When 15 environmental and human rights activists (including Laura Clayson, former LUSU President) staged a protest at Stansted Airport in March 2017 by cutting through a fence and locking themselves together in front of a plane to halt a deportation flight, it brought to light a dark and secretive reality of the Home Office. Such flights, filled with deportees to West Africa were taking off in the dead of night often outside of the usual legal processes and away from the eye of public scrutiny.

The 15 activists' protest was able to stop the flight, and they were subsequently arrested by the police. 11 of the passengers on the flight, including victims of human trafficking, currently remain in the UK, spared from wrongful deportation by the actions of the activists.

Those who took action – the Stansted 15 – found themselves in a protracted legal battle that has raged on into 2021. Despite protesting peacefully, they were charged with and convicted of terrorism-related offences, with a potential maximum sentence of life imprisonment. This drew strong criticism from the United Nations, MPs like Diane Abbott and human rights groups such as Amnesty International.

However, after almost 4 years of uncertainty, they now find themselves vindicated, and today have all had their convictions quashed by the Court of Appeal, the Lord Chief Justice saying: “There was, in truth, no case to answer.”

Last year, a Spineless contributor sat down with Ed Thacker to talk about his activism and how his experiences as a student helped shape it. Ed was one of the Stansted 15 and was one of 3 to receive the harshest sentences in view of their previous involvement with climate activism protests at Heathrow in 2016.

What was your relationship with activism as a student?

I was political as a student in that I was interested in ideas, but I didn’t get involved in activism in the way I have over the last 6 years until after uni. You can be surrounded by others who are interested in ideas but with education having become a commodity and a service that you’re paying for, it’s easy to lack any confidence or courage to do anything about it.

I grew up in the noughties and the book Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher paints a picture of what my education was like: that post-9/11 stagnation and a feeling that ‘there is no alternative’ which is so deeply embedded in the psyche from an early stage. That was central throughout my education and upbringing.

In Capitalist Realism, Mark Fisher puts forward a bleak vision of neoliberalism in Britain, focussing especially on the marketisation of education. He argues that a belief there can be no alternative to the current system we’re living in pervades every element of our culture and is instilled in everyone through the cultural, economic, social, and educational institutions around us. For many children growing up in the New Labour years, capitalist realism was the reality drilled into them from the earliest years of their education.

My parents were always socialists, so I knew about that, but it wasn’t until going to university that I was exposed to a lot of new ideas. I was under the School of Geography, which traditionally attracts a lot of radical thinkers, so I was lucky to have a lot of anti-capitalist professors. I came across new ideas like Marxism and anarchism and began to understand them for the first time.

At university, my first year was mostly about socialising and having fun and then second and third year I was heavily focussed on studying so I didn’t feel like I had the energy to get involved in more political things. I went along to marches, occupations, and demonstrations, but I wasn’t heavily involved and I didn’t throw myself at student activism, though I did have a lot of admiration for the people who did. At that time, the big thing was marches against tuition fees because the Lib Dems were backtracking on that already and fees were eventually tripled.

The turning point comes when we have to make that choice to enter the labour market and decide what it is we want to do. For my personal journey, university was about using the time to read about alternatives to the current system and work out what we can do to challenge that. On that note, my dissertation was on squatting and the idea of degrowth which is now starting to become more mainstream. This is a downscaling of production and consumption: a recession but voluntarily managed at nation-state level and community level. I think it’s clear the left needs to embrace this now and abandon the notion of growth altogether.

I ended up living at one of the squats I studied as part of that research, called Grow Heathrow, set up to oppose the expansion of Heathrow Airport in one of the villages that was going to be demolished by the construction of the third runway. It was a beautiful squat with very strong prefigurative politics and non-hierarchical decision making.

Before that, my whole education had been 15 years of preparing you for wage labour and the job market but after leaving those educational institutions, I felt the need to find coping mechanisms and alternatives to wage labour which I think need to be experimented with at the university level.

I probably would have got a lot from engaging with ideas like this whilst at university but I only really stepped into it full time afterwards, largely because I got so frustrated with peers of mine saying ‘oh this is our last bit of freedom, this is our last chance to have fun’ whilst at college.

As far as I’m concerned, it’s as soon as our education is finished that it really matters. It can’t just be a fun, idyllic, and casual youth that we’ve had that just comes to an end and immediately succumbs to capitalist realism where we all become producer-consumers and then that’s it. We have to create the world we want to live in.

You still see the same thing today. Particularly at the moment with the ongoing Covid-19 situation and university being moved online or cancelled, you see people saying ‘oh no the last opportunity to have some fun without worrying too much about the future before we have to get jobs has been taken from us.’ It does sometimes feel like there’s an acceptance that we’re being chucked into the big scary world of wage labour and that’s it now for the next 50 years. I suppose because it’s been drilled into us for so long that there is no alternative.

That affects everyone, make no mistake. Across the leftist movements I’ve been involved with there has always been a tension with those that get jobs in the charity sector: the career of activism. Whether it was the Stansted case or when I was involved with a group called Plane Stupid, there were always people working at Greenpeace involved and that tension was always there.

On one level I can intellectually critique the damaging impact of the non-profit sector on grassroots activism and the way in which it can divide and co-opt grassroots movements but at the same time so many of us are still affected by the nagging sense of needing to try and get a job and succumb to some of these pressures which seem so omnipresent at times.

In a way then, some of this activism can come as a very distinct reaction to and break from those overarching pressures that you mention. Taking action against the injustices within the broader system might to some extent be a way of challenging that system in a sense: whether that’s in a student context or later on. How is it that you see activism fitting into that broader societal picture?

I’m critical of the use of the term activist as an identity because that leads to it being presented as some sort of duty or sacrificial act. Within Extinction Rebellion, I know there are a lot of people who think that sense of duty and sacrifice is what will win over the population, but I think there are major dangers in that, especially of burnout and drawing unnecessary lines of division. Instead, I think it should address the need to express and let out our rage and frustration but also our passion for how the world could be different, which are both intimately related. I don’t think the professionalisation of activism speaks to me very much at all. For me, the actions I’ve taken part in have always been quite personal journeys of enacting one’s own vision of politics on the world.

The Stansted case came out of our personal responses to the state of the world and making peace with the notion that of the ecology as we know it isn’t going to be saved in any clear way. We will go through a collapse of some sort, but there is still a lot to play for within that climate of political catastrophe which boils down to questions of class, race, and justice. It’s about shaping the kind of world we leave for people after us which was connected to our community’s assessment of the ecological situation we find ourselves in and working out where we go from here.

On that note, I suppose there was inherently a personal and a human element to the Stansted action. Race and class elements come into it with the way Home Office was treating people at that time – and still is treating people – but the raw human element must have been part of it too, with the nature of what you were trying to prevent. People who were saved from illegal deportation by your action have since called you heroes, and one man said he was able to be there for the birth of his daughter that he would otherwise have missed. Do you think that human element was one of most significant parts of that action, or was it bigger and broader than that?

I’ve kept in contact with that father since the action and have gotten to know him. Once you get to the bottom of human lives that are being destroyed or taken away by racist and classist tendencies then you can never forget each life and its story. It is quite overwhelming that the human stories you come across are just a few examples of a much broader picture which everyone else is either in denial or ignorance about or preserving the systems that are causing this destruction. Detention centres to me are a window into the apocalyptic future that either already is here for some peoples’ lives or will soon come for others. We need to pay attention and be aware of this. That’s the first step in challenging it.

Like Tony Benn said: pay attention to the way governments treat refugees, because that’s how they’d treat the rest of us if they thought they could get away with it. It is much easier for people like asylum seekers to be targeted, not least because they don’t enjoy the same legal protections as we do. You were charged, for instance, with endangering an aerodrome and it must seem ironic that a strip of tarmac enjoyed greater legal protections than the lives of the people who were on that plane. In that sense, it’s clear that it does give that window into a very dark apocalyptic future as you say, but in a way, it was your action that brought that window to a lot of people who might not otherwise have thought much about what was going on with deportations and detention centres at that time. The hostile environment had been going on for a long time but by taking that action you brought it into public view in a way that it perhaps wasn’t before. Was raising awareness a big success of it as well?

Well, not on the court case. Though it didn’t count for much in the end our defence rested on the prevention of crime and the prevention of harm but we also definitely had that wider political mission of bringing a light to this very secretive and brutal practice that happens in the dead of the night. Intentionally, the Home Office doesn’t want people to know about it and a group of us found ourselves in a position where we had the skills, experience, and connections with people who were in detention and caseworkers to do something about it. We were also in a position where we had read and found out about some of the stories on that plane and that was important in enabling us to feel like we had some sort of legitimacy in taking action.

Is that where a lot of this action can fall short, when people feel they don’t have that legitimacy? Does having that legitimacy when taking action against an injustice motivate you to do things you wouldn’t normally think of doing? Things like this are a drastic resort, because nothing else will work in that instance. There was no way of stopping that flight other than in the way you did.

Definitely. You need to be real with yourself, even with environmental actions, it’s important to realise that your actions are really going to fuck up people’s days, it’s the same with an airport action. There’s no point kidding yourself and thinking there isn’t going to be some sort of  unintended consequences from the action but living in the Heathrow villages definitely constructed my resolve and determination: it became my home and that connection with land is often overlooked. Even with HS2, I’m in awe at a lot of the frankly Tory constituencies that I don’t share much with politically at all. It’s very nice and important to see people having some sort of connection with their local ecology and their land as limited as their wider picture can be. I think a lot of indigenous wisdom is trying to share with the world that its important to have that sense of connection with the world around us when that does move you allow that to come through

But the legitimacy with the Stansted action was much more delicate because there was no direct dialogue with the people who were going to be deported beforehand because no one could know we were going to do the action. It wasn’t consensual in that sense and actually that person you were talking about (the man who saw the birth of his daughter) was angry at first – he went through so much – years of being in and out of detention and he was just like ‘you know what I give up’. ‘I’ve said goodbye to my family, I’ve said goodbye to my kids, I’ll just go’. So he was angry when he found out it was disrupted by us and even though he eventually came round in support, it just gives an indication that we don’t know what’s going on really for each of those lives.

Bringing this into a student context, do you have any advice for students who are anxious about getting involved and taking action?

I’d find it difficult. There is definitely potential for radical action but neo-liberalism and the commodification of education has really disrupted that: that relationship with your experience as a paying customer breeds fear, at least it would in my mind.

I haven’t actually paid a penny of my student debt back so maybe that’s one way round of it, just making peace with the idea you’re never going to pay that back. I do think there is a climate of fear in universities of somehow damaging your life changes. You feel this rage, this anger – whether about the environment or other issues, and issues in your own life – but education and uni inhibits these feelings and inhibits the collective action we feel we can take.

Space needs to be made to talk about those fears, about what is holding you back, and about how this capitalist realism and commodification of education make those choices really difficult, with issues around class as well. We need to talk about those risks that are carried and what might have to be given up if one is going to throw themselves into living in resistance against injustice. I think psychologically I was in some ways quite late in overcoming that. It was probably a year after university that I fully overcame that. I’d come across the ideas but after graduating I still thought there might be some route for me in the non-profit sector.

I volunteered in some places, which were quite interesting but you just realise that the logic of the charity system has taken so much off the capitalist system: the elitism, this people taking care of change on behalf of everyone else, the most connected, qualified and/or competent with particular ‘problem-solving’ skills and certain tasks. The charity sector is full of people from higher income backgrounds who can accomplish certain tasks quite well and there’s this elitism that comes with it. I had to go through that process of realising that ‘urgh, this makes me sick’.

People need to be gentle and patient with themselves to sort of figure it out: what is no alternative what does that look like? I had to go through that process and fully figure out what that did look like, not just in books, before deciding that I couldn’t continue on the path I was on, personally and politically. Even with lots of experience, asking these questions of yourself can be difficult but we can help each other by challenging each other and by holding each other to account in our actions and our views without a judgement that seeks to put down. In a university space, you can develop and learn other cultures and I suppose that patience with oneself during that time as a student needs to come with the theoretical or intellectual understanding that these are the alternatives to everyday life in a capitalist world that we need to sketch out or experiment with and so there’s a lot of time to do that in a resilient way.

Do you see that journey of grappling your place within it all as a big part of activism?

I suppose that’s an aspect of it, but interrogating the reasons why one is taking action and figuring out what you want, what you feel is important, and what you feel needs changing is a life journey too. But I think when one feels clear enough and sure enough that something needs a lot of dedication, effort, and motivation to change then there’s a lot of careful preparation and a whole body of tools out there to do this in sustainable ways. So research, do your homework, and look at generations in the past and what tools they’ve used.

I do think that sense of history is vital and I think we do have to learn from previous movements. It looks like that is something the actions you’ve been involved with have done: the Heathrow and Stansted actions came in a long line of similar actions and campaigns. Was learning from previous movements key to that?

Definitely, those affinity groups were a generational mix so people quite directly passed on stuff from previous generations. There’s a lot to learn from previous generations but there is still always that element of uncertainty and its important to recognise that you are your own person and you’re sometimes facing different challenges.