I could have been jailed for peaceful protest – this will get worse if the Tories win

Ben Smoke
Photograph: Guy Bell/REX/Shutterstock

A year ago to the day, I was sitting on an uncomfortable chair in the waiting room at Chelmsford crown court. It was the morning of 10 December 2018 and around me sat friends, family and my 14 co-defendants as we anxiously awaited news of our fate.

We were in the final minutes of a 10-week trial for our part in a peaceful blockade of a deportation charter flight at Stansted airport in March 2017. The plane was due to deport 57 people to Nigeria and Ghana, some of whom were vulnerable people at risk of violence, persecution, trafficking, torture and death. Though originally charged with aggravated trespass, the Crown Prosecution Service would come to change our charges to terror-related offences under legislation brought in in the aftermath of the Lockerbie bombing. The maximum sentence attached to the charge was life imprisonment.

It was a Monday. We’d stewed all weekend, knowing that somewhere in Essex, 12 people were turning our fates over in their heads.

After about an hour of sitting, someone ran frantically into the waiting room: “We’ve got a verdict.” Taking my seat in the dock, I couldn’t hear anything but the pounding of my heart as it tried to punch its way out of my chest. Dread spread through my body, gripping at my windpipe and flooding my stomach. Once we were in situ, the jury was brought in and the foreman was asked to deliver their verdicts for each of us, one by one.

The first name was read out and I heard the word fall clumsily from his lips. Guilty. I was second on the list, but couldn’t hear the words as they were read out. The world folded in on me. My hearing cut out like a bomb had just gone off. It wasn’t until a few names down the list that I came back around, glancing down the line of my co-defendants to see one – heavily pregnant at the time, slumped over her bump, sobbing.

I’m not sure I would say it was the worst day of my life, which probably says more about me than I’d like it to, but it’s certainly up there.

We were released pending sentencing two months later – on 6 February. After protests across the country and interventions from international human rights organisations, politicians, journalists and campaigners, we were spared from the potential life sentence attached to the conviction. In giving his reasoning for not jailing us, the judge referenced our protected right to protest under human rights legislation.

But our convictions, and the unprecedented decision to charge us under anti-terror legislation, are part of a sinister trend of limiting the right to protest by increasingly authoritarian parts of the system.

Just days before the start of our trial on 1 October last year, three anti-fracking protesters were sent to prison for their part in a five-day blockade of a fracking site at Preston New Road in Lancashire. The custodial sentences were the first given to environmental protesters since the 1930s.

The Extinction Rebellion protests are another example: in October protesters blocked key roads as well as targeting government buildings and, controversially, the tube network. In reaction, the Metropolitan police imposed a ban on all Extinction Rebellion protests in the city, which has since been deemed unlawful.

‘Our convictions are part of a sinister trend of limiting the right to protest by increasingly authoritarian arms of the government.’ Some of the Stansted protesters outside Chelmsford crown court in Essex. Photograph: John Stillwell/PA

In recent years, the Conservative party has publicly heralded historical protest movements through speeches, statues and declarations, marking the change they have effected across the world. These movements range from the suffragettes to the civil rights movement, as well as the anti-apartheid campaign in South Africa. But make no mistake, if any were agitating now, they would be deemed terrorists and treated as enemies of the state.

This week, the country goes to the polls in the conclusion of one of the most fraught and vicious elections of modern times. Much hay has been made of the massaged figures and hypocrisy that lies at the heart of the Conservative party manifesto, but within it there lies an abject threat to the very foundations of our democracy.

The manifesto includes the so-called “page 48” proposals to limit the powers of judicial review – the likes of which saw the overturning of the illegal proroguing of parliament by Boris Johnson. It goes further and seeks to ban public bodies from engaging in boycott, divestment and sanctions campaigns – the likes of which are used by those seeking justice for the Palestinian people, following the tactic’s success against apartheid South Africa in the 1980s.

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But perhaps what should scare us the most is the manifesto promise to “update the Human Rights Act and administrative law to ensure that there is a proper balance between the rights of individuals, our vital national security and effective government”. Time and time again, human rights legislation has been the one thing to stand in the way of a government determined to denigrate, undermine or simply ignore our hard-won human rights.

A year on from our traumatic conviction, I look back on the action with unbridled pride. Eleven people who were supposed to be on that flight, some of whom were victims of trafficking, others survivors of sexual and physical abuse, are still in the country, partially because of our actions. Whether or not you agree with what the 15 of us did at Stansted, or the tactics of Extinction Rebellion or the “frack free three” – history has taught us that protest, civil disobedience and action are instrumental to changing our society for the better.

If the Tories win on Thursday, they will unleash an assault on our ability to effect change – to an extent that we’ve not seen in this country for generations. For our own safety, and the safety of the most vulnerable communities in our society, we must not let this happen.

• Ben Smoke is a journalist and activist