As co-founder of Extinction Rebellion, I’m appalled by the police’s treatment of Heathrow drone protesters

In the last few days in our country, peaceful campaigners have been taken from their homes and locked up for fighting for a liveable future. This is why authorities should rethink their approach

Clare Farrell
Sunday 15 September 2019 17:32 BST
Drone flyers fail to shut down Heathrow

Last summer, I went on hunger strike with Extinction Rebellion co-founder Roger Hallam and others for two weeks to protest the expansion of Heathrow airport; hardly anyone noticed us. We told MPs Nuremberg principles could apply in future, that expanding carbon-heavy infrastructure, knowing what we do about the scientific prognosis, is now a crime against humanity. A crime against our own children.

I’m not surprised Hallam wants to try other methods to bring attention to this element of our governments suicidal policies.

On Thursday, Hallam and several others – people I call friends, were pre-emptively arrested before taking part in a collective act of nonviolent civil disobedience.

They had told the police that they intended to go to the exclusion zone around Heathrow airport the next day and fly lightweight toy drones, at head height, to breach the airport’s safety protocol that says if drones are seen flying inside that area the airport has to be closed.

They planned to film themselves undertaking this act of conscience and then hand themselves in. This was a proposal that offered zero risk to public health and safety, but great legal risk for those involved. People who are well aware that we are all in grave risk together, and who are more afraid of irreversible climate breakdown than they are of jail cells and court rooms.

Several people have had their homes searched and their IT equipment seized. I sent a text to my housemates with an advanced apology in case they showed up there, because we didn’t know whose home they might go to next. I haven’t been involved in organising the Heathrow Pause, but neither has one of the other people whose house was searched. I don’t think there are many cases of pre-arrest for peaceful activists ahead of an action in the UK.

In spite of the fact that pre-emptive policing and arrests might sound like a frightening legal precedent, I don’t think that’s the most alarming aspect about what happened on Thursday. I’m not surprised that they came for Hallam, who had been to tell the police what he planned to do, and when and where the protest groups would do it.

The police, apparently, were clear at that meeting that if action was going to proceed, they would make pre-arrests. But what I am most worried about is the fact that they arrested support team members. Live streamers with their mobile phones ready. One person who has just helped Roger with some of his admin in recent months, and perhaps most worryingly, their press coordinator. He was involved simply to liaise with the media and make sure they get news coverage.

And Dr Larch Maxey, my friend, was not resisting arrest when he was bitten on both legs by a police dog in his back garden. It was 24 hours later on his release that he was provided with full medical attention, a tetanus vaccination and a course of antibiotics.

Several protestors in the last couple of days have managed to get their drones in the air and turn themselves in to the police but the airport has been unaffected. This only serves to prove that there is no risk to safety, otherwise surely the airport would have been closed down, at least for some hours. The authorities can’t have it both ways, can they?

I understand why those involved in this group feel they need to act with absolute urgency and courage. While writing this on Saturday I received the news that Hallam had returned to Heathrow, breaking his bail terms, which forbid him to go within five miles of an airport or carry any drone equipment. He had been re-arrested after attempting to fly a drone again.

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In the last few days in our country, peaceful campaigners have been taken from their homes and locked up. This is chilling, but there has been an outpouring of emotion and support for them. The love, solidarity, and empathy can already be felt from Amsterdam, from Delhi, from New York as well as from their own neighbours. Their steadfastness and morality is a demonstration of ethics and a commitment to a liveable future in the age of climate breakdown.

Pre-emptively arresting peaceful people achieves what, exactly? Nothing. Not only that, but it is far from what’s needed right now. What is more urgent, is the need for policing to steer away from the worrying path it’s heading down.

Clare Farrell is co-founder of Extinction Rebellion

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