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.

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