The Heathrow 13 outside court this week. Photo: Plane Stupid
Our trial for occupying a Heathrow runway in protest at airport expansion, which ended this week with suspended sentences, has seen a great deal of media attention directed our way. While some of this attention has been negative, particularly in the comments sections, the majority has been overwhelmingly positive. George Monbiot was particularly flattering, comparing us with freedom fighters of the past, such as the Chartists and Suffragettes. We’ve been very moved and are very grateful for the overwhelming support and love we’ve received.
No doubt this all has positive impacts on our movement, raising the profile of the issue. At the same time however, we must be careful not to hero worship and create idols. In this article, I hope to constructively critique the notion of ‘heroes’.
The fact that we want to create idols is hardly surprising, given the way that the history of social change is presented to us. In schools and in documentaries we learn about the ‘big men’ of history, the kings and prime ministers. (In our patriarchal society, it is the men who are seen to make change – as well as often being white and rich.) Every change is brought about by a powerful, even superhuman, individual.
Some individuals, such as Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, no doubt had a significant impact on their particular struggle and their memory can serve as an inspiration to us in our current contexts. A big role that such powerful individuals can have is to bring together a narrative for a movement, summed up in statements like ‘I have a dream’. However, even this can have a disempowering effect in that it makes social change seem out of reach of mere mortals like you or I.
What’s more, this version of history is completely inaccurate. History wasn’t made by ‘big men’ (though it may have been written by them). Struggles of the past were made up of millions of people taking action in a variety of different ways. As Howard Zinn states: ‘We don’t have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.’
His work as a radical historian, and others like him, remind us of the history from below – the daily struggles of everyday people in everyday life that have brought about revolutionary change. These people and their acts ought to be as inspiring, if not more so, than the ‘big men’ of history, for in many ways they are us.
Private property is a sacred part of the society we live in. This not only applies to the ‘things’ that we can own, but also to the things we make, or the ideas we come up with. We even have a term and a whole set of laws for the latter: intellectual property.
However, nothing is ever solely the product of an individual’s labour, or even anyone’s own idea. Every single thing is the product of countless sources before it. Every scientific breakthrough rests upon the work of thousands of years of learning. Every piece of art has a history of inspiration. Even an entrepreneurial capitalist like Steve Jobs recognised this when he said ‘Good artists copy, great artists steal.’ (Though he may not have been the first to say it.) If we really recognise what this means, we can’t really claim to ‘own’ anything.
This kind of realisation can be useful to apply to how we see our struggles, as well as thinking about alternative ways of living. For us in Plane Stupid, blocking the runway at Heathrow wasn’t really ‘our’ action either. This action was inspired by those who went before us. It was possible due to all of those who supported us throughout our lives and developed our ideas. It was possible due to training at camps like Reclaim the Power, knowledge-sharing in radical zines, exposes about the fossil fuel and aviation industry. This action wasn’t ours, it is part of a historical process, it emerged through us and it doesn’t end with us either, it will undoubtedly go beyond us.
A further problem with the idea of ‘heroes’ is the inevitable inflation of egos that goes with it. As humans, we are constantly being shaped and moulded by our environment – that’s why advertising is so powerful and dangerous. If you tell someone they’re stupid and ugly enough times they’ll start to believe you. If you then tell them you’ve got the product to solve the problem you created, you’ve got a great business plan.
Therefore, if people keep creating heroes, it’s going to go to their heads. But those who take action in high-profile ways are nothing special – we’re all part of this struggle that’s emerging, but it could equally be anyone else. By labelling a select few as ‘heroes’ or leaders, this has a disempowering effect on those outside of the group: how could a ‘normal’ person do this action? People new to our movements will inevitably look up to those we place on pedestals, but often lack the realisation that they can also be a part of it.You don’t need to be a ‘hero’ to take on the fossil fuel industry. There wasn’t anything especially difficult about our actions
Further, by over-focusing on the impact of our actions, we risk valuing people for how much they do, rather than who they are: human. As Janey Stephenson writes: ‘We must remember this within activism more generally, and restructure our organising to avoid capitalism’s pitfalls: we are not outputs, and an individual’s value to a movement is not contingent on how much they can produce. This in itself not only perpetuates capitalist values, it reinforces ableism, ironically within movements that strive for a better and more equal world.’ Focusing relentlessly on output can only lead to burnout, as we try to strive to an unrealistic and unattainable ‘hero’ status.
You don’t need to be a ‘hero’ to take on the fossil fuel industry. There wasn’t anything especially difficult about the actions we’ve taken. In an interview following the blockade of the tunnel to Terminals 1, 2 and 3, Plane Stupid were criticised for the simplicity of our action: ‘It’s easy to drive a white van into that tunnel, turn it round and block the road,’ yelled Nick Ferrari on LBC radio.
He’s right. With surprisingly limited resources, especially in comparison to the millions Heathrow earns and the amount they spend on policing and security, anyone could replicate what we did. That’s one of the things they are most afraid of. In a witness statement, a Heathrow employee said that ‘this might encourage others to take similar actions’. Hopefully it does.
Similarly with the Heathrow 13 runway action, despite a lot of considerations about safety, it doesn’t take much to get some bolt croppers and get through a fence. Really, this could be done by anyone else…
…well, almost anyone else. Practically speaking, anyone can take part in effective actions against the life-destroying processes that dominate our world. But that’s not to say that many of us don’t have a huge amount of privilege that enabled us to do this too.
On the final day of evidence in the court case, a number of us had character references read out in court. Here, some aspects of our privilege came to light, such as our social network – some of our group had references from MPs, barristers, high court judges and QCs. This, along with generally appearing to be upstanding middle-class and (mostly) white citizens, undoubtedly affects how a judge will view us, compared, for instance, with a young black man from a council estate.
This, along with our educational and working backgrounds, means the likely consequences those of us with many forms of privilege face from taking part in ‘spiky’ actions are somewhat reduced. Compare this to the fact that, according to Global Witness, at least 908 environmental activists were killed between 2002 and 2013, mostly in the Global South.
In part, the fact that we are able to take such actions is a celebration of everyone who fought before us – such as the Suffragettes, with even Judge Wright acknowledging the role of civil disobedience in their campaigning.
In the end, there are no heroes, there are just those who happen to be living in a time when these actions are necessary, and those privileged enough to be in a position to act. In Western countries like ours there are thousands in that position and if you feel compelled to act, do so – it’s not as hard as you might think!
At the same time, we have to recognise that not everyone has the same possibilities or privileges that allow them to act. Therefore, with privilege comes a responsibility to use it in solidarity with those who might not be able to use the same tactics and methods as us. Solidarity means ‘unity through shared understanding’ – before we act, we need to educate ourselves about other people’s struggles and how it relates to our own privilege within society. It also means critically reflecting on how we act, and not letting all the macho-white men take on the ‘hardcore’ actions, reproducing patriarchal relations.
After all, building new worlds, with new social relations, is just as important as taking down the fossil-fuel addicted world we live in now.
Solidarity also means extending support in both directions: supporting those who are able and willing to take risks and conversely expressing gratitude and thanks to the countless people behind the scenes who make that risk-taking possible. When we engage in struggle together we are stronger than they can imagine.
Hilary Wainwright argues against reclaiming populism for the left and for a leadership that supports people’s capacity for self-government
It may seem as though these apps are working for us, but we are also working for the apps, writes Kurt Iveson
It's over 100 years ago that domestic workers began to organise to demand the same rights as other workers. Yet with LSE cleaners on strike this week, historian Laura Schwartz asks: how much has really changed?
Omar Barghouti asks whether Donald Trump, in his recent break with America’s long-standing support for the two-state solution, has unwittingly revived the debate about the plausibility, indeed the necessity, of a single, democratic state in historic Palestine?
Glenn Greenwald was interviewed by Amandla Thomas-Johnson over the phone from Brazil. Here is what he had to say on the War on Terror, Trump, and the 'special relationship'
In 1972 David Widgery wrote about the bitter intensity of love in capitalism
Andrew Dolan on how the left must match the anti-establishment rhetoric of the right, but with a different politics
Emma Snaith speaks with directors Emer Mary Morris and Nina Scott about the power of theatre to encourage community resistance to estate demolitions.
In the first of a series of interviews with migrants' rights and racial justice activists from the US, Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Peter Pedemonti, co-founder and director of the New Sanctuary Movement in Philadelphia
Photos from The World Transformed festival in Liverpool, by David Walters
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change
Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself
Secrets and spies of Scotland Yard
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces
How progressive is the ‘progressive alliance’?
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank
The YPJ: Fighting Isis on the frontline
Rahila Gupta talks to Kimmie Taylor about life on the frontline in Rojava
Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond
On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network
Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter
#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement
Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.
Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees
Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides
The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari
Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next
Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace
Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill
Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility
Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports
From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices
How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed
In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design
Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform
Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out
Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris
Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen
Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant