White ‘Black Lives Matter’ Protesters Walk Free After Shutting Down London Airport

As the protesters received a pep talk and light suspended sentences from the judge, one of the white women protesting reportedly said, “Go, white privilege.”

Emergency services surround protesters from the movement Black Lives Matter after they locked themselves to a tripod on the runway at London City Airport in London on Sept. 6, 2016.
Emergency services surround protesters from the movement Black Lives Matter after they locked themselves to a tripod on the runway at London City Airport in London on Sept. 6, 2016. DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images

Nine Black Lives Matter protesters in the United Kingdom will not serve any jail time or pay any fines after shutting down London City Airport on Sept. 6 to raise awareness about environmental racism—specifically air pollution emitted from the airport and its detrimental effects on black people in the surrounding neighborhood of Newham,  the Daily Mail reports.

Most U.K. media outlets report that all nine protesters are white; however, the Daily Mail reports that only eight of them are white.

Natalie Fiennes, 25, cousin of actors Ralph and Joseph Fiennes; Ben Tippet, 24; William Pettifer, 27; Esme Waldron, 23; Alex Etchart, 26; Richard Collett-White, 23; Deborah Francis-Grayson, 31; Sama Baka, 27; and Sam Lund-Harket, 32, were all arrested on charges of “suspicion of aggravated trespass, being unlawfully airside and breaching London City Airport bylaws,” the BBC reports.

The London Metropolitan Police reported that the protesters had “erected a tripod and … locked themselves together on the runway” after reportedly using a rubber dinghy or swimming across the River Thames to reach the airport’s single runway. Hundreds of flights were canceled or delayed over the course of the six-hour protest. Flights resumed at approximately 12:00 p.m. the same afternoon.

Airport officials are reportedly revisiting the strength of their safety measures in light of the incident.

Black Lives Matter U.K. explained the reason behind the protest, saying in part:

Recently London City Airport was given approval to expand its capacity, a move that consigns the local community in Newham to further deterioration of their environment.

The average salary of a London City Airport user is €136,000 and 63% of them work in business, finance or other business services. It is an airport designed for the wealthy. At the same time 40% of Newham’s population struggle to survive on £20k or less.

When black people in Britain are 28% more likely to be exposed to air pollution than their white counterparts, we know that environmental inequality is a racist crisis.

The UK’s impact on the environment is global. 7 out of 10 of the countries most affected by climate change are in sub-Saharan Africa.

By 2020 there will be 200 million climate refugees globally. Whilst at London City Airport a small elite is able to fly, in 2016 alone 3,176 migrants are known to have died or gone missing in the Mediterranean, fleeing conditions that they did not create because cheaper, easier and most importantly safer avenues have been blocked by the UK and other European countries.

Black people are the first to die, not the first to fly, in this racist climate crisis.

Asad Rehman, writing for Friends of the Earth, placed an exclamation mark on those facts.

“It’s true of course that white people have suffered from extreme weather, such as the floods in parts of the UK this year—and these people need support,” Rehman said. “But it’s also undeniable that black communities around the world have suffered the most. The poor, marginalised and indigenous communities who are the first to feel the effects of climate change are overwhelmingly people of colour in developing countries.

“Nearly 1 in 3 global citizens doesn’t have access to clean energy or affordable energy,” Rehman continued. “Across the world air pollution from having to use wood fuel now kills more people than tuberculosis and malaria combined. And close to 700 million people don’t have access to fresh water, while billions lack even basic sanitation. Again, the vast majority of the people are black.”

On Sept. 14, Judge Elizabeth Roscoe gave all nine protesters “conditional discharges,” also known in the United States as suspended sentences, ranging from two to three years for each protester. Roscoe said she “understood” their concerns but didn’t understand how police brutality against black people in the United States was connected with environmental racism affecting black people in the U.K.:

It’s quite clear to me that you are individuals who care deeply and are strongly motivated by this cause which is clearly near to your heart.

Your protest background is generally speaking climate change and I understand your concerns and of course in this country their is inherently a right to protest and protest peacefully and there is not suggested for a moment that this was anything other than a peaceful albeit extremely disruptive protest.

I can see the link between the racial element and your concerns, however I find it rather hard to see the link between the movement started in America that goes by the name Black Lives Matter which protests against the treatment of the black population by the police in America—I didn’t see how that links to London City Airport or climate change.

However I don’t doubt for a moment the honesty, sincerity and strength of your beliefs.

These statements are particularly misguided and typify an ignorance about the scope of the Movement for Black Lives. It’s even more critical as water contamination in Flint, Mich.; Selma, Ala.; and Jackson, Miss., continues to raise intense concern and anger at governmental neglect. BLMUK’s actions also coincide with the fight to stop the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota, which could ruin the water supply of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe.

There are also the ramifications of lead poisoning in Baltimore that disproportionately affects black people, and the stark reality that black, brown and poor people in urban areas are subjected to more illnesses and conditions because these communities are closest to toxic highways.

It’s all connected, especially within the black Diaspora.

Upon hearing their sentences, one white woman protester allegedly said, “Go, white privilege.”

The protesters’ light sentences served to highlight racial disparities in sentencing, even as their involvement drew sharp criticism and charges of co-optation. Black Lives Matter U.K. explained on its social media pages that white allies under black leadership are needed for several reasons—the main one being that allies should put their bodies on the line, but by being white they are still less likely to find themselves victims of trigger-happy cops.

BLMUK’s first major action took place last month when it shut down roads around England, the Washington Post reports. Protesters laid down in the middle of the road near Heathrow Airport with their hands behind their heads. The organizers also brought trams to a halt in Manchester. This took place on the fifth anniversary of Mark Duggan death. Duggan was gunned down by police in North London on Aug. 4, 2011, and the group selected that date to raise awareness about police brutality.

Kirsten West Savali is a cultural critic and an associate editor at The Root. She was named to Ebony magazine’s 2015 “Power 100” list and awarded a 2015 Harry Frank Guggenheim Fellowship. Her provocative commentary explores the intersections of race, social justice, religion, feminism, politics and pop culture. Follow her on Twitter. 

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