UK police have now arrested at least 19 environmental activists who threatened to fly drones and disrupt air travel at Heathrow Airport in protest of the planned construction of a third runway at the UK’s main air hub, the Guardian reported on Saturday.
The protesters are an offshoot of the Extinction Rebellion movement, which has been at the center of high-profile climate protests across the UK including shutting down parts of London and running naked in the House of Commons earlier this year; after those prior protests, the House of Commons declared a climate change emergency. The group at Heathrow on Saturday, called Heathrow Pause, said they wanted to illustrate the “dangerous folly” of expanding the airport—already the single largest source of carbon emissions in the UK. Building a third runway would enable 700 more flights out of Heathrow a day, contributing further to double-digit surges (26 percent) in the amount of carbon pollution European countries generate via air travel in the past five years.
In a manifesto, Heathrow Pause said that “It is a crime against humanity—and all life on earth—to support carbon intensive infrastructure projects.”
In a press release, Heathrow Pause said that it had flown three drones on Friday morning near the airport’s exclusion zone, where unsanctioned flight is banned (and violations can cause serious delays). The group wrote that “Some were interrupted by signal jamming, but at least one toy drone was flown at head height near the airport.” The group’s efforts continued on Saturday, the BBC reported. According to the Guardian, no flight disruptions actually resulted from the protests.
Video uploaded to Twitter by Heathrow Pause showed at least one of the drones flashing its lights but refusing to take off, with members of the group speculating that signal jammers were involved. Richard Gill of the Drone Defence jamming manufacturer told the Times of London said he did not know how the Metropolitan Police prevented the drones from taking off but that their approach may have changed since Christmas, when reports drones repeatedly disrupted travel at Gatwick Airport.
“We must reiterate that interrupting the Airport and disturbing scores of travellers was never the ultimate goal of this action,” Heathrow Pause wrote in the Friday release. “The real objective was always to trigger a sensible, honest conversation, throughout society, on the dangerous folly of Heathrow expansion, with the ultimate objective of cancelling the third runway. That conversation is now happening. It is incumbent on all of us to keep it going.”
According to the Guardian, all nineteen people were detained on “suspicion of conspiring to commit a public nuisance or attempting to commit a public nuisance,” with one man (Extinction Rebellion co-founder Roger Hallam) arrested twice, once on Thursday and again on Saturday. 16 of those arrested are now free on bail. Heathrow Pause said that one activist was bitten on both legs a police dog while “meditating in a garden” in a crackdown on Thursday night, though Metropolitan police characterized the suspect to the paper as having “made off from them on foot.”
Another member of the group, former Paralympian James Brown, was arrested on Friday after taking part in the protest at Heathrow’s Terminal 2. Brown, who is partially sighted, told the Guardian that he did not actually fly one of the drones and only held one over his head.
Heathrow told the Guardian in a statement that runways were open and that “We agree with the need for climate change action but illegal protest activity, designed with the intention of disrupting thousands of people, is not the answer. The answer to climate change is in constructive engagement and working together to address the issue, something that Heathrow remains strongly committed to do.”
“We are really clear that [flying drones] is unlawful, it is a criminal offence, and anybody who turns up expecting to fly drones in that exclusion zone will be arrested,” Deputy Assistant Commissioner Laurence Taylor told the BBC.