Heathrow Eco-Protesters Steal a March on Police
Planes thundering overhead every 55 seconds, just 400 meters away, a motorway even closer and hundreds of police officers to watch over you as your pitch your tent in an old thistle field. It's not everyone's idea of a good campsite.
But for aviation activists setting up an instant eco-village at Heathrow yesterday - two days earlier than expected - it was perfect. "Right under their noses. Right by the airport and slap in the middle of communities fighting to save their homes. Couldn't be better," said a gleeful campaigner called Merrick, who had arrived with an instant flatpack village and 150 people.
The protesters have vowed to take direct action at Heathrow later this week, and the police - reinforced with 1,800 extra officers - are determined to stop them. The game of cat and mouse between the two sides began near midnight on Saturday. Campaigners had been officially expected to arrive tomorrow to begin their week-long protest against aviation and the impact of it on climate change.
The camp is in a field of high thistles and red clover next to a Sikh temple between Sipson village and Harlington. It is scrubland to the north of the airport's perimeter, which the authorities want to concrete over to make a third runway and sixth terminal. The plans could see the number of flights increase from the current limit of 480,000 per year to almost 800,000.
In four minutes and 30 seconds yesterday, two double-story scaffolding tripod towers were erected and a banner slung between them. Within the hour, up to 150 people had come and were unloading pallets, tents, compost toilets, wind turbines, kitchens and bikes. In another hour, the police arrived. At first the officers tried to stop the camp being built, but later they were instructed not to impede. "There was a standoff, but after a misunderstanding they let us carry on," said a protester.
By yesterday morning, the police had blocked off all approaches to the site and were liberally using powers under section 44 of the Terrorism Act to stop all cars and search anyone they thought was likely to go to the growing eco-village.
"They went through our stuff minutely," said Anna, who had arrived from London. "They know we are not terrorists. It's an abuse of the law. And they were taking everyone's pictures, too. Why? This is a legal camp."
As the protesters' equivalent of a camp quartermaster walked round with a map showing where the 24 marquees, the kitchens, the media center, latrines and neighborhoods should be set up, there was growing interest in the communal food. Unfortunately, the star cook, an anthropology student, Cristina Fraser, had been arrested and was in the back of a police van. "That means it's more vegan slop," said one woman.
By mid-afternoon on Sunday there were around 150 people inside the camp, mostly aged under 35. As the planes roared in, other campers went to explore the countryside around, finding a largely welcoming population.
"I know they say it [extension of the airport] is progress, but what about the people? said Joanne Blin, a Filipino who has lived in Harlington for 18 months. "They will destroy a lovely community. No one is made to feel a foreigner here."
"I am happy they are here," said Harbhjan Atwal, walking with her sister Balbir near the camp. "More than half the people who live here work at the airport and no one wants it to expand and to destroy their houses. I feel sorry for them because they are in tents and the forecast is for storms."
But a note of dissent about plans for the expansion of Heathrow came from Miguel Lopes, a Portuguese worker at an airport hotel. "For me this is not disturbing. It will bring more jobs. That has to be good," he said.
Back at the gate, the police and campers were getting to know each other by walkie-talkie. "You should know that some of us feel exactly the same as you," said one in uniform. "Come and join us," said a camper.
"It is all peaceful at this stage and the protest is being policed appropriately," a Scotland Yard spokesman said.
The camp is expected to open tomorrow for four days of education sessions, meetings and workshops around climate change issues. On Saturday and Sunday, two of the busiest traveling days of the summer, there will be 24 hours of "direct action", with a separate mass demonstration, possibly a march or a picnic near the airport.
The airport authority, BAA, has won only limited legal protection - which prevents three named individuals and the campaign group Plane Stupid from entering the airport. Other campaigners are lawfully entitled to stage peaceful protests.
Mark Bullock, the managing director of BAA Heathrow, said BAA "always respected people's democratic right to protest lawfully. We believe that there is an important debate to be had regarding climate change. However, we do not believe our passengers and staff should be harassed or obstructed by any unlawful direct action."
© Guardian News and Media Limited 2007