Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

Heathrow 13: Don’t make us ‘heroes’ – this is everyone’s struggle

Alistair Tamlit, one of the 13 climate protesters who narrowly avoided jail this week, reflects on the pitfalls of labelling activists who do high-profile actions as 'heroes'

February 26, 2016
9 min read

heathrow13The 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’.

History from below

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.

Questioning ownership

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.

Against ego

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.

This was easy!

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…

Privilege and risk

…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.

Beyond heroes, build solidarity

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.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.

Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making

Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show

The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services

With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas

Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world

A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle

Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune

Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali

To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi

Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun

Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh

With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament

Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair

A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook

‘We remembered that convictions can inspire and motivate people’: interview with Lisa Nandy MP
The general election changed the rules, but there are still tricky issues for Labour to face, Lisa Nandy tells Ashish Ghadiali

Everything you know about Ebola is wrong
Vicky Crowcroft reviews Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic, by Paul Richards

Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for an online editor
Closing date for applications: 1 September.

Theresa May’s new porn law is ridiculous – but dangerous
The law is almost impossible to enforce, argues Lily Sheehan, but it could still set a bad precedent

Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art

Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs

Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox

Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole

Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead


185