Meet the plane stoppers

14.12.2008   (Sunday Times)

Move over, Swampy! Anti-aviation protesters are defined as much by their organisational
skills as their class


At a community centre in west London an unlikely new front in the battle against
global warming is forming over milky tea and homemade cakes. A group of 50 middle-aged
housewives and retired professional women have assembled in a wooden hall in Hounslow
decorated with bunches of flowers and photographs of local events.

Biscuit tins are passed around and chocolate cake is shared, but the talk is
subversive. Bold plans are being hatched.

Maggie Thorburn, Jean Bland and more than 50 friends and neighbours are discussing
how to storm the offices of BAA, Britain’s airports operator. In between tea breaks
they also rehearse breaking through Heathrow airport’s perimeter fence and chaining
themselves to one another in the middle of imaginary runways.

The mission of these unlikely revolutionaries is to force the government to reverse
its policy on airport expansion. "I’m not the type to do this sort of thing,"
said Bland. "But the government’s consultation on Heathrow’s third runway made
me furious because it was so obviously corrupt. What are we meant to do when our
democracy is not working?"

Every 40 seconds, proceedings pause as a jet coming into Heathrow roars overhead,
making the window panes tremble.

The women are fresh evidence that Britain’s antiaviation movement is growing
at a speed that has put politicians and business on the back foot.

Last Monday protesters grounded traffic at Stansted airport in Essex for two
hours after they cut their way through perimeter fencing at 3am. Police made more
than 50 arrests.

Reports made much of the well-to-do nature of the airport invaders – they were
tagged the "middle-class militants" and "designer demonstrators". Indeed, among
the revolutionaries gathered in Hounslow was the director of an IT firm and an
interior designer. But the obsession with class obscures the fact that the changing
demographic of protests has brought with it unprecedented organisation, funding
and strategic thinking.

At the vanguard of the more militant protest groups is Plane Stupid, which led
the Stansted invasion. Many of its activists do come from a middle-class background
and have university educations. Among them are Tamsin Omond, 23, granddaughter
of a baronet, who shares an east London flat with another activist, Beth Stratford,
26, a Cambridge graduate. There is Olivia Chessell, a 20-year-old whose grandfather
was a cabinet minister in the Wilson government, and Leo Murray, a grandson of
Anthony Greenwood, the Labour peer.

A number admit to being spurred on by what they see as the failings of their
parents. "Our parents’ generation haven’t done what’s necessary," said Lily Kember,
an anthropology student at Edinburgh University who juggles her activism with
essay deadlines. "Now it’s up to us to act. It’s our future and we’re not going
to fail our children in the same way."

Others are rebelling more obviously against the lifestyles of their forebears.
Joss Garman, 23, one of the founders of the group in 2005, is the grandson of
a pilot and Will Rose, 29, is a son of the coal industry.

"My grandparents and father were miners," said Rose, who is from Northumberland.
"Ashington used to be the pride of the industry. It was a booming example of the
economics of coal so it was very hard to get used to the idea that coal is bad.
My dad was on the picket lines under Thatcher, trying to keep the pits open. Now
I’m trying to shut coal power plants down."

If, on the evidence of this range of protesters, one cannot define the movement
as generational or too narrowly class-based, what is its key feature? The truth
is probably more prosaic: it is organisation – specifically the type of structure
that would impress a group of management consultants.

"We wanted to mix the professionalism of Greenpeace with the spikiness of the
antiroads movement," said Garman.

The group has no defined membership, leaders or constitution, but works in geographical
"cells". Members say it is modelled on the "rhizome concept", a nonhierarchical
model designed to share information and ideas developed by Gilles Deleuze and
Félix Guattari, the philosophers, in the 1970s. The name Plane Stupid acts as
a "virtual" umbrella network which can be used by any climate change activist
wanting to take direct action against the growth of air transport and expansion
of airports. It is a far cry from Swampy and Co and their ad hoc antiroads protests
of the 1990s.

"We are not a membership organisation; we have no membership fee and no membership
list," said Mel Evans, a campaigner. "We are organised through affinity groups.
There are nodes which are all connected but there is no central hub. You could
compare us with how potatoes grow underground."

They are also focused on the lessons of past campaigns. The perception that direct
action is yielding tangible results has been key to the broadening appeal of the
movement. "Direct action is the only thing which seems to have any traction over
the political process," said Garman.

Veteran antiroad campaigners have brought the lessons of their protests to the
new cause. "A lot of the seasoned activists from Newbury, Twyford Down and Manchester
have been coming to us and giving advice on how to stop the works," said Graham
Thompson, 35, a Durham University graduate who set up Plane Stupid with Garman
and now works part-time for Greenpeace.

Plane Stupid also assesses every protest in terms of media reaction. There were
fears last week that they had gone too far at Stansted. Many reports, as well
as focusing on the background of the protesters, also picked out the understandable
anger of travellers whose flights were delayed.

"I was pretty nervous about what the public’s response would be but on the whole
people seem to be supportive," said Garman. "They seem to understand where we’re
coming from. They are asking themselves why a fairly normal bunch of kids feel
they have to go to these lengths."

The group also has its corporate backers to consider. It is funded mainly by
Mark Constantine, the multi-millionaire head of Lush, the global cosmetics chain,
as well as individuals sympathetic to the green movement. Customers buying Lush’s
£9.74 Charity Pot – a tub of sweet-scented cocoa butter hand-and-body lotion –
may be taken aback to discover that proceeds from their purchase are being used
to support actions such as the invasion of Stansted. Rather embarrassingly, Lush
was last week revealed to have branches at airports in Japan and America; until
a few years ago it had one at Heathrow, too.

Andrew Butler, campaigns manager at Lush, argued that the protesters’ cause is
noble. "This is a fight in the tradition of civil disobedience," he said. "Last
weekend around 10,000 people marched through London to highlight climate change,
to little media coverage. But what just 50 people did on the runway at Stansted
brought international attention. It’s no surprise that people are choosing to
stand up and act."

Greenpeace, the environmental charity, provides support by employing Plane Stupid
activists and giving them office space.

The speed with which the antiaviation – and particularly the antiairport expansion
– cause has gained support has taken the industry aback.

Just a year ago it would have seemed inconceivable that the Conservatives, traditionally
the party of business, could oppose the expansion of Britain’s leading hub airport,
proposing instead what they heralded as a "seriously green" alternative: a high-speed
rail network replacing the need for short-haul flights by linking Heathrow to
European and UK destinations.

Yet while public support for Plane Stupid’s cause is substantial, their tactics
have yet to win over the nation. A poll conducted for The Sunday Times this weekend
found that just 8% of the public support the methods used by Plane Stupid protesters,
although 40% said they did support their motives. Attitudes towards airport expansion
are more divided: 50% support expansion while 30% are opposed and 20% have not
made up their minds.

The tension is likely to build. Plane Stupid is making plans for a campaign of
direct action against all 12 of Britain’s airports that are earmarked for expansion.
Part of its strategy is to drive up costs for airport operators in the same way
that the antiroads movement ramped up the cost of security operations for road-builders.

The most immediate flashpoint will be Heathrow. If the government gives the nod
to expansion next month, protesters have vowed to bring chaos, blocking transport
links, invading the runway and storming BAA’s offices. If work on a third runway
were to start, then the activists would be licking their lips. As Rose said: "A
construction site is a playground for direct action."

Such is the growing public antipathy to the expansion of Heathrow that the Plane
Stupid activists might find many more people willing to watch over them with an
indulgent eye while they play in it.


There have been numerous stories and opinions about the Plane Stupid action at
Stansted on Monday 8th.   Links to a few below:

Why I support Plane Stupid   – Mark Constantine from Lush.   (Guardian    12.12.2008 )  

Flight of fancy, or a far-sighted protest?   (Guardian 13.12.2008)

Plane stupid’s antics at Stansted airport are plain selfish   (Telegraph   8.12.2008)

Stansted brought to standstill by ‘Plane Stupid’ protesters   (Indy   9.12.2008)

Where there’s a protest, there’s probably a ‘posh kid’   (Guardian   9.12.2008)

Designer demo brings Stansted airport to a halt     (Times    9.12.2008)

Paul Geater in the Suffolk Evening Star     (14.12.2008)