Walthamstow activist Mel Strickland is appealing her conviction over a peaceful protest
I was one of 15 people who peacefully blocked a deportation plane at Stansted Airport in March 2017.
We dressed in bright pink hats and hi-vis jackets and walked directly on to the runway apron where the plane was being prepared. The coaches had just arrived but no passengers had boarded. We wore jumpers saying “mass deportations kill” and erected a tripod and banner saying “no-one is illegal”.
I locked on around the nose wheel of the plane, with three others. We had trained and knew what we had to do. We refused to leave until the police cut us out. The only damage was to the perimeter fence, which the airport estimated to cost £150 to repair. No-one was hurt, the airport was not closed, and no-one’s life was endangered.
The action was a direct challenge to the Home Office’s brutal and racist deportation policy. We livestreamed the protest on Facebook and were ecstatic the action was a success; we stopped all deportations to Nigeria and Ghana that night.
Fast-forward 18 months and we were beginning a trial – for “endangering the safety of an aerodrome” – that would last several weeks. In true Orwellian style, the government had responded by charging us with the very thing it was itself guilty of; endangering people’s safety.
Out of the 60 people scheduled for that deportation flight, eleven remain in the UK and, of these, six have won their immigration appeals. The remaining five are still waiting for their cases to be determined. At least one person has been granted asylum; she had been a victim of sex trafficking and is now safely settled here. Her life would have been at risk had she been deported.
The law we were accused of breaking was intended to prevent terrorism at airports. But the specific allegation of “endangering” was not mentioned by prosecutors until four months later, after our initial court hearing for aggravated trespass, a much lesser offence.
In our trial the prosecution argued that we had endangered safety at the airport by diverting police resources – so that if a terrorist attack had coincidentally occurred at the same time as our action, the police’s ability to respond would be reduced.
They argued that we momentarily put the pilot into a state of fear when he spotted our group coming towards the plane, and noted that a police officer slipped and “nearly” fell over during a ten-second chase of a defendant who hadn’t yet managed to lock themselves to the plane.
Our lawyers refuted every one of these arguments; police resources would be diverted by any protest and, even if the pilot was fearful, it does not constitute “endangering”.
In its closing speech the prosecution stressed how we descended “in the darkness of the night” and “like a swarm” – the latter an echo of US President Donald Trump’s racist description of migrants crossing the border. In December 2018 the Chelmsford Crown Court jury unanimously found us guilty on, of all days, International Human Rights Day.
We are now appealing that decision and are awaiting our case at the Court of Appeal on 24th-26th November. We hope the court will clear our names and that this will be a victory against an increasingly repressive state.
Meanwhile, the government is guilty of ‘terrorism’ in the literal sense; its detention and forcible deportation policy is based around terrorising people.