizenship-stripping, the ‘terror suspect’ is regularly transformed into ‘the migrant’, made foreign, so that they can be denied entry, banished, and/or perhaps killed by drone strike.

Perhaps, then, it is the tens of Nigerian and Ghanaian nationals booked on that charter flight, rather than the activists who grounded it, whose predicament and location in relation to state power more closely resembles that of the ‘terror suspect’. The 15 defendants might not have been demonised and racialised in ways to analogous to ‘terror suspects’, but the migrants they sought to defend were and continue to be.

Ultimately, these 15 activists might well face long prison sentences for engaging in a peaceful form of political protest to defend the life and liberty of a group of migrants. It is only in anti-immigrant and War on Terror times that such extreme state responses become possible. 

The limits and violence of law

There are many ways in which we might critique the implementation of the law in this case. We might note judge Morgan’s direction to the jury to ignore the human rights concerns of the protestors, or note that in his summing up he effectively directed the jury to convict rather than providing them with an impartial summary of the facts and law. We might also criticize the Attorney General’s signing off on the prosecution’s charge – a requirement of the Aviation and Maritime Security Act that was intended as a safeguard – as betraying the principles of transparency and the rule of law. These critiques of the law are important, and there have been important moments when the partial indeterminacies of law provide openings to resist state violence (think of the Bradford 12, the Rotherham 12 or the Smash EDO campaigners).

However, it is worth being wary about investing faith in the redemptive power of law’s justice. Juristic solutions are always bounded and inhered with violence. As Robert Cover famously said: ‘Legal interpretation takes place in a field of pain and death’.

It’s not just the content of law – in this case enabling the ‘real and material’ risks to the airport to trump the welfare of those facing deportation – but also how judicial craft enables such outcomes. In this case, in particular, it is clear that law does not transcend politics, but is politics by another means.

The reasons why the CPS decided to raise the charges to endangering an airport remain unclear, but they are obviously political. This was not some neutral reading of the statutes by the prosecutors, but a creative use of legislation to punish political resistance and to deter other forms of organised radical politics. This is missed when people baldly state: ‘well, if you break the law, you face the consequences’. The question remains: which laws, enforced how, and to what ends?

Ultimately, the law makes racist border controls, or austerity, or military interventions, seem natural and unquestionable. And this is precisely what the Stansted 15 action was designed to challenge. Indeed, their investment in judicial procedures was less to do with law’s virtues, and more a strategy to make state violence visible, as the courts became a space in which to air radical critique. As Mari Matsuda puts it:

“There are times to stand outside the courtroom door and say ‘this procedure is a farce, the legal system is corrupt, justice will never prevail in this land as long as privilege rules in the courtroom.’ There are [also] times to stand in the courtroom and say, ‘this is a nation of laws, laws recognizing fundamental values of rights, equality and personhood.’”

The right to direct action

It has been noted that this charge represents an attack on the right to protest, particularly in relation to direct action. In this context, it is worth asking whether and when direct action is necessary.

In short, direct action becomes necessary to the extent that law and injustice become coterminous. That is, when the law enacts extraordinary violence and causes such unknowable suffering, as with the UK’s immigration regime, the stakes are raised to the point where acts of direct political action are not only proportionate but necessary.

Often, we only recognise the legitimacy of this calculus in hindsight (the actions of the suffragettes are most often invoked in this regard, but we might well think of slave rebellions and anticolonial forms of resistance here too). The point, however, is that direct action does things which other forms of political pressure cannot do.  

Perhaps the best way we can make this point is to return to a piece Luke wrote nearly one year ago about a particular individual he became close to (also see this beautiful and important article). The piece ended:

A couple of months ago, I really thought Michael would get out. I thought he would be able to stay with his mum, his brothers, his friends; with his memories, his home, his place. I thought him staying would help me deal with the fact that most people in his situation do not. I was wrong. And so now I am writing. It is ten past midnight and Michael is in the air, on his way to Nigeria.

Michael had lived in the UK since he was nine-years-old and had no family remaining in Nigeria. And yet, his deportation was completely routine; unexceptional, ordinary. Luke had tried to help find legal advice over several months and Michael had written letters, appealed and sought judicial review. Nothing worked. For the 11 people from the Stansted 15 flight who still remain in the UK, something did.

It is in sitting with stories like Michael’s that this kind of direct action acquires urgency. Importantly, it is knowing that thousands of people are forcibly and violently deported each year, or made destitute and pressured to accept ‘voluntary return’, that makes these forms of radical action necessary.

While there are different ways to struggle against the border regime, and they are not mutually exclusive, actions like this one invigorate and inspire all of us who are resisting immigration controls. The value of this action will not be measured by whether these fifteen individuals become tomorrow’s suffragettes, but by the ways in which it contributes to a wider programme of radical change.

Ultimately, that is up to everyone else. The actions of these 15, like the many acts of resistance by people inside detention, should work to galvanise a wider constituency.

The grounding of this one charter flight in March 2017 made the brutality of deportation more visible, and the importance of that cannot be overstated.

It symbolises the broad struggle, not merely for a fairer immigration system or for a nicer kind of deportation, but for an end to all deportations. The actions of the Stansted 15 remind us that it could be otherwise, that not everyone is willing to sit and let these forms of state violence happen, and that extreme forms of state racism call for radical and collective forms of political action.

Filed under: uk-politics