YNever forget the night you broke into an airport. Even the smallest details stay with you: your coat’s fence hook when you climb up the hole you just cut; the sensation of cold, wet asphalt on the exposed skin of your neck; the light of the police sirens and the noise of the auxiliary engine; the joy of discovering that the plane he was blocking is not going, and the roar of jubilation from his fellow protesters as they lead him to a police van hours later.
I have patched up a thousand different memories from the night of March 28, 2017. That night, a group of 15 protesters, including myself, gained access to a remote part of Stansted Airport and locked ourselves around a plane that was to be deported. people from Great Britain to Nigeria and Ghana.
But of all the memories, one stands out from the rest. It sits heavy on my brain, playing it over and over in a loop.
On the way to Stansted, we read the testimonies of some of the people who were supposed to be on that flight. One was from a Nigerian woman, a lesbian who was being held at the Yarl’s Wood Immigration Detention Center. They forced her to marry, had children and then fled Nigeria to the UK. His children were staying with his sister and she was sending money to help them support them. Days before she was deported, her ex-husband contacted her to say that he knew she was going to be returned and would be waiting there to kill her.
“If he kills me,” he wrote, “who will take care of my children? They trust me. They should give me and my children a life. They should spare my life for my children. I’m begging. “
Almost 18 months later, the 15 of us sat in the dock at Chelmsford Crown Court. The attorney general at the time, Conservative MP Jeremy Wright QC, had decided to indict us under the Aviation and Maritime Safety Act of 1990, anti-terrorism legislation that was first introduced after the Lockerbie bombing. After a grueling 10-week trial, the jury reached a guilty verdict.
As they read it, it felt as if the air left the room. I could barely process what was happening and tried to deal with the fact that we could be incarcerated for years. I thought one more time about that bus ride to the airport. Those words “I’m pleading” came to mind. No matter what happened, what we did was fine.
The support we received from thousands of people helped us narrowly avoid jail in February 2019. We appealed our conviction. Last Friday the verdict of the appeal was returned. We were successful. Our conviction was overturned. In its ruling, the appeal court stated that “we should not have been prosecuted for the extremely serious crime, because [our] the conduct did not satisfy the various elements of the crime ”, adding that“ there was really no case to answer ”.
After four painfully uncertain years, the ordeal is over (barring one appeal from the prosecution). But what we endured was nothing compared to those at the sharpest end of the government’s “hostile environment.” Eleven people who were supposed to take that flight are still in Britain. At least one was identified as a victim of trafficking and received asylum. Another was here to see the birth of his son. And another person, having received his right to stay, now works as a nurse.
None of this would have been possible if we had not performed that night. But there are many more victims of trafficking and persecution who have been deported; many more whose lives have been lost or destroyed as a result of the harsh environment. Vulnerable people are currently being detained at the Napier Barracks in Kent, where a Covid-19 outbreak has reportedly gotten out of control. In the midst of a pandemic, deportation flights are still taking place. People continue to be swept away, brutalized and traumatized by the disgusting immigration laws of this country.
Our appeal verdict raises important questions about why the government decided to prosecute us under some of the more serious laws in the first place. And it has vindicated, in unequivocal terms, our actions. Now more than ever, I am determined to continue fighting to tear down the walls, close the detention centers and stop the deportation flights. Our appeal verdict served a small slice of justice, but those still caught up in the horrors of the harsh environment still await theirs.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism