Reflections on sentencing

On the 24th of February, we - the Heathrow 13 - were sentenced to 6 weeks in prison, suspended for 12 months, with an additional 120 to 180 hours community service on top. Whilst we are happy to not be in prison right now, this is far from a complete victory.

As our barrister  QC Kirsty Brimelow, so eloquently argued, there is a long tradition of direct action in the UK, and a convention for sentencing within the legal system. In fact Lord Hoffman, in an influential ruling, went as far as to say that it is the mark of a civilised society to accommodate this, and that the legal convention is for sentences such as a conditional discharge or community service. In this light, our barristers argued that our action clearly did not cross the custodial threshold – i.e. our sentence should not be imprisonment, immediate or suspended. The fact that Judge Wright chose to give us a suspended sentence marks a shift in the way protesters are treated, going against the normal convention. 

Experts have suggested that if magistrates impose custody for minor offences, that produces an incentive for activists to commit more serious offences. This is because more serious crimes are dealt with by a jury, who are more likely to be understanding of the issues. Whilst more radical actions are welcome, and in fact are necessary to tackle the scale of climate change, repression from the judicial system is not.

As we went into court on the 24th, all of us were prepared for the possibility for prison. We all experienced a rollercoaster of emotions, from fear and stress to defiance and pride. The support and love we were shown by family, friends and the wider movement made us feel all the more ready to deal with a potential prison sentence. Had we gone to prison, we would have depended on this support network around us. We all feel so grateful for this.

Yet, we should reflect on this as a form of privilege. There are over 85,000 people in prison in the UK, not including immigration detention centres, secure children's homes or those detained under the Mental Health Act. Those imprisoned are disproportionately from poor, minority backgrounds and are likely to have suffered various forms of abuse in their lives. Vulnerable people are the ones being targeted by the judicial system. These people are highly unlikely to be able to gain the same kind of support a high profile privileged group such as ours could.

That's not to say, however, that these groups of people are mere passive 'victims'. Take for instance, the recent, horrific case of Sarah ReedShe was a Black woman who was subject to multiple failings by the police, who wrongfully arrested her twice, once beating her whilst doing so, and by the mental health services, who failed to care for or protect her. She went on to die in Holloway prison (where the females of the Heathrow 13 would have been likely to have been sent). As well as dealing with the grief of this horrific treatment, Sarah Reed's family are campaigning for justice, along with the families of many of the other 827 people who following contact with the police between 2004 and 2013, and those fighting under the banner of #BlackLivesMatter. What we have been threatened with, thousands more suffer from and much worse. Our briefest of experience of this shows the importance of solidarity between different but connected campaigns.

And these issues are connected in many ways from their root causes, to the people who are affected most. For it is not only poor communities, Black and brown people and women who are treated worst by the justice system, but these are the same groups, who on a global level, are worst affected by climate change.

So, we the Heathrow 13 are free to fight another day (so long as we aren't arrested in the next 12 months), but many others are not. We should use this briefest of experiences to build solidarity with different affected groups from #BlackLivesMatter in the UK to those fighting airports in Istanbul and Atenco.

For only by trying to understand the world, and the listening to the experiences of those we wish to fight alongside, can we hope to change it for the better.